war on the rocks

In Statecraft, What is Tragedy Good For?

June 4, 2019

Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (Yale University Press, 2019).

In January 405 BCE, Athens was in a desperate situation. The city had somehow weathered the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition in 413, the subsequent revolt of many of its subjects, and the temporary overthrow of the democracy in 411. It had even seized back the initiative in the long-running war with Sparta, with a victory over the Spartan fleet at Arginusae. However, when a storm blew up in the aftermath of the battle, the Athenians were unable to rescue the survivors from their damaged ships. Outraged, the people demanded the generals be put on trial. They were, and six of them were executed. Athens’ most successful commander, Alcibiades, had already taken himself off into exile after not being re-elected to military command. The Spartans were blockading Athens’ grain supply and threatening the city with starvation. In the assembly, politicians bickered and denounced one another, with no sign of anyone having a plan. The Athenians turned, therefore, to their traditional source of guidance: the great tragic poets. Unfortunately, the last of these, Euripides, had died the previous year, and so the god Dionysus descended into the underworld to bring back a poet to advise the city.

This is the plot of The Frogs, by the comic poet Aristophanes, staged in January 405 as part of the festival of Dionysus. The story offered Aristophanes endless scope for parodying the literary styles and plot devices of the two playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, who hold a contest to determine which of them is the greatest poet and so should return to the surface. It was also well suited for the combination of cross-dressing, topical commentary, slapstick, wordplay, comic slaves, and smutty puns that characterized Athenian “Old Comedy.” In their readable but rather baffling account of the current state of the world and America’s engagement with it, Hal Brands and Charles Edel cite The Frogs as their key evidence that the Athenians looked to tragedy as a vehicle for public instruction and exhortation to collective action. Their message is that we need to recover the same “tragic sensibility” that the Athenians had if we are to adequately grasp the situation we are in and develop an appropriate response.

The Frogs is certainly evidence that the idea of learning from tragedy existed in classical Athens — simply because Aristophanes has so much fun mocking it. The advice that Aeschylus and Euripides offer the Athenians is veiled in poetic language — as Dionysus remarks, “one’s so clever that you can’t tell what he means, and the other’s about as clear as the purest mud” — and on closer inspection seems to be entirely trite. It carries weight because of the cultural authority of the poet, not because of its intrinsic value. Further, the two poets offer radically different views of what the Athenians should do, with Aeschylus urging a return to traditional patriotic values and the importance of the navy, while Euripides proposed a 180-degree switch in current policy as a matter of principle. Tragedy does not offer a single message or meaning, but a bewildering range of possibilities, always open to interpretation and debate.

Arguably, this is the whole point. As the great French classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant suggested, when tragedy takes over the mythical traditions, “it uses them to pose problems to which there are no solutions” staging the irreconcilable dilemmas and tensions faced by society. The tragedians reworked familiar stories, sometimes with quite radical changes to the expected plot, in order to draw out themes and issues such as family conflict and betrayal (Agamemnon and Libation Bearers), the power of sexual desire (Hippolytus), the clash of human and divine law (Antigone), the power of the irrational (The Bacchae) and so forth. Athenian tragedy was always political, both because it was staged in a public space for a civic occasion and because it engaged with the concerns of the whole community, but it was also always religious, and artistic, and — as far as we can tell — deliberately thought-provoking.

It was also by no means the only source of wisdom and understanding in classical Athens. Aristophanes’ parody was clearly motivated in part by the conviction that his own brand of drama was more useful and relevant than tragedy, since he could comment on current events directly rather than presenting everything through obscure allegories based on ancient myths, and was at liberty to occasionally break the fourth wall and address his audience. Plato banned all poetry, including tragedy, from his ideal city, since in his view it appeals to emotion rather than reason and so works against true understanding. Aristotle was more accommodating, arguing that tragedy could work to purge people’s emotions, but was in no doubt that philosophy offered true wisdom. Thucydides, drawing in part on the insights of medical writers, claimed that an exact knowledge of the truth of past events could illuminate present and future developments — which Aristotle dismissed as providing knowledge only of the particular, not the general. In brief, far from Athenian greatness being solely founded in their tragic sensibility, it was the product of ferocious competition between different conceptions of knowledge and understanding, each claiming to offer superior insight.


Brands and Edel’s book unconsciously echoes these ancient debates by presenting two more or less separate discussions, each grounded in a different conception of what kinds of knowledge can best help us understand contemporary global politics. The core of the work is a broad-brush historical survey, focused on successes and failures in establishing new inter-state orders to maintain peace in the aftermath of large-scale conflict. This survey pays most attention to episodes in the 20th century, but with glances back to earlier events, particularly the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia in Europe in the 17th century, and the establishment of the Concert of Europe in the 19th century.

The authors deploy this historical material to develop two closely related propositions: peace is never a given, especially if politicians and their advisers start to take it for granted, and war is not inevitable, if politicians and their advisers pay sufficient attention to the lessons of history and the need to build and maintain strong international institutions. They urge United States — especially in its current state of reckless amnesia and blinkered self-interest — to pay heed to the failure of the Versailles settlement after World War I and to the success of reconstruction and the establishment of a global order after World War II. American policymakers should, they contend, recognize that the current trend towards isolationism and retrenchment, driven partly by exhaustion and public discontent and partly by a complacent belief in the impossibility of the return of global struggle, risks making a return to war more likely.



