Travels in the twilight of Western civilization

Peloponnesian war theme

How I came back to Thucydides

What follows here is not an essay or thesis, but a far less structured collection of observations, recollections, and meandering thoughts collected in my longhand journals through the late antipodean summer, autumn, and winter of 2020. The coronavirus isolation season in Brisbane. I typed up the longhand entries as I had time or inclination, with integrating commentary for the disparate entries as it came to me at the keyboard.

We don’t start with Thucydides at all, but with Alain de Botton, and Seneca.

February 2020: de Botton and Seneca enter stage right | Seneca on anger | March 2020: Thucydides makes headlines again 2400 years later | Who is Thucydides to me?

February 2020: de Botton and Seneca enter stage right

In the middle of a still sweltering late Brisbane summer, with the country not quite out of its bushfire inferno, we were entering the coronavirus pandemic, almost as if seamlessly swapping disasters to make it one long era of them, with a great economic depression sure to follow.

I was talking to a close friend, as we occasionally do, about the bigger picture issues, when she impressed upon me a podcast on stoicism by Alain de Botton.

I must confess I have a shallow knowledge of either. De Botton always struck me as a marginal figure in philosophy, probably more because my interest and knowledge is marginal rather than because of any failing by him. And stoicism always struck me as a weak and sickly kind of surrender to Christian cowardice (turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar), probably because I never read any of the Stoics.

So, what came out of the conversation with my friend was my own belated admission that my frequent and quickly ignited anger, now metastasized into the chronic illness of hypertension, might bear some philosophical therapy by way of learning from the Stoics. A very practical approach to philosophy, the way de Botton seemed concerned to make it accessible to an imagined everyman.

I didn’t see the podcast. I have a low tolerance for the time consuming and inevitably padded out performance aspect of videos made for an increasingly illiterate audience. But in an interview with the Daily Stoic website (apparently a commercial venture to popularize stoicism!!!!), de Botton made some comments that weren’t entirely inane, the way this can happen when academic, professional philosophers lose themselves in the minutiae of angels on pinheads.

Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves, to be more independent. … Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical–rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.

We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.

That’s why we need to examine our own minds.

We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others. In a consumer society, we make the wrong choices because, guided by false glamour, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things – like going for a walk, tidying a cupboard, having a structured conversation or going to bed early – which may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

Occasionally certain emotions – certain kinds of anger, envy or resentment – lead us into serious trouble. Philosophers teach us to think about our emotions, rather than simply have them. By understanding and analysing our feelings, we learn to see how emotions impact on our behaviour in unexpected, counterintuitive and sometimes dangerous ways.

… Aristotle tried to make us more confident around big questions. He thought that the best questions were those that ask what something is for. He did this a lot and over many books, asked: What is government for? What is the economy for? What is money for? What is art for? Today he would be encouraging us to ask questions like: What is the news media for? What is marriage for? What are schools for? …

Also active in Ancient Greece were the Stoic philosophers, who were interested in panic. The Stoics noticed a really central feature of panic: we panic not just when something bad occurs, but when it does so unexpectedly, when we were assuming that everything was going to go rather well. So they suggested that we should arm ourselves against panic by getting used to the idea that danger, trouble and difficulty are very likely to occur at every turn.

These snippets really do chime with my own thinking and experiences about the utility of philosophy, even if I am more interested in pragmatic approaches to political economy and individual resistance to populism and authoritarianism.

The discussion of ideas should help to enlighten us about defining our own ends, and understanding our own reactions enough to control them, rather than to be controlled by someone else manipulating us through pushing our buttons.

And the paragraph on the Stoics did kindle an interest. Enough to make me find an load onto my bedside tablet some translations of Seneca, a principal Roman Stoic.

 

Seneca’s forte was to preach self-abnegation without practicing it.

