Categories: History of PR

12 November 2013

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Homer and the origins of public relations

Here is the first of two essays on the rise to power of public opinion and the origin of public relations. This one deals with archaic Greece (circa: 800 BC – 500 BC). It outlines the emergence of artistic freedom and individualism on the rocky road toward democracy. The second will interrogate the contest system, the shame culture, mistrust, and openness to change and risk in Classical Athens. It will look at what happens when public opinion is not engaged critically.


This essay reviews the transformative moment in history when public opinion emerged as the dominant force in society. It examines why kings, aristocrats and tribal tradition began to lose their exclusive claim on power and how citizens obtained a greater stake in society’s management.

The events described here (and in the second essay) reveal how citizens became interested in – sometimes, obsessed by – impression management. They depict a world in which prestige and fame became the major measures of success in wider society. Not just for kings, aristocrats and priests, but for tens of thousands of citizens who acquired the freedom to determine their personal identity and legacy.

My intention is to uncover the origins of the conflicted art we call public relations. It is also to provide some reference points and reflections that modern practitioners might find useful.

Homer’s role on the road to freedom

Our story of rhetoric, which means speech in Greek, and the messages it communicates begins with a discussion of Homer’s influence. I am not suggesting with this that earlier civilisations failed to produce rhetoric and ideas worthy of discussion. It is just that the Greeks produced work which remains most recognisable and relevant to us; even though their world was nothing like ours. And I’m saying that Homer’s poetry was the starting point on the road to freedom.

His work is unique (at least as far as we know) because it marks the moment when restrictions on the human imagination began to be lifted and the boundaries of artistic work expanded accordingly.

After Homer, a leader who aspired to greatness had to be persuasive (as had always been the case), but be so in ways which were innovative. Over the course of the next three hundred years, this led to a new culture driven by individualistic impulses. It was one in which people first acknowledged the importance of their personal rationality and making considered responses to autonomous others. This culminated in Classical Greece, when Athens became a democracy, in the 5th century BC.

That was when artists acquired their licence to self-consciously manufacture and communicate narratives and messages to influence society’s direction and self-perception. The significance of this leap forward is difficult to overstate. As one classicist put it:

…it was in Ionia, in the poetry of Homer and the cosmology of the Milesians, that for the first time in history, man took the centre of the stage as a thinking and feeling individual – an assumption upon which Western culture has subsequently rested. [The Ionians and Hellenism: a study of the cultural achievement of early Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor, by C J Emlyn Jones, page 6, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1988]

In Classical Athens, a man had to be effective in the minds of his fellow-citizens who prided themselves on being sturdily their own (autonomous) person, who could be swayed only if their own minds, interests and emotions were engaged and not taken for granted. Their collective sentiments and differences were expressed in public forums and in individualistic (agōn: agonistic) struggles.

The eristic Athenians treasured above all their right to make judgements and to express their opinions in public debates in which everybody had equality of speech (isegoria):

This may, in fact, be the most distinctive idea to come out of the democracy, and it has no parallel in our own political volcabulary. Freedom of speech as we know it has to do with the absence of interference with our right to speak. Equality of speech as the Athenians understood it had the ideal of active political participation by poor and working people. [Citizens to Lords, by Ellen Meiksins Wood, page 39, Verso, 2011]

Theirs was a direct democracy. Its lifeblood depended upon the politicization and participation of the masses in decision making. In contrast, modern democracies are representative. In other words, theirs was unmediated and ours are mediated.

Significantly, after the death of the popular Athenian orator and military leader Pericles (495 – 429 BC), the old elite’s confidence in unmediated democracy was undermined by military failure, perceptions of moral decay, and internal strife. Yet the violent disruption to democratic rule that this resulted in was relatively brief when thirty tyrants seized power (404 BC to 403). And later fourth century Athens, despite its economic woes and decline in power, experienced the most stable and culturally influential period of its democratic existence.

But the intellectual battle between supporters and opponents of democracy that followed Pericles’ death was intense. Throughout the fourth century, great thinkers – particularly Plato, Aristotle, the Sophists and playwrights – struggled to reconcile the desire of the majority to feel that their speech mattered with their need (both social and personal) to see that power was delegated and used effectively within the polis.

