Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Dr Jon Hesk

“The IAS and its atmosphere have given me the confidence to develop the cross-disciplinary aspects of my project. ”

Dr Jon Hesk, University of St Andrews

IAS Fellow at Trevelyan College, Durham University (January - March 2016)

Dr Jon Hesk is a Senior Lecturer in Greek and Classical Studies in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. He is a specialist in the literature and cultural history of archaic and classical Greece. He did his undergraduate degree in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1991 he moved to King's College, Cambridge to start his PhD. Following a brief spell as a lecturer at Reading University he was elected to a Research Fellowship at St. John's College, Cambridge (1995-1998). He has been at St Andrews since 1998. In 2003 he was Visiting Scholar in Classics at Wooster College, Ohio.

Dr Hesk’s first book, Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 2000), dealt with the representation and evaluation of deception and lies in the dramatic and prose genres associated with democratic Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The book received very positive reviews internationally and was one of History Today’s ‘commended books’ in 2001. His second book was a detailed study of Sophocles’ Ajax (London 2003). Research for this book was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and has become a standard reference point for students and scholars alike. Dr Hesk has also published numerous chapters and journal articles on Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, the Athenian orators, the scholarly reception of Thucydides and (even) Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line. He also has a blog called ‘Ancient and Modern Rhetoric’, has been known to do podcasts and occasionally writes book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. He has given invited papers at universities in the UK, United States, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Dr Hesk’s more recent work has centred on contradiction at the heart of the Greek city-state: on the one hand, the polis prized creative, entertaining and devastating performances in verbal contests, often conflating the form of an argument with its substance; on the other, the city’s various written and performed genres exhibit the worry that insults, entertaining rhetoric and appeals to tradition or ‘values’ are usurping proper evidence-based proof, policy advice and intellectual argument. He aims to further explore this ‘performance/evidence tension’ and its significance while at Durham. This work will culminate in his third monograph, provisionally entitled Decision-making and evidence in Archaic and Classical Greece: an archaeology of intellectual and discursive virtue. The book will look at representations of, and thought about, what constitutes a good decision and how good decisions get made (or thwarted) in Homeric epic, archaic lyric and classical Greek poetry, drama, philosophy, historiography and oratory. As well as advancing our understanding of the causes and development of ‘evidence-based thinking’ among the ancient Greeks, this book will use the ancient material to contribute to ongoing debates about the character and viability of ‘epistemic democracy’, whether at state and inter-state levels or within organizations.

Public Lecture - Deliberation, decision-making and evidence in Classical Greece

2nd February 2016, 17:30 to 18:30, Sir James Knott Hall, Trevelyan College

The surviving texts of Classical Athens show that its citizens prized creative, enjoyable and devastating performances of verbal contests, often conflating the form of an argument with its substance. On the other hand, this developing democracy worried that insults, entertaining rhetoric and certain kinds of emotional appeal were compromising its processes of deliberation and decision-making. So, the texts of the period also offer illustrations of the need for proper evidence-based proof and for slow, sober and careful reasoning. We have discussion of the dangers of arrogant thinking or hasty judgements in the face of contingency, ambiguity or uncertainty. We have reminders of the importance of the evidence of divine will provided by oracles and omens. This tension between ‘performance’ and ‘evidence’ manifests itself across a variety of genres which were fundamental to Athens’ social, moral, religious and political domains: tragedy, comedy and speeches from trials and political debates It is also confronted in the writings of the period’s great intellectuals (Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle…).

In his lecture, Dr Hesk will show how this performance/evidence tension shaped the classical Greek development and function of key genres and disciplines which we now take for granted: drama, rhetoric, historiography and philosophy. But he will also suggest that these Greek works offer a valuable model for our very current, modern situation . By underlining and exploring the difficulty of achieving virtuous and effective evidence-based decisions - whether collective or individual and whether in public or private domains - the classical Greek material can enrich public and academic debates about who decides what in our own societies. These ancient texts also speak to a key contemporary question: what is the best way to ensure that our deliberations and judgements are informed by relevant knowledge, evidence and testimony, whilst remaining faithful to democratic imperatives?

Listen to the lecture in full.

“The IAS’ modus operandi has encouraged me to think much more broadly about my work and how it speaks to other traditions and disciplines. ”

Dr Jon Hesk, University of St Andrews

IAS Insights Paper


Euripides’ ‘Suppliant Women’ and Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ leadership within the Athenian democracy of 431/430 BCE are good examples of classical Greek texts which ask citizen-audiences to reflect very deeply on the processes by which they come to make political or legislative decisions in a council or assembly. They also stimulate reflection among elite citizens and leaders on their own involvement in such processes. Both texts achieve these forms of reflection by anticipating recent empirical work in sociology, political psychology, ‘behavioural economics’ and cognitive science. These anticipations may reflect an elite ‘paternalistic’ approach to political rhetoric and leadership to an extent. But in the case of the mass art form of Greek tragedy, its dramatization of ‘pathologies’ and ‘errors’ of both mass deliberation and leaders’ responses to them may have contributed to Athens’ relative success as a participatory ‘deliberative democracy’ in which the masses were sovereign.

Insights Volume 10 Article 8