Currently, the historian Thucydides is the object of debate among those within the Trump Administration and its critics, who, like scholars of the last three millennia, focus on lots of differing Thucydidean personas.
Did Thucydides warn in deterministic fashion about ascendant powers like Athens that disrupt the existing order of Sparta and its Peloponnesian League—and thus prompt preventive attacks from established nations (“the Thucydides trap”)?
Is the historian thus a guide to how to handle a rising China? Or did he remind us how wrong-headed (but nonetheless free and correctable) choices can turn a tense situation into a catastrophe?
Was Thucydides, an admiral and man of action, a voice of the aristocratic elite, or sympathetic toward small landowners who were neither oligarchic nor radically democratic?
Translated into modern terms, was he like-minded with the contemporary elite Washington establishment or a likely supporter of what are now the forgotten Red-State middle classes between the coasts?
Did he despise the reckless democracy that exiled him, or develop a grudging respect for its dynamism and powers of recovery from its own self-inflicted wounds—and become especially complimentary of Periclean leaders who can act forcefully within democratic checks and balances?
Some 2,400 years after Thucydides wrote the Peloponnesian War, scholars still argue over why and how he crafted his history.
Unchanging Human Nature and the Thin Veneer of Civilization
Are there, then, any guiding principles in reading his history that are beyond debate and must be respected in all current and often politicized efforts to channel the great historian?
In fact, there are two.
One, Thucydides assumes that human nature remains unchanging and thus he thinks his history will transcend the Peloponnesian War and become “a possession for all time” (ktêma es aei) that can enlighten us about wars and their consequences across time and space. On that score, he was quite right. Today his history is still mined for wisdom about conflict in the present waged by people inherently no different from Spartans and Athenians of the past. Thucydides would approve of his contemporary utility. He certainly did not believe that enlightened intellectuals, with reliance on resources like greater education and wealth, can change the nature of man and thereby always eliminate war through rational compromise and higher wisdom.
Two, Thucydides believes that the veneer of civilization is precious and thus when ripped off—by the plague at Athens, the revolutions at Mytilene and Corcyra, the ultimatums to and dialogue with the Melians, and the expedition to Sicily—man’s innate nature is revealed as savage and reduced to its circumstances. He is of the tragic, not the therapeutic, bent, and at odds with the later Tacitean sense of the noble savage.
On more than one occasion, his speakers remind their audiences that fear, honor, and self–interest motivate states to risk war to acquire and keep an empire. When statesmen pontificate about idealism or noble intentions, Thucydides is ready to differentiate prophasis (pretext) from ulterior or real motive (aitia).
Otherwise, almost everything about the history invokes understandable debate. Thucydides assures us that, when he was not a first-hand witness, he scrupulously used written sources and took great pains to interview the war’s participants to ensure accuracy—even as he admits that on some occasions he put words into the mouths of speakers that he thinks should have been said.
The Many Faces of Thucydides
Does such license make him an analyst or a literary artist—or both? Given there are some 141 speeches (both in direct and indirect discourse) in the history, it is hard to follow his self-described methodology to determine which speeches capture what was actually said and which are embroidered to reflect Thucydides’s own views.
We also know Thucydides was born an aristocrat and that he was likely sent into exile unjustly by populist demagogues, probably spearheaded by the rabble-rouser Cleon.
But before one writes him off as an anti-populist, aristocratic elitist, some of his portraitures of Athenian grandees—Nicias, Alcibiades, Demosthenes—suggest incompetence or instability or both, belying the historian’s supposed bias in favor of the “most influential” or “best” people (hoi dynatotatoi or hoi beltistoi).
In fact, he states that the transitory government in 411 of 5,000 hoplite landowners (“The Five Thousand”) was the “best” of his time, suggesting his sympathies gravitated toward broadly based timocratic government made up of thousands of small property owners—most likely the most common form of government among the some 1,500 of the Greek 5th-century B.C. city-states.
Thucydides’s great strength is his insight into human nature, especially the role of irony, paradox, and unintended consequences—often underappreciated when attempts are made to pigeonhole the historian by class sympathies. The despised demagogue Cleon turns out at Sphacteria to be a competent general. Thucydides formally admired the fabulously rich and pious Nicias, but his narrative reveals him to be otherwise an utter incompetent.
Pericles is effective perhaps because he is neither a traitor to his class nor an aristocratic zealot, but transcends the conditions of his birth. The expedition to Sicily is clearly a bad idea that nevertheless might well have worked had the Athenian dêmos and its generals followed the advice of the architect of the disaster, the flamboyant Alcibiades, who should have never been listened to in advocating the disastrous expedition—and never recalled once he was entrusted with shared command of it.
The Melians are noble victims of Athenian imperial aggrandizement—and yet, due to their leaders’ obdurateness, doom their own to slavery and death—and who seemed on prior occasions to have received fairly tolerable treatment despite being pro-Spartan “neutrals” for the first decade-and-a-half of the war. The “blunter wits” seem to get the upper hand against the sophisticated elite in free-for-all killing such as the stasis at Corcyra.
