Reaching For Historical Parallels: Why Thucydides Still Resonates

In the weeks after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte seized power and declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, Karl Marx sat down to write a history of the present. The purpose of this work was straightforward. Marx wanted to understand how the class struggle in France had ‘made it possible for a grotesque and mediocre personality to play a hero’s part.’ Much of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852/69), as the work would be known, accordingly consisted of fine-grained political and economic analysis. But Marx opened in a more philosophical vein. After quipping that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, he reflected upon the role that historical parallelism played in shaping revolutionary action:

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.

This tendency had pervaded European history, Marx thought, and occasionally served the ends of progress. The cloak of Roman republicanism, for instance, had helped French society lurch blindly forward during the revolution of 1789. In the present case, however, the appropriated symbolism of that earlier revolution served no higher purpose than to veil a grifter’s power grab in a more compelling guise.

Marx points toward one of the more paradoxical tendencies of modern political life: the more times feel unprecedented, the more we reach for past parallels. We do so, however, not only to legitimate new regimes. Just as often, historical analogies are invoked to explain, predict and condemn. The past decade alone offers a trove of examples. Among them, the use of ‘fascism’ to characterise Right-wing populist movements has generated the most heat, giving rise to a multifaceted debate about the legitimacy of historical analogy as a mode of political analysis. But there are others that have occasioned less self-reflection. In reckoning with the possibility of open conflict between the United States and China, for instance, foreign policy experts have routinely likened the escalating tension to the Cold War, the First World War, and even the Peloponnesian War. Similarly, in the early days of COVID-19, many dealt with the uncertainty of the pandemic by turning to the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and the Great Plague of Athens for guidance. Something of the sort is also happening in real time with generative AI. How we interpret the risk that it poses hinges in large part on which analogy we favour: will it be most akin to the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear bomb, or – perhaps most horrifying of all – the consulting firm McKinsey?

If many of these parallels seem self-evident, one recurring point of reference does not: Thucydides, the ancient Athenian general and author of History of the Peloponnesian War. Though hardly a household name, he has been a favourite of those intent on doom-scrolling the historical record for relevant exempla. In the first month of the COVID-19 shutdown, for instance, so much was written about his account of the Athenian plague that one prominent scholar deemed Thucydides himself to be a virus. Something comparable could be said of Thucydides’ role in the viral discourse surrounding Sino-American relations. Ever since the early 2010s, when Graham Allison began referring to the stress on global order produced by hegemonic rivalry as ‘Thucydides’ Trap’, foreign policy discussions have themselves often appeared trapped by the need to balance geopolitical analysis with exegesis of an ancient text.

However strange Thucydides’ prominence may seem, the tradition of looking his way in moments of existential crisis is well established. During the American Civil War, for example, his ‘Funeral Oration of Pericles’ served as a model for Abraham Lincoln’s famed Gettysburg Address, while his account of Athenian defeat helped inspire an overhaul of the US Naval War College curriculum during the war in Vietnam. In Europe, both English and German propagandists excerpted History of the Peloponnesian War during the First World War in support of their causes, and soldiers reported reading Thucydides in the trenches. In subsequent decades, prominent writers in both England and Italy used Thucydides to reflect their concerns over the rise of European fascism.

This cultish appeal has nevertheless come at a cost. While many have tried in earnest to wring wisdom from Thucydides’ text, others have sought little more than an ancient authority for their shower thoughts. Careless glosses and misattributed quotes abound, both in the anarchic spaces of social media and in others that should be held to a higher standard: the website for Harvard’s Belfer Center, for instance, which features an apocryphal quote lifted from the first Wonder Woman movie, or on the desk of the late Colin Powell when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If this should seem a sad fate for any writer, it is a particularly ironic one for Thucydides. He was both a vocal proponent of accurately accounting for the past and a careful analyst of the textured nature of historical repetition. Resistant to simplification and rich in ‘unuttered thoughts’ (to quote Friedrich Nietzsche), Thucydides recognised that an effective understanding of the relationship between past, present and future would be both highly complex and absolutely critical for prudent political judgment. This combination did not bode well for the ancient Athenians, who ended up suffering dearly for their mishandling of historical analogies, and it is not clear that we have the resources to do much better. But we stand to learn more by thinking with Thucydides about the role of historical analogy in political life than by simply pilfering his text in search of such analogies. If nothing else, taking such a tack helps to remind us of the risks involved in abusing specious parallels in the way that we are prone to do.

