Andrew Harnik/AP

The Summer of Misreading Thucydides

There’s a delicious irony in the Trump team’s affection for the historian—who repeatedly shows how populists lead societies to ruin.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” those months in 1967 when a hundred thousand hippies convened in Haight-Ashbury. Flower children held a Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, and Timothy Leary coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out.” It was the heyday of the counterculture, now enjoying nostalgic celebration here in the city by the bay.

Across the country in our nation’s capital, another nostalgic countercultural event transpires: the summer of Thucydides. Senators quiz the secretary of defense on Thucydides, a subject on which he is admirably knowledgeable, during congressional testimony. A distinguished Ivy League professor is invited to the White House to discuss with the national security adviser and staff the “Thucydides Trap,” where fear of a rising power by a hegemon precipitates war, as Thucydides explains occurred between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century B.C. The president’s political amanuensis, Steve Bannon, is reportedly obsessed with the martial prowess of Sparta. One of the main proselytizers of Trump’s worldview, who has written under the pretentious pseudonym Publius Decius Mus (a Roman consul from 340 B.C. “noted particularly for sacrificing himself in battle”), disparages readers of any except the Hobbes translation. A New York Times columnist decries the national security adviser and national economic adviser as Athenians creating enemies by their self-defeating pursuit of the state’s interest. Bemused international-relations professors leap on the rare moment of public interest to teach a little theory. Classicists gnash their teeth at simplistic readings of a classic that encompasses myriad perspectives on war.

Despite all the excitement, one crucial element of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War seems so far to have escaped notice: Thucydides is an unapologetic elitist. He characterizes the establishment as moderate and sensible—all of the disasters that befall both Sparta and Athens in the History are brought about by populists. It is a delicious irony that Donald Trump’s camp, which rode to power on a wave of voter dissatisfaction with elites and angrily denounces experience as corrupting, is so beholden to a historian who demonstrates time and again that vibrant societies are brought to ruin by angry or enervated publics who ignore the moderating counsel of seasoned, educated elites.

Thucydides is often associated with hard-edged realism, as in the quote “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” So it’s easy to see why politicians striking tough-guy poses profess their appreciation. But it’s important to remember that those views are one thread in a tapestry—Thucydides recounts the views of the war's combatants, but he doesn’t endorse them. In fact, the states that profess those hard-edged sentiments are plunged into ruin by them.

When and how they take the plunge has, at the crucial moments of decision, everything to do with rambunctious crowds or ambitious usurpers of their betters egging on policies that result in the destruction of their state’s power. The three major decision points of Thucydides’s History are Sparta’s decision to go to war with Athens; Athens’s destruction of Melos, a small state seeking to maintain neutrality; and Athens’s invasion of Sicily, which was allied to Sparta.

In the first instance, some of Sparta’s allies, a constellation of city-states called the Peloponnesian League, appeal to Sparta for protection from the gathering threat posed by a rising Athens. It’s important not to let modern conceptions of Athens as the birthplace of democracy sway our understanding too much: Athens was a predatory power, often in thrall to demagogues. Sparta, on the other hand, was a society ruled by law. Even the King and Ephor (an elected spiritual leader) were less powerful than the constitution, which is why the monument to the heroism of King Leonidas and his Spartans at the devastating Persian War battle of Thermopylae reads “go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.” Spartans were obedient to their laws, not their leader. Sparta was admired as a political culture and as an unobtrusive hegemon. Thucydides describesAthens as “tyrannical,” an incendiary term in the ancient world.

Athens revels in the threat it poses to Sparta’s allies. The Athenians brazenly show up at a meeting of the Peloponnesian League to rebut one small city-state’s plea for protection, saying “it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” Athens rejects any sense of justice in the actions of states, basically saying it’s a cudgel that weak states use to restrain the strong. Sparta’s King, Archidamus, counsels restraint and urges carefully assessing the risks of war, but he loses the argument to Sthenelaidas, an elected Ephor who appeals to people’s fear of Athens and goads them into defending Sparta’s honor. If the entitled political class, rather than the populist, had been listened to, Sparta would not have gone to war with Athens.

In the second of the pivotal decisions Thucydides describes, recounted in what’s known as the “Melian Dialogue,” Athens determines to decimate the entire population of the island of Melos because they refuse to pay tribute. Athens’s insistence on states paying dues rings very much like President Trump’s dark warnings to America’s allies. Athens as an ally proves more dangerous than Athens as an enemy—hardly a beneficial association for team Trump. Athens’s arrogance curdles into panic when Sparta closes in on Athens much later in the History, and Athenians fear the example they set by attacking Melos—laying siege to it, killing the men, and enslaving the women and children—might be applied to their own society.

Thucydides also makes clear that Athens descends from its greatness after the death of Pericles, a statesman of Athens when the war begins. Pericles was a terrific speaker, but he was also the driving force in Athens of war with Sparta, and an elected official who ushered in populist policies (restrictions on citizenship, more aggressive collection of tribute from allies, denying democracy and freedom to Athens’s empire) that left Athens in decline. So again, even the noble populist in Thucydides’s tale brings about the destruction of the state.

Thucydides’s final illustration of the danger of populism is Athens’s decision to invade Sicily. The quarreling demagogues who run Athens after Pericles’s death urge the assembly to undertake a risky expedition to Sicily (the general selected to lead it is recalled en route to stand trial for corruption) and end the Peloponnesian war, which by then had gone on for decades. A democratized Athens lacks the elites to urge moderation, and the size of the fleet committed gets bid up far beyond what Athens could afford to lose. An inexperienced politician, an opponent of the expedition, argues for an astronomically large force, hoping that will prevent the invasion being approved—it is instead approved at the force levels he advocated. When the expedition flounders, Sparta’s eventual victory is assured.

In all three pivotal decisions, and in the trajectory of Athens, populists wreak damage on the body politic. Elites are the voices of sensibility, overruled by passionate argument from populists. It is the exact reverse of what President Trump and his closest political advisers believe about themselves and our country. So it is odd that the work of Thucydides, elites’ champion, is among their favorite books.

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