A chronological order of his works is not available, as surviving manuscripts weren’t dated. Academics disagree on likely publication years. I decided to please myself with the reading order and started in on a collection called Anger, Mercy, Revenge. How could I resist that title? It’s the 2010 Chicago University Press edition with translations by Robert A Kaster and Martha C Nussbaum of De Ira (Of Anger), De Clementia (Of Clemency/Mercy), and Apocolocyntosis Claudii (Gourdification/Pumpkinification of Claudius). Yep. Pumpkinification! It was a satirical retrospective of the emperor Claudius after he had been deified. The god Claudius as gourd or pumpkin. I’m sure that would have been funny at the time. And safe … after his death.

Informative though the scholarly introduction has been, already I have some doubts about Seneca.

Stoicism is described as the insane belief that goodness and virtue in life are attained only by avoiding and suppressing human passions! It’s the Vulcan manual on being logical arseholes. The Stoics believed that thinking and acting without passion would make them more nearly like the gods. I can’t really work out why, since both Greek and Roman fables are littered with stories of the gods acting with petulance, anger, jealousy, and spite.

Today, if anyone proposed to me seriously a living philosophy based on dehumanizing oneself, I would regard that person with some suspicion about sanity, and the endeavour itself as adolescent, without a shred of evidence that it would make me ‘happier’, more ‘virtuous’, or more ‘god-like’.

However, it was this passing similarity to Dark Ages and Mediaeval Christianity (self-abnegation) that led the Christians in Rome to fake a correspondence between Seneca and St Paul, arguing that for a heathen, Seneca came close to embodying Christian virtues. Today we know that’s an unlikely confluence, and that Christian virtues were sociopathic in theory, made bearable only as hypocrisy in practice … by removing all their saintly aspects.

Seneca was far from saintly in his life. He was tasked with rendering oratorical and rhetorical defenses of assassinations by Nero and his mother, Agrippina, who was eventually also murdered at her son’s behest.

Seneca became enormously wealthy for his collaboration with the homicidal maniacs who ruled Rome in his times. As wealthy as modern-day billionaires! Though his explanation for this unseemly wealth isn’t bad:

The wise man would not despise himself, even if he were a midget; but he would rather be tall.

Yep. I get it. Poverty might sound like a fine virtue to those who aren’t poor, but wealth doesn’t necessarily turn people into arseholes, even if that correlation seems to apply in most instances.

Whatever the case may be, Seneca has acquired a reputation as a grand hypocrite, most notably for his apparent collaboration in the Neronic purges of Roman aristocrats. Unsettlingly, I can almost see my former profession as spin doctor in Seneca’s transgressions, even if I was never paid nearly as well as he, and was also not ordered by my boss to commit suicide at the end of that career.

Incidentally, as an aside that came to me quite powerfully, during many readings of Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince), academic commentators made quite a bit of mileage wondering about Machiavelli’s use of the word ‘virtù’, theorizing about meanings as diverse as Christian character, statesman-like intuitions, an instinct for apt self-promotion, skillful removal of one’s opponents, astute management of money and other resources, and many more ‘leaderly’ qualities.

When reading about Seneca’s conception of virtue, most likely being the display of educated and gentlemanly reserve, it suddenly seemed likely the same meaning might have been intended by Machiavelli. In the context of his own times, of course, and without pretense at any rhetorical hypocrisy about the infamously bad behavior of the powerful people in his world.

It seems very likely that Machiavelli would have read Seneca (he referred to reading him as a kid in his later letters). While Machiavelli doesn’t cite Seneca often, there does seem to be a similar concern to advise political masters of the ‘virtues’ of moderation; a tyrannical reputation is always less of an asset than the reputation of a wise, even if stern, leader.

Neither Seneca nor Machiavelli really urged leaders to be saintly. Just not needlessly brutal, as seems to have been the trend for the majority of them in both timelines.

 

Academic consensus today is that Seneca might have the reputation of a Stoic only because earlier writings by the Greek originators of Stoicism are scarce, and Seneca cites them more often than other authorities. He was less a codifier of Stoic principles than a pragmatic observer of how some of those principles might be applied and adapted to the exigencies of life in a Rome under the rule of homicidal psychopaths. Seneca’s Rome under Claudius, Agrippina, and Nero. A milieu not at all dissimilar to Trump’s imperial America, Johnson’s sinking Britain, or Morrison’s failing attempt to make Australia a deep south state of the USA.

