I had been planning to write about the debate in Athens in 415 about the proposed attack on Syracuse. Though there is one remarkable contrast between the two situations – whereas Nicias’ sensible older men were faced with the aggression and ignorance of Alcibiades’ pumped-up youths, in our time the pragmatism of the young is confronted with the reckless, après moi le deluge nostalgia of the old – there are significant parallels in the rhetoric used to argue for and against driving the city off a cliff. Nicias urges caution and common sense, and constantly has to defend himself against insinuations of cowardice, self-interest and talking down Athens; it’s a manifestly weak argument in the face of Alcibiades’ boundless self-confidence, optimism, disparagement of foreigners – the Sicilians are weak and disunited, and “most likely they will be happy to make separate agreements with us when we make attractive proposals to them” – and appeals to the true nature of Athens. Indeed, given Dominic Cummings’ well-known predilection for Thucydides, one might wonder how far the Leave campaign is directly drawing upon motifs from his speeches.
Even on Thursday morning, however, I found myself haunted by other sections of the work. The UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster fits perfectly the model of the escalating extremism of rhetoric, the twisting of words and meanings in pursuit of factional ends, depicted in the account of social breakdown in Corcyra. The murder of Jo Cox feels less like a further step on the path of polarisation than the appalling manifestation of fault-lines that have, we can now see, been growing for years – and, no, you don’t get to point to evidence that the killer was mentally disturbed as a means of waving away any link to far-right politics unless you’re prepared to do the same for mentally-disturbed killers claiming to act in the name of Islam. In any case, as various commentators have observed, even mentally ill killers have motives, shaped by the culture around them. The sole ground for optimism is that we’re not yet at the point where mainstream political discourse celebrates her death as justified in terms of the interests of the opposing party, as happened in Corcyra and has happened in other societies in a similar state of crisis.
Thucydides gets to say “I told you so” – but that’s not much consolation. It is at times like this that the limits of history become painfully apparent. Thucydides promised that, if we read and think about his account, we will be able to make sense of present and future developments, because in important ways they will follow the same patterns as past events. He never promised that we’d be able to prevent or change them. Rather, we get to watch things unfold like a slow-motion car crash, with a horrible sense that we know what’s going to happen next. We acquire a deeper knowledge of ‘the human thing’, our species’ capacity for self-delusion and miscalculation, our propensity to surrender to emotion, our limited ability to grasp the reality of our situation let alone anticipate future events, and our susceptibility to manipulation by the less scrupulous.
At dark moments, this seems like a fact of human existence: history as recurrent nightmare, demonstrating the pointlessness of expecting anything else. Hope gets a bad press in Thucydides. It’s barely distinguishable from delusion, a refusal to face the facts of the situation or deal with them rationally – because we’re all sick of experts. But the opposite of such hope is not despair, but knowledge and understanding, which may never be sufficient, but is always necessary.
There is one clear reason why Thucydides offered us a complex account of different events rather than a set of clear principles and laws of human behaviour: it demonstrates the complexity of things. Events have multiple causes, people have complicated and sometimes contradictory motives, insignificant or chance occurrences can have dramatic effects. We can discern regularities and repetitions – but also see how these play out differently. In other words, history is not fixed or determined. The future is not preordained.
History can tell us where we are and how we got here – if we’re prepared to accept this, rather than holding on to more comforting myths about our nobility and the betrayals and perfidity of others, or indulging in trite analogies for partisan purposes. It can give us a sense of where we might be headed, limited by the fact that its database covers only what has actually happened in the past, not the full range of possibilities. On its own, it offers the limited consolation of understanding, which may lead to despair or at least a pessimistic quietism; but as a basis for political action it can help us save ourselves.
We can see why the Athenians voted to attack Syracuse; we can see that they could have decided differently; we can recognise the parallels with our own situation, and try to act. History is rarely consoling; it can be energising. We see what needs to be done.