Thucydides was unusual among classical writers in stating directly what he hoped his readers would gain from his work. He would be content, he says, if History of the Peloponnesian War was deemed ‘useful’ by those who wanted ‘to scrutinise what actually happened and would happen again, given the human condition, in the same or similar fashion’ (my translation). The description nevertheless leaves readers wanting. How exactly such knowledge should prove useful is underspecified, and scholars have long disagreed over what Thucydides expected the utility of his text to be.

Most assume that Thucydides tried to offer his reader a type of foreknowledge that could potentially translate into active control over the politico-historical process. Taken to its extreme, this ‘optimistic’ interpretation reads History of the Peloponnesian War as a sort of ‘political systems users’ manual’, as Josiah Ober put it, capable of creating expert political technicians. Recognising regularities in the historical process, it is thought, should lead to predictive capacity, which in turn allows for political mastery. Proceeding in this fashion, Thucydides takes himself to be training master statesmen capable of solving the fundamental problems of political life.

Others detect a more pessimistic outlook in Thucydides’ stated ambition. They suggest that the lessons on offer are insufficient to produce control over events even if they can help the reader detect regularities in the political process. Unexpected events will often upset our expectations, as the plague did in Athens, and the ignorance of non-experts will often disrupt the translation of technical insight into effective policy. This problem will be particularly acute within a democratic context, where a popular eagerness to apply bastardised versions of such insights may even make matters worse. In this interpretation, Thucydides is ‘useful’ to the extent that he can temper the ambitions of those wishing to impose rational order onto political life. The best we can hope for, it seems, is to minimise our self-harm.

We must learn how to choose the right parallels if we are to judge well in politics

At issue between these two interpretive poles is the basic presumption of applied social science: to what extent can the recognition of recurring patterns translate into effective political policy? Yet, Thucydides was not writing social science as we know it. To the extent that his text articulated anything like fundamental laws of political behaviour, it did so through exemplary instances and carefully curated parallelisms. The Peloponnesian War served as a paradigmatic event for Thucydides: a particular instance that revealed general truths. It served this representative role, however, not because it was typical. Rather, it was exemplary because it was uniquely ‘great’. The war would prove useful, in other words, not because of history’s strict repetition, but by the pregnancy of similarity and the reader’s ability to parse analogies effectively.

Thucydides schools his readers in just how difficult such acts of analogical interpretation can be. A series of carefully considered verbal parallels, or what Jacqueline de Romilly has called fils conducteurs (‘guiding threads’), extend through Thucydides’ narrative like a web, ensnaring the reader in a constant and, at times, overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes, repetitions point towards important explanatory insights. But they also suggest likenesses that can lead the reader astray. Time and again, Thucydides confounds the expectations he has created. Even upon rereading, one can feel an internal tension between what one knows to be the case and what one is nonetheless led to expect will happen. Whether it is your first or your 15th read, you can still catch yourself thinking: this time surely Athens will win.

The evident lesson behind all of this is that we must learn how to choose the right parallels if we are to judge well in politics. But Thucydides also knew that we did not have full control of the analogies that shape our deliberations, especially in public life. Our analogical vocabulary is woven directly into the cultural fabric, a product of the contingencies that shape collective memory. We choose them no more than we choose the language we speak. (Once again, Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’) Some events, such as the Persian Wars in Thucydides’ day or the Second World War in our own, simply loom too large to avoid, and we are easily held captive by the emotional weight of their cultural significance. Thucydides measured this gravitational pull also in terms of ‘greatness’, a concept that he identified closely with the production of collective trauma.