That’s a major motivator to keep reading Seneca, even if I already know that I reject the ‘therapy’ of removing myself from the sources of anger. This is impractical claptrap for any but the most wealthy of people, who actually have the means to shut out society and live comfortably in spite of it.

But then, that was precisely Seneca’s intended audience: Rome’s patrician class of immensely wealthy and privileged men, lording it over slaves and plebeians alike, with the power of life and death, which they exercised rather too casually.

 

I suppose that my existing philosophical position on anger is ambiguous. One the one hand I think it can be very useful in driving creativity and dissenting opinions. On the other hand, I know I suffer from hypertension, which is definitely not healthy. So, if Seneca has any advice that might help me prevent the artery-busting, futile kind of anger, I’m all ears. The prospect of advice is heightened by talk among academics about the ‘therapy’ Seneca offered: habits and practices to keep anger at bay, like a Roman ‘shrink’, counselling select sadists, mass murderers, tyrants, and assorted other sociopaths.

I’m in good company, then.

The introduction for Of Anger is littered with philosophical hair splitting about syllogisms and logical contradictions. These often don’t have any practical application at all. I prefer to keep an eye on the Stoic principles Seneca invokes, and how he deals with them in light of the Rome in his times.

Seneca writes that anger and revenge are often tied together, and that while initial anger may be involuntary, the urge for revenge is definitely within our power to control. I’m not quite with him on the involuntary part. Anger seems recognizable enough to me, and therefore as controllable as revenge.

Seneca seems conventionally smart enough to seek to moderate revenge, because it always comes with damaging consequences, exacerbating the wreckage already left behind by psychologically disturbed aristocrats imposing their notions of vengeance.

That seemed to have been foremost in Seneca’s mind when he wrote On Anger: containing the dreadful damage done by powerful sociopaths unable or unwilling to control their tantrums. Making it seem like a virtue to contain that psychopathic urge to inflict pain and death on real and imagined enemies.

In his introduction to On Anger, translator Robert Kastner ventured:

Only very rarely is moral argument offered as therapy to counter the cultural value placed on revenge: there is the thought, first importantly advanced by the Socrates of Plato, that it is worse for one to do wrong than to suffer it; and—for the space of a paragraph late in Book 2—there is the Stoic doctrine that revenge is contrary to human nature.

That goes with Seneca’s assertion that it is natural for people to seek their own advantages, but that they were wrong to reason from this that anger is a natural impulse, and that therefore seeking redress for the cause of anger through revenge is a natural human impulse.

This is where I part company with Seneca, and many other people. I never seek ‘natural laws’, nor to derive any fixed principle from a natural law or a commandment.

My position is that we make our own purposes. It is roughly the position described by Jean Paul Sartre in his lecture Existentialism and Humanism (see my discussion of that here). People cannot locate any excuse or justification in some higher power for making their own rules. That also means they don’t need any permission to do so.

What does that mean for anger and revenge? From my vantage, anger and its outcomes, including revenge, aren’t really governed by any valid absolutes. Probably not even under law, though failure to obey the law comes with consequences no one can really wish away or defy. So, my position is that anger and revenge should be judged in context. I personally have indulged both anger and revenge. With some regrets and some satisfaction on different occasions.

It will be interesting to see how I can stack up my experiences next to Seneca’s advice.

 

After all the serious and scholarly talk of the preface and the introduction for On Anger, I was surprised to be immersed in a Senecan prose not really hinted at by the scholars. It seemed that the scholars were resting on a very literal interpretation of his meaning, even after implying he was a pragmatist trying to apply Stoicism to realistic situations in the society he saw around himself. What they didn’t say was that Seneca might have regarded his society to have been led by a bunch of murderous psychopaths who never grew out of adolescent petulance and temper tantrums.

So, for now I will try to ignore the scholarly commentary to see what I might make of Seneca without the influence of other people.

You could see Seneca’s exaggerated physical descriptions of anger as rhetorical hyperbole. To make a point. But when he goes on to describe the consequences of that anger, I started thinking along different lines.

When you put together descriptions of boars stamping the ground in beastly displays of anger with descriptions of the annihilation of grudging warfare, based on real examples, what do you get?

With regard now to its damaging effects: no pestilence has been more costly for the human race. Butchery and poisoning, suits and countersuits, cities destroyed, entire nations wiped out, leading citizens sold on the auction block, dwellings put to the torch, then the blaze, unchecked by the city walls, turning vast tracts of land bright with the attacking flame.

I think Seneca was alluding not to anger in its normative contemporary sense, but as petulant temper tantrum by powerful men and women who grew up in such privileged positions that having slaves killed and inflicting vicious punishments on plebeians was normal, and not outgrown in adulthood. Meaning grown men and women in high positions of influence and power continued to act with the cruelty and vindictiveness of adolescents in the fugue state of uncontrolled temper tantrum. And with increasingly severe consequences.

If I’m right, Seneca’s aim in addressing anger was actually to address petulant temper tantrums by the patrician class, and his advice to suppress the passions was actually only advice to moderate brattish lack of self-control in wreaking havoc through the command of assassins and entire armies.

Rome under Caligula, Agrippina, and Nero must have been a terrifying place where no one was safe because there was no logic or rationality attached to finger-pointing and purges. If you were family to a condemned man, no matter how remote from the source of the denunciation, you could end up dead as well, or sold into slavery. And it wasn’t just patricians who were in danger. As a slave or peasant, you would have your fate dictated by your master’s enemies after he was dead, and his estates were being divided, like the kill from a hunt among the hunters.

It is said Seneca himself was massively rewarded with a share of dead men’s property after writing the rhetorical justifications for their murders. His wealth has been estimated at between 400 million and 500 million Sesterces-billions of dollars in contemporary terms. He knew precisely where that wealth came from.

So why argue against the lack of moderation and self-control that generated this wealth for him? For one, it was regarded as fitting for a man like Seneca, tutor to the child Nero, to talk philosophy and virtue.

For another, while he clearly enjoyed his wealth, he might well have anticipated his own turn to be at the wrong end of the fateful finger-pointing.

March 2020: Thucydides makes headlines again 2400 years later

My night-time reading is slow these days, my eyes glazing over into sleep pretty quickly. So I didn’t really get much further with Seneca when I was distracted by an Atlantic article on Thucydides and the Athenian plague of 430-429 BCE.

Resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, Katherine Kelaidis’s ‘What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now’ follows Thucydides’ own conclusions about the devastating Athenian plague, to which he was not immune, that a society in which misdeeds and ethical turpitude were merely hidden from view might collapse into an openly dissolute state when driven by a disaster like the epidemic.

This is not the right time for a pandemic. Not that there is a right time for a pandemic, but some times are definitely the wrong one. And no time is worse than when a nation is already in crisis, when trust in its leaders and itself is already low. A time when international relations are strained and internal strife widespread. Basically, if the social and moral fiber of a society are already being tested, the widespread fear of death at the hands of an invisible killer makes everything exponentially worse.

It’s hard not to agree about this assessment of a sane and rational American perspective. Looking at it with Australian eyes is not much better. Our government and dominant culture are about mean–spirited selfishness, intolerance, anti–intellectualism, and worrying levels of support for cretinist superstitions. Our foreign policy is dictated by the USA, given we have no ministers who aren’t entirely clueless about Asia, and provincially racist against Asians (and everyone else who is not a WASP).

As a matter of interest, I looked up the facts on the Athenian plague elsewhere. The city-state’s population of between 250,000 and 300,000 was reduced by a third. That’s like 2.8 million New Yorkers dying by the end of 2021. The dead included the reputedly preeminent statesman of the age, Pericles. It’s speculated that the plague was smallpox, but typhus and bubonic plague are also candidates given the description of symptoms Thucydides and others wrote about.

