Roberts lecture explores the perils of democracy
by Martin de Bourmont '14
From left: Brendan McConville and Loren J. Samons of Boston University discuss charismatic leadership and the cult of personality in democratic societies. Photo by Kathryn Davison '16.
Could charismatic leaders prove just as destructive to society in a democracy as in an autocracy? Loren J. Samons, a professor of classical studies at Boston University and an NEH Distinguished Teacher specializing in Greek and Roman history, answers with a resounding "yes."
Samons was one of the two lecturers participating in the 16th-annual Christopher Roberts Lecture Series held Oct. 4-5. Each fall, Dickinson's Department of Classical Studies invites nationally and internationally renowned scholars to deliver a lecture on a new finding or idea not previously presented in print or a public lecture.
The first lecture, The Dangers of
a First Citizen: Ancient and Modern, featured a discussion between Samons and
Brendan J. McConville, a professor of history at Boston University, on the
dangers posed by charismatic leaders in democracies.
Samons, whose forthcoming book, Pericles
and the Conquest of History, addresses the issue of charismatic leaders, began
the Friday lecture by suggesting that such leaders prove most dangerous in
democracies. He pointed to the example of Periclean Athens, a direct democracy
in which any adult male of appropriate age could vote. Pericles, thanks in
large part to his oratorical gifts, managed to convince the Athenians of
“powerful, dangerous ideas” like the necessity of going to war with Sparta. Not
only were the Athenians voting for war against the most powerful of the Greek
city-states, those voting in favor of war would also be ones to fight. The
Athenians would continue to fight wars of imperial aggression after Pericles’
death, leading to the near destruction of Athens in 404 B.C.
McConville followed with a
lecture concerning the Founding Fathers’ perspective, revealing that the
Founders actually mistrusted democracy as much as they did despotism, worrying
that their rebellion against English tyranny might create the pre-conditions
for a military despot or demagogue to take power. It was their search for a
stable patriarch that would eventually lead to the creation of the presidency.
“It was definitely fascinating to
see how the idea that a great leader can also cause great damage is a timeless
concept,” said Eddy Diamantis ’16, who attended the Friday lecture.
On Saturday, Samons’ lecture in the Weiss Center explored the relationship between Periclean thought and the Homeric
fixation with fame and honor. The event culminated with a concert in Rubendall
Recital Hall, featuring Jennifer Blyth (piano), Michael Cameron (cello) and
Elisabeth Stimpert (clarinet) along with the Peabody Institute’s Courtney Orlando (violin) in a performance of the 2004 Pulitzer
Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy by
"It was a a great collegewide event in which faculty, alumni, students, President [Nancy] Roseman and friends of the classics department came together to celebrate the speaker and his work," said Marc Mastrangello, professor and chair of classical studies.