Press release: Professor Melissa Lane appointed Professor of Rhetoric

Journalists sitting and writing in notepads

Professor Melissa Lane appointed 50th Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College

First series: The Political Imagination: Ancient Greek Ideas

Embargo: 8am Monday 26 June 

Gresham College, a non-degree granting Higher Education Institution that is London’s oldest, is delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Melissa Lane as the 50th Professor of Rhetoric.  

Professor Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University and will hold the Professorship of Rhetoric at Gresham for a fixed term concurrently with her permanent Princeton appointment, as is the norm for Gresham Professors. She is also Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. She was previously a University Senior Lecturer in the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, as well as the Carlyle Lecturer at Oxford, where she will return as the Isaiah Berlin Visiting Professor in Michaelmas 2024. She has published widely on political ideas and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and visiting appointments at Harvard University, Stanford University, and the École Normale Supérieure. She is also a prolific broadcaster and writer in the press and has contributed to 10 In Our Time programmes on BBC Radio 4, as well as authoring a Penguin Pelican volume on Greek and Roman Political Ideas.  

Professor Lane’s specialist area is ancient Greek political thought and she also has expertise in the ethics and politics of climate change. Her latest book, published by Princeton University Press on 20 June 2023, is Of Rule and Office: Plato’s Ideas of the Political. 

Professor Melissa Lane said: “As someone fascinated by the history of political ideas, the lineage of Gresham Professors sharing ideas for free with the public of London (and now the world) for over four hundred years is one I am absolutely delighted and honoured to join. Rhetoric is an ancient Greek word for the practice of persuading through logos, ethos, and pathos. Whether it is understanding the demands of political office or diagnosing why climate change is so hard to address, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle can help us to rethink the ideas we take for granted and so open the way to new political possibilities.”

Professor Martin Elliott, Provost of Gresham College, said: “We are privileged to have appointed Professor Melissa Lane to be the 50th Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. She is an acknowledged expert on the political structures and ideas of ancient Greece, and she will compare and contrast those times with the rather challenging politics of the current era. 

“She will remind us of the origins of political thought and institutions and make us think about what works and what does not. I can’t wait to hear her.”

At Gresham College, Professor Melissa Lane will continue the 426-year-old tradition of delivering free lectures aimed at the public within the City of London and beyond. Gresham College live streams lectures online and delivers them to physical audiences in London, with over 8 million views of lectures online last year. Some 3000 past lectures are freely available to view on the College’s website. Among our famous past Rhetoric Professors are Richard Hughes, Cecil Day-Lewis, Sir Richard Evans and Sir Jonathan Bate. Our outgoing Professor of Rhetoric is Joanna Bourke.

  1. Plato and the Idea of Political Office
    Is politics merely a gaslighting of the oppressed, a cloak for the rulers to exploit the ruled? Plato’s Republic confronted the challenges of political office (archē). By working through the ideas of this dialogue and comparing them to the present day, the lecture offers a new way of understanding the role of officeholders and the ethical demands placed on them. It argues that Plato took the risk of abuse of power far more seriously than has been generally recognised.
  2. Ancient Greek Ideas of Justice
    In the poetry of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, justice (dikē) was a boundary stone marking out terms that rich and poor alike could respect. Yet ancient Greek authors also recognised the danger that the powerful will simply exploit those less powerful, and that Greek societies enforced slavery. This lecture explores ancient Greek aspirations to justice—and how they fell short—as a call for recurrent interrogation of the terms governing power and vulnerability.
  3. Ancient Greek Ideas of Equality under the Law
    The Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has posed the question, ‘equality of what?’ The value of equality depends on what standard is chosen. As ancient Greek thinkers recognised, equality can be deployed to exclude as well as to liberate, and its relationship to law and freedom needs to be interrogated. If equal social freedom is a product of isonomia—the equal application of laws to all—those laws need to be free of systematic bias and command public respect.
  4. Democracy: Ancient Models, Modern Challenges
    Dēmokratia is the power (kratos) of the people (dēmos). But what kind of power, and who constitutes the people? Although ancient democracy is often stylized as “direct democracy” and so positioned as very different from modern “representative democracy,” in fact, issues of accountability are central to both. Ancient Greek models of holding leaders to account are still relevant. Furthermore, the ancient Greek use of election for some offices and lottery selection for others also offers instructive possibilities for modern challenges.
  5. Experts in politics: Lessons from Socrates and Aristotle
    Socrates sought to test the expertise (technē) of everyone around him: the bombastic know-it-alls, the bashful youths, the confident generals, those (including the enslaved) with unsuspected mathematical competence, the workaday artisans. Aristotle later explored the ways in which expert claims can be made credible to popular judgment. This lecture considers the role of experts in contributing to public debate in a democracy, bringing Aristotle's work on rhetoric to bear on norms for expert communication and public debate. 
  6. Plato’s Cave: Thinking about Climate Change
    In the Republic, Plato explores the predicament of the Cave: a passive citizen body, a conniving and self-interested set of sophistic opinion-formers and demagogic political leaders, a systematically misleading and damaging order of political structures and common beliefs and appetites. Does this have lessons for tackling climate change? In clinging to our current way of life and its fossil-fuel infrastructure, are we trapping ourselves in a modern version of Plato’s Cave—and if so, how might we escape?


Note to Editors: 

  1. Further information and photographs from Lucia Graves in the press office: 07799 738 439 or
  2. Press tickets are available for all lectures, please email Lucia to reserve a seat for any of our lectures.
  3. There are over 2,500 free lectures and videos available to watch now on our website.
  4. All our lectures next year are ticketed (free tickets) whether online or in-person and will open at the end of July; in-person booking opens 1 month ahead. 
  5. We have free block School and College bookings for in-person lectures; email if teachers want to book, or to order free paper programmes for your school.
  6. Gresham College’s public lectures in numbers: 8 million views of our lectures in 2021-22, some 47,000 registered audience live/ online attendances of which 7,000from schools.
  7. Read more about Professor Melissa Lane

More about the College’s work: 
A series of six lectures a year is delivered by each of the College’s ten Professors, and usually three lectures by each of our five Visiting Professors. There are a further 40 or so individual lectures from a range of illustrious speakers selected from the worlds of academia, the arts, law, medicine, politics and industry.
In 2023-4 Professor Lane will speak about: The Political Imagination: Ancient Greek Ideas.
This series explores the vocabulary of ancient Greek political ideas which lie at the intersection of rhetoric, philosophy, ethics and politics. The six ideas—political office, justice, equal law, democracy, expertise, and the nature of social growth—are central to the organization of power and the values it might serve. By drawing on Greek literature, history and philosophy to articulate these ideas, and testing them against contemporary dilemmas such as climate change, these lectures will expand listeners' political imaginations.  

Seats and online registration will be open once the new programme is published online late July; you can only book for in-person lectures a month ahead of each lecture, subscribe here to get notifications: