Reading Thucydides at 40,000 Feet

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III

I have traveled a lot recently. Work stuff, mainly. But in the last two weeks I have spent about 40 hours in the air and a similar amount of time waiting (sometimes unexpectedly) in airports. It’s a living.

I don’t like flying, but I love reading, and there is no better place to do it than in the air, where most of the things that distract me from reading aren’t there (not a single one of these flights had Wi-Fi, belive it or not). Usually I use the time in the air to read the sorts of books that I feel slightly embarrassed about—mystery novels, science fiction books, thrillers. I read all four of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books on airplanes. I don’t usually admit that.

This time, though, I read a good book. A very good book. One of those books that you always knew you should have read in college but never quite got around to it. Specifically, I read The History of the Peloponnesian War by the Greek historian Thucydides. This classic history recounts the events of the 25-year war (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta (and their allies throughout the Greek world) that resulted in Athens losing most of its power and prominence, fundamentally changing the world. And yeah, I had never read it before. Don’t judge.

So much of what Thucydides wrote seems relevant today that I found myself wanting to take copious notes in the margins, only to be frustrated by the fact that Kindles don’t have margins. So I took notes on everything I could find, including one hapless airsick bag that will never know vomit. Since coming home, I have been trying to structure my own insights into categories, which I represent below as oversimplified bumper-sticker quotations of the sorts that got Athens into trouble in the first place.

Here are just a few things I learned from Thucydides over the past few weeks. Four to be exact, which makes for an entirely-too-long blog post, but it barely scratches the surface of this work of infinite depth. So here they are:

None of us is as dumb as all of us.
I doubt that anyone can get all the way through The Peloponnesian War with respect for democracy completely intact. It is hard to even consider it a good idea. Throughout the war, the great Athenian democracy basically votes itself off of a cliff. The people continue to vote for new battles and new expeditions, even when it becomes clear that the empire is overextended. Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration in Book I outlines the basic ingredients of the pro-war speeches throughout the war: 1) praise fallen soldiers and swear that they will not have died in vain; 2) assert the cultural and moral exceptionalism of the people of Athens; and 3) say “freedom” a lot; and 4) subtly (and not so subtly) question the patriotism of anybody who disagrees with you.

But it would be inaccurate to say that bad leaders manipulate the people in a democracy. This gets the Horace before Descartes. It works the other way around: narrow, shallow, self-interested people in a democracy reward with great power the leaders who tell them what they want to hear—those who confirm their prejudices and encourage their excesses. It is through a process of natural selection that democracy selects bad leaders, or, even more disastrously, forces good leaders (and Pericles was among the best) to say bad and stupid things. The greatest problem with democracy–and Thucydides completely nails it—is that it gives us what we actually want and forces us to endure the government we deserve.

War is depressingly easy to sell.
To me, Thucydides’ most affecting passages are in Book Six: the great general Nicias, having concluded a peace with Sparta after ten years of constant warfare (421 BCE), is chosen by the people to be one of three generals in an Athenian expedition to conquer Syracuse and expand the empire. Nicias argues passionately against the military venture. He tells the Athenians that it will be expensive, that their supply lines will be overextended, that any gains they made would be difficult to hold, and that they would drive Syracuse into the arms of Sparta in a renewed conflict.

After he speaks, the much younger Alcibiades rouses the crowd into a fury by appealing to their belief in their inherent superiority and promising them that conquest will enhance their prestige and their treasury. He questions Nicias’s competence and his patriotism and renews the crowd’s support for what will prove a disastrous war. The Athenians launch a war of conquest, create a new set of enemies, and are utterly defeated, crippling their ability to defend themselves against Spartan attacks. And Alcibiades, the great patriot who made the war inevitable, switches sides and tells Sparta how to capitalize on Athens’ mistake.

If we want to have a democracy, instead of an anarcho-capitalistic oligarchy lead by demagogues and war profiteers, we have to realize that, as frightened, greedy little mammals with an evolutionary predisposition to tribal aggression, we have a strong predisposition to give our votes to those with a vested interest in keeping us perpetually at war.

Friends matter. A lot.
Hundreds of city-states took part in the war as part of either the Peloponnesian League lead by Sparta or the Delian League lead by Athens. The Athenians presented the war as a conflict of ideologies—Athens on the side of democracy and human rights and Sparta on the side of tyranny and militarism. But Athens did not treat their allies as partners in democracy and human rights. They did not treat them as allies at all, but as conquered provinces. Consequently, Athens spent as much of their blood and treasure trying to keep its client states from rebelling and denying them tribute as they did fighting Sparta.

One of the most stunning passages in the work is the Melian Dialogue, which was almost certainly the invention of Thucydides, but which captures what he saw as the Athenian’s disastrous employment of hard-fisted realpolitik in a war that was supposed to be about ideology. Melos, a Spartan colony, has tried to remain neutral during the war. Athens wants them as their “ally.” Here is their pitch:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Implicit in this retort is the ultimate fate of Athens, when they are defeated by Sparta and therefore become “the weak” who have to submit (though Sparta does not execute all of the men and sell the women and children into slavery, which is precisely what Athens does to Melos). The war would have had a very different outcome if Athens’ “allies” had in fact been allies and not conquered people looking for ways to throw off the Athenian yoke. If the Athenians had treated their friends as friends, they would not have ended up with so many enemies.

