The Peloponnesian War and American Democracy

Thucydides’ books on the Peloponnesian War relate the war between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BC that ended with the fall of the Athenian Empire. His books established him as a preeminent historian. The Peloponnesian War remains relevant because of its lessons on power, democracy, and human nature. The Politic interviews Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale, and a scholar of Thucydides for over sixty years, on the lessons of the Peloponnesian War for democracy in America today.

The Politic: America’s Founding Fathers studied the Peloponnesian War and tried to design a system that would overcome the weaknesses of Athenian democracy. How successful has their system been in overcoming those weaknesses?

DK: They were quite successful in avoiding the weaknesses inherent in direct democracy. The main weakness of which is the tyranny of the majority. The main thing they did was produce limited government. Unanticipated things were to be handled by the elastic clause, which was necessary but dangerous because elastic things tend to get more and more elastic. And so the government is getting much stronger than is compatible with the liberty that the Founding Fathers sought. The novelty of the American constitution was that it put liberty at the center of things. In ancient democracies the fundamental principle was equality, and equality and liberty are necessarily at odds with each other. If you don’t restrain democratic government you get a drive towards equality at the expense of liberty. Only by putting liberty at the center and permitting a degree of inequality can you have a free society.

One of the great menaces to liberty and popular government in recent history is the fact that the responsibility of the citizen to pay taxes to the government is being removed. Something like 50% of the American people pay no direct tax, and that’s a violation of one of the principles the Founding Fathers regarded as really important: every citizen has to contribute to the upkeep of the common interest. The result of this is that those who do pay taxes have to pay even higher taxes. This is now approaching crisis proportions. This is the victory of equality at the expense of liberty.

The Politic: There’s a large gap in quality between the debates of ancient Athens and the debates in Congress and the public sphere in America today. Why is that?

DK: I think you can be deceived. We have only a few records of what went on in the Athenian assembly, and they were selected by historians, who only selected the speeches that were extraordinary, and so we get a distorted idea of the quality of rhetoric in the assembly. There must have been thousands of perfectly routine and un-brilliant speeches.

The Politic: Let’s talk about some of the weaknesses of democracy that writers on the Peloponnesian War reveal. In the debate on Mytilene, Cleon (an Athenian politician), scolded the Athenian people for their ‘addiction to argument’. He deplored how politics had become a form of entertainment where the people side with whoever is the better speaker. Do you see this in American politics today? How vulnerable is America to sophists and demagogues?

DK: We have carried that beyond belief. Politicians now have large staffs of alleged experts on rhetoric, politics, and all kinds of things, who help them rehearse. Politics has become an advertising business. We’ve always had a degree of that, but nobody before our time had the degree of technical, personal, and financial aid in preparing arguments. People learn how to persuade people, if that’s what they spend their time doing, regardless of the quality of your argument or what you’re trying to sell. Our world is swamped with people who make a living off the art of persuasion. The media turns politicians into attractions. Show-business is pervasive – we now treat political debate in the same way. The series of Republican debates in this campaign is like a TV road-show where people keep score like on American Idol. The whole thing takes on a show-biz character which apparently can’t be shaken out anymore. People who don’t happen to shine in show-biz are defeated, and people who are good on the camera are elevated, regardless of the quality of their arguments.

The Politic: The Peloponnesian War is a warning to future generations of what prolonged war does to the morality of people – how it makes them increasingly cruel. What are the implications of this for the War on Terror?

DK: I think the longer it goes on, and the more serious the attacks are, the more violent the reaction will be. It’s in the nature of people that when somebody is out to kill you and kills people on your side or somebody dear to you, the natural reaction is tremendous anger and willingness to do all kinds of things you would normally never think of doing – a) for revenge, and b) to see that they don’t do it again. These are not irrational reactions, but they do tend to produce irrationality. You get very angry at those attackers and you want to destroy them.

The Politic: During the Peloponnesian War, both Athens and Sparta tried to propagate their respective systems in other cities to bolster their own security. Athens tried to spread democracy, whilst Sparta tried to spread oligarchy. How vital are America’s efforts to promote democracy to its security?

DK: Very important. There really is a big difference between popular governments (democracies) and authoritarian states. They really do act differently. People have said that there is no case of democracies in the modern world fighting each other. There may be exceptions, but it’s very largely true. The fact that democracies are commercial republics means that they require the approval of the population to wage war, and that checks them because the people may have contrary wishes. The fact that they’re commercial means that their value system is likely to be much more calculated for normal human activities which are better in peacetime than in wartime. Going to war has a high price for people in such a society, and so it’s harder for them to go to war, and to sustain a war. Authoritarian governments don’t have those restraints, and they can go to war for some of the same reasons people have gone to war over the centuries: over something they deem to be a violation of their interests, or something they deem to be an insult. If the US is interested in the preservation of peace, it would do well to foster liberal democratic states.

