Thursday, 10 March 2011


In his monumental eight-volume History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, the greatest historian of all time in my view, taught western civilization valuable lessons about the arrogance of political and military  leaders obsessed with power, double standards and political hypocrisy, the detrimental consequences of power on all parties concerned, the absence of justice and morality in foreign relations, hierarchy among states determined by power relationships, and the subjectivity of historical interpretation. These universal principles he developed 2400 years ago remain true today.

The "Funeral Oration" and the "Melian Dialogue" remain as relevant today as they were in the fifth century B.C. Thucydides demonstrates how Pericles, the Athenian leader pursuing an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy, immersed Athens into a catastrophic war against the main rival Sparta that devastated all Greek city-states and marked the gradual demise of classical Greek civilization. Like Athens ambitious to retain its imperial network, the US as NATO leader has been leading its members toward greater defense expenditures at the expense of the civilian economy and toward regional conflicts in the last six decades, the most recent in Afghanistan. While the decline of modern western civilization is not imminent, the decline of its social fabric based on a strong middle class is in trouble.

In the "Funeral Oration", Pericles praises the people of Athens, its institutions, and the importance of fighting the war against the evil backward Spartans and their allies. Athenian civilization was worth preserving for it was the center of the arts, science, and philosophy, an open society that treated foreigners with dignity and slaves humanely. Athens the open and advanced civilized society was worth preserving even if that meant launching an offensive preemptive war against the lesser closed and militaristic society Sparta. 

Aristophanes' anti-war perspective in his masterpiece "Lysistrata" notwithstanding, the war must go on to preserve the 'superior' Athenian civilization!  In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians make it clear that they reserve the right of enjoying sovereignty and democracy for themselves while denying the same rights, freedoms, and privileges to others. The city-state of Melos was neutral, but the price it paid for not joinning Athens against Sparta was invasion and the death of all adult males and enslavement of women and children.

Thucydides condemned the double standard in the logic of Athenian imperialism as illustrate in the Melian Dialogue. More significantly, the historian revealed that human beings who have power put aside lofty ideals of justice and morals. Mesmerized by the benefits of power and all its trappings from material goods to glory, they opt for war at the expense of the other who must be demonized so that the conqueror feels justified about his aggression.

Is the "modern American empire" so very different than the ancient Athenian empire? The US rightly honors and praises its great institutions, the founding fathers, democracy, and above all sovereignty. But does the US respect the same of other countries whose raw materials its wants at any price, whose foreign policy its wants to influence, whose institutions it seeks to shape? Like Pericles, the US reserves the right to dictate to other nations how they shall live, how they shall be governed, what products they must purchase, what values they must honor. 

Like the ancient Athenians overtaken by hubris, mesmerized by power, and utterly fearful of the other, the "modern American empire" is marking its own gradual demise because of imperial policies it has chosen to pursue. Thucydides wrote his masterpiece so that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the Athenians. George Santayana was right that people who lack historical knowledge are condemned to repeat mistakes of the past, but knowledge of the past is hardly an obstacle to the trappings of imperial power.

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