Academic Minute Podcast

Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University – Polarization: Then and Now

The ancient past can show us similarities to the polarized times of today.

Rachel Hadas, board of governor’s professor of English at Rutgers University, examines what we can learn from thousands of years ago.

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governor’s professor at Rutgers-University Newark, where she taught English for many years. Among her specialties were poetry and Classics in translation. She author of more than twenty books of poetry, essays, and translations.

Polarization: Then and Now

The insights of a historian who lived nearly 2500 years ago can provide perspective on our current politically fraught times. Writing about the long war between his native Athens and Sparta, Thucydides (460-400 BCE) provides a granular description of chaotic factionalism in a single city-state, Corcyra (modern Corfu). Then he stands back and offers a coolly objective assessment of the larger societal havoc created by civil strife. Two of Thucydides’s thoughts about the damage done to democracy by factionalism are unsettlingly relevant today.

First is the way people shift values, norms, and even language to suit their political agendas. Thucydides writes: “To fit in with the changes of events, words…had to change their meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfit for action.”

Second, noting the extreme polarization which is as striking today as it was in his time, Thucydides writes: “Society had become divided into two…hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion….no guarantee could be given that would be trusted…so instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves.”

These luminous insights, however bleak, help us to rise above the noise of the 24-hour news cycle. Thucydides thought that, “Human nature being what it is,” his insights would prove helpful when (as he predicted would inevitably happen) such events played out again in the future. He wasn’t wrong.


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