One of the hazards of studying references to Thucydides in contemporary public debate is that, after a while, you start to anticipate them, and develop pre-emptive analysis. Clearly there are people who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of a Peloponnesian War analogy; I seem to be turning into someone who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of what Peloponnesian War analogy these people are likely to think of – which occasionally means I end up drawing parallels that no one else bothers to develop.
Looking back, the first symptoms of this affliction – the Thucydides virus, about which I’ve written in the past – appeared last year during the Crimean crisis, where it seemed to me only a matter of time before someone started quoting the Melian Dialogue. Thankfully it was just a matter of time before they did, so the fever passed. Now we have the dramatic events in Greece, which offer irresistible temptations to anyone inclined to draw classical analogies. Citing the Melian Dialogue in this context is already well-established practice, with the Troika playing the Athenian role (“If we allow you to defy us, you’ll make our allies – Italy, Portugal, Spain et al – think they can get away with defying us as well.”) – but this will surely recur, especially with Syriza’s fondness for talking about Hope (“Hope? Danger’s comforter. Is that all you’ve got?”) and the Hope of Hope (Athenian envoys speechless with laughter). In fact it’s so obvious that I’m wondering about filming a different version of my adaptation of the dialogue, emphasising the economic rather than the military, though the original stage directions do emphasise that it can be staged as any sort of confrontation between sides with different levels of power and different conceptions of the world.
This morning, however, I suddenly thought: why hasn’t anyone compared Alexis Tsipras with Kleon yet? Charismatic, populist orator winning power by pandering to irrational demands of the masses; that would be a perfect hook for some of the negative profiles being developed in the European press. Or, if you want to see him more positively, Pericles: genuine dedication to the people, repudiation of private luxury and corruption, daring the partisans of austerity to oppose him…
As I’ve noted on here before, I once marched against the invasion of Iraq with a home-made banner that read: Historical Analogies are the Last Refuge of Those who have Lost the Argument, in protest against the very crude references to ‘appeasement’ being offered by various of the warmongers. In such rhetorical gambits, past figures and events are reduced to caricatures with a single, simple meaning and set of associations, in the hope of pinning them to something in the present and thus transferring the meaning and associations. We know where appeasement ended up in the past, therefore we must avoid anything that resembles it in the present, and instead launch military action forthwith (unless it’s Russia, in which case we’ll stop selling them cheese). Likewise, we know Kleon was bad and dangerous, therefore Tsipras must be bad and dangerous.
This is not to dismiss all attempts at connecting past and present. Thucydides’ portrayal of Kleon is in fact more than a caricature, though still very negative – but more importantly, he is one of the vehicles, in the Mytilene Debate, for a subtle analysis of the problems of democratic deliberation, under the constant pressures of rhetorical manipulation, uncertainty, conflicting ends and motives, limited information and understanding etc. – that remains relevant to *all* modern democracies, not just those which have foolishly and inconveniently decided to ignore the threats of the forces of international finance. In other words, thinking about a contemporary politician in terms of Kleon is not automatically simplistic or misleading, provided that it is in the service of understanding rather than invective.
Thucydides provides us with an array of characters through whom we can try to make sense of the present, just as he provides us with a series of potentially illuminating situations that can be compared and contrasted with the situations we face. In this respect, he’s a little like Shakespeare, and perhaps evocations of his work in modern debates would be less crass if we thought of Thucydides more as a creative genius with deep psychological and political insight rather than as a political or historical analyst whose creative side may be an inconvenience or even an embarrassment to his modern readers. In the same way as characterising a contemporary figure as Macbeth or Iago can encourage reflection on his complexity and relationships with others rather than simply serving as shorthand for ambition or treachery, so Thucydides’ Kleon offers an opportunity for reflection on the mutual dependence of demos and demagogue, for example, rather than merely a pantomime villain. But that’s probably not how such an analogy will be used in practice.
Incidentally, a quick Google suggests that my instincts weren’t too far out; nothing recent, but an array of comments in 2012, when Syriza first came to prominence, relate Tsipras to ancient Greece – and in particular, in a New York Times article that seems to have been quite influential, to Alcibiades. Interesting; partly a matter of his youth (Tsipras is 40, Alcibiades was 35), but most likely a means of pointing to the Sicilian disaster as the (by implication) inevitable result of listening to such a figure. Kleon might be blamed for corrupting political discourse in Athens, but it’s harder to pin direct responsibility for an actual catastrophe on him; Alcibiades, however, was the man who urged the Athenians towards a course of action that could only ever end in tears, just like Tsipras </irony> – and of course there’s the added bonus of implying, quite gratuitously, that Tsipras must therefore be completely self-interested and will doubtless betray his followers when it suits him. Whereas what the Greeks must hope they’ve got is a leader along the lines of Pericles, who cut all his ties with former friends and refused dinner invitations, for fear of even the suspicion that he might be beholden to the old elite rather than to the people who elected him…