The Politic: In ancient Athens, democracy was frequently criticized by figures like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cleon, and Thucydides himself. Today it’s almost unheard of for any American public figure to question whether democracy in America is a good thing. Do you think we’ve lost anything from the absence of this debate?

DK: I think we have lost something. I think the questions always confronting a democracy are ‘Is democracy compatible with liberty? Is it compatible with justice?’ A question nobody thinks about anymore, but what the ancients were constantly concerned about was ‘How can you have a society that treats people who are grossly unequal equally? That’s unjust.’ There are defenses for why we do things the way we do. For instance, nobody can ever prove that one citizen is superior to another citizen in his right or ability to participate in government. You might say this man is too stupid or too ignorant to vote, but the fact of the matter is, you can’t be sure that he’s going to be worse than a guy with a PhD from Harvard – the second guy may have other human defects that are even more serious. When somebody from the left makes a claim that we ought to have a certain result because that’s democratic, there can be debate on the merits of the suggestion, but you can never say ‘Is being democratic the only principle that’s involved? Would you like to have a democracy in which there is no liberty? A democracy is where everybody gets to decide what’s to be done in some political arena – what if they get together and decide that they’re not going to allow you to do X, Y and Z? Is that okay?’ We don’t talk about those things much anymore – well some people do, but you won’t hear much of that around Yale. We’ve lost something from the absence of this debate. We have political correctness, through which all sorts of really basic and important arguments are ruled out. I have myself been engaged in certain arguments on free speech, and there were too many occasions where it seemed that people’s rights to be heard on campus were taken away through mob action or bureaucratic rulings. That is not acceptable in a country like ours, and particularly in a university, that must hear all kinds of opinions, however hateful they may seem to some people, because otherwise we are out of business – we have ceased being an outfit that is interested in seeking what is true and what is wise. We should bring reason to play with those issues, and we can’t do that if we don’t argue with each other, or if we limit the argument so that we never hurt anybody’s feelings. We’re very much down that road now. We’ve lost quite a lot.

The Politic: What do you think of democracy? In general, is democracy the best system of governance?

DK: I think democracy meaning a combination of liberty and self-government is a requirement for a legitimate government. In the sense that every citizen has rights that the government can’t take away, that there are limits to what the government can do to him, that ultimately the majority has the final say, but with restrictions to protect minorities. It is not possible to justify any other kind of government. Because otherwise you’d have to show that there are indeed people who are discernibly and demonstrably superior to other people to justify the government’s behavior, and I don’t know how you can do that satisfactorily. A legitimate government must also leave its people free to challenge laws or procedures by lawful means. But if the people use up all the lawful means and are unsuccessful, they’re obliged to obey the laws. Citizens should also be free to leave whenever they like, taking their possessions with them without interference. That way anybody who is living there is living there by choice, and so he has the obligation to make contributions to the community, and to obey the laws, and to assist in upholding the laws. That is a moral obligation that goes with citizenship in a democracy. Every government that doesn’t follow those rules is not a government; it’s a prison.

The Politic: What solutions can we glean from the Peloponnesian War for improving America’s democratic

DK: In legal cases in ancient Athens, if the accused was convicted, the accuser would propose a penalty for the accused, and the accused would propose a penalty for himself. The jury could only choose one of the two penalties. If either the accuser or the accused didn’t get a certain minimum number of votes from the jury, he’d have to pay a fine.

Compare that with what goes on in an American trial. I think adopting the Athenian system would be a terrific idea, because it leads to moderation on both sides. Both accuser and accused are urged by the system to come up with the best penalties without irritating the jury by asking for too much. Another thing I’d like to adopt is a mechanism for deterring frivolous suits. Our system desperately needs that. We have so many frivolous suits because parties figure they [have] nothing to lose. You got these lawyers who say ‘We’ll only collect if we win, so why not do it?’, and that encourages all this terrible litigation. If you charge them if they don’t get enough votes from the jury that’ll make them more reluctant. [The] trick is to come up with a way of doing that that’s balanced and doesn’t deter people who’ve really been abused. Also, American trials can go on forever, and the judicial process is so clogged up that you may have to wait years to get your case heard – there’ve been many cases in which the person involved in the lawsuit was dead before the case came forward. In the Athenian system every case was over in one day. There should be a time limit for cases to speed up the whole process. We can learn something from the Athenians

Shaun Tan is an international relations Masters student.

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