Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Barry Strauss '74 argues in his lecture Wednesday that studying ancient civilizations can teach us lessons surprisingly relevant today.

October 25, 2017

Classics Historian Gleans Wisdom from Greco-Roman Political Thought

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Athens and the Roman Republic may have crumbled thousands of years before today’s ascension of elites, but Prof. Barry Strauss ’74, history, argues those ancient civilizations reveal that “building bridges is better than building walls.”

Strauss, an author of eight books and a historian of war, leadership and democracy, detailed the historical roots of populism dating back to ancient Athens and the Roman Republic at a lecture on Wednesday.

Dismantling the two most revered models for government — ancient Athens and ancient Rome — Strauss claimed both were models of “failure” in the ways that the elites balanced populist sentiments.

In this way, “the problem of populism is the problem of elitism,” Strauss said.

The failures illustrated in these classical settings, he said, can advise people today, especially in these polarizing times.

“My advice is that we seek a middle ground,” Strauss said. “Bipartisanship certainly but also compromise. A recognition of both the grievances of “fly over” country and the two coasts. … That building bridges is better than building walls. And finally, a rededication to the ideals of citizenship and self-government.”

However, Strauss did make an important distinction, saying that there was one important exception to compromise — bigotry.

“Part of leadership is saying no,’ he said. “Our leaders must always say no to bigotry; they must always insist that the will of the people ends where injustice begins; and that a good society does some things not because they are popular but because they are right.”

The model of ancient Athens was “a story of failure,” he said, because of an “elite that tried to manipulate the people and pander to the people’s worst instincts.”

Ancient Rome too was a story of failure, he said, but for a different reason. He said Rome was run by an “elite that wouldn’t listen to the people and wouldn’t take account of their just grievances.”

From these classical models, Strass argued, the imbalance of the will of ordinary people and the elites can lead to disaster.

Skipping ahead a couple thousand years, Strauss noted similar imbalances in our society as well.

Many people feel “they have been left out of the boom while others have advanced,” he said, noting a “general distrust of the elites and a doubt of their commitment to the common good.”

And from these grievances, populist movements have gotten stronger, he said, increasing the tension between the common people and the governing elites.

However, Strauss said there may be hope yet when he said that “wise elites will take populist movements as a wakeup call.”

“Instead of merely denouncing populism as false consciousness, or instead of adopting a ‘problem, what problem?’ attitude when faced with protests, they will inquire as to whether genuine grievances might underlie populism’s appeal,” Strauss said.

Strauss advocated for a greater connection between elites and the common people. With enhanced attention to the problems of the common people, the government can become more responsive to their needs and keep from devolving into a monarchical state as Rome did, for instance, he said.

Looking back to the classics, Strauss said that the ancient’s view of the necessity of leadership was coupled with nuances of balancing power and recognizing the consequences of one’s actions as a leader.

“Ancient democracy considered leadership by elites to be necessary to the proper functioning of a political system. It insisted on a constant give and take between the people and their leaders. In a word: it recognized balance,” Strauss said.

“Those who benefit from an elite education have a responsibility not just to make society richer, but to make it nobler,” he said.

With this recognition, elites can work to address the people’s grievances in a manner that aids the common good.

“The more just and astute the elite, the less angry the people,” Strauss said. “The more the elite treats politics like a big tent in which no one should be left out, the less likely they are to face populist challenges.”