Recently I got around to reading Donald Kagan’s majestic study, The Peloponnesian War. Boy, was it majestic. Adroitly delineating the circumstances that led to the demise of the Athenian republic, Kagan makes it clear that the unnecessary conflict was one of the worst tragedies ever to befall mankind.
In the end I had only one quibble with the brilliant scholar from Yale: In his introduction, Kagan says that the lessons of the conflict can be applied to modern times, likening the conditions leading to the war to the “rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.” A bubbling review on the dust jacket describes it as “a magisterial work of historiography . . . whose lessons are especially resonant today.”
Frankly, I just don’t see this. Try as I might, I cannot see how the lessons of a small-scale civil war that happened 2,500 years ago are still being felt today. I don’t see it at the global level, the national level, or the municipal level. Nor am I feeling any reverberations in the spiritual, metaphysical, or emotional realm. I agree that the war was a catastrophe that brought the world’s first experiment with democracy to a screeching halt. I agree that it would be better for all of us if it had never happened. But in the 2,500 years since Athens fell to Sparta, I think it’s safe to say that the reverberations from the disaster have abated. By this point, we’ve all pretty well recovered from the Peloponnesian War. We’ve turned the page. We’ve put it behind us.
We’ve moved on.
The attempt to give the Peloponnesian War a contemporary resonance falls into that category of overly ambitious claims. It’s like applying the strategic principles espoused by Attila the Hun to the mass-marketing of adult diapers. It sounds ingenious, but it won’t hold water. Writing is a form of sales, and insisting that the reverberations of a long-ago war are still being felt today is a classic case of overselling the merchandise.
Well, no sale to this customer. I am more than ready to believe that the lessons of the English Civil War—reflected in the traditional English-speaking voter’s fear of men on horseback—are still relevant today. I am equally willing to believe that the impact of the Versailles Treaty is still very much with us—at least inasmuch as the daft British partitioning of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East virtually ensured the perpetuation of tribal hostilities in places like Iraq. But those are events of relatively recent vintage; the Peloponnesian War ended a long, long time ago. The waves of historical and cultural influence have long since gone out to sea.
This subject prompted me to compile a list of similarly ambitious claims I have often heard over the years. Some are plausible; some are preposterous. Here are just a few:
The reverberations from Muhammad’s flight to Medina are still being felt in the 20th century. Well, duh. And you can put Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America in that same general category. Ditto Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem.
Pop music would be a whole lot better today if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died so young. His death haunts the idiom still. You got me there. No point of entry into that conversation. Insufficient data at my end.
The reverberations from the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 are still sending shock tremors throughout Europe. Nope. Sorry. Not buying that one. Nobody even remembers what the Holy Roman Empire was, and those who cannot remember the past cannot possibly still be feeling its reverberations.
The long-term fallout from Mozart’s early death and Beethoven’s losing his hearing at such an early age continue to affect music to this day. No, they don’t. Mozart got plenty of points on the scoreboard before he checked out at age 35. And Beethoven did just fine without being able to hear anything. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Ninth Symphony.
The lessons of the French Revolution continue to ripple through Western society to this very day. No two ways about it. The French Revolution was a seismic upheaval ultimately pitting those who believe in man’s essential goodness against those who are terrified by man’s capacity for evil. On these shores, the central argument of the French Revolution is still the fundamental philosophical difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. This is one of the only cases on record where alleged reverberations are actually still reverberating.
The fallout from going off the gold standard in 1971 is still wreaking havoc today. Stop it. Stop saying that. Stop right now. You’re getting on everybody’s nerves.
The reverberations from Yoko Ono’s breaking up the Beatles can be felt to this very minute. No doubt about it. REM was never quite up to the job; neither was U2. Personally, I am more upset about the demise of the Beatles than I am about the extinguishing of the flickering flame of freedom in the Athenian cradle of democracy. That’s because democracy can be rekindled, but the Beatles can’t.
Recently, I read an enthusiastic review of Edward Luttwak’s new book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire in the Wall Street Journal. Sure enough, this otherwise brilliant book includes this line:
The epic struggle to defend the empire for century after century . . . seems to resonate especially in our own times.
Say that one more time, Ed, and I’m going to smack you.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.