The danger inherent in this, of course, is that emotional resonance is often a poor guide to explanatory power. The most immediately compelling analogies can prove deeply misleading. The most haunting Thucydidean parallelism to highlight this point occurs through the phrase ‘few out of many returned home again’. Thucydides repeats this line three times, each to memorialise a harrowing military defeat: two massive Athenian expeditions, first to Egypt and then to Sicily, and a surprise attack that caught an entire army of Ambraciots asleep in their beds. Thucydides’ verbal repetition tempts the reader into seeing these events as an analogous set. Yet the last of these to occur, the Sicilian disaster, could not have been prevented by learning the lessons of the previous two. Quite the opposite. Rather than suffer from neglect by the metropole, as the Egyptian Expedition had, the Sicilian Expedition failed in large part due to the city’s miscalculated interventions. Rather than profit from the creative generalship of Demosthenes, which had proven decisive in the victory over the Ambraciots, his arrival in Sicily only further exacerbated the carnage.

The seductive pull of ‘great’ events is not an incidental danger to the use of historical analogies. If historians tend to debate the appeal of these parallels primarily in terms of their explanatory value, the motive behind their day-to-day use is arguably more visceral. Analogies serve more as vehicles for generating awe and outrage than for unearthing more nuanced understandings. Yet, even when used merely as rhetorical tools, they can carry serious diagnostic implications.

These implications aren’t always detrimental. Figurative rhetoric can use the resources of collective memory to move people toward better policy when explanatory traction aligns with affective resonance. Thucydides’ Pericles appears exemplary of this. Early in the war, the celebrated Athenian leader faces a crowd wearied by plague and the general miseries of war. In an attempt to steel their resolve, he draws on two coordinated analogies. In the first, he describes the Athenian struggle in terms of a Greek hero overcoming labours in the pursuit of glory. In the second, he likens the democracy’s empire to a tyranny that, in defeat, must confront the widespread hatred it has incurred.

In paralleling the Athenians to two of the most provocative figures in the Greek imagination, Pericles goads the people back to their original resolve with the alternating spikes of pride and fear. And he does so perceptively. Thucydides draws on the same analogical models when characterising Athenian power and political culture in the opening pages of History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s to Pericles’ further credit that he doesn’t simply discard the analogies after they’ve served his immediate purposes. Rather, the need to balance the ‘heroic’ and ‘tyrannical’ elements of the imperial democracy serves as a framing priority for his entire war strategy – a strategy that Thucydides himself explicitly praises.

This is not to say that Periclean policy does not prove costly for the Athenians. It serves to enhance the devastation of the plague by demanding that the Athenians crowd together behind their city walls, thereby exacerbating Athenian deaths. But the costs of this policy do not arise from Pericles’ misuse of analogical rhetoric. The experience of the plague only proves a point that should already be obvious, namely, that using analogies well cannot save us from forces beyond our control. Elsewhere, however, Thucydides makes it clear that the misuse of analogies can actually invite catastrophes on par with those suffered by chance.

A false version of the story weighed heavily on the minds of the Athenians as they made a series of bad decisions

Nowhere is this message more clearly drawn than in Athens’ climactic defeat in Sicily. The toll of this disaster is hard to overstate: not only did Athenian casualties approach those of the plague, the mishap so shook the city’s faith in popular rule that an oligarchy temporarily displaced the democracy in its aftermath. Many events contributed to this grim result. Yet Thucydides’ own explanation of why the expedition failed began with a story about an event that had occurred nearly a century before the Athenian fleet set sail.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were towering figures in Athenian civic legend. As ‘the Tyrannicides’, they were credited with putting an end to Athenian despotism and instigating the transition towards democracy. For this, they were heroised and memorialised with unparalleled reverence. And yet, Thucydides tells his reader, their reputation was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what they’d actually done. Far from being civic benefactors or even tyrannicides, Thucydides reveals, they’d murdered the tyrant’s younger brother in a romantic rivalry gone wrong. The consequences of this murder were devastating: the previously beneficent ruler spiralled into paranoia, resulting in increasingly harsh treatment of the Athenian people.

