Chapters 1–3 Essay

Athenian (male) citizens who received a pension or other form of assistance from the state would undergo an annual examination (dokimasia) before the Council to assess whether they still qualified for the state assistance that they were receiving (Dillon 1995). Public officials also underwent public scrutiny before entering office (Adeyele 1983; Todd 2010). These examinations, particularly those involving renewals of state benefits, were quite often perfunctory exercises in bureaucratic box-checking (Bers 2009: 31). Still, any citizen had the opportunity to bring forward an accusation challenging the qualifications of a citizen at his examination. And, like modern Senate confirmation hearings, in some instances, these hearings could become quite politicized and fueled by personal animus (Todd 2010: 94–95).

At some point in the first half of the fourth century (the precise date is uncertain), a man came before the Council to undergo his annual examination for a state disability benefit, which paid out a stipend of one obol per day (roughly 1/6th of a day’s wage for an unskilled worker). Likely stooped and leaning on two canes, the man had stood for and received this benefit, we are told, numerous times in the past. On this day, however, he was met with an objection. The pensioner, it is alleged, is not disabled; moreover, he receives an income through his workshop where he socializes with unsavory men. The case against the defendant, as we shall find, likely had a degree of merit, and thus Lysias was presented, in part, with the challenge of making a weak evidentiary case rhetorically robust. Lysias’ approach was self-aware, innovative, and attuned to contemporary ideological divisions in Athens. He sought to distract the Council from potential evidence against the defendant’s disability status using humor and pathos (Albini 1952; Carey 1990; Harding 1994). He encouraged them to identify instead with the defendant, who shared a poor working-class background with many of the jurors, against the wealthy challenger (Major 2021).

Lysias has the defendant strike a humorous tone from the opening words of his speech. The defendant addresses the Council with a smirking confidence that runs counter to his station in life and undercuts the precariousness of his legal position:

“I am not so far from thanking, O Council, my accuser for having concocted this current case against me. Although previously I did not have an excuse on account of which I might provide a narrative of my life, now because of this man I’ve got one. I will try to demonstrate in my speech that this man is lying, and that up to this very day I have led a life worthy of praise rather than envy. It seems to me that this man has worked up this plot against me on no other account than because of envy.”

Οὐ πολλοῦ δέω χάριν ἔχειν, ὦ βουλή, τῷ κατηγόρῳ, ὅτι μοι παρεσκεύασε τὸν ἀγῶνα τουτονί· πρότερον γὰρ οὐκ ἔχων πρόφασιν ἐφ’ ἧς τοῦ βίου λόγον δοίην, νυνὶ διὰ τοῦτον εἴληφα. καὶ πειράσομαι τῷ λόγῳ τοῦτον μὲν ἐπιδεῖξαι ψευδόμενον, ἐμαυτὸν δὲ βεβιωκότα μέχρι τῆσδε τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπαίνου μᾶλλον ἄξιον ἢ φθόνου· διὰ γὰρ οὐδὲν ἄλλο μοι δοκεῖ παρασκευάσαι τόνδε μοι τὸν κίνδυνον οὗτος ἢ διὰ φθόνον.

With the phrase οὐ πολλοῦ δέω (“I am not so far from”), Lysias has his speaker firmly plant his tongue in his cheek as he modifies the more common expression πολλοῦ δέω (“I am far from” or “I miss by much”). Right away, the listener can tell that this speaker is going to take an unusual approach to his public examination.

More broadly, the speaker’s opening offering of thanks to the challenger is paralleled in another speech Lysias composed for a dokimasia trial (Lys. 16).1
In this speech, Mantitheus, a young and handsome aristocrat recently appointed to the Council, defended himself against the accusation that he was a citizen of questionable politics, having served in the cavalry of the Thirty, the junta that brutally ruled Athens before the restoration of democracy. He begins his speech with these words (16.1–2):

“If I were not aware of my opponents’ desire, O Council, to harm me by every possible means, I should be very grateful to them for bringing this accusation. For I think that such men as these confer the greatest benefits upon those they have unjustly slandered whenever they compel them to submit to an examination of the lives they have led. So great is my confidence in myself that, if anyone should happen to be disagreeably disposed towards me, I hope that when he has heard me speak about my past conduct, he will regret his past attitude and think much more highly of me in the future.”

εἰ μὴ συνῄδη, ὦ βουλή, τοῖς κατηγόροις βουλομένοις ἐκ παντὸς τρόπου κακῶς ἐμὲ ποιεῖν, πολλὴν ἂν αὐτοῖς χάριν εἶχον ταύτης τῆς κατηγορίας: ἡγοῦμαι γὰρ τοῖς ἀδίκως διαβεβλημένοις τούτους εἶναι μεγίστων ἀγαθῶν αἰτίους, οἵτινες ἂν αὐτοὺς ἀναγκάζωσιν εἰς ἔλεγχον τῶν αὐτοῖς βεβιωμένων καταστῆναι. ἐγὼ γὰρ οὕτω σφόδρα ἐμαυτῷ πιστεύω, ὥστ᾽ ἐλπίζω καὶ εἴ τις πρός με τυγχάνει ἀηδῶς ἢ κακῶς1 διακείμενος, ἐπειδὰν ἐμοῦ λέγοντος ἀκούσῃ περὶ τῶν πεπραγμένων, μεταμελήσειν αὐτῷ καὶ πολὺ βελτίω με εἰς τὸν λοιπὸν χρόνον ἡγήσεσθαι.

