Comment

Malcolm Turnbull, and Thucydides, and all that

Malcolm Turnbull.
Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Louie Douvis

The Athenian historian Thucydides is enjoying something of a revival of interest in Australia after some recent references to his History of the Peloponnesian War by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. First came a speech in Canberra in September to commemorate the role of Australian war correspondents. Out of the blue, Turnbull referred to Thucydides as both a general and a historian of the Peloponnesian war (fought between Athens and Sparta, 431-404BC). The Prime Minister then went on to argue that the likes of Charles Bean and Keith Murdoch were part of a direct line of "truth-telling" in war going right back to Thucydides himself. Bean, in particular, would have had a certain empathy with this description, seeing that he was a Classicist himself at Oxford before World War I, and duly modelled some of his writings on Thucydides.

Then there was the reference that Turnbull seems to have made to the "Thucydides Trap". Fairfax Media journalist Laura Tingle reported that Turnbull urged the Chinese president Xi Jinping (in Turkey) and Premier Li Keqiang (in Malaysia) not to "fall into the Thucydides trap". This refers to Thucydides' argument in his History that Sparta and Athens were driven into war by mutual suspicion of each other's political power and ambition.

The ancient motivation for war is relevant to the current situation of China and the United States, or so it is argued by American political scientist Graham T. Allison. If the two countries were to respond to each other in the way that Sparta and Athens had done, then war between them might seem inevitable (which, of course, it is not).

Who would have believed six months ago that Australia's prime minister would be spruiking Thucydides? The transition from Abbott to Turnbull could not have been more stark. In many ways it was a political master-stroke on Turnbull's part: reference to an ancient classic would help to signal a new era in Australian politics. Can you imagine Tony Abbott referring to Thucydides?

The media response to these references revealed some element of bemusement. Tony Wright in The Age opined that "Classical Scholars haven't necessarily proved successful in Australian politics as Gough Whitlam ultimately discovered, however heroically intellectual he may have been and however much he scorned the easy soundbite".

Some people would say that Gough Whitlam did pretty well, given the challenges that he faced. His antiquarian interests may not have carried the day for him in the rough and tumble of national politics in the 1970s, but they probably didn't bring about his demise either. If Whitlam thought about Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue in the face of the realpolitik that he confronted in 1975, he certainly didn't offer anything in public.

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Laura Tingle's piece in The Australian Financial Review on Turnbull's ancient Greek interests was headlined "'Malcolm Turnbull's terror response needs less Thucydides and more Broadmeadows". The gist of this seems to be that while Thucydides may have something to offer in the discourse of Chinese and American foreign policy (as above), it certainly does not when it comes to terrorism: "All in all, there are momentous things afoot in the world at the moment which could affect us all. But it is the threat of terror here at home which scares Australians the most".

If I understand Tingle's article – or at least the headline - this is where Thucydides loses his relevance. But is this really the case? You certainly won't find a simple answer to the scourge of terrorism in the pages of Thucydides.

But what you do find are some brilliant analyses of social disintegration brought about by war or disease or socio-political strife (stasis). These have a timeless character about them, and they are just as relevant now as they ever were. When the people on the island of Corcyra (Corfu) turn on one another in the Peloponnesian war (in 427BC) it descends into unspeakable violence – Greek against Greek, oligarchs against democrats.

Thucydides comments that "to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.

"Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect."

This might sound very familiar as societies turn on one another after the atrocities in Paris. Some people argue that it is the agenda of Isis.

Thucydides has much to offer us as we confront all sorts of crises of our own, especially after Paris. But one has to read him and think about what he has to say. Not many do, which is a great pity. Malcolm Turnbull is clearly one who has, and we can probably be thankful for that.

Christopher Mackie is professor of Greek Studies and Public Scholarship at La Trobe University.