How can leaders make the best use of the vastness and complexity of human experience (=history)?In the first chapter of a book designed to help leaders make better decisions by analyzing the historical context of the problems they find themselves in, Richard Neustadt (a professor of government) and Ernst May (a historian) concede that most political leaders simply don't have time to read very much once they are in the leadership role (Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers 1986: 1). Experience and instinct tend to take over. President Trump seems to have embraced this state of affairs himself when he acknowledged before the election that he didn't plan to read very much were he to win the presidency and would consult advisors and his own past statements (by contrast, Trump's Secretary of Defense, James "Mad Dog" Mattis, does read a lot and his National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, has a Ph.D. in Military History). It is of course possible for a leader to surround herself/himself with others who do know history, but this, too, comes with many caveats: advisors may have their own agenda/ideology and thus may bend their historical interpretations to it; or they may not be very well trained in historical criticism and fall prey to whatever sources they find (see the module on Trump-Cyrus for an example of how a so-called "famous" quote may be misattributed to an ancient leader). One solution to the problem would be simply to do away with history altogether, but this is indeed as impossible as ignoring cancer: we all carry history with us in our language, personal experiences, values, and stories, however inaccurate and refashioned.
The best way out of this problem, then, is for the would-be leader to start early, well before assuming a leadership role and familiarize himself/herself with the challenges we face in trying to let history inform our decisions. What history will we look at? How deeply should we analyze it? What scholars should we turn to? What translations of ancient texts should we use? What caution should we exercise in trusting an past account? What faith should we place in the wisdom of prior thinkers? In this module we will use the White House's recent interest in the Greek historian Thucydides as a test case. Treat this module as a thought-experiment or a dry-run for a time in the future when you will need history as your guide. Imagine what use you might make of someone like Thucydides in plotting your own course as a leader...
Meet the creator of this module, Thornton Lockwood!
Leadership lessons from Thucydides for the Age of Trump
“Thucydides of Athens wrote the war of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, how they waged it against each other” (Mynott trans.). Thus begins The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’ analysis of the causes and outcomes of an almost thirty-year war (432-404 BCE) that engulfed the Mediterranean from Sicily to modern-day Greece to modern-day Turkey. Classicists and ancient historians have pored over the work for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Thucydides chronicles a conflagration in which he was a participant and direct observer. But as Thucydides himself notes, his study is a possession for all time—one which he thinks elucidates human nature and the way that human political institutions respond to power, honor, fear, and hatred.
At least since the time of Thomas Hobbes’ modern English translation of Thucydides’ History (published in 1628), theorists of international relations have found in Thucydides extensive reflection on the causes of international war and possible guidance about the avoidance and the winning of such conflicts. It is thus little surprise that several members of the Trump administration have expressed their debt to Thucydides, who is regularly taught not only in the American military academies but also in political science departments. Although the Trump administration is only in the first year of its first term, what seems slightly more surprising is that some Trump administration officials have publically bragged about their devotion to Thucydides, including the implied claim that Thucydides can only be understood in the 17th century English of Hobbes’ translation, a notoriously inaccurate and outdated rendition.
Thucydides is a possession for all times certainly in part because he depicts the political and military leadership (something not really separated in the participatory governments of classical Greece) of Athens, Sparta, and other Greek city-states during times of enormous pressure and carnage. (During the Peloponnesian Wars, defeat in battle often resulted in the slaughter of all adult males of a city-state and the enslavement of all its women and children.) But statements from the Trump administration suggest that Thucydides is also a contested possession. Is Thucydides a proponent of “might makes right”? What does Thucydides think about practices that today we would call war crimes? Does Thucydides think that participatory government (i.e., democracy) is doomed both to indecision and impulsive decision making? Why do we care what Thucydides thinks about any of these questions? This module on Leadership Lessons from Thucydides in the Age of Trump will explore these and additional questions.
This module is broken into three parts. The first module assignment will introduce students to Thucydides (by means of his own words) along with the contested appropriation of Thucydides by members of the Trump administration. The first module will also supply historical context for understanding the nature of the participatory government that the Athenians called demokratia (a form of government which is profoundly different from modern democracies). The second part of the module examines Thucydides’ evaluation of Pericles, an Athenian democratic political leader who was responsible for things like the construction of the Parthenon and the growth of the Athenian Empire. Some have wondered whether there are any parallels between Pericles and Donald Trump as political leaders. The third part of the module will examine one of the most famous incidents in Thucydides’ History, namely the debate which Thucydides writes between Athenian envoys and members of the government of Mytilene, an ally of Athens’ opponent, Sparta. The so-called “Mytilenean Debate” is one of the most transparent depictions of power; the question is whether Thucydides endorses, calls into question, or simply observes without passing judgment such an incident. Whether we should think of Thucydides as a proponent, a critic, or a neutral observer of “Realpolitik” (i.e., the policy of might makes right) turns on how carefully we read texts such as the Mytilenean Debate.
