Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Matthew Landauer's "Dangerous Counsel"

Matthew Landauer is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dangerous Counsel: Accountability and Advice in Ancient Greece, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Dangerous Counsel, Xerxes, the fifth-century BCE Great King of Persia, faces a difficult problem. As the Greek historian Herodotus tells it, at a critical moment in his invasion of Greece, Xerxes has to decide whose advice to trust. A defecting Spartan king, Demaratus, claims to know how to defeat his former people. Xerxes’ own brother, Achaemenes, offers opposing advice and slanders Demaratus, claiming that Greeks cannot be trusted. In previous interactions with advisers Xerxes has proved volatile, and Achaemenes fully expects him to punish Demaratus for trying to manipulate Persian war policy. Xerxes surprises everyone: while he sides with Achaemenes, he chastises his brother for attempting to sow distrust. Xerxes proves himself capable of listening to multiple viewpoints, and able to understand the value of trustworthy counsellors. But his decision to listen to his brother is also a mistake: Achaemenes’ advice ultimately leads to the total defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis.

A reader turning to page 99 would get a sense of some of the book’s central arguments, its method, and its tone. In the book I show how ancient Greeks used stories like this one, dramatizing the unaccountable power of kings and tyrants, to help them think through political concepts such as accountability, responsibility, advice, and control. They applied the insights they gained across diverse political contexts. While page 99 is about advice to a king, the book focuses as much on democracy as autocracy. Conscious of the differences between democracy and tyranny, Greek thinkers also recognized that a collective body of citizens (the demos) might sometimes act tyrannically — including in their interactions with orators and advisers.

Articulating a theory of advice is difficult. Theory trades in generalities while advice — and deciding which adviser to trust — is highly contextual and particular. The method of the book tracks the approach the Greeks themselves used: the careful consideration of particular cases. When Thucydides or Herodotus depicted scenes of counsel, playing out in the democratic assemblies of Athens or the courts of Persian kings, they were not offering simple, programmatic lessons for would-be political decision-makers and their advisers. Instead, they were dramatizing the complexity of real-world politics and giving their readers model cases to reflect on and learn from. The vignette on page 99 thus also captures something of the spirit of the book. The stories and historical incidents that ancient Greeks used as fodder for their theorizing about accountability and advice were often high stakes, full of drama and uncertainty. In Dangerous Counsel I try to preserve that sense of excitement. Stories of tyrants and demagogues from Peisistratus to Pericles and beyond are not only fertile grounds for political theorizing: they are also entertaining, ironic, weird, and fun.
Learn more about Dangerous Counsel at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue