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Plenty of parallels between now and the past, but lessons are less plentiful

SINCE the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, commentators have rummaged through the past to make sense of the present and predictions about the future. They are preoccupied, in a word, by precedent. At the heart of any precedent is the belief that once acknowledged, it is actionable. A historical precedent offers not only a pattern but also a promise. We are assured by a rule - given what has preceded, here is how we must proceed - and reassured by a pledge: if we act rightly, we will be around to act again.

The Athenian writer Thucydides is often considered the father of scientific or objective history - the sort of history, in other words, pregnant with precedent. Modern scholars have described Thucydides' account of the decades-long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta toward the end of the fifth century BCE - a struggle that ultimately spelled the decline and fall of both city-states - as a model of realism. Not only did Thucydides tell it like it was, but his telling also served as a blueprint for our own time.

The relevance of Thucydides seemed particularly great at the arrival of the Cold War. What better reflection of the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union than that between Athens and Sparta? In one corner, a maritime and open society; in the other corner, a landlocked and closed society. In 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall claimed that Thucydides' history offered the means to think "with full wisdom and deep convictions" about current affairs. A half a century later, the political theorist Graham Allison argued in an article that we still live in a world according to Thucydides, but with China now taking the role of Communist Russia.

Two decades later, in his 2017 book Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, Allison asserts that the Greek historian provides a timeless rule - that war is more likely than not when a rising power challenges an established power. Allison thus seems to suggest the existence of apparently unchanging laws, first revealed by Thucydides, that - like Newton's laws for physical matter - govern relations between great powers regardless of place and time.

Is it possible that the real trap, though, is the still widely unquestioned assumption that Thucydides was a political realist? That if he does offer lessons, they are not found in the study of international relations but in the study of human nature? That his brand of realism has little to do with the work of modern political theorists and much to do with the work of ancient tragedians?

Consider the story Thucydides writes about the Peloponnesian War, one he insists was even more momentous than the Persian Wars. Thucydides does not explain this outwardly outrageous claim because he does not need to: as his readers understood, this new war did not pit Greece against a foreign foe but Greeks against Greeks. With his swift tracing of Athens's rise from a backwater polis to burgeoning power, the historian not only underscores the near-sudden fear that overtakes Sparta but also lays bare the tragic implications of the brewing collision.


In his explanation of the work's celebrated speeches, Thucydides tells us that when he could not say with certainty what the speakers said, he had them say what they should have said. They do so not as stock figures offering insights into game theory but as flesh-and-blood individuals mostly blind to the consequences of their actions. Behind the intense debates and decisions, we hear not the muffled moves of a chess game but the grinding wheels of necessity and nemesis. The former, as the hero of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound declares, is unconquerable. The latter, as was understood by any Greek tragedian or historian worth his salt, was ineluctable.

Time and again, rational calculations prove as faulty as irrational forces prove overwhelming. Pericles, the Athenian leader praised for his ability to plan for all eventualities, dies in the unanticipated plague that strikes the city. The Athenian leader of the Melian expedition, who justifies the destruction of Melos by claiming that might makes right, portends the destruction of the Athenian expedition to Sicily.

Similarly, Alcibiades, the privileged and proud politician who promoted the Sicilian adventure, did so by appealing not to the reason of his working-class base but to its discontent and desires. Likewise, the businessman-turned-demagogue Cleon, blasted by Thucydides as the "most violent man in Athens", repeatedly debases language in his quest for power. As for the reasonable and moderate Nicias, the general who failed to dissuade his fellow Athenians from invading Sicily, he dies there while commanding his doomed forces. While Alcibiades eventually goes over to the Spartans, revealing that self-interest comes before national interest, Nicias suffers what Thucydides describes as an "undeserved" death.

While parallels between now and then abound, lessons are less plentiful. In the end, Thucydides' history does not instruct us on how to exploit or avoid certain situations, instead instilling the simple truth that given our nature, there will always be situations that we cannot avoid and, if we try to exploit, will have unintended consequences.

Why bother studying the past, then, if it cannot help us navigating the present? One might as well ask why bother reading Aeschylus or Sophocles if they have no useful advice on how to live our lives. Thucydides' claim that he wrote his history not to win "the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time" is based on his tragic conception of life. Far from our being able to master events or even our own desires, events and desires will sooner or later master us. While this is not a rousing call for action, it is a call for modesty and lucidity. Especially in our own age, these virtues might still have earned the applause of Thucydides. NYTIMES

  • The writer is a professor at the University of Houston and the author of a forthcoming book on the French thinker Simone Weil

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