After this referendum can we find any Consolation in History?

In 415 BCE, the people of Athens voted to launch an attack on the city of Syracuse in Sicily. This was an enormously risky enterprise - they actually knew very little about the place, and sending messages between the city and its expeditionary force would take weeks - but the Athenians were at the height of their imperial power, and still more the height of their self-confidence. The respected elder statesman Nicias, who opposed the enterprise, found himself on the defensive; in the speech which the historian Thucydides puts in his mouth (6.9-14), he constantly has to defend himself against insinuations of cowardice, self-interest and talking down Athens in order to argue for caution and common sense.

Facing Nicias was the flamboyant, ambitious, sexually voracious and utterly self-centred Alcibiades, who pulled out all the rhetorical stops: Athens has all the power and resources it needs for the enterprise, the Sicilians are feeble and disunited and “most likely will be happy to make separate agreements with us when we make attractive proposals to them”, the Athenians are bold and resourceful and will easily triumph - and it would go against their nature to hesitate. Success is inevitable, and will pave their way for an even Greater Athens. Against such optimism, self-confidence and disparagement of foreigners, Nicias’ claims about the uncertainties and likely risks had little chance of winning over voters. The Athenians launched their expedition - and paved the way for their own downfall, as their forces failed to capture Syrcause and were then massacred during their retreat.

What history can offer is understanding

Historical analogies are always at best dubious, at worst tendentious, rhetorical and manipulative. There are always enormous differences between past and present, both general (the contrast between a pre-modern world of tiny city-states and our modern, globalised present) and particular (the fact that it was reckless Athenian youths leading their country off a cliff, rather than the devil-may-care British elderly). The past is never a guide to how the future will turn out; there is a reasonable case to be made that the Sicilian expedition could have been successful if some things had been done differently – though admittedly this was a case made in the US to counter the idea that invading Iraq might be a bad idea. The Syracuse disaster cannot tell us that Brexit will definitely be the catastrophe that many of us fear. Its proponents can always claim that this time the experts are wrong and things will be different.

What history can offer is understanding: of how we got into this situation, of the different forces (including chance) that shape events in complex ways, and of the human capacity for self-delusion and miscalculation, our propensity to surrender to emotions, and our susceptibility to manipulation by the less scrupulous. None of this is very consoling - and history shows us too many terrifying examples for comfort of what may happen as a result, including Thucydides’ visions of populism, polarisation and violence when social ties start to fray (see 3.82-4).

There are times when the basic message of history appears to be: I wouldn’t start from here if I were you. We can see how Brexit is not just the result of recent events – Cameron and Osborne’s short-termism and miscalculations, the rhetorical tricks and lies of Farage, Gove and Johnson, the ongoing crisis of the British Left - but has roots deeper in the past, and in what Thucydides calls ‘the human thing’. An ability to understand what has happened and what’s happening, watching it like a slow-motion car crash, does not translate into an ability to act to change it. Thucydides and other pessimistic historians get to say “we told you this might happen”, but the limits of history as consolation become all too apparent.

Without knowledge and understanding – without the dispassionate analysis of the much-disparaged ‘expert’ - we are truly doomed

But what else is there? Without knowledge and understanding – without the dispassionate analysis of the much-disparaged ‘expert’ - we are truly doomed. The future is unknowable, but there’s a big difference between stepping into it cautiously, with a clear sense of possible risks and of our own limitations, and striding boldly into the darkness without checking that there’s a floor. The decision has been made nevertheless, and we’re still waiting to see how big the drop will be - the collapse of the entire European project and the resurgence of populist nationalism (and worse), or just a substantial economic dislocation.

One thing that most astounded the rest of the Greek world about the Sicilian expedition, says Thucydides, was the unprecedented ambition of its aims compared with the actual condition of Athens. We can certainly say the same about the idea of an independent Britain in the twenty-first century, and worry about how far the whole enterprise rests not on any sort of plan but on blind optimism and hope. Hope, danger’s comforter, as the Athenians had remarked on an earlier occasion: hope is what you rely on in the absence of any actual grounds for confidence.

Nicias, who feared that his countrymen were taking an insane risk, nevertheless found himself as one of the commanders of the expedition, trying to avert the worst consequences of their decision - and died miserably in the retreat from Syracuse. David Cameron has opted out of any such attempt at alleviating the chaos his referendum has unleashed - he’s not going to die in a ditch with his fellow citizens - but all of us with any historical understanding find ourselves in a similar position to Nicias: do we watch from the side-lines as things fall apart, waiting from the moment to say: we told you so, or do we now work to try to stop our worst fears from coming true?


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