Kelaidis’s conclusion about a society ravaged by the nihilism of Trump, and now facing an enemy that just cannot be politicized the way Republicans have politicized everything else, also seems compelling:

Already in a time of war and upheaval, when [Athenians] started to die from a disease they had never seen before, they abandoned the values that had been at the heart of their ability to govern themselves. They failed in their responsibility to one another because they no longer believed that it mattered. Everything that had come before the crisis and everything that happened during it conspired to give them this belief.

It’s a bleak vision of collapsed democracy in the USA. And maybe elsewhere too. Sadly, though, I think this collapse is already in train, and has been for a while. Whether a pandemic will hurry it along or not will forever be academic, because we will never find out how things might have been without the coronavirus.

I’m not sure how the Kelaidis article led me to a much earlier one, but it did. This time it was a 2017 editorial in the Financial Times by News Corporation gadfly Matthew C Klein, denouncing the misappropriation of Thucydides by Harvard historian Graham Allison to advance the intellectually adolescent ‘Thucydides trap’ proposition, allied to a fashionable American, Sinophobic, ignorant historical determinism.

It’s not that I really care too much about American armchair foreign policy thinking. Especially not if it emanates from Harvard, but the acid tone used by Klein served to remind me of my own faded interest in the ancient history of the West. And what it means to me today.

Klein castigated a cast of clowns, including James Mattis, HR McMaster, Michael Anton, Steve Bannon, and most especially, Allison, author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap.

To understand what that was all about, you might nod along to Klein’s conspicuously arrogant denunciation of people with shallow understandings of Thucydides, or none at all, but still proposing the delusional opinion that a quote here and there is all you need to know (the way Rupert Murdoch regularly misquotes Adam Smith, and understands nothing about the man or his work).

Klein doesn’t really explain what he, or anyone, means by ‘Thucydides trap’, nor really why he thinks the idea is artless. Instead he points us to others who reviewed Allison’s book. A lazy way of handing off real explanations while indulging himself in some intellectual masturbation about his own superior education.

So, what is this trap? In Allison’s imagination, it is a determinism that any rising power threatening to displace an existing great power will inevitably cause war. An idea he took from Thucydides’ observation that ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.’ Allison bashed a number of square pegs into round holes in order to establish his thesis as a cookie–cutter template, turning history into foregone conclusions, the way Harvard MBAs turned cretinized, formulaic management practices into global financial crisis and bottomless amorality.

What interested me most about Klein’s attack on Allison was what I considered to be a common-sense observation:

Absorbing his [Thucydides’] analysis uncritically would be comparable to learning about the wars in mid-20th century Southeast Asia solely by reading Kissinger’s memoirs. Thucydides is an incredibly valuable source, but he should not be the last word.

Classicists and historians of ancient Greece have long distinguished between the “news” sections of Thucydides, such as his descriptions of battles and speeches, and the “editorial” bits, where he makes grand pronouncements about why things happened a certain way or inserts his own judgments. As sometimes happens in contemporary publications, a close reading of the facts reported in the “news” sections can lead to interpretations directly opposed to those presented in the “editorials”.

After reading about the Thucydides trap, I was reminded yet again that there are quite a number of nominally educated people, and many more entirely ignorant ones, who couldn’t muster common sense if it bit them in the genitalia. In the USA, it seems, partisan politics infects every aspect of life, including interpretations of history.

And while thinking that, I wondered how delusional had been my own interpretations of Thucydides’ account 40 years ago, when I first read the whole thing. I Think it was the Benjamin Jowett translation of 1900, but I can’t be sure after all this time. Klein wrote of Thucydides:

He was the first revisionist historian, determined to acquit Pericles and his fellow elites for starting and losing the war. To do this, he blamed impersonal historical forces and the ignorant rabble.

I do remember, in 1980, wondering how trustworthy Thucydides was as an observer. Even back then I was suspicious about the ‘big men of history’ explanations for events which I was aware were much more likely to be found in political economy than personalities. I say aware, because my understanding of political economy was marginal at that time.

