Following today’s politics is easy. You turn on the news and a bunch of pretty people tell you that your side is good and the other side is irredeemably evil. You pull up social media and you get a bunch of rage profiteers telling you what to be outraged or angry about. Everything is simple and clear cut, compromise is unnecessary, and, in the end, none of it really matters anyway because the world is going to end in 2024 in nuclear holocaust, 2050 from climate change, or any day now in the rapture.
Needless to say, that’s not very valuable or very philosophical. What is a Stoic to do? Especially when politics and participation in the polis and empire was so essential to Zeno and Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Well first, they’d urge you to turn backwards to better understand the present day. Even the early American founders knew this. As John Adams wrote to his son in 1777:
“There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides…You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.”
Indeed, people in the State Department right now are reading Thucydides to better understand the rising threat of China. Countless millions—including many of the Stoics—have read it over the last 2000 years to understand the ethical dilemmas inherent in leadership, in war, in politics, and in life. Because Thucydides was so smart, so timeless, he is able to teach lessons to us even now. And because the countries and the events are so distant and impersonal to us, we can actually hear them and learn them.
And if we’re smart, we can apply them to the political situations we face today. The ones that could desperately use less partisanship and less virtue signaling and a lot more actual wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.