Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump

The Weight

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.


Part One: Thucydides, Trump, and ancient democracy

In 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?


Watch this lecture from Donald Kagan on the causes of the Peloponnesian War:

Listening for Leadership One

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?


Watch Donald Kagan's evaluation of Pericles as a general and statesman:

Listening for Leadership Two

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.


Suggested in-class activities

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