Politically ambitious and well-mannered, Mantitheus strikes a confident but conciliatory tone befitting a man of his age and social position. While his challengers are certainly in the wrong, and possibly motivated in their actions by malice, Mantitheus concludes self-assuredly that this examination will result in the burnishing of his civic character as a committed defender of democratic values. The narrative of his military service (part of the test for qualification for public service), particularly his decision to serve in the infantry rather than the cavalry as was allowed to a man of his social status (16.6–7), can temper accusations of oligarchic sympathies. In Mantitheus’ case, then, the young aristocrat does indeed have much to be thankful for in being given the opportunity to deliver a rather lengthy and detailed accounting of his life and achievements (Spathras 2011: 212–213; Adeleye 1983).

In contrast, the disabled pensioner of our speech, a man of (professed) modest means, conceivably has very little to be grateful for in the narrative of his past. Consequently, the deployment of this rhetorical commonplace is potentially unsuitable, and possibly humorous, given the social status of the speaker. By having his speaker begin in this fashion, Lysias parodies the standard, out-of-the-rhetorical-handbooks opening to a defense speech at a dokimasia trial (Carey 1990: 46 and Harding 1994: 203–204). As an introductory set-piece of self-aware humor, the parody at once makes the defendant a more relatable and likable figure (perhaps even more so because he demonstrates a sense of humor in the face of personal struggles and legal attacks), while the mocking tone also undercuts the seriousness of the proceeding (Albini 1952; Carey 1990). Who needs to pay close attention to the evidence and argument, if the defendant himself is winking at the jury from the outset? While this self-assured claim of gratitude might have come across as sneering mockery to some members of the Council, we should entertain the possibility that certain working-class members appreciated the defendant’s appropriation of elite rhetorical discourse in order to profess pride in offering testimony of his lived experience against the predations of a wealthy challenger (this suggestion aligns with the interpretation of Major 2021). In either interpretation, Lysias clearly leverages rhetorical commonplaces to surprising effect, and thus gives notice to the audience from the opening words of the speech that what they are about to hear will be something new and different.

The incongruity between the identity of the speaker and his opening statement is further emphasized when he boldly asserts that the challenger is motivated by envy (φθόνος) (Carey 1990: 46; Harding 1994: 204; Sanders 2014: 84). According to Aristotle, envy is a psychic pain at the deserved success of another whom we perceive as similar to us (Rhet. 1386b16–20 = 2.9); thus, the emotion often arises between social equals (Rhet. 1387b15–27 = 2.10.; Sanders 2014: 69). In this regard, envy stands in contrast to the related emotions of indignation (pain at another’s ostensibly undeserved success; Rhet. 1386b8–12 = 2.9) and emulation (pain at the success of another motivated not because this person has obtained success, but because we do not possess it ourselves; Rhet. 1388a32–33 = 2.11). It would seem patently absurd that the challenger would envy the defendant. But how could our defendant make the challenger believe that he is better off? The defendant first suggests that the challenger is motivated by a desire for the destitute defendant’s obol pension, but the outlandish nature of this idea is underscored by his sudden breaking off from that line of thought (aposiopesis). The absurdity of the suggestion highlights the defendant’s ultimate conclusion: the root of the challenger’s envy lies in his low and deficient character in comparison to the defendant. The challenger is lying if he claims personal enmity as the cause for the prosecution, the defendant says, given the fact that they have had no prior interactions. This leads the defendant to propose that the challenger ultimately envies him because he, despite his great misfortunes and poverty, is a better citizen than the fortunate and wealthy challenger. It is rather more likely that the challenger, in his speech, attempted to present his anger and pain at the act of the defendant as righteous indignation: the defendant is benefiting undeservedly by collecting a benefit from the state. Lysias, as we have seen, has the defendant recast the challenger’s civic indignation as a maliciously deformed expression of envy from which the members of the Council should recoil in disgust (Sanders 2014, 84-85). Thus, the defense’s surprising claim that envy motivates the challenger allows him, in a single moment, to paint the prosecution as morally corrupt and illegitimate in addition to portraying himself as the victim (Albini 1952: 329; Major 2021: 255).

While humor predominates in the speech’s introduction, it is not wholly without pathos—another key ingredient in Lysias’ rhetorical recipe for argumentative success. The defendant, as a disabled individual, is among those people “whom everyone else pities” (οὓς οἱ ἄλλοι ἐλεοῦσι), a fact that makes the challenger’s envy all the more outrageous. At the close of this introductory section, the defendant arouses the jury’s sympathy and regard when he professes the need for those who live with physical disabilities to hold themselves and their actions to a higher standard (Carey 1990: 47). Indeed, the language Lysias uses to describe the defendant’s physical disability may also effect an identification between speaker and jury. Beyond simply obscuring the type or extent of physical disability, the vague euphemism τὰ τοῦ σωμάτος δυστυχήματα (“misfortunes of the body”), first attested here, allows for easier identification between defendant and jury: everyone can attest to having experienced some form of δυστυχήματα in their life. Altogether, the introduction of the defense speech ends on a much more sincerely emotive tone in comparison to the ironic parody of dokimasia defense speeches at its beginning. Balancing sarcastic humor with pathos, Lysias effectively introduces the character of the defendant and presents to his listeners a microcosm of the rhetorical strategies of the speech as a whole.

  • 1The manuscript tradition preserves a total of five dokimasia speeches composed by Lysias, the most of any surviving Attic orator.
Suggested Citation

Taylor Coughlin, Lysias: For the Disabled Man (Oration 24). Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022 ISBN: 978-1-947822-22-1