Peter Jones

Thucydides on Donald Trump

A great historian reckons with the great unknown

Thucydides on Donald Trump
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‘America’s journey into the great unknown’, screamed a headline greeting Donald Trump’s election as next President of the United States. Most of us call it the future, which has a long and distinguished tradition of being unknown.

In the ancient world there was quite an industry in attempting to foretell the future: oracles, auguries, dream interpreters and so on. But to rely on the supernatural was to put one’s trust in something equally unknowable, and the great Greek historian Thucydides (5th century BC) proposed a better way: as doctors’ evidence-based analysis of the course of an illness enabled them to generalise about the course of any future example, so human history gave clues to to anthrôpinon, ‘the human condition’, ways in which humans were likely to respond to the situations in which they found themselves. As a result of his researches, Thucydides’ ‘human constants’ included e.g. ‘States which suddenly and unexpectedly become prosperous are inclined to ideas above their station’; ‘It is prestige, fear and self-interest that prevent men giving up power’; ‘It is human nature to despise conciliation and admire resistance’; ‘When men desire something, they are inclined to trust in mindless hope, but to reject what they do not care for with ruthless logic’; ‘War is a violent teacher and tends to assimilate men’s character to their condition.’

But the spanner in the ointment, as Thucydides was well aware, was tukhê, ‘chance’, or what Harold Macmillan called ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ However intelligently one planned, tukhê could not by definition be prepared for or explained; it was unaccountable to both men and gods, and however unjust, never reversible. Admittedly, as the Roman Valerius Maximus pointed out, ‘When chance puts aside her malicious nature, she piles up great and numerous gifts that are also permanent.’ But there were no guarantees.

The commentariat has been caught completely on the hop by Trump’s victory, and even more by his assorted volte-faces after it. One rather hopes he continues the good work, if only to make the fourth estate think a little harder about their own journey into the great unknown.

— Peter Jones