Just because you can see the trains doesn’t mean you can stop the wreck.
Thucydides’ History ends abruptly in 411 BCE. It does not include the end of the war, the ultimate Spartan victory, or the subjugation of Athens. But nobody who reads all eight books of The Peloponnesian War could possibly be surprised by the outcome. It is all encoded into the story. From the very beginning. It was clear (to me at least) that Thucydides—who had been exiled from Athens but was still very much an Athenian—could see the end of the war but could do absolutely nothing to stop it. And this is scary, because it means that no amount of foresight, knowledge, or insight into human nature can stop a democratic people from voting for their own demise or choosing leaders who appeal to and confirm the baser angels of their nature.

These are just a few thoughts on a great work—not particularly deep thoughts, or even original ones, but mine nonetheless. In the end, I think, it was W.H. Auden (of course) who best analyzed both the insights of Thucydides and the ultimate inability of those insights to protect us. He did so in his masterful poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of the Second World War:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the cogent insights. (Too bad they have no obvious relevance to us today….) In college I took a Thucydides class, but we were reading the Greek so we only read a small fraction of the work.

  2. Rachel Whipple says:

    I don’t know if it is a thorn or a balm to know that knowledge of where we’re going is not enough to change our destination. Politics, global warming: we know we need to change but we are either too lazy or too impotent to do so.

  3. Not really relevant to your larger point, Mike, but the opening paragraph reminded me of 1820s America, specifically, James Madison. There is no cult of Madison, as there is for say, Washington, or Jefferson. Yet Madison was as important in a documentary sense as anyone in the early republic. But this phrase struck home: ” ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any.” Madison tried to lead by consensus as President. But his contemporaries saw him as indecisive. And he was simply unwilling to take some visionary steps. I suppose, as usual, we need balance.

  4. Thanks. Of course I’m subject to confirmation bias, where the modern back and forth on Thucydides (whom I haven’t read myself) seems to be that the history of Athens and Sparta tells us that war with China–as the rising power Sparta analog–is almost inevitable (see “Destined for War, America, China and the Thucydides Trap,” by Graham Allison) vs the United States–the current empire Athens analog–is at risk of forcing an ultimately self-defeating war with [China] (see critique of Allison by Arthur Waldron, citing “the two greatest classicists of the last century, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard, [who] long ago proved that no such thing exists as the “Thucydides Trap.”) I’m strongly inclined toward the latter, and your reading is supportive.

  5. Christian, yeah, I don’t find Allison’s thesis compelling. He takes a single sentence out of context from the first few pages and uses it to try to map a few situational analogies between Athens and Sparta, on one hand, and the US and China (and actually, in his reading, the US is Sparta in this analogy, which was the more established power, and China is Athens, the up-and-coming economic and military power).

    There is a Thucydides Trap, but it has nothing to do with the economic situation of various military powers. It is a trap that lies deep in human nature, which is, on one hand, tribal, aggressive, and selfish, and, on the other hand, too limited and short sighted to correctly perceive its own interests. We don’t go to war because upcoming powers challenge established powers. We go to war because we are warlike and self-interested creatures who are spectacularly bad at assessing our actual self-interest. That’s the trap that (as I see it) Thucydides exposes.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Oh, Alcibiades…

  7. Jason, are you familiar with Robin Waterfield’s argument in _Why Socrates Died?_ that the trial of Socrates was directly tied to his association–romantic and intellectual–with Alcibiades, whom the Athenians blamed (not without reason) for their defeat in the war? Since Alcibiades had already been assassinated, they couldn’t kill him, so they went for his mentor/lover instead.

  8. FarSide says:

    Though Allison may strain in his efforts to equate the U.S.-China relationship to Sparta and Athens, his analysis and recommendations are not without merit. And he does readily concede that there is no episode in history that fully parallels the changing dynamics in the Pacific in the 21st century.

    Nevertheless, the lessons he draws from the mistakes made by other nations in related circumstances, combined with the importance he attaches to each side: (i) clarifying their vital interests, (ii) addressing the operational deficiencies in their respective governments, (iii) making an effort to understand what motivates the behavior of your counterpart, and (iv) engaging in long-term strategic thinking, if not original ideas, are nevertheless worthy of serious consideration, especially since they appear to have been forgotten by the current administration in Washington as well as that of his immediate predecessors. I would not be so quick to dismiss his work.

  9. You are giving me fresh inspiration. I bogged down around page 100 (am trying to finish a different hefty tome at the same time). Excelsior!

  10. Alcibiades is one of history’s great villains. Pity Shakespeare never tackled him.

    As a kid, I was always taught that Athens was noble and good and Sparta was evil (probably out of Cold War thinking). Reading Thucydides was a startling experience, in that as screwed up as the Spartans were, the Athenians were actually worse.

    Also, Thucydides was the true Father of History, Herodotus was the Father of Making Stuff Up (or the Father of Recording Folk Tales, if one is feeling generous).

  11. This gets the Horace before Descartes

    Oh, ouch. :)

    As I walked the streets of Siracusa (ancient Greek Syracuse) during my mission in Sicily, I often wished I had remembered more, or learned more, of that history. There are many street names that reflect the ancient Greek history (including a Via Alcibiade), and the Duomo (cathedral church) is built on/inside an ancient Greek temple. The amphitheatre is beautiful. The city is built of white sandstone.

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