rough thoughts on polarized politics, via thucydides

a passage on the decay of Athenian democracy by Thucydides — brace yourself, it’s fairly long, and I am editing for clarity:

In those days it was impossible for any man to give good and profitable counsel for the commonwealth, and not incur the displeasure of the people … [The only men who] swayed the assemblies, and were esteemed wise and good commonwealth men, [were those who] put them upon the most dangerous and desperate enterprises.

Whereas he that gave them temperate and discreet advice was thought a coward, or not to understand …

And no marvel: for much prosperity (to which they had now for many years been accustomed) maketh men in love with themselves, and it is hard for any man to love that counsel which maketh him love himself the less.

And it holdeth much more in a multitude, than in one man.

For a man that reasoneth with himself will not be ashamed to admit of timorous suggestions in his business … but in public deliberations before a multitude, fear … seldom or never sheweth itself or is admitted.

By this means it came to pass among the Athenians, who thought they were able to do anything, that wicked men and flatterers drave them headlong into those actions that were to ruin them; and the good men either durst not oppose, or if they did, undid themselves.

While there are undoubtedly strong parallels with present-day governance (e.g. Bush administration warmongering — any other examples?), the idea that temperate and discreet advice is eschewed simply because of “much prosperity…[which] maketh man in love with himself” is somewhat opaque to me at present & more thought is required.

I have been thinking that there is rather something about the passage from private thought to public rhetoric that invariably polarizes. Maybe it’s overly obvious, but I’ll make the point anyway — rather, a conjecture: subtlety, discretion & temperance do not weather the journey into rousing rhetoric well. Dangerous & desperate enterprises provoke and lend themselves to action; discreet & temperate advice requires too much care, distinction, and uncomfortable caveats. “For God, King and Country!” is a battlecry. “For A Potentially Not-Universal Ideal of Democracy And Freedom, Continued Trade Opportunities By Ensuring The Favourable Dispositions Of The New Government That We Will Put In Place Though Being Careful Not To Alienate The Local Populace By Implementing Culturally Insensitive Policies Such As A Secular Constitution, And By The Way We Hope You Do Not Mind That We Are Raising Taxes Across The Board And Conscripting All Your Sons!” is — how do I say this — unpopular.

but: the desperate men drave them into ruinous actions, and the temperate men were silent — this is the nub of many historical tragedies, including the one I (perhaps naively?) see enacting itself today: that moderate (read, perhaps, “liberal”) thought is too tempered to sway, let alone drive any “commonwealth” to action; that it is rabble-rousing rhetoric that gives the flock direction and purpose. This is what happens in Malaysia: only polarized, racialized politics has thus far been effective in retaining power & shaping nation-building. Also, I watched some harrowing, if slanted, documentaries on Christian evangelist politics in America recently; knowing as relatively little as I do about American politics, this has certainly added to my current morose outlook.

Comments and corrections — discreet, temperate or otherwise — welcome.

In other news, Cliopatria has graciously invited me to write for them over at History News Network; I am all set to take my place as a kind of weed amidst the luminaries of the online historical rose garden. Interesting times!


9 responses to “rough thoughts on polarized politics, via thucydides

  • Gavin Robinson

    I even see this kind of problem in the study of history. It’s easier to get people interested in an extreme and simplistic conclusion that a subtle and moderate one. I keep meaning to write a post about the limitations of dialectics but so far haven’t got round to it.

  • rAchel

    that’s interesting — I had thought that if anywhere, academia was the one place where subtle thinking would have more room to breathe (or at least, to issue eye-wateringly tedious seminar papers to a glazed audience). but I see your point, at least for popular history & pithy summarizations of a PhD thesis. seems anything with mass appeal needs not to be subtle. but I do think that (good) academic thinking is distinguished precisely by a greater level of subtlety than public rhetoric. it’s, I think, what invites accusations of ivory towers.

  • oli

    Surely it is instability and poverty rather than prosperity that drives people to extremism. Just look at Weimar Germany or any number of other examples of desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures logic.

    Thucydides says that prosperity is a problem because it makes people unwilling to listen to arguments that will hurt their self-esteem. Is this a case of rich people only listening to money raising schemes involving war and plunder and not facing up to the need for taxation? I know nothing about Greek history.

    On the other hand, I suppose the coddled lifestyle of the rich could breed a kind of detached bellicosity.

  • rAchel

    having thought about it a bit, I think it’s perhaps a comment on how “men in love with themselves”, made wealthy from bounty and spoils of previous successful wars (“The Athenians, who thought they could do anything”), were unlikely to listen to new, temperate and discreet advice suggesting that perhaps they *couldn’t* do everything, after all.

    I wonder if perhaps I’m taking prosperity too literally — it could also be the intangible wealth of war: Athenian prestige, fear in their enemies, fierce military pride. I guess — which discreet and temperate man would be brave enough to stand up in an assembly hall of testosterone-charged men flushed from yesterday’s victory and proffer the following: “So guys, maybe that’s enough now”?

  • Jason

    Ah, good explanation, it’s much clearer now. In that case the parallel with the Iraq War is clear: when it begun, anyone who wasn’t pro-war was unpatriotic/didn’t love liberty and democracy/a terrorist.

  • Robin

    I think this underestimates people a bit. Good, subtle ideas CAN have strong appeal. We tend to omit Gandhi’s satyagraha, the democracy movements in Eastern Europe, etc. when we think of “the masses” and what they’re capable of. Okay, fine, they weren’t Ph.D. theses, but they were also a far cry from “rahhh triumph!” AND they were a) massively popular and b) ultimately successful.

    (P.S. Don’t bring up what happened to India after independence. Will ruin my argument. Thx.)

    But that plays directly into your point about prosperity — India c. 1940s and Eastern Europe c. 1980s had BIG reasons to listen to good ideas.

  • Gavin Robinson

    You’re definitely right that academic history is much better off than politics or popular culture. I’m just pedantically suggesting that it’s still not quite good enough. Even among trained historians who take pride in their critical thinking there’s a strong temptation to reduce things to binary oppositions. eg the English Civil War was caused by long term factors OR short term factors; members of the Long Parliament were aligned with the war party OR the peace party; the New Model Army represented continuity OR change. I want to get past thinking that everything in history has to be one thing or the other. Sometimes it’s a bit of both, and sometimes it’s something completely different.

  • rAchel

    Point noted. And I think Robin’s point illustrates that I am just as prey to arguments reduced to binary opposites🙂 — that people either are or are not moved by subtle ideas.

    TOTALLY TANGENTIALLY, I wonder about this sometimes — whether the tendency towards binary opposites (light & dark, civilization & barbarism, form & content, mind & matter) is simply a true observation of real things-in-the-world (easiest example: men & women), or whether it’s simply encoded into the way we perceive things (another opposite there: perception & reality — a platonic trap). Perhaps it stems from the one fundamental binary opposition that we are I think inevitably burdened with — self & other.

    the question is, of course, whether we can coherently operate in any other way.

  • Robin

    Well, I just plowed through the rest of those Planet Earth documentaries and real-things-in-the-world seem pretty wild and non-binary to me. Lots of continuums and and complexities and shades of gray. Well, green. And brown.

    Maybe the real problem is that we’ve been spending too much time with, you know, 10101101001😉

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