Sometimes you recognise immediately that you’re in the same situation as before, but can still do nothing about it; sometimes it starts differently, and you realise only gradually that events are playing out just as they have in previous nightmares, and that they will continue to play out in exactly the same way to the end, or until you can tear yourself away. Another week in the ongoing agony of Greece and Europe, another Thucydides reference. Why is it always the bloody Melian Dialogue?
It’s as if half (at least half) the people who’ve decided that Thucydides has the answer to everything, or at least to issues of global power politics, haven’t actually read most of his work, but have simply imbibed the conventional International Relations shtick that presents Thucydides as a thinker with contemporary relevance and authority solely through (and hence by implication because of) this one section, extracted from context and read in isolation. But at least the IR people think that what’s important about it are the underlying principles of power, justice, negotiation etc, that offer a template for understanding similar situations – and I would say in my defence, as someone who has added to the accumulation of articles viewing the current crisis through the Melian Dialogue and is now starting to wonder if I should feel a little shame-faced about it, that this is not unreasonable, provided it’s done with a certain sensitivity towards, or at least consciousness of, questions of historical specificity and context, and what exactly do we think Thucydides meant by “the human thing” that legitimises the study of the events he describes as a source of understanding that can be more widely applied.
In contrast, many of the references to Melos in current journalism, this NYT article included, simply establish a more or less direct connection between the two situations, as if that’s going to tell us something: “learning from the past” on the basis of a crude assumption that events simply repeat themselves – which is then easily questioned by those (as in various NYT commentators) who point out the equally obvious differences (and use this as a springboard for their own political agenda: “Ah yes, but the Melians were innocent victims, whereas the Greeks spent all the money and now deserve to be punished!”). I suppose it’s a reflection of the accumulated authority of Thucydides, that it’s felt he ought to have something useful to tell us (even if we don’t then make an effort to think about what it could be). But it’s also part and parcel of the general tendency in Anglophone and German journalism (I haven’t been following the press elsewhere) to reach without thought for classical metaphors (brilliantly parodied here: Greece’s Metaphor Crisis and here: Greek Cliche Bingo).
We might think further about this practice – not least because, so Constantina Katsari tells me, Greek discussions of the situation and of today’s referendum have involved very few classical references; the dominant themes are the Second World War and the 1821 Revolution and War of Independence.* It seems fair to say that non-Greek resort to the classical is at least partly driven by complete ignorance of more recent Greek history: this is all we know about them, or want to know. Either the Greeks are assumed not to have changed in the slightest in the meantime, so that Thucydides, Aeschylus etc. must be directly relevant to their situation if not revealing of their innate psychology, or the modern Greeks are seen to have little in common with their heroic ancestors (why are they not living up to the examples of Hesiod and Solon, as Peter Jones seems to be asking regularly in the Spectator – or there’s the astonishing statement, in Armand Marie Leroi’s otherwise rather lovely encomium to Greece, that “rationality simply can’t be assumed for the Greeks”).** It’s the same dynamic as the equation of modern Germany with its Nazi past, as if nothing has happened in between, or as if the current crisis is simply revealing that Germans are always and eternally Nazis underneath. It is perhaps understandable – but it obscures meaning and understanding, rather than developing it.
Should we then – as has of course been urged for IR theorists – simply stop reading (or rather citing) Thucydides in the context of the present crisis? I do believe in the capacity of his work to help us understand the world, so no – but maybe it’s time for a moratorium on the Melian Dialogue. That vision of the apparently inexorable logic of power relations isn’t the only nightmare he has to offer that might be applicable to the present situation. The theme of the competing claims of pragmatism and idealism, optimism and fear, in decision-making – coupled, in most cases, with the inability of human beings to have a clear or objective sense of their own situation, let alone the consequences of their actions – recurs time and again in different forms, above all in the slow nightmare of Plataea, the horrifically cold-blooded debate around Mytilene, and the decision to invade Sicily. We are shown the power of skilful political rhetoric – even if sincerely meant, as one can at least some of the time believe of Pericles – to confuse and manipulate people, generally with negative consequences. Any number of events (the Plague, most obviously) show the capacity of the unpredictable and unpredicted to derail all calculations and expectations.
Today, as Greeks vote on a fairly obscure and much disputed referendum question with still more uncertain implications for the future, the most apposite section of Thucydides’ work, sadly, looks like the Corcyrean stasis in Book 3, his influential picture of a society falling apart. One crucial theme here is the complexity of causes, brought out in the background and the narration of events: fault-lines ran through Corcyrean society, as they did in every Greek city, but it was the external circumstances of the war between Athens and Sparta – sometimes involving their direct intervention but certainly conditioning the assumptions and decision-making of others – that brought them into the open and led to escalation.