Athenian lore had gotten everything backward: the so-called Tyrannicides, far from saving the city from despotism in an act of self-sacrifice, had caused this despotic turn for eminently personal reasons. Nevertheless, it was this false version of the story that weighed heavily on the minds of the Athenians as they made a series of bad decisions in the early days of the Sicilian Expedition. It did not do so unprompted. Rather, this misunderstanding proved a useful tool among aspiring elite leaders within Athens, each of whom was eager to clear a path for their own ascent. Standing in the way of most, however, was the Sicilian Expedition’s most talented general, a brash and charismatic leader named Alcibiades. When a series of sacrilegious acts occurred on the eve of the expedition, Alcibiades’ rivals pushed the (false) Tyrannicide parallel, suggested a tyrannical coup was afoot, and implicated Alcibiades. There was no evidence for this, but in the resultant hysteria it did not matter. Faced with certain prosecution, Alcibiades defected to Sparta, turning the tide of war against Athens.

This elite manipulation of popular misunderstanding effectively inverts Pericles’ constructive use of heroic and tyrannical parallels. By painting Alcibiades as a potential tyrant, his opponents easily conjured up an exaggerated state of fear that allowed them to achieve their private ends at the expense of the city. In the end, Thucydides shows that the analogy between past and present was indeed illuminating: personal rivalries once again led to civic casualties that resulted in brutal and self-undermining politics. But the cost of this collective delusion would become clear only later. Hindered by increasingly poor generalship and an opponent emboldened by Spartan help, ‘few out of many’ would make it home from Sicily, and Athens would soon devolve into civil war.

In May 1861, Marx found himself increasingly depressed about the American Civil War. The best he could do to mitigate his low mood, he told a friend, was to read Thucydides. ‘These ancients,’ he explained, ‘always remain new.’ They do so, we might add, by forever remaining old, thereby creating the space we need to find ourselves in the contrast.

It is tempting to see Thucydides’ digression about the tyrannicide analogy as the key to understanding his historical method. Had the Athenians only understood the truth of their own history, we might think, they wouldn’t have made such easy prey for self-serving politicians. In this vein, Thucydides’ project may seem to be that of saving future generations from comparable mistakes. As the ‘greatest’ conflict to ever beset the Greeks, unique in both its glory and its trauma, the Peloponnesian War would soon usurp the Tyrannicides and the Trojan War as the privileged source of political analogy. As such, it promised unparalleled resources for anyone trying to persuade others to their cause. It is reasonable to think that Thucydides expected his work to hinder the ability of bad actors to abuse this power. At the same time, it is unclear just how far it was in his ability to do so. The Athenians, after all, had everything they needed to realise the truth about the Tyrannicides. What they lacked was the will to scrutinise something that they felt to be intuitively correct. Thucydides could give posterity an account of the Peloponnesian War that might stop it from becoming fodder for false parallels if considered carefully. But he could not thereby prevent opportunists from constructing misleading analogies on its back.

Approaching Thucydides’ text from the angle of historical analogy does not resolve the age-old disagreement between his optimistic and pessimistic readers. It may nevertheless encourage us to recognise that a more realistic approach to political agency must exist somewhere between these two poles. Thucydides intimates that the careful art of drawing fitting analogies, honed as it may be through the diligent study of political history, will assist some to think more clearly about the present. But mastering this art should not be confused with political mastery. The power of ‘great’ events will remain too easily harnessed, and too hard to control, to serve only those who are clear-headed and well-intentioned. Specious analogies will remain a danger for as long as people stand to benefit from them, and their emotional pull will continue to knock even the most astute off balance. And yet, if there’s little chance that political life will ever be freed from distortive thinking, it may still prove less hazardous for those who look toward history as something more than a sourcebook of convenient parallels.

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