Democracy and Aggression

On Politics

Today we think a government is not “democratic” if it violates human rights. Contemplating the unabashed wickedness of the Athenian treatment of Melos should give us pause; Athens was unequivocally democratic and frequently wicked. We do not know what future generations will think of the way the democratic powers fought the Second World War, but firebombing civilian populations and the use of nuclear weapons against Japan may give our successors pause. We have also become convinced that democracies do not go to war against one another; during the twentieth century, the liberal democracies of North America, Europe, and the British Commonwealth were invariably allies. Democratic Athens made war on democratic Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides thought the Athenian democracy was addicted to war. The reason, equally true of the Romans later, was that ancient war could be profitable; looting paid better than agriculture, and the poor, who lived at the level of a bare subsistence, stood to benefit, if not on the scale of the rich. Thucydides thought that the aggressiveness of democracies was a universal trait. He told his readers that he had written his history “for ever”; human nature was the same at all times and places, and the political passions and ambitions of mankind were ineradicable, so any persons concerned with the politics of their own time could read Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War and derive instruction. A historically minded Plains Indian of the nineteenth century might have shared Thucydides’s view of the aggressive and expansive habits of democracies. Certainly, international relations scholars in the twenty-first century read Thucydides for pleasure and instruction.


1. Ryan, Alan. On Politics. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.


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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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