POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

War and Democracy.

by David Trumbull

September 7, 2007

...Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy... --Pericles' Funeral Oration, 431 B.C.

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. --George W. Bush, September 20, 2001

first quotation is from a speech given by the Athenian leader Pericles after the opening battles of the Peloponnesian War. Such funerals were public rituals in ancient Athens and Pericles used the occasion to make a classic statement of the value of democracy. The second quotation needs no explanation. Only fools and liberals believe that the war in Iraq is about oil or anything other than preserving our American freedoms at home.

So why the quotation from the dead past? Many agree that the ancient Athenian democracy was lost because of imperialistic expansionism and an unnecessary foreign war. The golden age of Athens --that flowering of democracy, art, literature, and philosophy-- came to a premature end with the ruinous 30-year war with neighboring Sparta. Some liberals and democrats today argue that America is, likewise, losing our Democracy at home in the prosecution of an ill-considered war of global military and business expansion.

Certainly there are some parallels. But equally certain, upon a more careful look, are the differences. The blame-America-first, cut-and-run crowd also saw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and the Cold War, but they were wrong. American freedom prevailed in that global conflict. And the demagogues in congress now demanding immediate withdrawal from Iraq fail to note that the downfall of Athens was not Pericles' policy of strong Athenian military action against foreign threats. No, the destruction of Athens was Alcibiades, that calamity of a man, who thought that greatness consisted in following, not leading, public opinion.

Later this month, I'll be teaching a seven-week course on the Peloponnesian War at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. We'll use as our primary source the war reporting of Thucydides, an Athenian combatant. We'll also attempt to understand the character and motivation of the Athenian leaders Pericles and Nicias, of the Spartan general Lysander, and of the brilliant but unprincipled Alcibiades as reported in the writings of later Greek historian Plutarch. For more information see