The conflicting philosophical and political theories (not least on ethics, justice, expertise and democracy) their work produced still partially frames very similar discussions – albeit in very different contexts – today. For example, about what constitutes responsive authority, and what gives authority the legitimate right to expect others to respect, trust and obey it.

Homer’s time was one of reconstruction

Archaic Greece shared a language and similar social experience, not least with the Olympics and common myths, in small cities and farms. Yet they had numerous local customs, dialects and cults between communities as well as within them. It was, then, a cultural potpourri; and a weakly led one also.

Homer’s time was one when the heroic elite’s monopoly on power was weakening. Since the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation hundreds of years earlier, war and invasions and colonial expansion had undermined the coherence of the old world’s beliefs. This made the tribal system with its fixed relationships and top-down decision-making regulated by a network of unexaminable rules rooted in tradition, which sustained kings and aristocrats, vulnerable to challenge.

In 800BC, Greek civilisation was spread over a large area on the southern Balkan peninsula, the Aegean islands, coastal Asia Minor, and elsewhere around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast. Their society was organised in a loose network of independent communities, which spanned two clashing cultural traditions: the more austere tradition of Greece, and Eastern flamboyance.

It consisted of several tribes, which had only recently intermingled, such as Mycenaeans composed of Achaeans, Argives and Danaans, and their northern opponents known as Dorians. To get along, the different tribes had to compromise. But they also had to rearrange how they were governed.

While Kings ruled in most regions in 800BC, their power depended for its credibility upon the support of the aristocracy. But as the aristocracy grew in wealth and political influence they sought to break free from their kings. By around 750BC they had overthrown them.

Then, just like with the kings, the aristocracy was not able to exercise power properly. Committed as it was to individual autonomy and personal glory, it was too divided as a group (blood feuds were common) to impose its rule over the polisThe aristocracy was also unable to appropriate the supposed will of the gods to back its claim to power:

To be more precise, Greek arsistocrats did not organize and control access to the gods, and specifically to the discovery and interpration of divine will, in a way that would have made it possible to develop, on that basis, priestly and ultimately political authority. [A Culture of FreedonGreece & the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier, page 110, Oxford University Press, 2011]

Innovation shrouded in mystery

The genesis and the content and purpose of Homer’s ur-verse are the subject of controversy and mystery. The past he writes about may have never existed.

What is significant is that, as Alvin W Gouldner says in Enter Plato [Basic Books, 1965], in Homer’s pre-Classical work there is no real conception of an autonomous self. There is barely a discernible public sphere. Duties and rights are defined by household and kinship relationships. The law is clearly in the hands of the aristocracy and property is still in common ownership. Yet the Iliad and Odyssey are distinct from earlier epics.

According to art historian E H Gombrich, before Homer story telling, in fact all art, was constrained by authority to transmitting incontrovertible messages that conveyed sacred themes about perceived truths. The major innovation in Homer’s narrative was to go beyond telling the “what” in his accounts of mythical events by spelling out the “how”:

Obviously this is not a very strict distinction. There can be no recital of events that does not include description of one kind or another, and nobody would claim that The Gilgamesh Epic or the Old Testament is devoid of vivid accounts. But there is still a difference in the way Homer presents the incidents in front of Troy, the very thoughts of the heroes, or the reaction of Hector’s small son, who takes fright from the plumes of his father’s helmet. The poet is here an eyewitness. If he were asked how he could know so exactly how it actually happened, he would still invoke the authority of the Muse who told him all and enabled his inner eye to see across the chasm of time. [Art and Illusion, A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, by E H Gombrich, page 129, Princeton University Press, 2000]

Another significant innovation is the scene in the Iliad where Thersites, a lowly, ugly, bow-legged braggart, traduces king Agamemnon in public.

In Authority, A Sociological History [Cambridge 2013, pages 18 -24] Frank Furedi says that Homer created Thersites as the “personification of anti-authority”. However Furedi points out that we shouldn’t view Homer’s work as an ideological tract designed to uphold the power of the rich against the poor. He says, Thersites’ challenge merely portrays the confused and arbitrary and personal nature of authority at that time; and serves as a warning of what can happen when things go wrong.

Whatever Homer’s intention, after him Greeks could not but begin to notice that their ideas about themselves, their kings and gods were formed partly by poets and singers. In his masterful work A Culture of Freedom, Christian Meier [page 107, Oxford University Press, 2011] says that as these artists traveled from city to city they shaped and expanded Greek myth. And they did their shaping independently of whatever happened to be the rituals and customs of any particular place; so long as they stuck to some broadly accepted standards.

