Ancient and modern

The unflattering truth about the battle for No. 10

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

The battle to be PM raises the question: in a functioning democracy, how should arguments be won? Surely, by persuasion. But for ancient Greeks, too often it seemed to be by flattery.

The Greek for ‘flatterer’ was kolax, and a comedian described a kolax’s lifestyle as follows: he would dress up in his best cloak, hire a slave and head off into town looking for someone rich and stupid, whom he would load with grotesque flattery. With any luck this would result in a dinner invitation, where he would make witty comments, turn the host’s vices into virtues and express delight at being the butt of his jokes. Aristotle described such a person as one who over-praised good qualities, glossed over failings and fulsomely sympathised with someone in distress, and made the point that, since everyone wanted to be loved and honoured, everyone in principle loved a kolax– and that gave the kolax his power over them. But social situations were one thing; politics was a more serious matter.


Alcibiades, for example, was described as a political kolax, because his flattery disguised his contempt for the people he was deceiving and manipulating. But Aristotle, by contrast, saw the people as the manipulators, giving power and riches only to those who pandered to them.

Aristophanes wrote a comedy on the subject. His target was Cleon, a very popular speaker in the democratic assembly, where male citizens made all the decisions. Cleon is depicted as a revolting good-for-nothing who will say and do anything to win the favour of The People. But he finds himself confronted by a sausage seller who can out-toady, out-gross, out-deceive and out-lie him at every turn. Cleon is defeated and the play ends unexpectedly with the sausage seller telling The People to learn the lesson and act responsibly as they did in the good old days and never again be deceived bysuch crooks: their will is to be done, not someone else’s.

But there is a force in modern democracy absent from the ancient: the media. Keen to court their readers, are they too kolakes (pl.)?

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