At the end of Pericles’s speech convincing his fellow Athenians to declare war on Sparta in 431 B.C., he declared that he was “more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.” In particular, he cautioned against hubris and the danger of combining “schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war.” His warnings went unheeded, however, and his successors eventually led Athens to a disastrous defeat.
Centuries later, Edmund Burke offered a similar warning to his British compatriots as Britain moved toward war with revolutionary France. As he wrote in 1793: “I dread our own power, and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing, and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.” Burke’s forecast did not come true, however, in part because Britain’s ambitions remained limited even after France was defeated.