- Introduce students to Thucydides as a chronicler of the Peloponnesian Wars (432-404 BCE)
- Examine the ways that historical works are used in contemporary politics
- Examine models of Athenian leadership during the Peloponnesian Wars
- Contrast political decision making in Periclean democracy with modern American republicanism
- Consider the relevance of Athenian democratic leadership for contemporary political leadership
Part One: Thucydides, Trump, and ancient democracyIn this session you will read Thucydides’ own description of his work and its enduring value and a recent journalistic essay on assertions which members of the Trump administration have made about the value of Thucydides. You will also read a brief introduction to the nature of Athenian democracy, most importantly emphasizing how a government based on direct representation (like the model of the Athenian democracy) differs from one based on indirect representation (like the model of American republicanism). Guiding questions for the first session: Why do people think that Thucydides matter today? What would it mean to “misread” an author? What is the nature of representative government?
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars Book 1, Chapters 1, 20-23 (see the readings under Part One of this page).
- Kori Schake, “The Summer of Misreading Thucydides.” The Atlantic Monthly (7/28/27)
- Paul Cartledge, “10 things you should know about democracy in ancient Greece”
Watch this lecture from Donald Kagan on the causes of the Peloponnesian War:
Listening for Leadership One
- Read Thucydides’ description of his work. What strikes you as most important in his description? Does his description seem arrogant or accurate? Does the description inspire trust in his reporting? As an aspiring leader, do you think this work could guide you in your own decision-making? Why or why not?
- Read Schake’s description of the Trump administration. What do you think is Schake’s political loyalty? As a leader, would you want Schake to advise you on how to make the best use of Thucydides? Why or why not?
- Read Cartledge’s description of ancient democracy. Identify the major contrasts and similarities between ancient and modern democracy. Which form of democracy seems superior to you and why?
Part Two: The democratic leadership of Pericles
In this session you will read Thucydides’ description of the Athenian political leader Pericles (494-429 BCE), arguably the most important individual in classical Athenian history. Being important, though, does not always mean being valuable or good. In this and the next session, the central question is: What makes for good political leadership? Does Thucydides think that Pericles was a good leader? No doubt, the Trump administration will go down in history as being very important. In what ways might one view him as a good leader? In what ways is he like (or unlike) Pericles?
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars II.34-46, 60-65 (see the readings under Part Two of this page)
- Roger Kimball, “Donald Trump as Pericles.” American Greatness (07/07/17)
- Mary Beard, “What is a Demagogue?” Times Literary Supplement (10/9/16)
Listening for Leadership Two
- Read Pericles’ speech entitled “The Funeral Oration” (II.34-46). Pick what you think is the most important paragraph of the speech and read it aloud, like an oration. What is it like to give this speech? How do speeches differ from written statements?
- Read Pericles’ final speech and Thucydides’ evaluation of Pericles (II.60-65). Between the time of the funeral oration and Pericles’ final speech, Athens suffered a terrible plague that killed thousands of individuals (ultimately, it would even kill Pericles). Why does Thucydides put these two speeches in close proximity? Is it an historian’s job to evaluate historical actors or is that being biased?
- Read the contemporary reflections by Mary Beard and Roger Kimball. Outline what you agree and disagree about concerning the Trump administration. Based on your reading of Thucydides, do you see a resemblance between Donald Trump and Pericles?
Part Three: Democracy in action?—the Mytilenean Debate
In this session you will examine the question of what is good political leadership, but now in the case of the so-called Mytilenean Debate between Cleon and Diodotus. The previous session introduced you (in Mary Beard’s essay) to the notion of “demagogue”; several historical sources suggest that Cleon is a paradigmatic example of a demagogue. What is a demagogue? Are demagogues good for representative democracy? Is it accurate to describe Donald Trump as a demagogue? The Mytilenean debate also raises the question of how a democratic state should conduct its foreign policy. As mentioned in the introduction to this module, some scholars think that Thucydides endorses a form of “realism” in international relations, namely the belief that states should pursue only their own national interest in their interactions with other states.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Book III, chapters 36-50 (see the readings under Part Three of this page)
- E. Markovitz, “Trump ‘tells it like it is.’ That’s not necessarily a good thing for democracy.” Washington Post (3/4/16)
- K. Morrell, “Before there was Trump there was Cleon.” Washington Chronicle (1/25/17)
Suggested in-class activities
- Pick several paragraphs of the Mytilenean Debate and have the class act out the debate, reading it like the script of a play. What would be the tone of the different sides? Have the class vote: which side makes a stronger speech?
- Read the Markovitz or Morrell essays. What do you think are their political perspectives? Do you think either is right about the question of “being frank”? Do you think the Trump administration practices “being frank”?Go back and review Schake’s essay from the first session. Based on the Mytilenean debate, ask students what they think it means to “get Thucydides right”?
- If you had the option of putting together a team of historians (say, five historians) who could tell you anything you wanted to know about a prior period in time, what would your five periods be and why?
This page references:
- Image of Hobbes translation of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War
- Pericles' Funeral Oration from Thucydides History of the Pelponnesian War, read in Ancient Greek
- Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 19 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II
- Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 20 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II (cont.)
- The Periclean System of Government
- Theatres of the Peloponnesian War