Three Lessons from Thucydides
by Alan W. Thederahn & Robert Mayer
Two questions emerged in the aftermath of 9/11: Is
Islam in any form a threat to the West? And is
America an imperial power? The gravity of these
questions merited sustained reflection about human
nature, material progress, and rational state
Thucydides treated the same topics 2,300 years ago.
The Peloponnesian War was not just an account of a war or war in general. It was also a narrative of
how Athens taught the other Greeks to think about
the creation and acceptance of power. Athens saw
itself as an exceptional society and acknowledged
itself as the creator of an empire designed solely
to serve its own interests.
One cannot read Thucydides without concluding that
human beings possess an inborn perpetual aggressiveness. Constantly, Thucydides shows that it is the natural condition of people to exert their given potentialities to the utmost.
Consider the famous "Melian dialogue." Athens invaded the island of Melos in 416 B.C. The two sides hold a meeting in which they present their arguments for and against the invasion. The Athenians are invading Melos because they can, and they say so openly: "We believe of the gods (and know of men) that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can." The Athenians are victorious and enslave the men of Melos.
Thucydides considered fear, greed, and a desire for honor as the principal catalysts of this perpetual aggressiveness. This is what tempts people to possess power for its own sake. And what is true of individuals is also true of the state.
Material progress wears two masks for Thucydides. In its benevolent visage, material progress is an effective response to poverty and isolation. Its ominous side arises when prosperity leads to immoderate desires for material gratifications.
Exploitation of material resources, creation of technical inventions (e.g., war galleys), expansion of commerce (the capture or destruction of economic goods), refinement of administrative technique – these are how individuals and the State feed our innate perpetual aggressiveness. The inevitable consequences: absence of security and conflict among individuals and states.
Sound state policy, for Thucydides, equals expedient administrative technique. Its purpose is to turn the accurate anticipation of consequences – derived from a clear understanding of the interaction of psychological and material factors – to the skilled at adapting technology to policy demands. A good example would be Themistocles, who spearheads the building of the powerful Athenian fleet. The statesman also must be able to gauge and control, as far as possible, the psychological responses of enemy states, allies, and his own nation to the enactment of state policy. The great master of this skill is the famous Pericles. Most important, the statesman must be able to keep his personal aggressiveness from succumbing to avarice and ambition. The general Alcibiades can't, and he loses the trust of the people of Athens.
How do these lessons illuminate questions posed in the aftermath of 9/11?
> The threat to Islam from secular modernity has created an explosive crisis within some sectors of Islamic culture. Mere repression of terrorism won't diminish that crisis. Where is the Pericles ready to understand the psychology of our opponents and reflect it in a useful policy?
> The global network of communications, finance and transport has revolutionized terrorist warfare and raises the threat posed by Islamic extremists to new levels. Policy will be useless unless its designers avoid platitudes, received political myths, and fashionable moral sentiments.
> Is there an American empire? We are close to creating one – and enjoying our role as the world's one superpower. The question is: Can we resist the temptations of power – or will we fall prey to the greed born of progress and success? Can we realize our best interests while keeping insecurity, conflict and aggression in check? Questions to be asked.
Alan W. Thederahn ( email@example.com ) is the director and Robert Mayer is senior policy analyst of The Old Virginia Military District Institute, a private think tank committed to the principals of the Bible, Declaration of Independence, and U.S. Constitution. They seek to provide timely useful commentary of the current State of the Union. This first appeared on the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER op/ed page, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the authors.