Later, in Classical Greece, the Sophists observed the stark contradictions between customs and cults in numerous city states. From this they concluded that there was a fundamental difference between natural laws and forces (physis) and conventional laws and customs (nomos). Wood says [Citizens to Lords, page 53] that distinguishing this difference (which is far from easy) was the central intellectual problem of the age; it is also, I contend, the most contentious one of ours.

From tribalism to communalism and private property

Post-Homer urban and rural societies were still “governed” by what amounted to the arbitrary rules enforced by conflicting clans and families who were living together in ever closer proximity. But the decay of tribal culture opened a world of unprecedented possibilities for the Greeks, particularly when it came to marriage, trade, and personal and political alliances. This produced a set of tensions that threatened to break out into civil war.

The new battle lines were between the landed aristocracy and the rising mercantile groups, between rich and the poor, between landed gentry and the land-hungry, debt-involved small farmers, and between the political factions of the ‘oligarchs’ and the ‘democrats’. [Enter Plato, page 210]. When neither side could defeat the other, the polis turned to “independent” power-brokers to sort out the mess.

This role was filled by so-called straighteners above the fray. They were appointed mostly at the behest of the majority who had no stake in the warring camps, but were stuck, suffering, in the middle. According to Aristotle, it was the forces in the middle that cared most for the city’s interests in the fight to quell turmoil and the abuse of power.

The most famous of the straighteners was the poet Solon (638 BC – 558 BC), who came to power in Athens. While the polis gave Solon, a magistrate (archon), unprecedented power over its affairshe was not an advocate of tyranny. He was its opponent.

Meier points out that Solon viewed tyranny as “but an unjust evil that can bring no lasting blessings. Solon obviously thought as a citizen, as one among many, and he is the first person we know of to do so.” [A Culture of Freedom, page 246]. Solon’s intent was seemingly to strengthen the community of citizens by replacing tribal obligations with individual rights.

His reforms liberated the lower orders from their obligations and servitude to the higher ones. He created innovative forms of power by defining citizen-rights according to levels of income at the expense of blood, kin and custom. He banned all debts secured on the person, which effectively did away with debt slavery. He ended the practice of labour-bondage, which had forced peasants to work partly for their land lord’s benefit. By separating property rights from roles and obligations to others he effectively legalised private property, which gave a big material and spiritual boost to individualism.

Solon broke the aristocracy’s monopoly on justice by defining crime as an act against society rather than family, and by creating a people’s court. The poorest members of the military (thetes) were invited to particiapte in some forums.

At the same time he defined the obligations of citizens to society. For instance, he stipulated that poor parents had to teach their children a trade, or forfeit the right to have their children care for them in old age.

The forward march to democracy

While Solon neither created a democracy nor ended the civil conflicts (stasis). His reforms made democracy the logical consequence (though I hasten to add not inevitable) of the growing hold of, what Furedi calls,”the authorisation of public opinion” on power.

Meier says the decisive difference that Solon’s reforms made was that it gave the broad citizenry the right express themselves more strongly, both directly and indirectly in the political arena. He says “in this way, solidarity among equals gradually superseded relationships of dependency”. [ibid Page 169]. His policies ensured that the law applied to everybody equally in the public courts that enforced it. This in turn inspired the development of theoretical rhetoric, which is the art form that all types of public pleading and debate exploit.

Over the next 100 years, the hard-earned experience of the Greeks taught them that the rules governing people’s place in the world were not ordained, but could be consciously determined by conciliation and consensus. In response, citizens began to negotiate and define their relation to society afresh and in the process produced a new paradigm: Classical Athens. They did so precisely because the once mighty interpreters, such as priests, kings, aristocrats and tribal tradition, had lost their authority and relevance.

From now on, the views of others had to be taken seriously, and everything was open to debate by virtually everybody (here I mean among citizens).

But, as the second essay will reveal, this entanglement of opinions becomes problematic when society has a poor conception of what J. S. Mill called King Nomos. When, instead, its character resembles what Isocrates dubbed a ‘turbid flood’.

See also:

Are modern PR thinkers spinning Isocrates’ legacy? (updated)

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