The Eyes of Argos


“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]

In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.

What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted?

Argos was the watcher whose alert eyes looked every way and by extension subjected his object of attention to close scrutiny. The elected representatives of the people, as Ober notes, are likely themselves to be elites who are prone “to promote elite interests against the common interests of the demos.”[ii] Zeus sent Hermes to slay Argos. Hermes, disguised as a shepherd, put Argos to sleep with charming speech and then struck him dead with a stone. Sans public scrutiny, the strong possibility exists “that a political class might coordinate to capture the government, becoming a de facto tyrant.”[iii]

Lee Hamilton, who retired in 1999 after 34 years of service as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 9th Congressional district of Indiana, warns that the voice of the people does not resound strongly in Congress today. Representative democracy “is being undermined by the rising power of big money.” What kind of reform does he have in mind?

  1. We need “a robust, comprehensive system of civic education designed to produce an engaged, informed electorate able to sort fact from fiction in a complicated world. We want citizens who know how to maintain healthy skepticism and wariness about elected officials and who have the knowledge and confidence to hold them accountable.”
  2. We need to remedy “partisan gerrymandering [which] has become a scandal”; we need to “expand voter participation and fight efforts to repress votes”; and “we need to make it easier for third parties to break into the system.”
  3. “Greater transparency for those in power or those seeking to influence those in power truly matters . . . in any self-respecting representative democracy.”
  4. “Congress needs to revitalize the institution itself,” no longer allowing legislation to be crafted behind closed doors.

Such changes can only come about by citizen action, Hamilton concludes.[iv]

What will awaken the slumbering citizenry, the closed eyes of Argos, to exercise vigilance and invoke its authority? Or is Argos already dead to the demos in our time of plutocracy, requiring us to find alternative ways of exercising the sovereignty of the people?


[i] Josiah Ober, Demopolis (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 130.

[ii] Ober, Demopolis, 155.

[iii] Ober, Demopolis, 132.

[iv] Lee Hamilton, “People Will Have to Demand that Congress Reform Its Ways,” Hoosier Times, December 10, 2017, E5.

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