Germany Between Demosthenes and Isocrates*

By Vasilis Trigkas

In the 4th century BC Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom of Northern Greece, under the leadership of Phillip II, set out to unify the Mediterranean World. Macedonia’s quest for hegemonic stability brought her into a direct conflict with old established Hellenic powers like Thebes, Sparta and most of all Athens. 

By the mid 4th century BC Athens had recovered from the disastrous defeat of the Peloponnesian war. The resilient Athenians had reestablished their powerful navy, expanded trade with Egypt and the Middle East and had even reclaimed parts of their old empire in the Aegean Sea and the Bosporus. Athens’ cultural accomplishments had turned the city into “the school of Hellas” and intellectuals from every part of the Mediterranean world flooded into Athens and enrolled in its renowned philosophic academies. 

During that period, the Democratic tradition of Athens endowed historians with the speeches of two exemplary rhetoricians who debated the most pivotal topic of their era: the Rise of Macedon and the struggle for the hegemonic unification of the Mediterranean World.

On the one hand stood the radiant persona of Demosthenes who vehemently opposed Philip’s hegemonic expansion and argued in favor of an Athenian counteroffensive against the Macedonians. On the other hand stood the exhilarating figure of Isocrates whose arguments called for a “teleological” necessity to the unification of the Hellenic world and viewed Macedonia as the most fitting candidate to play the role of the unifier of last resort. 

Both Demosthenes and Isocrates have since shaped the rhetorical canon of Western Civilization. Both stand supreme and their archetypal speeches and arguments for and against civilizational political unity have attracted numerous commentators in some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. 

The clash of the two titans of rhetoric is relevant today as the European world is undergoing a process of unification inspired by the powerful position of Germany. On the one hand stand the modern followers of Demosthenes. Germany, they argue, has no moral authority to lead Europe. Its economic supremacy is the outcome of a erroneously designed monetary system that for the past decade worked to Germany’s advantage, de-industrialized Italy and France and turned Berlin into a de facto economic and eventually political superpower within Europe.

At the opposite end of that narrative stand the modern followers of Isocrates. Their argument is structural. Day by day Europe, they argue, becomes less influential in global affairs. The “Rise of the Rest” and in particular China and India’s modernization have radically reshuffled the cards of power. For Europe to remain influential, action has to be sharp and Germany is the sole candidate fit to lead Europe into the 21st century as a political entity that will shape the regulations of the future along the US, China and India.  

The ultimate role of Germany today is a question that Demosthenes and Isocrates comprehensively approached 2.500 years ago addressing the power of Macedonia. The former was a passionate voice of Athenian patriotism, the latter a voice of Hellenic internationalism. When Demosthenes wrote his Philippics repudiating Phillip and asking for Athenian resolute action against Macedonia, Isocrates ardently declared his “pan-Hellenism” and the historical imperative of Hellenic unification. 

60 years ago Karl Jaspers, a European philosopher making an “Isocratic” case observed that

The world had become European through the adoption of European technology and the European demands of nationalism, and it was successfully turning both against Europe. Europe, as the old Europe, was no longer the dominant factor in the world. It had abdicated, overshadowed by America and Russia, upon whose policies the fate of Europe hanged if Europe does not gather itself together at the last moment. 

Today could perhaps be Europe’s last moment of relevance, the last chance to “gather itself together”. Inaction and division will condemn Europe into perpetual irrelevance. Unity will empower Europe with prolonged relevance in a multipolar world. 

Isocrates’ words are therefore more relevant than ever today. Germany must lead Europe without being hubristic toward other EU states. When Alexander the Great, Phillips’s heir won his first battle against Persia, he dedicated his triumph to Athens and adorned the Parthenon with the shields of the Persian generals.

The Macedonians respected the Athenians and the triumphant, brilliant, glorified Hellenistic world was born. With the arrival of the Romans the political union of Europe became complete and the values of European civilization were crystallized into the public psyche.  Isocrates found panegyric confirmation.

Can Germany today follow a similar path? Can it unify Europe and at the same time abstain from Hubris? Can it lead Europe into the 21st century and respect the polymorphy of Europe and the exemplary traditions of each and every European state? Germany stands between Demosthenes and Isocrates and has to make a pressing perhaps Isocratic decision. 

* original post at:

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Tags: Demosthenes, Europe, Germany, Greece, Hegemony, Isocrates, Macedon, Unification


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