The ‘Presidents’ Club’ as an anachronistic community

Newly installed in the White House in Washington DC is a group portrait depicting several of the Republican presidents of the USA in conversation with each other. According to the Guardian, a copy of the painting ‘The Republican Club’ by Andy Thomas is now hanging outside the Oval Office. (The Washington Post has the story of how the painting came to President Trump’s attention).

Andy Thomas, The Presidents' Club
Andy Thomas, The Presidents’ Club

The use of portraiture to assert connections between individuals across time and space, and to say something about the relationships between them, has a long history in both fine art and more popular image-making. While the USA has its Mount Rushmore, a memorial on a huge scale to four past presidents, art history offers many further examples. Anachronism is often a feature of such pictures, given that their role is often to assert the continuity of the present with the past, and the flow of power from past to present.

Previously on our blog we’ve documented anachronistic group images, including the mediaeval favourites the Nine Heroes, and Raphael’s School of Athens. Of particular note is the fashion for anachronistic portrait groups in Tudor England; Lucas de Heere’s group of Tudor royals depicts Henry VIII with his children Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as each was at the peak of their own power as a reigning monarch. It was probably painted in 1572 when of the three only Elizabeth survived: as reigning queen, she is accompanied in the portrait by mythological figures of Peace and Plenty, but in depicting the two siblings who preceded her to their father’s throne she reminds her subjects of her legitimate connection and claim to the throne. It was sent as a gift to her trusted minister Francis Walsingham.

The Family of Henry VIII, group portrait
Attributed to Lucas De Heere (1534-84), The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1572, National Museum Cardiff.

A later monarch, William III of Orange, decorated a staircase at Hampton Court with images of himself defeating twelve Caesars, representing his Catholic opponents in mainland Europe; the anachronistic parallel adds to the grandeur of the scene, magnificently painted by Antonio Verrio (1636-1707), a specialist in such images.

Another form of group portrait is the conversation piece, popular in the eighteenth century as a way of depicting friends, especially those connected by shared political and intellectual interests and pursuits. William Hogarth’s Hervey Conversation Piece, painted 1738-40, shows a group of friends surrounding John Hervey, Lord Ickworth; the painting still hangs in his ancestral home in Suffolk. Such portraits united groups of friends who might in life rarely meet, connecting them in time and space.

The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.
The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.

Anachronistic assemblies also feature in more popular artistic contexts. Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth produced the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); their work presents a montage of historical and contemporary personalities, including images of the band members in earlier years.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967

Anachronistic groups were also created in the ancient world. Group depictions of philosophers might assemble figures who were not contemporaries, or suggest that contemporary thinkers were linked to the Seven Sages of the past. Polybius reports that Roman families kept masks as portraits of family members, which were brought out for funeral processions, providing both a link to the past and a reminder of the power and influence wielded by leading families:

After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordinary fidelity both in shape and colour. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. (Polybius 6.53, translation Shuckburgh).

Other works by Andy Thomas show similar anachronistic groups of US presidents engaged in social activities such as playing poker and pool, perhaps paying tribute to the less serious side of the conversation piece tradition. In contrast, when the living former presidents of the USA are photographed together, it is often to send a serious message to their fellow citizens or to solicit their help for disaster relief or similar serious causes.

 

Detemporalising Athenian democracy: the case of Demopolis

Historical examples and analogies can be a problematic resource for political theorists. They illustrate and illuminate practices unfamiliar in the world of the present, making possible reforms easier to envisage – as the figure of the engaged citizen of classical Athens, sitting in the assembly and on jury courts, accountable to scrutiny by fellow citizens, and holding important offices by lot, does for proponents of increased participation in democratic life. But such historical analogies can bring a great deal of additional baggage, obscuring the picture being drawn with historical details that complicate and confuse. With Athenian democracy, we might worry that the participation of citizens rested on the labour of chattel slaves, as well as the exclusion of women from political debate and discussion, if not from all aspects of the civic labour of citizenship.

Athens' Pnyx and Acropolis in 1829
The Pnyx and the Acropolis, Athens, in HW Williams’ 1829 view

Josiah Ober, in his recent book Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, observes the difficulties brought by the ‘variety of historically contingent features’ (p. 18) that historians find in any society they survey, with particular attention to these features of Athens. When these contingent features reveal aspects of that society which are deeply unacceptable to readers of the analogy, or severely at odds with their values, they undermine the benefit of the comparison. But do these limits of analogy render it a pointless exercise, or can we make use of analogies while acknowledging their deficiencies and limitations?

In Demopolis, Ober addresses this problem explicitly by setting an abstract model against his historical survey of Athens. He takes the interesting approach of running both historical example (Athens, as ‘practice’) and thought experiment (Demopolis, as ‘theory’) alongside each other, rather than as replacement for each other.

Ober’s purpose is to offer a model for a democracy that is distinct from liberalism, yet provides a cogent reason for choosing democracy as the basis of a secure and prosperous life, which does not required the surrender to authority required by the creation of the state in Hobbes’ Leviathan. He argues that ‘disambiguating democracy as such from the overfamiliar hybrid, liberal democracy clarifies what democracy is good for’ (p. 1); by separating the practices of organising a society from the ‘moral commitments’ of liberalism, Ober aims to show that democracy in its ‘basic’ form is desirable as a form of social organisation. His first move is to explore Athenian democracy as a form of democracy that did not rest on the values of modern liberalism. Although versions of values such as freedom and equality were key to Athenian democratic ideology and rhetoric, they were clearly distinct from the highly individualised forms of those values within modern democratic thought.

