Oelke guest opinion: Is history repeating itself?
In his book “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter,” Thomas Cahill speaks of the Greeks’ contribution to the Western concept of history and discusses both Herodotus and Thucydides. Toward the end of the fifth century BCE, Thucydides wrote his account of the Peloponnesian war, the 30-year struggle between Athens and Sparta occasioned by Athens’ increasing dominance of the area. His ruminations of the major consequences of that war ring startingly clear in today’s world.
Thucydides observed that, in peacetime, states and individuals cherish traditional values of honesty and integrity. But war brings out another side of human nature, dark and malevolent. Perceived threats to one’s status, wealth and well-being in general, do the same. It’s revealing to see what this progenitor of the discipline of history has to say about the effects of unbridled conflict.
Leaders bring in foreign allies to support their causes and damage their opponents. They change the meaning of words to add support to their causes. A loyal supporter’s reckless audacity and lying, if directed at an enemy, is seen as courage. Taking time to consider options in any situation is deemed cowardice. Moderation of any kind means one isn’t “manly,” lacks conviction, and, in general, is not trustworthy. The same goes for the ability to see several sides of an issue, which also suggests an inability to act decisively. Rather, when faced with a complex issue, acting immediately without too much reflection is the true measure of valor.
Secret plots to undermine an opponent are justified if they cause harm. To succeed in such plotting is considered the height of shrewdness. And the corollary to that assertion is that not plotting at all is a betrayal of one’s party. Anyone asking for reasons for such plots, or any actions at all, is suspected of malice. People asking for reasons should be accused of a crime; accusing adversaries of crimes is commendable because it forces them to spend energy responding to such accusations.
Fair proposals from an adversary should be openly accepted with promises to consider them, especially if such proposals suggest compromise and reconciliation. But one should consider such proposals only long enough to lull the adversary into complacency and then attack their weakness and accomplish one’s own goals. Treachery, in other words, is seen as superior intelligence.
Leaders claim they are providing benefits for the people, but in fact are securing prizes and wealth for themselves. They pretend to act in the public interest, which they pretend to cherish, but engage in profiteering and personal excesses of all kinds.
All these actions, not to mention the whims of the “party,” are the only standards for behavior. The ancient concept of honor was laughed down and disappeared.
Athens lost the war and was forever changed, first being dominated by Sparta, later by the Roman empire. Only remnants of the Greek ideals lingered in the Greek tutors so popular among Romans of means.
Resemblances to the practices of the adversaries during the war in our present practices in public “conversations” are obvious. Human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,500 years. Will we follow with resemblances to post-war Greece?
Karl Oelke, of Silt, is a retired Army officer and English teacher as well as an occasional reader of history.
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