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Thucydides and Plato on Iraq and the United States

By Thomas E. Brewton
web posted November 7, 2005

Victor Davis Hanson's new book, A War Like No Other : How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, pulls our attention back to lessons from ancient history.

The Peloponnesian War, which endured a harrowing 27 years, from 431 to 404 BC, stripped from the great city state of Athens all of its military fleet, city fortifications, and colonies. Athens had been the dominant military and commercial power in the Eastern Mediterranean before the war, a war that easily could have been avoided but for the hubris and volatility of the Athenian democratic process.

Professor Hanson sees foreboding parallels between Athenian over-reaching and our own efforts to stabilize the political situation in the Middle Eastern Islamic world via re-making Iraq.

We certainly will have over-reached if liberals can manipulate public opinion to abandon Iraq immediately and thereby embolden Islamic radicals to believe that we really are just paper tigers.

There are still broader parallels between the United States' drifting away from its original federal republic structure and into a French Revolutionary-style, radical democracy in which volatility of public opinion can undercut real national interests.

Today, when it seems likely that Iraq is on the verge of stabilizing itself as a self-governing political state, American public opinion is displaying a feckless lack of stamina. Much the same sort of thing occurred in the Mediterranean world as the Peloponnesian war dragged on.


The late Professor Leo Strauss makes an interesting comparison of Plato's views and Thucydides's. Both, he says, prefer moderate, mixed-form governments (the well-known Greek gravitation to the mean). Thucydides, whose work slightly precedes Plato's, looks to the process of politics as the source of wisdom, while Plato believes that the individual's quest for truth and wisdom is the ultimate determinant of the quality of life in society.

Thus Thucydides focuses on the largest political event in history, up to that point, (the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta) to illustrate both what men say and what they actually do, in order to illuminate the real political considerations that underlie the ostensible explanations for events. Plato's dialogues, while referencing political events from time to time, are much more introspective.

Professor Strauss suggests that the greater prominence of Plato's work overshadowed Thucydides's and thereby stunted the early development of analytical political history. Xenophon, he notes, afterwards addressed history in a much different, less profound manner.

Applying the two approaches -- historical and philosophical -- to the state of affairs today in the United States leads to disquieting possible conclusions. Can an individual, by following the Socratic admonition, have any real effect on the political process? Must we content ourselves, as did Thucydides, in standing back from events and merely attempting to understand them? Must we in effect return to an earlier, fatalistic view of history? Do political affairs oscillate along a level line, anchored by human nature? Can there be any true "progress"?

Is the United States, like Athens, fated to the hubris that, however brilliant, leads to self-destruction? Is that one of the lessons of the 20th century? Certainly our present-day apotheosis of public-opinion-polling is reminiscent of the Athenian assembly that, before the start of the Peloponnesian War, heard first the Spartan request for diplomatic settlement, then Pericles's hortatory speech about their invincibility, and with no further deliberation, told the Spartans to get lost.

As Socrates says in Plato's Apology, public opinion is not wisdom. If you are deathly ill, you don't send someone into the streets to take an opinion poll of the first five people encountered to determine what should be done to treat your illness. But that is exactly what Presidents like Jimmie Carter and Bill Clinton did with regard to our domestic and foreign policies, their stances wavering from day to day with every passing opinion breeze.

Present-day media and education make public opinion even less reliable a guide to public policy than in Athens of Plato's time. The media push us toward orgiastic sensualism, and education relentlessly pounds the message of socialism.

Precision of language has been displaced by the rise of academic jargon and PC speech codes, our version of Orwell's 1984 NewSpeak. Obfuscation now passes for erudition. Academic freedom means the right to suppress any attempt to express traditional ideas.

It's doubtful that most students today are able to distinguish between the concepts of political liberty and personal license. Few understand that the liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence was protection under the law against arbitrary political authority, not absence of all limits on personal conduct. But that is hardly their fault, since today's educational system focuses on entirely different objectives, and the legal doctrine developed by the ACLU to defend anarchists during and after the First World War has led the judiciary to redefine the First Amendment as unfettered license.

