Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Athens as America

‘Contemporary America is often now seen through the lens of ancient Athens, both as a center of culture and as an unpredictable imperial power that can arbitrarily impose democracy on friends and enemies alike. Thomas Paine long ago spelled this natural affinity out: “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.” Like ancient Athenians, present-day Americans are often said to believe that “they can be opposed in nothing,” and abroad can “equally achieve what was easy and what was hard.”

‘Although Americans offer the world a radically egalitarian popular culture and, more recently, in a very Athenian mood, have sought to remove oligarchs and impose democracy – in Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq – enemies, allies, and neutrals alike are not so impressed. They understandably fear American power and intentions while our successive governments, in the manner of confident and proud Athenians, assure them of our morality and selflessness. Military power and idealism about bringing perceived civilization to others are a prescription for frequent conflict in any age – and no ancient state made war more often than did fifth-century imperial Athens.

‘So great were the dividends of envy, fear, and legitimate grievance against the ancient world’s first democracy that the victorious Peloponnesians who oversaw the destruction of the Long Walls of Athens – the fortifications to the sea symbolic of the power of the poor and their desire to spread democracy throughout the Aegean – did so to music and applause. Again, most Greeks concluded that, as Xenophon wrote, Athens’ defeat “marked the beginning of freedom for Greece” – without a clue that the victorious Sparta would move immediately to create its own overseas empire in the vacuum. Blinkered idealists in America who believe that the world wishes to join our democratic culture might reflect that at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, “the general good intentions of people leaned clearly in favor of the “Spartans” and that “the majority of Greeks were deeply hostile toward the Athenians.

‘The wealth and very liberality of Athens also encouraged dissent and hyper-criticism at home and abroad. The Athenians’ detractors expected a much higher level of fairness from them than they ever would have from the Spartans. Not until fourth-century Sparta incurred commensurate jealousy and envy as the Hellenic world’s only superpower, following its victory in the war, would the Greeks at last cease their distrust of imperial Athens.

‘This paradox was an exasperating experience for Athenians. And it perhaps presages the dilemma faced by generations of subsequent powerful Western liberal and imperial republics that were singularly chastised to match their idealistic and high utopian rhetoric with deeds. Just as states reprimanded Athens but preferred to visit the Acropolis rather than the unimpressive national Spartan shrine to Menelaus, so too the West’s Cold War detractors roundly condemned its realist foreign policy but usually preferred to accept a visiting professorship at Oxford, the Sorbonne, or the University of California, Berkeley, rather than a teaching slot in Moscow, Havana, or Cairo.

‘Sparta counted on these inconsistencies in its upcoming war with “Athens: the rest of the Greek world would subject Athens to a standard of behavior that it would never apply to illiberal Sparta. The privileged citizens of a consensual and affluent Athens would purportedly have a much lower tolerance for a drawn-out war’s pain and sacrifice than the militarists at Sparta, whose society was on a constant war footing and reflective of the barracks. And the volatile assembly would vote for and then reject military operations in a way unheard of at oligarchic Sparta.

‘Consequently, many have carefully read Thucydides in just that historicist context. Our leaders and pundits are eager to learn from the Athenians’ mistakes and successes. They are unsure whether the fate of Athens is to be our own, or whether Americans can yet match the Athenians’ civilization and influence while avoiding their hubris. Perhaps never has the Peloponnesian War been more relevant to Americans than to us of the present age. We, like the Athenians, are all-powerful, but insecure, professedly pacifist yet nearly always in some sort of conflict, often more desirous of being liked than being respected, and proud of our arts and letters even as we are more adept at war.’ (Victor Davis Hanson: A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War).