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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.1 (2002) 77-89

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Time and Judgment in Demosthenes' De Corona 1 - [PDF]

Michael S. Kochin

Hannah Arendt concludes the first volume of The Life of the Mind thus:

If judgment is our faculty for dealing with the past, the historian is the inquiring man who by relating it sits in judgment over it. If that is so, we may reclaim our human dignity, win it back, as it were, from that pseudo-divinity named History of the modern age, without denying history's importance but denying its right to being the ultimate judge. Old Cato . . . has left us a curious phrase which aptly sums up the political principle implied in the enterprise of reclamation. He said: "Victrix causa deis placit, sed victa Catoni" ("The victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato").

(1978, 1: 216) 2

This article is an exercise in reclamation of the kind that Hannah Arendt describes. I wish to reclaim the cause for which Demosthenes struggled, the cause of democratic freedom, from the judgment of history expressed in the defeat of Athens and her allies at the hands of Philip of Macedon. Though politics is attenuated in the contemporary world, we can understand the peculiar characteristics of political action by reconstructing in our imagination those moments in the past when political life was richest. Here I am going to take up an aspect of political action that is particularly well-illuminated in Demosthenes' speech On the Crown: the role of time in the judgment of political action. 3

We can approach Demosthenes' political career for a variety of purposes: The easiest to understand, because it is in many ways the most superficial, is with the motives of the humanist. We study the political speeches of Demosthenes in order to be inspired to value political freedom [End Page 77] and to learn how it can be defended. The trouble with this view is that it assumes that the conditions for political action are present for us, as they were for Demosthenes in the Athens of his time, and that political action is itself something serious men (and now women) ought to undertake. That these two assumptions are edifying and patriotic does not make them true.

We can also approach Demosthenes as an exercise in historical science (that is, historische Wissenschaft). The scientific historian wants to learn the facts about the rise of Philip's hegemony over Greece. The scientific historian therefore prefers objectivity to edification. As George Cawkwell, a leading participant in the Demosthenesstreit in the '60s and '70s, wrote, "Moral edification and history can be kept separate" (1969, 166).

I find this the most difficult purpose to understand, because it is unclear how this scientific-historical perspective can be connected with the human-all-too-human perspectives of the participants. When, for example, Cawkwell writes of the age of Demosthenes that "The central fact of the age is military, not moral—viz. the huge preponderance in military potential of the Macedonian state over the power of any Greek state," he cites a fact whose truth he himself perceives in part from Philip's victory over the Thebans and Athenians at Chaeroneia in 338 B.C.E. and Alexander's campaign against Thebes in 335. 4 Cawkwell does not trouble himself to explain how Demosthenes or anybody else could possibly have learned the fact of Philip's greater military strength and resources prior to these events. Nor does Cawkwell refute the claim that given Philip's failures before Perinthos and Byzantium in 340, at the very time that Demosthenes led the Athenians to war it was reasonable to suppose Philip much weaker than he had seemed, or seems to us (Pickard-Cambridge 1979, 491). 5 He does not even show how Philip could have known his own capabilities prior to his success. It is thus unclear what use historical-scientific judgment could be, since it is not clear how to relate historical-scientific judgment to the judgment of participants in human affairs.

I should stop here, not least because I...


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