This is really good and I’m sure many Classicists will miss it because of its source. The incipit:
Is the study of classical history pointless? What useful knowledge will I glean from reading about some dead Roman governor of Britain? How will studying what the Delphic oracle had to say about the Persian advance into Greece help me in my future job at the State Department?
I hear such questions often in my seminar on Thucydides and other classical writers, which I teach at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. My students — future policymakers, pundits, and managers — approach the class with a good dose of skepticism about the value (aside from mere amusement) of reading about ancient times. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War — in particular the Melian Dialogue, a quintessential tale of the small, neutral Melians defending themselves against the strong Athenians — is relatively common reading among budding wonks. But Tacitus, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Plutarch? Most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of these long-dead writers.
My students’ predilections reflect a wider skepticism about the present-day relevance of old texts. For modern academics and policy analysts, ancient authors are guilty of adopting an unscientific approach, relying on anecdotes, and showing a primitive fear of natural events. What good does it do the reader to know that before battle the Romans often consulted a pullarius, a chicken-feeding augur? Such texts say nothing about modern life, critics say, and certainly will not help one get a job at Goldman Sachs or the Pentagon. The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves.
But that’s precisely the point. Reading Thucydides’s description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus’s praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar’s tale of Vercingetorix’s uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood. Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics; we are often at the mercy of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces. Events can sometimes only be appreciated when taken as they are.
With that understanding, let me relate 11 ancient lessons relevant to today’s world.
… and you really just have to watch the news for half an hour or so to know these lessons are bang on …