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No. 3075:
Thucydides, Democracy, and Hope

by Richard Armstrong

Today, the problem of hope. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

During the first Obama campaign, there was a pervasive image: the candidate's face with just one word, Hope. Shephard Fairey's poster was such an iconic part of the 2008 election that the Smithsonian acquired the original for the National Gallery. Hope seems to be the essence of democracy. It can appeal beyond party lines. It can mean equality, opportunity, security, free enterprise, almost anything we want it to mean.

Not everyone thinks hope is a good thing, however. I was rereading Thucydides recently. He's the first great historian to write from the perspective of a real democracy. He was a citizen of Athens in the fifth century BC, a time when the Athenians enjoyed a form of direct democracy unknown to other nations. And yet, he repeatedly says quite negative things about hope. Why?

Thucydides (copy of a Greek bust of ca. 4th century BCE). Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

First, let's observe that hope was not a virtue in ancient Greece. Hope, along with faith and love, are the three Christian virtues. They were added to the original cardinal virtues of pre-Christian antiquity: courage, wisdom, justice and temperance. Originally, the Greeks didn't see hope as proof of a strong character, the way we might see the faithful and hopeful today.

But Thucydides went further: hope was a real problem. Simply put, he felt it was an irrational, unrealistic force in a democracy, one that led to bad decisions with serious consequences. As he saw during the Peloponnesian War, giving into hope instead of listening to your fear and common sense is to court disaster.

Shepard Fairey's Hope Poster from the Obama 2008 campaign. Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons

First case in point: at the outset of this war, the Athenian statesman Pericles convinced his countrymen that they could wait out the invasion of their enemies, the Spartans, behind their walls. Their wealth and their navy would let them outlast the Spartan land offensive. Then they could strike back once the Spartans had exhausted and overextended themselves. But stuffing a port city full of people in cramped conditions produced a catastrophic outcome: a plague. Pericles paid dearly for his miscalculation, as he himself died in this plague.

Later in the war, the Athenians gave way even further to their hopes by mounting an unprecedented invasion of far off Sicily, then part of the Greek world. They agreed to put together the greatest fleet they'd ever amassed, and set off in hopes of changing the course of the war. But the expedition turned into a complete disaster, with thousands of men dead or sold into slavery. "They were beaten at all points and altogether," he says, making this the most significant action of the war. Clearly they should have heeded words Thucydides puts in the mouths of Athens' own ambassadors earlier on, as they bully the population of a small island: hope's nature is to be extravagant, leading you to look beyond the reality of your present, often deluding you into risking everything on a whim. It's "danger's comforter," but only for those who can afford it. That's like saying only rich people should play the lottery. Now there's something hard for us to swallow in this "land of opportunity," where we think hope should flow like water!

I'm Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)

The key passage from Thucydides' Melian Dialogue is Thucydides 5.102-

102. Melian commissioners 'But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.'

103. Athenian envoys "Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. [2] Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction." Text available online at

See also the thorough and thoughtful reflections by Joel Schlosser:

Schlosser, Joel Alden (2013). "Hope, Danger's Comforter': Thucydides' History and the Politics of Hope." The Journal of Politics 75.1, 169-182.  Available online at

This episode was first aired on July 12, 2016