Charles Edel and Hal Brands’s new book, The Lessons of Tragedy, investigates a value seemingly long since departed from American thought: a sense for the tragic. The idea that tragedy has much to teach our political leaders is a powerful one. Not least because contemporary American policy thinking seems to be based — even now, after the horrors of the past two decades — on an idea of unidirectional, uninterrupted progress.

Octavian Report spoke with Edel, a former State Department official and current fellow at the University of Sydney, about his book and what he thinks America needs to learn from the Athenians at the point of their highest political flowering. “One of the recurring conversations that Hal and I had,” Edel said, “was that history seemed too often to be missing from the larger policy debate. The idea that we seem to be on a path to progress and world betterment and increasing stability in the world — this was an ahistorical read, totally out of step with the recurrent cycles in history. As we discussed this, we realized that tragedy was a really useful way to frame and talk about international relations.”