It's also likely that hardly any student today understands that the 1776 War of Independence was not at all a revolution in the sense of the savage vandalism perpetrated in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. Few are aware that our war was waged, not to change anything, but to preserve a system of self-governance that had developed here over the preceding one hundred and fifty years.

Nor do they appreciate that the colonists saw themselves as Englishmen claiming their natural rights under a political system that had evolved in repeated struggles over seven hundred years in England. It is beyond the intellectual grasp of liberal materialism to understand that people in cohesive, stable society cannot make policy decisions on the basis of the latest academic sociological theory, but respond rather to deeply ingrained habits produced by centuries of tradition. Chief among those traditions are common understandings about, and voluntary compliance with, morality and the law, the ultimate determinants of human behavior within society.

Civilization itself is traditions and habitual modes of conduct. Such traditions, however, can be destroyed all too quickly and easily, as we have seen in the United States after the welfare state took a strangle-hold in the 1950s.

Human nature drives adolescents and sophomoric college students to rebel against authority. This natural tendency is reinforced when some of their high school and college professors are 1960s "intellectuals", who remain rebellious adolescents themselves, learning nothing from experience and the chronology of age. In addition, it is part of the American character to assume that what is new is better, which often is true in the world of physical gadgets, and therefore by unconscious analogy to reject older, hard-won political wisdom. Wisdom is not to be found through participation in protest demonstrations.

Liberal professors instruct callow students to see Socrates as a sort of 1960s student rebel. Both fail altogether to grasp the real message that there are independent, unchanging truths which reflect human nature, and that the worth-living life is attuned to their pursuit; and that these truths are not the stuff of the latest public opinion poll.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Herbert Croly, the founding editor of the New Republic, and his associate editor, Walter Lippmann, fresh from the presidency of Harvard's socialist club, urged that we dispense with the failed tradition of Jeffersonian individualism. This old-fashioned ethos, they believed, produced mediocrity in public life. They longed for a Nietzschean strong man who would simply take the bull by the horns and wrestle society into socialism in order to bring about an "equitable" distribution of wealth. Aristotle's view of justice as a proportionality based on merit and contribution was to be replaced by Marxian economics.

Books like Mr. Lippmann's A Preface to Politics and Stuart Chase's A New Deal boldly advocated national planning by a professional class of managers and engineers. Foreshadowing Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 campaign, Mr. Chase called for a political leader who would assume dictatorial powers to implement a national planning and restructuring process which he candidly described as a collectivist turn to the left .

Following Mr. Chase's lead, FDR in his inaugural speech announced his intention to do just that and his readiness to assume dictatorial powers, if necessary. Among "intellectuals" in 1933, the New Deal's abrogation of traditional state and local government powers seemed an inconsequential price to pay for the sweeping triumph of scientific materialism. Only the discredited traditionalist minority objected to subverting this principal element in the Constitution's checks and balances that had been the focal point of the entire ratification debate from 1787 to 1789.

Tocqueville's admonition that the greatest threat to American democracy would be the tyranny of the majority has been decisively validated by events. The instability of Athenian democracy that led to the city's downfall is being repeated.

The New Deal and the rise of Germany's National Socialists showed conclusively that, when there are enough frightened people, even a snake-oil salesman can gain political power. Liberal-socialists today are intent upon proving that, when people are busy partying in a hedonistic society, the majority have no patience with political stands in defense of morality or against law-breaking and they will tolerate no challenge to sexual licentiousness.

The prospect of a future Thucydides assessing our society is not reassuring. A hedonistic Etruscan society plowed under by a disciplined and contemptuous Roman Empire is an altogether likely parallel. The Spartans of the future may be a coalition under China or some al-Qaida's radical Islamism. One way or another, human nature will reassert itself.

The writer's weblog is The View from 1776. Email comments to viewfrom1776@thomasbrewton.com.

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