Klein pointed us to historian Arthur Waldron’s shredding of Allison’s book, in which he blames American ignorance of China and all it represents rather than the author’s own imbecility for the silly determinism preached in Destined for War. And that’s where I started in 1980: trying to understand the interaction of factors in fifth century BCE Greece, including but exceeding the events mentioned by Thucydides, that just didn’t make sense to me. Because I did not understand the local and historical contexts. Fortunately today scholars of the period have access to the marvellous, handsomely annotated and illustrated 1996 Robert Strassler edition of The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. It complements Thucydides’ text with maps and images, footnotes and entire chapters in addendums of background information that would otherwise be quite time consuming to locate and condense.

I wonder whether Allison had read this edition. Probably not, given his singular re–interpretation of what was already a revisionism. I chuckled, in this context, about Klein’s dig at Trump foreign policy advisor (is that an oxymoron?) Michael Anton for favouring the Thomas Hobbes translation. Klein didn’t say it, but is Anton’s sole familiarity with Thucydides down to a brief look at a Gutenberg text file? That seems very Trump. Condensing an entire work to a single tweet, and infallibly getting it wrong.

Whatever the case may be for and against Allison’s book, what’s relevant here is that I switched my bedtime reading from Seneca to The Landmark Thucydides.

Who is Thucydides to me?

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Athenian gold miner, general, exile, and historian, Thucydides, son of Olorus, (c. 470–400BCE) has a special place among the intellectual furniture of my mind. I studied him as part of my high school ancient history syllabus forty years ago.

It seems a shame we don’t know more about the man. He was born in the Athenian deme (suburb) of Halimous, which might have made him a member of the Leontis tribe, but he may also have been related to Thracian royalty, and hence inherited the Thracian gold mines that probably elevated him into the upper socio–economic stratum of Athenian society, and supported him comfortably during his exile.

Between 424 and 423 he served as strategos, or general, based on the island of Thasos, and was apparently too late to help the Athenian military commander at Amphipolis, Eucles, when Spartan general Brasidas attacked. By the time Thucydides arrived, Amphipolis had surrendered to the Spartans, who had offered generous terms, anticipating Thucyidides’ reinforcements. He was was blamed for the setback, and exiled for 20 years–the balance of the war he chronicled.

 

Thucydides used the subject of the plague to lecture on Athenian loss of principle, morality, and patriotic duty. His suggestion was that many Athenians were already decadent and profligate before the plague, but with yet sufficient shame of such excesses to try and hide them.

He argued that the plague removed that shame and pretense, allowing overtly corrupt and profligate behaviour to dominate Athenian leadership, and undermine its once unshakeable invincibility at sea, which often overturned the Spartan superiority on land.

A lynchpin of his narrative is a speech he credits to Pericles as if directly quoting him. It is clear, however, that it’s more a summary of what Thucydides heard from others who were there, merged into a kind of bricolage of reports and critiques from wider sources.

The speech is a funeral oration, which was a tradition in Athens to honour the war dead. Pericles used the occasion to praise the rise of Athens to lead the Delian League of Greek states (called Delian League because the treasury of the alliance was initially located on the island of Delos). Pericles talked up the political and martial virtue of allowing even humble-born Athenians to rise to great civic and military rank, thus making the city strong by harnessing its most able citizens. That was probably true. Up to a point. Pericles was not from humble origins.

However, Pericles is not cited admitting that Athens became a military dictatorship, compelling its allies by force to continue paying dues or supplying ships and men, which is just as true. This arrangement meant that quite often forced allies would rather pay money towards Athenian military preparations than build and man their own warships. That, of course, made Athens very strong, and its allies weak, unable to resist being compelled by Athens when they rebelled and refused to pay their tribute, and definitely unable to face other enemies alone.

And so, Athens became the pre–eminent Greek naval power. Some say the world’s greatest naval power of the times. With that naval clout came trade in luxuries, and the power to extort duties on naval trade through Athenian–held ports. Consequently, Athens was far wealthier than many other Greek city states, which subsisted on simple agriculture, and able to build the monuments tourists still gawk at today, plus its city and long walls.

It was the existence of these walls that the Spartans and their allies resented the most, because it meant to them that Athens regarded itself as superior to other city states that had no walls, signifying all at once that Athens had plenty worth protecting from theft, and would not fight and die in their fields the way other city states had to.

