Losing Touch With Thucydides
In the conflict between Athens and Sparta, the Melians tried in vain to maintain their neutrality. As Thucydides apprises us, the Athenians were rather blunt about the issue: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” As the Athenians succeeded in the siege of Melos, all Melian men were executed, the women and children sold to slavery.
That the “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” is one of the many nuggets of wisdom accessible in even a rudimentary reading of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. For a deeper reading, we might turn to renowned classicist Jacqueline de Romilly, who shows how and why Thucydides chose to write. But we don’t read Thucydides anymore, nor do we read someone like Romilly.
If an undergraduate encounters Thucydides today, it is through the prism of race and gender. Consider the case of a Princeton academic who the New York Times said “has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms.” The subtitle of that Times piece was “Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline.”
Destruction it is, all right. If a barbarian were to encounter the ruin of a Roman aqueduct, we may surmise that he felt some confusion, but also awe and wonder at the sight of it. Wokeism would demand taking that very same barbarian and teaching him to feel disgust for and moral superiority to the remains of that edifice. The last time Western academics developed a discipline that made people less and less knowledgeable about reality was eugenics, in the early 20th century.
The fashionable pose today is for one to declare himself a citizen of the world. And we do so even though we evidently understand less of whatever that world is. We are continuously surprised by the moves, attitudes, and opinions of someone like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. Recently, the New York Times ran an article titled, “How China Under Xi Jinping Is Turning Away From the World.” Noting that even “if the [Chinese] government values the economic benefits of globalization, the same does not seem true of less tangible ones: artistic, intellectual, interpersonal”. And “[d]espite his rhetorical commitments, Mr. Xi is narrowing the scope of economic engagement, calling for reduced reliance on exports and keeping Chinese companies closer to home.”
It never seems to have dawned on the writer that the Chinese may have different goals for globalization. Perhaps the Chinese never thought they were signing up for a process that would lead to a liberal global village where everybody sits by the fire singing kumbaya. Maybe they were really into America exporting jobs and know-how to China, and, as they gradually became stronger and richer, feel freer to move away from their “rhetorical commitments” to our illusions about globalization.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was a bit more decisive when discussing the recent war, as she decided to have the colors of the Ukrainian flag shine on the European Commission’s headquarters. “A symbol of our solidarity. Friendship. And steadfast support.” President von der Leyen, before she was appointed head of the European Commission, was Germany’s Defense minister. During her tenure there, as I wrote previously, “a parliamentary report exposed German planes that can’t fly and guns that don’t shoot. Fewer than a fifth of Germany’s helicopters are combat ready. Luftwaffe revealed that most of its 128 Typhoon jets were not ready to leave ground. All of Germany’s six submarines were out of commission.”
Von der Leyen got the defense post because she has been loyal to the causes of the political class. The defense post in a de facto disarmed Germany is a symbolic one, apt to be given to someone like von der Leyen, a party-machine lackey, to signify a female breakthrough in a traditionally male field. It has been said that the only thing between Germany and the forces of Putin is the Polish army—a situation made possible by the fact that the American taxpayer and soldier are basically all the defense that Germany has.
In Britain, the country’s spy chief tweeted that “we should remember the values and hard won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights. So let’s resume our series of tweets to mark #LGBTHM2022.” Upon reading the tweet I remembered that when the British soldier, Lee Rigby, who was murdered in Southeast London by two Islamic extremists. The police, while unable to save Rigby’s life, were ready to raid private residences for inappropriate comments on Twitter and Facebook. The newspaper Independent quoted the police, who said “We began inquiries into the comments and at around 3.20am two men, aged 23 and 22, were detained at two addresses in Bristol. The men were arrested under the Public Order Act on suspicion of inciting racial or religious hatred. Our inquiries into these comments continue.”
One may detect a certain convergence between Putin’s Russia and the spy-chief’s Britain, where private residences are raided in the wee hours of the morning for inappropriate comments. On a Sunday the Russian authorities detained another 900 people participating in anti-war protests, raising the total of more than 4,000 since the war started. The same day, von der Leyen announced that the “Kremlin-backed RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik, [will] be banned in the E.U.” She said, “We are developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe.” There is not much danger in a Westerner being fooled by RT propaganda presently. But it would take an aggressive reeducation campaign to prevent him from noticing the obvious promotion of war coming from those who purport to protect him from disinformation.
Romilly, the classicist, reminds us that Aristotle thought that the birth of rhetoric was interwoven with the birth of democracy. These contests of words have been fundamental elements of our heritage. Do not expect von der Leyen or the British spy chief to have any sense of loss as they go about breaking with that fundamental Western tradition. Our education today consists in making us insensible to our depleted selves, hostile to the past and numb to the world itself. In replacing Thucydides and women such as Romilly with the semiliterate grifters like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, we are losing the means to understand the world. We are otherizing reality. We don’t understand Putin and Xi. Pretty soon, even the idea of the Ukrainians fighting for their own country might appear to us a strange and foreign sentiment.
Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.