Arguments about the past repeating itself are always confronted by claims that “this time it’s different,” and vice versa. Brands and Edel see the current complacency as a product partly of the demise of serious ideological competition to liberal democracy and capitalism since 1989 (Fukuyama’s “end of history”) and partly of credulous belief that the integration of all potential rivals in a single globalized system has made a resort to military force economically irrational. Both these convictions, they argue, are shown to be naively optimistic by the weight of historical evidence. Certain readers might find themselves inclining towards a policy of “if you want peace, prepare for war.” The authors’ message is a more measured call for renewed engagement with international norms and institutions, coupled with expanded defense spending, and a willingness to respond more robustly to Russian and Chinese provocations.

This argument displays all the familiar problems with attempts to learn lessons from the past: Historical events can always be interpreted in different ways, offer different lessons, and one can always look for a different analogy that suits one’s purposes better. The relative lack of war in western Europe in the 19th century might, for example, be attributed less to the genius of the Congress of Vienna and more to the exporting of European aggression and acquisitiveness to other continents. The authors’ account of post-war U.S. foreign policy, in which interventions in the affairs of other nation states are only ever for the best of motives and the worst that can be said about the Vietnam War is that it was driven partly by naïve idealism, might not be universally accepted. Debates about the complex processes that led to the outbreaks of both world wars are never-ending. The counterfactual question of whether either conflict could have been avoided by a single international actor making a different decision or pursuing a different strategy remains open.

This means that, as ever, the past can offer only a limited resource for developing specific policy prescriptions. Even we accept a particular reading of past events, the present will always be, in critical and perhaps unnoticed respects, different. Historical precedent cannot tell us when or how far to escalate a given situation, which side to support in a conflict, or how much of an increase in defense spending would be sufficient to send the right message or prepare for a hypothetical threat. Brands and Edel are sensibly modest in their proposals, primarily arguing against over-confidence in the predictability of events and promoting the kind of precautionary principle — things can always go wrong, humans are always capable of viciousness and stupidity — from which few people with any knowledge of history would demur (Steven Pinker excepted). They seek above all to promote a new sensibility for policymaking: rejecting complacency without falling into fatalism, balancing timely action and a willingness for communal sacrifice with a sense of proportion and restraint. What reasonable person could disagree — unless you see this as a continuing willingness to be taken advantage of by other countries, or suspect an underlying desire for a return to George W. Bush-era neoconservatism?


The most puzzling aspect of this argument is why Brands and Edel choose to embed it within the claim that this is all about learning from the classical Greeks and their tragic dramas. Certainly, the admiring cover quotes from distinguished international relations scholars and retired political actors concentrate on their historical and contemporary analysis, not the classical element. The authors’ account of tragedy derives largely from Edith Hamilton’s popularising 1930 book The Greek Way, echoing Aristotle’s claims about the cathartic function of tragic drama, and interspersed with a few quotations from Nietzsche but with nothing of his bleak and idiosyncratic reading of tragedy as an aesthetic veil drawn across the unbearable horrors of existence. There is no trace here of more than half a century’s worth of classical scholarship exploring and debating the complex relationship between tragedy and its civic and political contexts, and the authors’ discussions of actual plays are limited to a couple of older, fairly straightforward examples (mostly Aeschylus as the voice of traditional values, just as he’s mocked by Aristophanes, rather than the more ambiguous Sophocles or the downright devious and manipulative Euripides), interpreted in a somewhat one-dimensional manner.

Why do Brands and Edel talk about tragedy at all? The real foundation of their argument is entirely historical (making Thucydides the link as a “tragic historian” is sleight of hand at best), and after the first chapter their conception of the “tragic” in history is largely reduced to the recognition that bad things continue to happen to people. Indeed, their conclusion is that Americans actually don’t have any need for classical myths or most of human history, but must simply reacquaint themselves with the events of the last century or so, “a history that is so edifying precisely because it is so real.” Americans don’t need tragedy, nor does the argument presented in this book. It’s difficult to escape the suspicion, therefore, that this is at least in part a branding exercise. The market for “lessons of history” books is already quite crowded, even if the Peace of Westphalia isn’t discussed as often as it should be, so their argument is repackaged as the recovery of the hallowed wisdom of the ancient Greeks.

The work of classical scholars like Peter Meineck, reading tragedies like Sophocles’ Ajax with veterans, shows the capacity of these complex, ambiguous works to provoke deep engagement with issues of war, duty, courage, and trauma. One might indeed imagine other plays being used as the basis for similar debates about power, justice, deception, and other aspects of inter-state relations: Philoctetes as a staging of negotiation and manipulation, for example, echoing Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue; The Suppliant Women presenting the choice between an ethical foreign policy and its practical costs. But this book wants to appropriate the aura of Greek tragedy without any of its complexity or ambiguity, claiming its spirit or sensibility without any extensive engagement with the actual plays, to cloak a conventional historical-political argument in something more glamorous.



Neville Morley is professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, UK. His research focuses on ancient economic and social history and the modern influence of classical culture, especially Thucydides. He blogs at http://thesphinxblog.com/.


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