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Athens And America

July 2024
2min read

In “Postscripts to History” for August, 1973, we reprinted some observations by Professor Gerald F. Else, director of the University of Michigan Center for Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies. Professor Else drew what we saw as “gloomy conclusions” from a comparison of contemporary America and the republic of Athens between 480 and 380 B.C. Professor Else has written to supply us with the rest of his remarks on the subject, which paint a brighter picture. On that particular analogy, I would say that [one] need not believe that America will share the fate of Athens; / don’t think it will either. In any analogy, the details are not the same; thus it would be unreasonable to assert that such constructs have predictive power. Similarly, it would be absurd to think that we can find the solutions to our current problems in the history books, ancient or modern. However, in this paralleling of Athens and America, I think our troubles are similar or analogous enough, as Thucydides puts it, to allow the experiences of the Athenians and Peloponnesians to be used as one means—one important means—of working our way toward a better understanding of our situation. As I said, we Americans suffer from cultural and historical myopia, and much of the responsibility for that must rest with the scholars and teachers in our colleges and universities. Under present conditions, nothing better is likely to happen unless outstanding people in both ancient and modern studies join in some productive, collaborative enterprises.

As an example of the benefits of such studies and the necessity for them, Professor Else mentions the histories of Thucydides, the Athenian aristocrat and general who for political reasons was condemned to sit out the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, in exile, decided to study and write about the conflict.
His education, his experience, his situation, allowed him to record the fall of the Athenian empire—the campaigns, the victories and defeats, the treaties, the alliances, the deals both sides made with the uncommitted states, as well as the progressive moral deterioration of the Greek world at war. …
The work itself points up an important aspect of the relationship between theory and practice. Its purpose is practical. Thucydides meant it to be practical—not in the sense that future statesmen and rulers could just read it and learn what to do or not to do in certain situations; that’s too simple. … The value of reading Thucydides lies much more in encountering the questions the Greeks asked themselves, and debated, and put to the “ThirdWorld” nations, before they decided on a course of action. The quality, the probity, of their questions has not been surpassed in the course of human affairs over the last 2,500 years. … I would say that Thucydides can show anyone how aware the Greeks were of themselves, of their culture, of the issues they faced, of the real interests held by the uncommitted and less developed powers the two sides were competing for. You see, ignorance of history seduces too many Americans into thinking that emerging nations today would be all right if they just learned to do things the way we do. Such myopia would be pardonable in a small, remote, agricultural country; in a world power it is an extremely serious error.

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