What is perplexing about Thucydides is the frequency with which his own narrative belies his analyses, leaving us unsure of the historian’s purpose: is he being ironic, obtuse, even handed, or simply sloppy? Pericles is obviously his model of sober and judicious leadership, but the narrative of Thucydides otherwise shows how his disastrous strategy of withdrawing into the walls of Athens prompts a plague that did the most damage to Athens of any catastrophe of the war.
Athens, in Thucydides’s reckoning, could be utterly reckless—and utterly flexible and brilliant in recovering from its own self-inflicted disasters: proof both of the dangerous volatility of direct democracy and its singular resilience in extremis.
Again, there has been criticism that some in the present Trump Administration—as well as its censors—improperly use Thucydides to drive home particular agendas. In general, the more who read the difficult author the better; and while we all should avoid distorting such a classic for particular political views, it is also true that classicists fight over whether he was a scientific historian or a clever postmodernist, a pro-Athenian zealot or an embittered exile, or why he left his history unfinished in mediis rebus (exhaustion, ill-health, death, or simple frustration that during later revision and rewriting unexpected unfolding events were refuting his former grand theses?)
What again about that supposed “Thucydides Trap” in which the historian warns us that the rapid growth in power of upstart states like Athens frightened more established powers and the existing order, which inevitably led to war?
Yet if Thucydides blames the war on Spartan “fear” of a rising Athens, his narrative again offers several examples where both sides could have made agreements to avoid war (especially in the case of Athens). More importantly, Thucydides suggests elsewhere that a land power, and an oligarchic, inward and traditional society like Sparta, would be a natural enemy to a naval power, especially one radically democratic, cosmopolitan, and volatile such as Athens—well apart from any perceptions of relative strength or rivalry.
Ironically Pericles, who advocated a retreat from the countryside inside the walls of Athens, ensured a Spartan invasion by offering no credible deterrent to prevent a Spartan entry into the Attic hinterland.
If there is a Thucydidean lesson about the nature of war, it is not the sober and judicious elite’s trustworthiness over the fickle and volatile masses, but rather the value of mavericks who do not adhere either to Athenian populist or Spartan oligarchic stereotypes.
Supposedly slow-witted Spartans produced three of the most capable strategists of the war—the Rommel-like outsider Brasidas, the mothax (half-breed) non-Spartiate Gylippus, and the poor man Lysander. Athens, supposedly ruined by reckless demagogues was sometimes served well by commoners like Lamachus and Cleon.
The likely reasons why those in the Trump Administration are calling upon Thucydides are not necessarily that they see him as a populist or of a particular political bent similar to their own, or that they envision themselves as plain-speaking Spartans in a world of duplicitous and haughty coastal and cosmopolitan Athenians.
Rather, it is more likely that their affinity is for Thucydidean realism: a certain skepticism that human nature—again as expressed through the tripartite goads of fear, honor or self-interest—is malleable or improvable.
In particular, many of the decisions of the Obama Administration in retrospect seem almost Melian in serial reliance on naiveté and hope (“danger’s comforter”): groundless confidence in the once reset Russians to enforce the Obama “red line” and their promise to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from the Assad arsenal and thus to bring some stability to the nightmare in Syria; misplaced trust that Iran was sincerely becoming a member of the international community and thus shedding its decades-long revolutionary agendas to craft a nuclear Shiite-Persian hegemony in the Middle East; or, finally, belief that an “Arab Spring” had ushered in a grassroots democratic movement that could be accelerated by abrupt changes in U.S. policy toward Egypt and Libya, idealism that would naturally earn respect and gratitude from a new generation of successful Arab reformers. These assumptions of the prior administration were often based on enemies’ prophases rather than aitiai, pretexts of hard-nosed nationalists and zealots that hid their “truest” agendas that were more likely nakedly self-interested.
Finally, Thucydides is among the most difficult of all classical Greek authors to read. It is hard to imagine that his complex speeches were always delivered as he wrote them—as if, in a comparable more modern context, crowds in the Boston Commons could follow the recitation of some of the most obtuse Federalist Papers.
Often Thucydides had to create novel vocabulary and grammatical constructions to allow for the complexity of his thought at a time when formal Attic prose was only a few decades old. These challenges naturally come through in English translations that struggle to reflect the formality of his speeches without seeming incomprehensible to a modern English-speaking audience.
Yet if Thucydides is the most challenging of classical authors, he is often among the most widely referenced, emulated, and quoted by philosophers and politicians, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, when classical scholarship had established reliable texts and exhaustive commentaries.
All that said, perhaps critics cannot quite accept that Trumpians, of all people—professed anti-elitists and alleged denigrators of intellectuals—would intrude into their rarified domain to invoke the exalted Thucydides. And if they dared to do so, rather than encouraged for intellectual curiosity, instead they were to be caricatured as parvenus who must always have gotten their Thucydides wrong.