Monday, May 11, 2015

Thucydides and Power Politics (c. 420 BC)

"Right, as the world goes, is only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

If Herodotus was the historian of Greece's finest hour, his contemporary, Thucydides (c. 460 - 400 BC), was the historian of its darkest. After the Persian war, the Greeks realized that their disunity had made them vulnerable, and established a confederation for common defense called the Delian League. Since a renewed invasion, if it ever came, would have to come by sea, and since the Greeks were a maritime people, most of the League’s resources were spent building up a navy. Athens was a natural leader, for it was rich, powerful, and had played a critical role in both wars. Sparta, by comparison, was insular, suspicious of foreigners, and had no navy to speak of.

Originally all cities were supposed to contribute men and ships, but it soon became the custom to simply pay a tax to the Athenians. Under this system the confederated navy quickly became, for all practical purposes, the Athenian navy, the tax a tribute, and the league a rapidly-coalescing empire. All eyes turned suspiciously toward Athens. Unlike the Persians, however, the new imperial power was fiercely committed to democracy – democracies friendly to Athens, to be sure, but democracies nonetheless. Many other cities, by comparison, were ruled by tyrants or closed oligarchies, who feared the spread of dangerous ideas from Athens. They looked to Sparta – the other champion of the Persian wars, and itself ruled by a closed military oligarchy – for defense. In the coming conflict both sides could plausibly represent themselves as the defenders of Greek liberty.

The triggering incident was a revolt in the minor town of Epidamnus, in which the democratic party appealed to Athens, and the oligarchic to Sparta. But the real reason, Thucydides said, "was the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta." During the first part of the war (431 - 421), the Athenians very sensibly refused to meet the Spartans in the field. Their city was heavily fortified, and was impervious to siege as long as it controlled the sea lanes. The Spartans could not challenge the Athenians at sea, but because of their powerful army they had little to fear from Athenian attack. The war quickly bogged down into stalemate.

After a decade of this, Athens and Sparta agreed to a fifty-year truce (421.) But minor hostilities continued throughout, and in 415 the Athenians, spurred on by the demagogue Alcibiades, invaded previously-neutral Syracuse. The city, they reasoned, was rich and vulnerable – if they could take it, perhaps the plunder in gold and slaves would give them the edge they needed against the Spartans. The expeditionary force was ambushed and wiped out before it reached Syracuse, however, and Alcibiades fled to the Spartans (and later to the Persians, who executed him.) The Athenians built a second fleet, but it was also destroyed in a battle against the Spartans, who had decided to take up sailing after all. (405)

Facing starvation, the Athenians surrendered the next year. The Spartans imposed a ruinous peace and set up an oligarchic regime in Athens (the so-called “Thirty Tyrants,” who executed Socrates.) Although the Athenians eventually rallied and expelled the Thirty Tyrants, its power was broken. Like the Persians, Thucydides seemed to say, the Athians had been ruined by pride.

If Herodotus was the youth of Greek history, Thucydides was, at almost the same time, its maturity. Where Herodotus was endlessly curious, and discussed everything from Phoenician journeys around the tip of Africa to the strange customs of the Scythians and the antiquity of the Babylonians, Thucydides chose a single theme and stuck to it. His history is an account of the war between Athens and Sparta, and an analysis of its underlying causes – power politics – and nothing else. In terms of both space and time, then, his account of the past is very restricted: if somebody is not threatening to kill or enslave someone else, or actually doing it, he is not interested – a regrettable precedent in a genre which is too often a record of crimes and massacres held up for our admiration.

In his own defense he protested that he had not written his work “as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” There was, he felt, a lesson to be learned from the past, beyond the moral that Athens, as the new Persia, deserved what it got. Unlike Herodotus, who portrayed every event as the result of the uncoerced decision of individuals, Thucydides saw a logic of the situation which influenced, if it did not exactly compel, people to behave as they did. Athenian power had tempted them to set themselves up as the new hegemon, this had made the other cities suspicious, and they had naturally turned to the Spartans for defense, who recognized, in their turn, that if they wanted to preserve their liberty they would have to resist Athens sooner or later. What Homer would have explained as “the will of Jove,” and Herodotus as “the will of Xerxes” or “the Athenians,” Thucydides saw as a kind of mechanism. And as a mechanism, it could be profitably studied. For this reason he is often regarded as the founder of political science, which sets itself the same task of deciphering the algebra of power.

Thucydides is also famous for his speeches. The funeral oration of Pericles is a classic statement of patriotism and civic pride, and was offered as an explicit contrast between the wisdom of Pericles and the foolishness of Alcibiades and other demagogues. He guided the passions of the people with his oratory, while his successors were guided by those passions. If Pericles had lived through the plague that swept Athens in the middle of the war, one suspects, things might have turned out differently. The Melean dialogue is another famous speech, in which the cynical, powerful Athenians explain to the idealistic but weak Meleans that they are either with them or against them. The Meleans appeal to justice, to reason, to the gods, and to everything else they can think of, but the Athenians will have none of it – they take the city by siege and enslave the inhabitants. Whether Thucydides meant this episode as a frank explanation of the nature of power politics, or as an indictment of the Athenians, who would shortly be humbled themselves, is hard to say. Perhaps he intended both.

In Thucydides the final elements of history as we understand it come together – that is, the study of continuity and change in terms of time and space, and as a result of both human actions and an underlying logic of the situation, which perhaps help us make sense of the present. The gods have fallen silent, fate decrees nothing, and the age of heroes has passed. What remains is human beings, who are caught in situations they do not fully understand, but nevertheless decide their own fate.

The Peloponnesian War: Full Text:

Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (V of XXXV)

Questions: Thucydides has been criticized for portraying the Athenian democracy in a negative light, as a way of retaliating against it for expelling him after he lost a battle. Do you find Thucydides account of a people driven to folly by demagogues credible? Or is he missing something? What about his contention that power politics is the ultimate arbiter of conflicts? Does justice have a role to play in practical affairs?

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