Hybris and the Oxford Bullingdon Club

by Linda Rocchi



They are usually roaming the streets at night. Had you been able to see them in the darkened alleys, you would have recognised them from their dress – almost a uniform. But, even without seeing, you can tell that it’s them as you hear them passing by, staggering about, excessively drunk – and aggressively so. You just know they are about to do something nasty: break something, or beat someone up, or both. And why wouldn’t they? Normal rules, they tell each other, do not apply to them. Their exclusive club has its own rules.

Drunken brawls and elite clubs – the Oxford Bullingdon Club through and through. And yet, this description does not come from a newspaper column devoted to the deeds of the infamous Oxonian dining club, which has been consistently making the headlines, in recent years, primarily because of its connections with prominent members of the Conservative Party, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


This familiar picture is in fact more distant from us, both in time and space: these same ideas of exclusiveness, of extreme licentiousness, of being above the laws are all to be found in the description of aristocratic youth associations outlined by Demosthenes, the fourth-century Athenian politician and orator, in his speech Against Conon.

As painted by Demosthenes, Conon, the defendant, is an interesting figure. Though grown up (“a man over fifty”, according to the speechwriter), he still hasn’t lost his edge: according to Ariston, Demosthenes’ client, who had been beaten up in the Athenian agora by Conon’s son Ctesias, a bunch of Conon’s cronies, and Conon himself on their way back from a drinking party, “the whole business came about at [Conon’s] instigation”

The judges – Ariston argues – should not listen to Conon’s assertion that it had been a scuffle between youths, a petty quarrel between rival gangs that Conon is trying to dismiss with the usual ‘boys will be boys’. The incident, in Demosthenes’ stringent argumentation, is part of a much larger pattern.

While Ariston distances himself from this kind of elite club for rich youths, he goes to great pains to show how Ctesias, and – more significantly – Conon before him, were both knee-deep in this kind of association: clubs with names such as ithyphalloi – ‘the satyrs’ – or autolēkythoi – ‘the wankers’ – or Triballoi – ‘the barbarians’; clubs constantly engaging in all sorts of outrageous and antisocial behaviour, from drinking excessively and causing havoc to profaning all the most sacred rites of the city, from stealing and thrashing to perjuring themselves in court.

But this is not just about the consequences – unpleasant as they might be – that this behaviour might have on individual ‘regular’ citizens. These associations do not simply allow young aristocrats to let off steam – they instil and enforce in these youths a set of norms which is antithetical to that of the city, and actively teach them to value these norms above all others. Socialised in this way, young aristocrats learn to behave according to their peers’ expectations and to despise all those who do not meet their standards, who fall short of their idea of what ‘honourable behaviour’ is. In other words, they think they are better than others, and that there’s no need to abide by the rules that others abide by: they measure the world according to the parameters of their in-group and treat with contempt those who do not.

And this is precisely what Ariston has in mind when repeatedly accusing Conon of hybris [see here and here]: it is not so much the blow that is worrying – even though it is, and having been beaten up is enough in itself to seek and obtain justice – but rather the reason why the blow was struck.

Conon beat Ariston and stole his cloak because of his aggrandised perception of his own worth as opposed to that of others: he did it just because he thought he could, and he thought he could because those who do not belong to his group, to him, are not entitled to any kind of respect. This cocksure attitude had been performed by Conon and reinforced by his peers since their very youth – and was there to stay.

These – Ariston seems to be saying – are not youthful bravados, something which, later in life, can be dismissed, in the words of our Prime Minister, as “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness”. 

These are permanent dispositions that not only clash with the values of the community – they will eventually be harmful to the community itself. Exclusive upper-class clubs, antisocial behaviours, a complete disconnection from the life of regular citizens, and a conviction that rules that apply to others do not apply to them. When these are the main tenets of the ruling class’ education and socialisation, the gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could not become greater. And when these tendencies go unchecked, it comes as no surprise that, for instance, a former member of one of these clubs, after having suspended Parliament, had to be reminded by the former Justice Secretary that the rule of law does apply to him, too – and not just to the “fucking plebs”.

Demosthenes, then, might have had a point when arguing that these associations were potentially dangerous not only for individuals, but for democracy as a whole. I fear that, over the next weeks, months, and years, we may have ample opportunity to find this out for ourselves.

Linda Rocchi

Featured images (via Wikimedia Commons):

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