For a long time, certain prominent people in American politics and culture have, whenever the need to demonstrate that they have read a book, or even two, has arisen, turned to a common set of texts. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince are old standbys. The writings and speeches of Cicero, Homer’s epics, the works of Plato—really most of the major works of classical civilization—have vanished from the slimming libraries of America’s powerful and have thus fallen out of fashion. They are being replaced by the Harry Potter series.
One classical text that still gets dusted off every now and then is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, whose popularity endures particularly in the foreign policy and military communities and, as Politico Magazine’s Michael Crowley reported Wednesday morning, among Donald Trump’s advisers:
Thucydides is especially beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has called Thucydides’s work an “essential” military text, taught it to students and quoted from it in speeches and op-eds. Mattis is also fluent in Thucydides’s work: “If you say to him, ‘OK, how about the Melian Dialogue?’ he could tell you exactly what it is,” [D.C. foreign policy veteran Graham Allison] says—referring to one particularly famous passage. When former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at his confirmation hearing, Cohen said Mattis was likely the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”
The “Thucydides Trap” essentially boils down to a single insight: that powerful states are wary of increasingly powerful states. This fear regularly leads to wars. Deep stuff.
The other Thucydides fan in the White House is reportedly Steve Bannon, who was moved enough by the text, we are told, to begin using Sparta as a computer password. Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War, as Crowley notes, has been previously reported. In January, his former writing partner Julia Jones told the Daily Beast—in a piece that revealed that Bannon, naturally, also digs The Art of War—that he talked constantly about it. “How Sparta defeated Athens,” she specified. “He loved the story.”
Why? Crowley’s piece briefly mentions an article Bannon wrote for Breitbart in which he, “likened the conservative media rivalry between Breitbart and Fox News to the Peloponnesian War, casting Breitbart as the disciplined warrior state of Sparta challenging a decadently Athenian Fox.”
One of the most lucid descriptions of the “decadence” Bannon so clearly resents in classical Athens is presented, of course, in Thucydides—specifically in the famous funeral oration by the Athenian leader Pericles honoring both those on their side who had died in the early stages of the war and, more broadly, the values of Athenian society:
[...]If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.
[...]We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.
Sparta ultimately defeated Athens and placed the state under the rule of an oligarchical, tyrannical government. But the values Pericles described with a fair bit of idealization as underpinning Athenian society essentially won the so-called war of ideas—after many, many centuries of fairly Trumpian rulers lording over Europe, which columnists who pen bite-sized histories of Western civilization generally ignore. The victory of those values has been highly precarious; they’ve been contradicted in deed here in this country and elsewhere by leaders and thinkers who have purported to take them seriously and they have been challenged anew by figures invested in ethno-nationalism. Figures like Steve Bannon, a self-styled defender of the West who loathes everything that has made the West putatively remarkable. Strip away what the Athenians at least told themselves they believed in and all that’s left is avarice and oppression. Those who root for Athens’ destruction in Thucydides are not only rooting for the bad guys. They are the bad guys.