Can we fall into the trap of Thucydides?


Why do the White House tenant's consulting brains obsessively read the most difficult Greek prose writer of antiquity as if they were students in the final year of the Degree in Classical Philology? This is what political analysts in Washington ask themselves over the last year because Thucydides the Athenian, the meticulous and sophisticated historian of the war who bled out classical Greece for thirty years, is more fashionable than ever in the upper echelons of the two superpowers Current: United States and China. There is a paradox that the modern experts in geopolitics and their application at the highest level of the global strategy take more into account the classical history and philology than most of our ministerial and autonomous leaders in education, more busy in promoting high school and university seemingly profitable topics, such as business, tourism or gastronomy, against the intellectual fuel that really moves the engine of history and decision making at the highest levels. But why look for the keys to international politics of the 21st century, for example, in what refers to the current conflict facing post-communist China and Trump's US protectionists, immersing himself in the conscientious reading of a Greek classic of 2500 years ago?


We could sketch this first answer without fear of making mistakes: because it is a universal classic of literature, historiography and thought. Where to look for answers if not? Classic, following a memorable definition of Jorge Luis Borges, "is that book that a nation or a group of nations or the long time have decided to read as if in its pages everything was deliberate, fatal, profound as the cosmos and capable of interpretations without term (…) A book that the generations of men, urged for various reasons, read with prior fervor and with a mysterious loyalty ». Thucydides, the second of the classical triad of Greek historians, is the master of scientific, critical, and political history. He dedicated himself to narrate the Peloponnesian War, which faced almost irremediably the two superpowers of the time, Athens and Sparta, ideological rivals by definition. It was not only a brutal and very long war, which festered the traditional hatreds between Ionians and Dorians, but a conflict of enormous dimensions that forever changed the ancient world. Thus begins this History: "Thucydides, a native of Athens, narrated the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, how they fought against each other. He began his compilation recently declared war, because he foresaw that he would be great and more famous than all his precedents. He conjectured that because both sides prepared themselves for it when it was in full swing and with all kinds of preparations, and because he saw that the rest of the peoples of Greece were allied with one party or another, some immediately and others after having meditated on it » . (I 1. Trad. A. Guzmán). We must remember that Athens had managed to become the greatest power of its time, after the Medical Wars, thanks to the maintenance of a fleet that allowed it to maintain an impressive empire over its allies and colonies. He sometimes forcibly exported the democratic system to "liberate" many of his allies, who in the end had to contribute to defraying the costs of the system in the so-called Atico-Delphic League. On the other side was the oligarchic and militarist Sparta, with its Peloponnesian League, which brought together not only convinced of its political system, but also commercial rivals of the powerful Athens united by the fear of its strength. Protectionism, trade routes, ancestral hatreds and ideological propaganda mixed in a lethal cocktail. As Luciano Canfora has studied, Thucydides is a political thinker of the first magnitude: conservative and skeptical about the democratic system and its radical and imperialist drift, he analyzed with precision the springs of power and its factions. Paradoxically, in foreign policy, the city defending democracy behaved cruelly towards minor actors, such as what Thucydides calls "polis tyrannos." The master of historians left written imperishable pages about this society in crisis, about the glory and the fall of the Athens of Pericles, the war, the plague, the demagogy, the betrayals and the intrigues for power. Let us point out its characteristic disbelief, its rational search for the causes of human actions, its identification of pretexts, its deep reflection on the decision-making that, when it is wrong, inevitably lead to conflict and disaster. Moses Finley stressed that his work is, in addition, great literature for its composition of the historical panorama, a "ktema es aei", an imperishable acquisition that we can still read today with great advantage. But there is something else. Thucydides is a dense, intelligent author, precise until the dissection of the causes and motives of the highest level decisions on the war or politics board. It is not easy as a leader book of leaders, like other classic records of the pompously called "decission-making" for military, corporate or governmental uses, such as Machiavelli, Gracian, Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. But to crumble the story of Thucydides has become indispensable in the Trump era, as the political scientist Graham Allison has seen. This Harvard professor, one of the key US thinkers in foreign policy, has developed a theory of rational choice in complex organizations since, in his first book, "Essence of decission" (1971), he began to study the management of crisis situations combining the decision in the short term with the strategy in the long term.

«Study classical Greek»

In his latest book, "Destined for War" (2017), Allison compares the escalation of tensions between Athens and Sparta by the extraordinary economic and political development of the first with what happens with the growth of China and its commercial conflicts with the US. But this, as we say, is not new: other classical neoconservative intellectuals have made Thucydides the author of reference for the Republican party: Donald Kagan, professor of classics at Yale, who has devoted four volumes of reference to the historian, considers him a source of wisdom about human behavior and, above all, international politics. Or Victor Hanson, professor in California, who in his work on the Peloponnesian War compares Athens with the US. That is why Thucydides is read with devotion: it is no longer a fad, it is a peremptory need to understand and act. So are the classics: «Nihil novum sub sole». Gentlemen managers of our schools, is it too much to ask them to realize what should be studied in secondary school to forge successful leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and intellectuals? Get out of statistics, chemistry and computing. Studying classical Greek is the best thing to have a privileged perspective of the present. The paradox of Thucydides.

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