For in peace and prosperity as well cities as private men are better minded because they be not plunged into necessity of doing anything against their will. But war, taking away the affluence of daily necessaries, is a most violent master and conformeth most men’s passions to the present occasion. (Th.3.82.2; Hobbes)
We might apply this to the divisions within Europe, exposed and exacerbated by the external pressures of globalisation, financial crisis, migration etc., with the Greek crisis being to some extent a side-effect as much as the main event, but we can certainly see the consequences within Greece itself. What Thucydides depicts is not only the deepening of divisions between different parties, with loyalty to one’s own group trumping any idea of a higher identity or union, but also the effects on public discourse – long since visible in the rhetorical exchanges between Greece and the Troika, but now also appearing (at least according to this morning’s news reports) in the division between the Nai and Oxi camps, with accusations of treachery and German-loving being bandied about. For the moment, at least, most of those involved seem genuinely to be striving for the good of Greece as a whole as they see it (and there’s the rub…), but it’s difficult to feel confident that this is true of everyone.*** Can such divisions – which date back in some ways at least to the civil war of 1946-9, but have been held in check in recent years – easily be healed again? Perhaps in time, in the most ideal circumstances; but one thing pretty well all commentators agree on is that, whatever the results of the referendum, circumstances are unlikely to be ideal any time soon – and it’s hard to feel any more optimistic about the European project at the moment. Meanwhile, “the neutrals of the city were destroyed by both factions, partly because they would not side with them and partly for envy that they should so escape” (3.82.8).
Thomas Hobbes drew support from Thucydides’ account for his belief that only monarchy could be counted upon to constrain the irrational emotions of the people and put an end to the nightmare of factional conflict; one might imagine he’d be cheering at this point for the establishment of a government of technocrats or a military coup. Thucydides doesn’t offer a solution to the situation; he simply showed us how things developed in a specific instance, as a case study in what then happened across much of the rest of Greece – and as a case study in the fragility of human society more generally. The downside of this sort of nightmare is that it can look like an argument for opposing change because it might be worse than the present, however bad – more ammunition for Project Fear, in other words. It’s fair to say that Thucydides was a conservative figure, in a world where following traditional rules of thumb (and at this point I make a desperate attempt to link to what I ought to be working on, papers on ancient ecology and economy) was generally the safest and most rational way of engaging with an unpredictable world. But his aim was not to tell his readers what to do, for circumstances always change; it was rather to offer them the opportunity to gain understanding so they might be able to make better decisions for their own circumstances. Thucydides’ nightmares are not predictions or prophecies; they are sobering reminders of how things can all too easily go desperately wrong, and hence of our duty – currently, the duty of the voters of Greece, but tomorrow of their politicians and the politicians and technocrats of the Eurozone – to try to get things right, for everyone’s sake and not just the sake of their own faction…
[* Update: There was a moment this morning when I wondered whether the words of the early C19 poet Andreas Kalvos that Tsipras quoted in a recent speech – translated as “Liberty demands virtue and audacity!” – might not have Periclean echoes (the line at 2.43.4 to the effect that “happiness is freedom and freedom is courage, so don’t be afraid of the chances of war”). But the Greek is completely different (Θελει αρετη και τολμη η ελευθερια in contrast to οὓς νῦν ὑμεῖς ζηλώσαντες καὶ τὸ εὔδαιμον τὸ ἐλεύθερον, τὸ δ᾽ ἐλεύθερον τὸ εὔψυχον κρίναντες μὴ περιορᾶσθε τοὺς πολεμικοὺς κινδύνους), so I wonder instead whether the translation may be putting a Thucydidean gloss on the original…]
[** Update: Since I’m Berlin at the moment, I missed Alan Sommerstein and Rosa Andujar on the radio this morning, and can’t manage to get iPlayer to work; am reliant on tweets for an idea of what was discussed, and that’s probably up there with some of Herodotus’ sources for the lands of the Hyperboreans, so can’t comment at length. The good news is that they seem to have left out the Melian Dialogue; the less good news is the continued focus on finding historical analogies, rather than the sort of general principles or structures than might make comparison illuminating or useful; the really bad news is the mere idea that the interview asked whether classicists feel the pain of modern Greeks in a different way to other observers…]
[*** Update: On this, see the remark of Paul Mason in his latest blog on the possibly disastrous consequences of a ‘No’ vote, food riots, medicine shortages and regime change: “To be clear: among sections of the right-wing Athenian middle class this is not a fear – it is a project. To be equally clear: there are cadres within the activist base of Syriza, and in anarchist movement, who would welcome that scenario like an early Christmas present.” Corcyra here we go…]
[Update: okay, I give up. Have just seen an image of the cover of Varoufakis’ forthcoming book on economic crisis, and the title is… And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Clearly the Melian Dialogue isn’t going anywhere… Two positives that I can think of. Firstly, on the basis of his work on game theory I have marginally higher expectations than I might otherwise have done that he’ll have something interesting to say. Secondly, this does firmly support my intuition that Thucydides has a particular importance for him – it’s not just some academic work he did years ago, it’s one of the templates for his analysis of the situation…]