Chicago (2020) h/b 256pp £72 (ISBN 9780226653792)  p/b £24.00 (ISBN 9780226653792)

Our lives are in their hands. But to whom is SAGE actually accountable? In ancient Athens Professors Whitty and Vallance could not escape scrutiny: they would have been hauled before the assembly. Their advice might indeed have been accepted and implemented. But if it led to disastrous consequences, shutting down a large part of the economy, say, or costing many other lives, they could later have been fined, exiled or even put to death.

Here L. offers a short but interesting survey of the accountability of advice in ancient Greece. (It could have been shorter still without 24 pages of introduction and four more introducing the first chapter, and without the author’s irksome habit of repeatedly telling us what he’s going to tell us: ‘the argument of the chapter proceeds as follows’.) Length aside, how useful is this exercise?

L. sets out to analyse the roles of adviser to both demos and tyrant. Democracies like the Athenian assembly had a range of well-established techniques to try to ensure both good government and honest advice: eisangelia (impeachment), dokimasia (pre- and post-office hearings), euthunai (financial audit), and especially graphê paranomôn (the charge of making an illegal proposal). Demagogues were not always constrained, but they ran the real risk of exile or worse if their advice was followed and turned out to be wrong.

This did not extend to the judicial system. Jurors voted in secret and were accountable only to the gods for their oath, but there were strict laws applying the death penalty to those who attempted to bribe them. We don’t have any evidence of the death penalty being applied, but given the jury selection and trial allocation procedures it may be that tampering simply wasn’t worth it.

The role of sumboulos to a tyrant was obviously different, but as L. contends not so very different. Tyrants could and did punish unwelcome advice (though wiser, longer-living tyrants valued truth told to power). But so did democratic assemblies: where they later regretted their decision, they could take it out on their advisers. So both the tyrant and the assembly, in different ways, exercised unaccountable power.

There’s a rich literature on all this: Cyrus weighing his options before the battle with the Massagetai, the arguments in the Athenian assembly on strategy before Salamis, Cleon debating Diodotus on the fate of Mytilene, Aristophanes satirising the power of jurors in The Wasps, the fateful divisions over the Sicilian expedition.

‘Advisers advise, Ministers decide’ goes the Whitehall rubric. In the assembly, L. suggests a similar distinction: sumbouloi gave their advice but they themselves weren’t the decision-takers: Cleon had the voice but at the end of the debate only one vote amongst many. But because that advice was so important, from Herodotus onwards Greek historians and philosophers thought about it and worried about it: should advisers really have so much sway? How safe was it for a democracy to trust to the reasoning of others? How could the role of sumboulos be procedurally constrained to secure better advice?

The difficulties thrown up by these questions are underlined by the interest of those same thinkers, especially Demosthenes, Isocrates and Aristotle, in how these problems played out in autocracies. L. is interesting in his analysis of various tyrants’ decision-making. Though the relationship between ruler and adviser remained wholly asymmetrical, tyrants such as Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes took advice but in different ways. Listening to good advice didn’t always mean a ruler would follow it; accepting good advice was likewise no guarantee of a good outcome.

But in the assembly, too, there were dangers. Freedom of speech—parrhêsia—though much prized, was not risk-free but predicated on the inequalities and asymmetries of power: flattery had its limits. The privilege of speaking one’s mind was just that, a privilege that could be withdrawn. Popular control and debate informed by wise counsel were uneasy bedfellows. That unobjectionable conclusion takes L. into a broader discussion of the limits to democracy: does demagoguery personify short-term and arbitrary popular rule or does it usurp it and put the real power into the hands of the demagogues?

Plato in his Gorgias lays out the competing arguments between Socrates and Gorgias. Successful orators can, according to Gorgias, be more persuasive than experts: it is often the size and ignorance of their audience that enables it to be manipulated. But, as Socrates points out, orators do not manipulate with impunity: the dêmos retains the ultimate power to sanction them for poor advice. That orators were punished so frequently rather undermines the claim that they were usurping democracy. On the other hand, the dêmos wasn’t always able to wield the instruments of accountability to its advantage: by tackling the difficult issue of how you persuade somebody ignorant of their own good and unwilling to identify false advice that you want to help rather than harm them, Socrates makes us think more deeply about the limits to the effectiveness of accountability.

The ancient political philosophers thus used the practice of accountability in tyrannies and democracies to illustrate the trade-offs required between all-powerful decision-makers and their need for good, honest and impartial advice.

In Athens at least the processes of accountability were in the hands of the people. But their thinkers saw clearly that these processes revealed rather than solved deeper issues at the heart of democracy: the need for trust, for the right incentives, attributing responsibility as well as blame, and coping with the burden of knowledge and understanding required to exercise accountability responsibly. By comparing democracies with tyrannies, Greek historians and philosophers could help model these institutional deficiencies.

There are lessons too, L. believes, for our modern representative democracies. We face the same challenges as the more direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. Despite the limitations, both tyrant and assembly could secure good advice. It wasn’t ideal that their advisers were held accountable by unaccountable decision-makers whose collective judgement could be arbitrary and suspect if not constrained. But we’ve learnt in modern times that even the most sophisticated electoral systems do not avoid the trade-offs involved. Displacing that collective judgement either to the margins, as Plato proposed, or to today’s electoral cycle, doesn’t necessarily help strengthen our democracy.

Sir Michael Fallon
Former Defence Secretary and MP