Desmothenes (385 – 322 BC) the man who rallied Athens as the forces of Philip ll of Macedon approached the city state.
Desmothenes was a lawyer and an orator, and clearly a persuasive one. The people of Athens had become indifferent to Philip’s ambitions to conquer the city states and control the whole region. They scoffed that they would be disadvantaged by Philip’s rule. The city would not marshal its army, they preferred to enjoy life instead. Desmothenes could see the problem clearly, could see Athens was doomed if nothing was done and done quickly. Desmothenes also knew enough about Philip to know that he was a tyrant and would not respect their democracy nor their Athenian culture.
What did Desmothenes do? He gave a vehement and rousing speech that rallied Athens to mobilise and defend itself. It was no rhetorical speech, it was a passionate call to arms for the sake all Athenians. Desmothenes believed in democracy and the rights of city states. He was able to point out that all this would be lost under Philip. Well, he achieved his aim, his speech won the day and the defence of the city, the cry went up “To arms, to arms.”
Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons in 1940 “We shall go on to the end … We shall never surrender.” Churchill’s speech is passionate and rousing, he is credited with drawing the nation into action after a period of apathy and fear. Churchill’s speech is often compared to that of Desmothenes. William Wilberforce speaking in the House of Commons in 1789, was vehemently opposed to slavery, and battled passionately to have a Bill passed to end it. It took nearly twenty years but he finally achieved that goal.
Tyrants are not always easy to read or detect. Some come as the very saviour, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet. Some present as good leaders, Peron, Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, Blair, Bush Jnr., Putin. But all have been tyrants in their own way, disregarding democracy, human rights, and sovereignty. Sometimes the wolf is circling the camp and we cannot see it, and because we cannot see it we deny its existence. What exposes the wolf more is the lack of argument for a credible enemy or crisis (so usually they invent one, much as Putin is busy inventing reasons to remain illegally in Ukraine, and Trump militating to rile Iran). We need to be a little demosthenic, as the term goes, to be like Desmothenes and vehemently oppose such tyrants whether their tyranny is armed force, legislative force, or propaganda (or all of these) and to draw attention to enemy at our gates.
But to return to my favourite theme, the person, each of us needs to step up and deal with self first. It’s no good railing at politicians if we live as tyrants ourselves, hypocisy is corrosive in any society. If we do make like Desmothenes, as with Churchill, Wilberforce, or a Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, we may effect change for the good. Desmothenes singlehandedly turned a city state, imagine what four, five, or twenty Desmothenes could achieve with passion. There are plenty of things requiring our desmothenic attention, the environment, human rights, refugees, corruption, militarism, greed … but with vehemence, with passion, we can do just that.
Canned Heat: “Let’s Work together” 1970, not just another love song!