Thucydides in exile

We remember well from our schooldays the definition of Athenian democracy which Thucydides attributed to Pericles: «We indeed live in a political system which does not seek to copy the laws of others; rather it is we who set an example for others to follow. Our political system is called a democracy because the state government is not in the hands of the few, but of the many.» This definition, the heritage of European and Western civilization generally, had been proposed for the draft Constitution of the European Union by the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Last month, however, all senior representatives of the EU’s member states – except Greece and Cyprus – excised Thucydides from the text. Alexandrine Bouilhet’s observation in Le Figaro on June 16 that 21st century Europe no longer recognized itself in the century of Pericles, the cradle of modern democracy, was therefore apt. The European powers-that-be invoked Pericles’ role as a leader of a colonial power such as Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and did not want any comparison with the EU of today. That is to say, they hauled out the rusty weapons of a long out-of-date, pseudo-Marxist critique of Athenian democracy. This critique, which has been used against specific geostrategic interests – at least during the past century – was aimed at trivializing whatever conflicted with current European directives. This is not to say that Athens in the fifth century BC was not a colonial power. But the model of Athenian democracy according to Pericles/Thucydides stayed alive and became a political value with everything positive accumulated over five centuries of contemporary European humanism and education. It is that European humanism which EU powers are rejecting. Never mind: We Europeans will keep Thucydides and let the pro-Europeans keep Charlemagne.