Reading Thucydides in Quarantine

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654
The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. — Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book Two

Perhaps the great advantage of a long quarantine is that it gives people time to read long books. You know the ones I mean: Democracy in America, War and Peace — the big, bold, important books that one always feels slightly embarrassed not to have read before, but which just don’t fit into the contours of normal life. Maybe even a book that has something useful to say about the situation that caused the quarantine in the first place.

If you are looking for a book like this, to read or even to reread, I highly recommend The History of the Peloponnesian War by the Greek historian Thucydides. This classic history recounts the events of the 27-year war (431–404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta (and their allies throughout the Greek world) that resulted in Athens losing most of its power and prominence, fundamentally changing the world. This is not just a relation of events, though. Thucydides analyzes the causes of the war, and the root problems in Athenian democracy that make both the war, and its result, inevitable.

One need not look too deeply to apply Thucydides wisdom to a plague that causes everyone to stay inside, as one of its early chapters (Book Two, Chapter 7) is all about the plague that hit Athens in 430 BCE, just as the war with Sparta was getting underway. The plague was an unqualified disaster. It killed 1/3 of the population of Athens, including Pericles, the democratic leader who had provided stability to Athens for more than 30 years.

The plague was devastating, and it killed far more Athenians than the Spartans did, and it all but destroyed their ability to prosecute the war. But they kept at it, foregoing multiple opportunities to make peace, because, as Thucydides frames it, they were locked into a world view that made the war inevitable. The unfolding of the war was driven by elements in Athens that could not be undone by a mere pandemic.

As I re-read The Peloponnesian War during the current crisis — not just the chapter about the plague, but the chapters about the war proper — I am struck by how many of Athens’ fatal flaws also plague the United States in the 21st century. Democracy, it seems, for all of its impressive strengths, has some weaknesses too, and we see them most clearly in times of crisis. Like plagues. And war. Just by scratching the surface of the great work, we can immediately perceive a few.

None of us is as dumb as all of us.
I doubt that anyone can get all the way through The Peloponnesian War with respect for democracy completely intact. It is hard to even consider it a good idea. Throughout the war, the great Athenian democracy basically votes itself off of a cliff. The people continue to vote for new battles and new expeditions, even when it becomes clear that the empire is overextended. Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration in Book I outlines the basic ingredients of the pro-war speeches throughout the war: 1) praise fallen soldiers and swear that they will not have died in vain; 2) assert the cultural and moral exceptionalism of the people of Athens; 3) say “freedom” a lot; and 4) subtly (and not so subtly) question the patriotism of anybody who disagrees with you.

But it would be inaccurate to say that bad leaders manipulate the people in a democracy. Let’s keep the Horace before Descartes. It works the other way around: narrow, shallow, self-interested people in a democracy reward with great power the leaders who tell them what they want to hear — those who confirm their prejudices and encourage their excesses. It is through a process of natural selection that democracy selects bad leaders, or, even more disastrously, forces good leaders (and Pericles was among the best) to say bad and stupid things. The greatest problem with democracy — and Thucydides completely nails it — is that it gives us what we actually want and forces us to endure the government we deserve.

A Divided Nation Can’t Do Hard Things.
Thucydides shows us that no form of government on earth can match the chaos and incompetence of a dysfunctional democracy. This can be seen most clearly in the Third Book, in a discussion of the civil war in Athens’ democratic ally Corcyra

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. . . . The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . To forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve. . . . Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.

In later sections, Thucydides describes how, as the Athenian democracy started to fracture, the polis lost its ability to debate and decide anything. Disastrous strategic decisions were made by people who had no understanding of military strategy. Truces were made and violated according to the temporary whims of an electorate. Incompetent men were made generals because they roused the assembly with passionate speeches, and capable leaders (such as Thucydides himself)were cashiered when they failed to meet the unreasonable expectations of an angry mob.

One constant in Thucydides’s analysis is that democracy stops working when its people divide into tribes and treat each other as enemies. When this happens, the structural mechanisms of democracy itself amplify the enmity by giving any majority, no matter how slight, the power to inflict whatever torments its members can dream up on the minority — which they invariably do because this is how one treats one’s enemies. Furthermore, intractable divisions within a society can be exploited by external forces to hasten that society’s demise. People who consider their fellow citizens their enemies tend to be less than discriminating about whose citizens they consider their friends.

One of the most disturbing things about the COVID-19 crisis is that responses to it have become markers of political identity. This should surprise nobody, as just about every action one might take in our society has become a marker of political identity —and right now, only a unified national response has any chance of saving perhaps a million or more lives. Partial quarantines don’t work. The security of the security measures we are taking right now depends on their universal adoption, which is impossible in a nation where almost every action is seen by somebody as a loyalty test and filtered through a partisan understanding of the truth.

Friends matter. A lot.
Hundreds of city-states took part in the war as part of either the Peloponnesian League lead by Sparta or the Delian League lead by Athens. The Athenians presented the war as a conflict of ideologies — Athens on the side of democracy and human rights and Sparta on the side of tyranny and militarism. But Athens did not treat their allies as partners in democracy and human rights. They did not treat them as allies at all, but as conquered provinces. Consequently, Athens spent as much of their blood and treasure trying to keep its client states from rebelling and denying them tribute as they did fighting Sparta.

One of the most stunning passages in the work is the Melian Dialogue, which was almost certainly the invention of Thucydides, but which captures what he saw as the Athenian’s disastrous employment of hard-fisted realpolitik in a war that was supposed to be about ideology. Melos, a Spartan colony, has tried to remain neutral during the war. Athens wants them as their “ally.” Here is their pitch:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that 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.

Reading a passage like this on the same day that the President of the United States ordered a medical supply manufacture not to honor contracts with Latin America and Canada provides a stark reminder that the blustering, arrogant realpolitik that destroyed Athens has never really gone away in the world. Recent allegations by France and Germany that the United States is intercepting shipments of supplies and offering much higher prices show that the trans-Atlantic alliance that won the cold war cannot survive the plague. Led by the United States and its president, the world is on the edge of regressing to zero-sum thinking at a time when a non-zero-sum worldview might be the only thing capable of saving us.

Just because you can see the trains doesn’t mean you can stop the wreck.
Thucydides’ History ends abruptly in 411 BCE. It does not include the end of the war, the ultimate Spartan victory, or the subjugation of Athens. But nobody who reads all eight books of The Peloponnesian War could possibly be surprised by the outcome. It is all encoded into the story. From the very beginning. It was clear (to me at least) that Thucydides — who had been exiled from Athens but was still very much an Athenian — could see the end of the war but could do absolutely nothing to stop it. And this is scary, because it means that no amount of foresight, knowledge, or insight into human nature can stop a democratic people from voting for their own demise or choosing leaders who appeal to and confirm the baser angels of their nature.

In the end, I think, it was W.H. Auden (of course) who best analyzed both the insights of Thucydides and the ultimate inability of those insights to protect us. He did so in his masterful poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of the Second World War:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

And the most famous line in Auden’s poem is both the best statement I know of Thucydides’ core message and the most important thing that the nation, and the world, need to understand in April of 2020.

“We must love one another or die.”

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store