Thucydides & The New Athenian Empire

Jon Kofas writes: In his monumental history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, the greatest historian of all time in my view, taught western civilization valuable lessons about the arrogance of political and miltiary  leaders, double standards, and the detrimental consequences of power on all parties concerned. The "Funeral Oration" and the "Melian Dialogue" remain as relevant today as they were 2,400 years ago. Thucydides demonstrates how Pericles, the Athenian leader pursuing an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy, immersed Athens into a catastrophic war that devastated all Greek city-states and marked the gradual demise of classical Greek civilization. In the "Funeral Oration", Pericles praises the people of Athens, its institutions, and the importance of fighting the war against the evil backward Spartans and their allies. Athenian civilization was worth preserving, hence the rationale for war.  Notwithstanding Aristophanes' anti-war perspective in his masterpiece "Lysistrata", the war must go one!  In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians make it clear that they reserve the right of enjoying sovereignty and democracy for themselves while denying the same rights, freedoms, and privileges to others. Thucydides condemned the double standard in the logic of Athenian imperialism, but more significantly, he revealed that human beings who have power dispense with lofty ideals of justice,  and they are simply mesmerized by the benefits of power at the expense of the other who is invariably weak and who must be demonized and objectified so that the conqueror feels justified about his aggression.

Is the "modern Athenian empire" is not very different than the ancient one? We in the US rightly honor and praise our great institutions, our founding fathers, our democracy, and above all sovereignty, but we do not respect the same of other countries whose raw materials we want, whose foreign policy we want to influence, whose institutions we seek to shape. Like Pericles, we reserve the right to dictate to other nations how they shall live, how they shall be governed, what products they must purchase, what values they must honor. Like the ancient Athenians overtaken by hubris, mesmerized by power, and utterly fearful of the other, the "modern Athenian empire" is marking its own gradual demise because of the policies it has chosen to pursue. Thucydides wrote his masterpiece so that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the Athenians. Perhaps George Santayana was right that people who lack historical knowledge are condemned to repeat mistakes of the past.

Hank Greely writes: It is disconcerting to think, in the light of Jon Kofas's posting, of ourselves as Athens, but it is also flattering, probably unjustifiably.  Where are our writers, philosophers, and artists?  I don't think of myself as a curmudgeon (which I think is some kind of cousin to a mugwump), but as I look around the contemporary scene, I don't see any curently working American novelists, playwrights, or artists who will be remembered, let alone admired, in a century. Maybe a few architects.  As for the philosophers, they seem to me largely sunk in their technical disciplinary arguments - no doubt valuable in their way, but not of much influence to the world.  Rawls and Nozick were perhaps exceptions, but they are now dead.  Our science and engineering is spectacular and maybe that's where we should look for our greatness, but that's not the site of the glory of Athens.

I recognize that these comparisons, across the gulf of centuries and the even wider chasm of understanding, are almost silly.  We compare our own, plausibly accurate, images of our time with our, at best, only vaguely accurate images of the far past.  And, to be fair, although the culture of the Athenians still amazes, its democracy was a much more limited affair, in those involved and in space covered, than ours.   Nevertheless, while Churchill's conceit that Britain would be the Athens to the American Rome may or may not have accurately pegged Britain, it does seem to me, for whatever little it is worth, that American culture seems more akin to that of Rome than to that of Athens. So let me boil down this overlong posting to the simple comment that the possibility that we are repeating the errors of Athens should not imply that we are also repeating her glories.

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: E-mail to Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 8, 2004