Let’s take it from the top again. Thucydides may have something useful to tell us about the current crisis in Greece, just as he may be able to contribute to discussions of Ukraine, the Middle East, Russia, UK and US politics and any other situation involving power, violence, negotiation and/or deliberation, because this was his intention: he aimed, in giving an account of the specific events of a particular war, to create something that would be “a possession for all time”, that would enable his readers to gain understanding of these specific events that could be applied to other situations. He grounded this aspiration partly in claims about the veracity of his account – we can feel confident in accepting his version of events – and partly in his belief in “the human thing” that means people tend to behave in similar ways in similar situations, and will do in future.
We can question Thucydides’ version of events, whether we because we suspect his motives or have doubts about his methods or the evidence at his disposal. We can debate at length what sort of understanding we can draw from his account, or what sort of understanding he intended us to derive from it: universal laws of human behaviour, or an expansion of our experience of the world, and all points in between. We can argue about whether his “human thing” is really adequate to make the events of 2500 years ago relevant to the present, when so much else has changed so dramatically. We can note the tendency for readers of Thucydides to end up with diametrically opposed ideas of what he is supposed to be trying to tell us, each of which is claimed as Thucydides’ real message, and the tendency for them to over-identify with him and his account – and we can wonder how far this is a direct consequence of his skill in making an account of specific events appear universal, in making an account written for fifth-century BCE members of the Greek elite speak to everyone. There is absolutely no reason why Thucydides’ work must apply to our own times, and plenty of reasons why we should be sceptical – but plenty of intelligent people have felt that it does, and there are grounds for thinking that they may not be completely wrong.
Thucydides is NOT relevant to the present crisis simply because he was Greek; the events he described are not analogous to current events simply because they involved Greeks. His claim to relevance is that he purports to tell us about humans in general; his work would be no more and no less persuasive in this respect if it was Chinese or Arabic or American. But for the vast majority of writers taking his name in vain at the moment, the underlying assumption appears to be that he speaks to us of an essential Greekness, expressed similarly in writers like Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and the rest (interestingly, Aristotle seems to be keeping his head down at the moment; maybe because his explicit economic and political analysis is too obviously incompatible with the present, or maybe he just doesn’t have the popular reputation…); these ancient authors tell us what the Greeks really are, so either (it is claimed) they help explain what’s going on, or they indicate what the Greeks ought to be doing if they were proper Greeks (cf. Peter Jones’ claims about Hesiod and Solon). Is there some genetic predisposition for Greeks to let foxes gnaw at their intestines like the little Spartan boy (a story of which my grandmother was disturbingly fond), a tendency that is now elevated to the level of state finance? Current evocations of ancient Greek authors don’t really deviate from the underlying logic of such a claim.
This way of thinking is applied not only to texts, where there is at least a kind of argument to be made about long-standing cultural traditions if you really want to go there, but also to events. “Indeed, perhaps not much has changed in the past 2,500 years,” suggests Kabir Chibber, at the end of an article built around a summary of Josh Ober’s new book. “Greeks are still hiding their cash under the mattress in times of crisis and they are still facing hard choices imposed by foreign powers, as the island of Melos faced in 416 BC.” Oh FFS. It’s not just the implicit claim that Greeks are genetically programmed to hoard in times of crisis, and ought to be predisposed to creating dramatic economic growth because they (allegedly) did it before, it’s the implication that they also have some inherent tendency to get themselves oppressed by external forces. Athenians, Macedonians, Romans, Turks… Germans! It’s a pattern! A similar pattern of thought was revealed in the comment in a British radio interview by Alan Sommerstein that the situation reminded him of the way the people of Andros defied the demands of Themistocles for a contribution to the struggle against the Persians (Herodotus 8.111). Yes, it’s a nice little story – the Athenians say that they’re backed by the gods Persuasion and Necessity, and the Andrians retort that they’re lumbered with the deities Poverty and Helplessness – but it is no more than a nice little story. It doesn’t actually illuminate anything, but citing it does, I fear, subtly imply that the Greeks have a universal tendency to poverty and haplessness, not to mention stroppiness (reasonable or otherwise). With all due respect to my classical colleagues – and I don’t imagine I’d be turning down invitations to speak on the radio or write op ed pieces, in these days of Impact – I don’t think we’re actually helping. And that’s before we get to questions about whether classicists feel the suffering of the Greeks in a different way from other people…
Meanwhile, the New York Sun had an entire editorial entitled ‘Time to Try Thucydides’. Since it starts with a reference to the Harvard Lampoon, I had vague hopes that someone might finally have decided to parody the whole Thucydides-quoting enterprise, but apparently not. The article seeks to support a call for a return to the drachma, on the grounds that fiat money with no link to bullion is always undesirable (sorry, what was the date again??), with references to Herodotus and Thucydides: the former because he “wrote of the Lydian king Croesus, who was so rich in gold, and saw the Greeks as possessing a capacity for discernment in knowing what to accept and reject from other nations” (???!!!!??!!???) and the latter because he owned gold mines and so “understood the importance of specie and sound money”. The rise of Greece wasn’t based on fiat scrip, but on proper silver coinage. Indeed, the developing Euro crisis has led to a rush to invest in gold coins. Greek temples were used to store wealth, and even the gold statue of Athene in the Parthenon could, in an emergency, be melted down to make coins. “In Book 2, Thucydides offers an accounting of these reserves, going so far as to list the weight of gold in plates on the statue of the goddess. This is the book in which Thucydides remarks that ‘military successes were generally gained by a wise policy and command of money.'”
It’s like a mirror image of the anecdote from early nineteenth-century Prussia, cited by the great German intellectual history Reinhart Koselleck, that I’ve discussed in some of my academic publications: a clever young secretary to the Prussian chancellor headed off an unwise financial proposal with the line “Yes, minister, but do you not remember what Thucydides said about the evils of paper money in Athens?” – the minister, being unwilling to admit ignorance of this completely spurious claim, backed down. The New York Sun puts forward Thucydides in support of a monetary system based on bullion as if there had been an alternative which Thucydides was implicitly rejecting. What can one say? The name of Thucydides carries authority, that can be used to support any old nonsense.
This is really getting silly; it probably is time to post a link to my old ‘Thucydides is a virus that turns people into drooling zombies spouting gibberish’ blog. Of course it’s isn’t just Thucydides – plenty of other classical references are being bandied about – but he does have an accumulated reputation as a writer of authority, insight and relevance that seems to lead to him being referenced more often, and more often by writers who wouldn’t otherwise engage with the classical beyond gratuitous evocations of ‘Greek tragedy’. Could we be heading towards Peak Thucydides, when his over-use in deeply unproductive and problematic ways leads to a change in practice, and perhaps even to wholesale divestment? Or, as I fear, will the amount of publicity generated over the last few months for his supposed usefulness lead to still wider deployment in future discussions? Given that the new book from recently-resigned Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (“the Flamboyant”, or indeed #MinisterForAwesome) is titled And The Weak Suffer What They Must? – and since he’s now going to have time to finish it – I very much fear the latter…
[Update: over on Twitter, @MigeruBlogger asked whether we’re seeing the development of a new “Thucydides law” for classicists, analogous to Godwin’s law. To be fair, it really isn’t the classicists who are doing most of this – but increasingly we do seem to be in a situation where “in any discussion of contemporary global power relations, the probably of someone making an inane Thucydides reference approaches 1…”]
[Update: courtesy of the great @henryfarrell, a possible label for this phenomenon: Thucydiocy. I so wish I’d thought of that first – though I prefer my spelling of it to his…]
[Update: since I mentioned the Chibber piece above, summarising/mangling Ober, this seems an appropriate place to note that Ober himself has now joined in with a piece on ‘Ancient Greece’s Answer to the Financial Crisis’. I may write about this at greater length at some point, but the obvious question is: why bring ancient Greece into this? Ober’s extremely interesting and provocative book works by applying to classical Greece a series of ideas drawn from political science and economics, as a means of explaining his core problem, the dramatic expansion of urbanisation and economic activity between the 9th and 5th centuries BCE. Now, one might easily apply those same ideas (e.g. the role of different sorts of institutions, the importance of collective buy-in, the operations of democracy) to modern Greece, and indeed plenty of people have, without the need to invoke classical Greece – unless, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is to become yet another example of bashing the Greeks through reference to the greatness of their ancestors (though to be fair to Ober, he also sets about bashing the Troika as well…]