How does a nation divided against itself stand? Thinking about the US through ancient Athens

Drawing of plague scene in Athens.

In the run-up to the presidential election, BrandeisNOW asked faculty to provide analysis and insight into some of the most pressing issues facing the country. This is part of the series. Joel Christensen is an associate professor and chair of the Classical Studies department.

When I think broadly about our national experience over the past few decades, I keep thinking of the story of Athens in the later part of the Peloponnesian War.

Athens and Sparta started their three-decade struggle around 433 BCE. In the end, Sparta did not defeat Athens. Athens defeated itself.

It didn’t have to be that way.

During the war,  Athens survived a terrible plague and signed a favorable armistice in 423 and bounced back after losing nearly 60,000 people during the disastrous Sicilian expedition in 415-14. Even despite unprecedented losses in 414, Athens rallied and built a new fleet and started to prevail against her opponent.

So, let’s be clear: Athens had multiple opportunities to end the war on good terms. But success and prosperity was never enough. Athens repeatedly defeated Sparta only to fight her hardest battles in internal strife.

In 406, for example, the Athenians were victorious again at sea, but amidst partisan bickering, they prosecuted and then executed their own generals for failing to pick up survivors during the battle.

Two years later, Sparta conquered the city and installed a favorable government. Athens remained a cultural center of the Mediterranean, but it never led the Greek world as it had.

The lesson here is similar to one that echoes in Greek epic, my specialty. At the beginning of “The Odyssey,” Zeus looks down on us mortals and laments, “Mortals, you are always blaming the gods for your troubles, when you endure suffering beyond your fate because of your own recklessness!”

Just think back on the last two decades of life in America.

With the exception of a major terrorist attack on 9/11, how many of our troubles can be blamed on anyone else? Ancient Athens was no different.

Did Athens exhibit rugged individualism or a stubborn selfishness? This is certainly a question we can ask of Americans to this day. The tension between the quest for personal accomplishment and collective good is never so strained as in times of crisis.

Are we at the end of an empire or somewhere in its tumultuous development? I fear that the parallels suggest we are in the midst of a collapse because of our excessive individualism and refusal to come to terms with our past.

Athens relied on slave labor, turned increasingly harsh towards immigrants and non-citizens, and thought little of attacking and enslaving former allies. We must come to reckon with our own history of enslavement; and we need to imagine a citizenry unified in and through our diversity and pluralism, not despite it.

For now, faced with a pandemic, increasingly fractious politics, and the upcoming upheaval of climate change, it is enough to ask how much of our suffering we bring on ourselves and who is fit to helm the ship of our state. What will it take to unify us before it is too late?

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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