A deadly outbreak of an epidemic, followed by widespread civil unrest, politicians who underperform during crisis and lack leadership, the defacing of statues, and even religious scandals … Sound something like a page out of 2020? Possibly, but this scenario is taken right from the annals of the History of Peloponnesian War. The similarities between then and now are indeed striking and bear closer study, because as Thucydides assures us: “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same.”
Despite the major changes undergone by humanity over two-plus millennia, it appears that our nature remains much the same. The recent unrest in the United States has been compared by some to a sort of cultural revolution, but considering that the United States is often likened to ancient Athens, with Sparta being the old Soviet Union, succeeded today perhaps by China, it’s also worth looking at today’s events through Thucydides’ prism. In particular, the vandalization of the Athenian hermai (large stone or marble pillars featuring the head of Hermes, other deities, or even famous mortals), known as the Hermokopid affair, seems like a good entry point for this juxtaposition.
In addition to their religious significance, these busts served both a practical and sociological purpose. They were used for directions and delineation, but also symbolized the gentrification of the middle class and the city’s democratic polity. Their sudden mutilation by unknown perpetrators left Athens in an uproar because their destruction was taken as a bad omen ahead of the major military expedition planned in Sicily, but also as a threat to the city’s democratic polity by oligarch sympathizers. The event served as prime fodder for demagogues and political rivals to target their opponents – greatest of whom was Pericles’ nephew Alcibiades, a cunning strategist and charismatic public figure whose brilliance was matched only by his unchecked ambition and licentiousness.
The jealousy of his political opponents and the suspicions of the citizenry, which had just cause to be wary of Alcibiades due to his idiosyncratic behavior, rendered him a prime suspect in the Hermokopid affair, resulting in his recall from the battlefield in Sicily, defection to Sparta, subsequent defection to Persia, and eventual short-lived recall to Athens to lead the war against Sparta. Ironically, many of those suspected in the vandalization of the Hermai hailed from the aristocracy, which they nonetheless held in disdain. It’s also worth remembering here that the ancient Greek concept of aristocracy was different from how we understand it today – classical Greek standards, an aristocrat was someone who owned land and ancestral tombs.
Thucydides displays little concern about whether the official investigation uncovered the truth (a decisive conclusion was never reached due to the poor quality of the witnesses and the mob mentality that had overcome the citizens). Instead, he focuses on the consequences of the scandal and their effect on civic life. What is certain is that the witch hunt deprived Athens of its most capable general in the Sicilian expedition, which ended up becoming a turning point in the war. It also brought some of the basest elements in Athens’ political affairs to the forefront and into power.
As he writes: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence, became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.”
The sudden groupthink being exhibited during the Coronavirus outbreak and the media’s propensity to generate headlines around contrived narratives rather than a passionless review of all the facts, coupled by many political, corporate, and journalistic elements’ capitulation to the often irrational mob mentality, which is only being embraced for ill-gotten political gains, are emerging as real threats to America’s polity.
In the name of dubious political motives cloaked in the faux garments of seductive slogans and manipulative mottos, the liberalism championed by America is being openly undermined, while executives and legislators pander to militant organizations – hoping to leverage their political standing, until the very ground on which they themselves stand gives way and their homes collapse.
The Cleon-like demagogues may enjoy short-lived success and terrify even the mask-makers, who cannot be persuaded to make caricatures of them, as we are informed in the ancient comedy The Knights, but in the end, the people recognize them for what they are, and their manipulation of the political and legal system for personal gain.
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