However, many of democratic Athens’ practices are unacceptable to modern-day proponents of democracy; Ober points to the usual complaints about Athenian democratic exclusivity. Even in acknowledging Athens’ deficiencies as a model for today, he offers a vision of Athenian political culture that imports some anachronistic ideas, notably the idea of pluralism. Ober argues that Athens’ size, and origins in the merger of separate communities, rendered it diverse, but this downplays the emphasis on cultural homogeneity and shared origin in Athenian political mythology, particularly the emphasis on the Athenians’ original connection to their land through the myth of autochthony. One might consider whether Athenian political mythology and values reduced the epistemic value of democratic debate within the city. So Ober’s vision of the democratic practice of historical Athens is somewhat idealised in its emphasis on diversity and pluralism, pressing issues for contemporary democracies but regarded as evidence of decay and civic disintegration by Athenians such as Isocrates.

Rather than simply base his argument for ‘basic democracy’ on an appeal to the historical example of Athens, with its well-acknowledged flaws, Ober sets up a second track in which he designs an imaginary political community that delivers the same results, the Demopolis (‘People’s City’) of the book’s title:

[Demopolis] is meant to capture real but hard-to-observe features of a basic democratic political regime by abstracting from readily observed features of real-world politics. (Demopolis, p. 4)

Demopolis offers the story of the foundation of a political community that avoids the deficiencies of Athens, but as its Greek name suggests, Athens remains its inspiration. The value its citizens place on their ‘dignity’ has ancient parallels as well as modern ones, for example, and can be paralleled in ancient responses to tyranny.

Using imagined societies as a vehicle for political theorising is a method as old as western European political theory itself, given the ancient Greek practice of writing constitutions (politeiai) for imaginary cities as a way of thinking about political problems, but as Demopolis shows such societies rarely escape the context of their originator. In the 5th century BCE Hippodamus of Miletus, for example, developed imaginary models of cities alongside plans for real ones that were actually built, such as the grid plan of Athens’ port, the Piraeus (Aristotle Politics 2.8.1267b22-30). Aristotle uses Hippodamus’ writings as the starting point for a discussion on the problem of changing the law, a body of work that can be read alongside other imaginary politeiai such as those written by Plato.

Plato’s Kallipolis, the imaginary city discussed in his Republic, is probably the best-known example of such an experiment from antiquity, although, as Ober notes, it is ‘neither realistic nor democratic’ (p. 144). Yet, despite its lack of realism, Kallipolis doesn’t entirely escape from the social experiences and knowledge of its creator. The shock value of Kallipolis derives from its mixture of similarities to and differences from the Greek societies that Plato’s readers recognised, such as Sparta and Athens. As Aristotle’s critique of the Republic shows, Plato’s thought experiment takes existing values of Greek political thought, such as community, to an extreme, but it can still be discussed within the same framework as Hippodamus’ imaginary society, or the historical Sparta.

Can Demopolis escape from historical contingency, and enable Ober to demonstrate the possibility of an inclusive but epistemically authoritative democracy not based on post-Kantian liberalism? Ober hopes that it will provide an example of a possible democracy that avoids both the limiting features of the ancient polis and the baggage of modern liberalism. He narrates a possible origin story, in which a group intends to establish a life in which they can flourish in conditions of security, prosperity and non-tyranny (pp. 39-40). The third of these is the most significant (given that prosperity and security are universal aims of human community), connecting Demopolis’ Founders with those of the United States of America, and contrasting them with the citizens of Hobbes’ thought experiments in his Leviathan.

Ober’s use of a parallel thought experiment offers an alternative to Nicole Loraux’s valorisation of the usefulness of exploring the differences between ancient and modern societies, even at the risk of anachronistically posing our own questions and treating them as models. In the end it is the modern contingencies that raise the larger questions; is the project of disentangling democracy and liberalism itself driven by contemporary ideological concerns? If Athens’ idealised replacement Demopolis is an inclusive and diverse society, has that replacement already at its foundation instantiated features of liberal society?

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Ober’s starting point, or the details of his analysis of Athenian democracy, with Demopolis he has delivered an important contribution to methodological debate in political theory. But both his Athens and Demopolis demonstrate the difficulty of detemporalising political exempla; his Athens cannot escape anachronism, while Demopolis looks backward to its inspiration.

Bibliography

  • Hobbes, T. (1996) [1651], Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck (Cambridge).
  • Loraux, N. (1976), ‘Problèmes Grecs de la Démocratie Moderne’, Critique, 32, 1276-87.
  • Loraux, N. (1993), ‘Éloge d’anachronisme en histoire’, Le Genre Humain, 27, 23-39.
  • Ober, J. (2017) Demopolis: democracy before liberalism in theory and practice (Cambridge).
  • Shipley, G. (2005), ‘Little Boxes on the Hillside: Greek town planning, Hippodamos and polis ideology’, in M.H. Hansen (ed.), The Imaginary Polis: Symposium, January 7-10, 2004 (Copenhagen), 335-403.