Back in 2003 I marched against the imminent invasion of Iraq with a home-made banner saying “Historical Analogies Are The Last Refuge Of Those Who Have Lost The Argument”, protesting in my own small and deeply pretentious way against the mobilisation of the rhetoric of ‘Saddam is Hitler, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of Appeasement’ that was helping to drive the Blair/Bush crusade. Extensive engagement over the last eight years or so with readings of Thucydides have done nothing to reduce my suspicion of these kinds of crude, self-serving comparisons, despite the fact that Thucydides makes the strongest case for seeking to learn from the past in exactly this way – this is an issue that one cannot help but consider at length. There is a persistent habit among devoted readers of Thucydides of recognising oneself and/or one’s times in his account, especially in times of crisis – as well as a persistent tradition of claiming his authority to legitimise and publicise one’s own theories of global politics – cf. the Thucydides Trap thing with regard to China.
And there are times – especially times of crisis – when it is easy to see why these habits persist, and hard to resist joining in. Perhaps I too have simply spent too much time with Thucydides, unconsciously imbibing the idea that his work must have transhistorical significance, but there seem to be so many parallels between current Russian rhetoric and the Athenians of the Melian Dialogue (and, still more, between many analyses of Russian attitudes and the imperial logic of Melos and the Mytilene debate), and between the developing situation in Ukraine and Crimea and the collapse of civil society in Corcyra, under the simultaneous pressure of internal conflicts and external interference. I’m surprised that, at least on the basis of a quick internet search, no one has yet jumped on this bandwagon, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time. If I had the leisure, I might be tempted to work through some of the possible parallels in more detail myself.
The crucial question is of course what such putative analogies actually achieve, beyond bolstering the claims about Thucydides’ prescience and insight (and/or his literary skill in presenting episodes in such a way that readers persistently project their own concerns and experiences into them). Assume that the analogy has some validity: what does it then tell us? Basically, that this is not going to end well. Imperial power and its habit of interpreting ‘justice’ through its own interests has a tendency to over-reach itself – but over years and decades, and that’s not a lot of help for the people who get trampled in the meantime. It’s easy for social bonds to collapse under pressure and for society to fall apart around its various fault-lines, especially if outside powers are also energetically meddling – it’s extremely hard to put things back together again. This is where we find the grounds for seeing Thucydides’ account as realistic in the sense of a deep-seated pessimism, or tragic, showing people’s tendency to tear themselves apart.
Thucydides’ world is fragile and uncertain, human plans are more or less invariably founded on inadequate understanding and excessive optimism, and things basically go wrong. This isn’t exactly news – except that, thinking back to the Stop the War protests, it’s also clear that political elites of all nations and ideologies are prone to the opposite view, that this time it’s different and that they do know what they’re doing. We may not need Thucydides’ message, except as a sort of comfort that someone else has come to the same conclusions about the world; that doesn’t mean that his message is not needed.