But Athenian wealth, contemporary critics said, also brought decadence and moral decline. Thucydides has often been accused of being pro–Athenian in his history, yet when I read him today, I get the impression he had a tremendous respect for the more ascetic, simple, dour lifestyle of the Dorians (the Peloponnesian people, led by Sparta). The Athenians, the leading Ionians, were subject to a fickleness and changeability in their democracy, Thucydides implied, exploited by great populist orators like Pericles to advance their own political agendas, which included frequent ostracisms of citizens (like Thucydides himself), and the debasement of honour and ethics in choosing which policies and duties to purse, and which to shun.

 

In 1980 I remember being very impressed with Donald Kagan, a Yale scholar of repute, who made the comparison between his contemporary America, as leader of NATO, with Athens as leader of the Delian league. That cast the Soviet Union as Sparta, with the Warsaw Pact as its Peloponnesian allies. A somewhat uneven comparison that worked a little bit for Kennedy’s America (with Pericles cast as Kennedy), but not by the later 1980s, when America became more like the militaristic Sparta, with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies always seeming to resemble more the tyrannical Athens, waging war on its ‘allies’ as often as its enemies.

But imagine the fertile imagination of a 17–year old me, marveling at the comparisons with contemporary politics, thinking I had mature insights other kids wouldn’t have, and mixing my thoughts of ancient Greece with the paintings and drawings I did to produce a folio of work I could show to WAIT’s graphic design faculty as part of my entry pitch. Imagine me mixing my fantasies about ancient Greece with the high melodrama of the science fiction I was reading at night, for fun, by authors like van Vogt and Asimov, who offered grand sweeps of speculative ‘history’ to their readers. Imagine me fancying myself as a bit of the adventurer, imbued with the spirit of the ancient Greek and Roman heroes, as well as the mysterious otherness of science fiction protagonists, seeing all these things come together in my fearless forays onto white sand beaches, encounters with strange and really very friendly native girls, but also vaguely menacing face-offs with ‘surfies’ and ‘bogans’.

In 1980 my approach to the history I was reading was still quite naïve. I focused mainly on the themes prescribed to me in the syllabus document.

By the end of the year I had passed my exams.

A couple of months later I was living in a share house, enrolled in the graphic design course. A year after that I had dropped out of the design course, and was doing the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing. Three years after that I was back at WAIT, which changed its name to Curtin University within 12 months, doing my journalism course. Trivia: the name Curtin comes from John Curtin, Australian prime minister from 1941 to 1945 (when he died rather than being voted out).

 

Reading Thucydides again today is quite a different experience. I see less of the high adventure and heroics of the era, and more of the economics driving conflicts and the personalities.

I see in Thucydides’ narrative the enormous conceit of the Greeks that they were the ‘only’ chosen people. Chosen by the gods, somehow, above all others, even if they acknowledged the great civilizations of the Persians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians. And yet so petty and irascible that after uniting to defeat the mighty Persian army, which outnumbered them many times over, they squabbled and destroyed each other to such an extent that neither Athens nor Sparta could resist the Macedonians of Philip and Alexander, nor the still fledgling Romans, when they came.

I wonder, if Kagan were still writing (he’s retired and aged 88 this year), whether he would see in the Peloponnesian War the dissolution of the continental USA under the hyper partisan nihilism being played out in the states, with eventual new dominating powers being China (the new Rome?) and a possible new domestic northern alliance against southern neo-secessionists? I doubt he’d go that far. I doubt even I would seriously propose it. But I said the same of trump’s chances of getting elected just before that disaster happened.

What I see instead is that all attempts to make historical events fit contemporary ones in order to see illuminated in them, as if by providence and miraculous insight, unarguable lessons for us all today are a little fraught. The Athenian plague is not the coronavirus pandemic, and the various contemporary Western powers in the grip of reactionary, populist neo-fascists passed the point of disguising ethical degeneracy quite some time ago. They did not need a plague to come out of any closet.

So much for Thucydides. So far.

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