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Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The State with the Golden Arm

Monday, December 19th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

T. Greer offers two metaphors for the restless dynamism which Alcibiades considered a necessity to the Athenian State in the summer of 415: a motorist’s climb up an icy hill, where if you do not keep moving forward you will slide back; and a child’s top, which must keep spinning or fall.

I believe these are good images for what Alcibiades wanted the Athenians to think.  Whether they are good images for the reality Athens faced (and needed to understand in order to make the right decision about Sicily) is another question.

A dynamic system can find equilibrium in a steady state. If enough angular energy continues to be imparted to the spinning top to compensate for the degrading effect of friction, that top will stand forever. A snapshot of the forces and resistances in play, if taken today, will be identical to the snapshot taken tomorrow or a year from now. The icy hillside is a little different, because it is hard to imagine the hill ascending forever. Apart from the geographic implausibility, as altitude increases both air pressure and temperature will fall, adding new difficulties to the vehicle’s operation.  But for a limited distance, assuming the gradient is constant and the ice uniform, it is likely that the motorist will find a steady-state solution: a constant speed that maintains traction up the hill.

Expanding empires encounter a complication that is absent from these examples.  By continuing to grow, they increase the burden of administration, the scale of required coordination, the potential for internal dissension, the number of things that can go wrong, and the vehemence of resistance to their reign. It is as if we said that the top must not only go on spinning but must carry a heavier weight with each passing hour; or that the car must ascend a hill that is becoming ever steeper. Reality enforces a limit on this kind of growth. In the parable of Icarus, closeness to the sun represents both the success of the enterprise and its catastrophic failure.

Dynamic systems in the social sciences are often modeled with mathematics. Such efforts require a great many variables whose values, as well as their partial first and even second derivatives, are linked in sprawling systems of equations. This science is a bit over my head, and I’m not sure it has ever proven notably successful in modeling social and economic realities. But there is a basic point central to this kind of math which many of us will remember from high-school physics: it is important to distinguish a value from its rate of change.  A car’s position is one thing (location); how that value changes with time is another thing (velocity); and how that rate of change itself changes with time is a third thing (acceleration). In this regard, Alcibiades shows some confusion:

we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it for, if we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” (6.18.3)

“If we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” This is exactly what Pericles had said at 2.63.2: “to recede is no longer possible . . . to let [our empire] go is unsafe.”  Pericles’ rationale was as much psychological as economic: to restore freedom to any of those from whom Athens had taken it would make them all restless, with a cascading effect.  Assuming that the flow of tributary income Y is proportional to the stock of subject territory S, Pericles is warning that neither must diminish: dS/dt < 0 would spell danger for Athens. But mindful of the burdens, distractions, and risks of expanding the empire, he has also warned his countrymen “to attempt no new conquests” (2.65.7) for the duration of the war: dS/dt > 0 is also dangerous.

Yet Alcibiades’ conclusion is different: “We must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it.”  It is not S, but dS/dt, that he would keep undiminished! In fact, considering the scale of the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades was actually calling for dS/dt to rise, as success in Sicily would have not merely continued but accelerated the imperial expansion.

Alcibiades seems to err, therefore, because his conclusion does not follow from his Periclean premise; yet it is possible that his counsel, fatal though it was, rested on something other than a mathematical mistake.

While many dynamic systems can settle into a steady-state equilibrium, others — intrinsically unstable — must accelerate until they collapse. Chain-letters and Ponzi schemes are examples of the latter in which a phase delay between revenues (R) and costs (C) is exploited to mask an insufficiency of revenues: R(t) pays off C(t – 1). If R(t) = k * C(t), where  0 < k < 1, then revenues must grow exponentially to keep paying the bills.

Another situation that promotes unstable growth is decaying efficiency with inflexible income requirements. Suppose a bank earns a certain profit by extending credit, and the profit per year is calculated as a proportion of the amount of credit extended.  Prescinding from many real-world factors, this will be the interest rate r. Now suppose r is halved. To keep the money coming in, the bank must extend twice as much credit. Suppose r is reduced to one-tenth of what it was . . . you see where this is going, and unless a good fairy has greatly increased the bank’s capital cushion, systemic risk will rise.  A declining rate of return on capital affects more than banks, of course. Individual investors seeking to preserve their income will employ greater leverage and incur a greater risk of being wiped out. (These examples are, of course, purely hypothetical.)

A third situation — or perhaps it is a special case of declining efficiency — occurs when a large part of the value of inputs consists in their novelty. We could also say that the recipient is densensitized over time.  The addict who is satisfied with one hit of speed on Monday will require more on Tuesday, and so on . . . The addict’s dose must increase with time. This analogy is not inapplicable to the life of nations.  Consider how Saudi Arabia used its oil revenues to fund and appease a parasitic class who might otherwise have challenged the Kingdom’s narrow oligarchy. These payoffs brought about both rising expectations and a rising birthrate. Internal social stability has become a pressing concern for the House of Saud.

Did Athens’ reliance on tribute as well as on the psychological gratification of conquest exhibit the rising requirements characteristic of a stimulation that grows stale? It is striking to read, in the appeal of the Corinthians at Sparta (1.70.2),

The Athenians are addicted to innovation

We might hesitate, because the notion of addiction here seems to have been imported by Crawley into the text, which simply describes Athenians as neoteropoioi, “making things new,” i.e., innovative or revolutionary. Yet the Corinthians’ eloquent character portrait of Athens implies what Crawley has made explicit. His interpretation is confirmed in the words at 1.70.8, which Hobbes translates “What they have, they have no leisure to enjoy, for continual getting of more.”

Athens had the personality of an addict. Alcibiades’ personal attachment to debt and racehorses, then, made him a fitting representative of his city. His words “unless you are prepared to change your habits” (6.18.3) and “to take one’s character and institutions for better and for worse, and to live up to them as closely as one can” (6.18.7) suggest he was conscious of this. That he believed it would be “the safest rule” for Athens to keep feeding its accelerating addiction is typical of the wishful, unrealistic thinking common to all addicts. Because the addiction was not his alone but had come to be shared by the mass of the citizenry, Nicias and the ghost of Pericles found themselves like many elders, counseling prudence and moderation in vain.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: Spot the Alcibiades Points

Monday, December 12th, 2016

[by T. Greer]

 I spent the later part of my teenage years in the forbidding climes of southeastern Minnesota. In those days I’d often hear a joke that I sometimes still repeat:

“In Minnesota we have four seasons: near-winter, winter, still-winter,… and road construction.”

Minnesota’s northern reaches are pockmarked with lakes and marshes. Its southern parts have a few of those as well, but the landscape is different: timber forests and cat-tail bogs give way to broadleaf groves and corn-rowed farms. Flat and stagnant marshes are replaced by rivers and streams set between rolling hills. If the characteristic geographic feature of central and southern Minnesota is the lake, then the dominating feature of her southeast is almost certainly these wooded hills.

In Minnesota winters, these hills suck.

It was on those sucky, icy hills I first learned how to drive. I still remember the first 40 foot climb I made after an ice storm had struck the town. For those of you who don’t know—and outside of the Great Lakes and New England, ice storms are uncommon—an ice storm is a bizarre but dangerous sort of storm where water falls from the sky just as it normally does, in large liquid drops. As soon as those drops hit the ground, however, they freeze immediately on whatever they land on. In place of a layer of snow or hail is a glistening sheet of ice. Heavier than snow, the ice soon caves in homes, topples trees, and snaps power lines. More slick than hail, it turns driveways into skating rinks and highways into death traps. It also makes driving up a Minnesota hill very, very difficult.

The key to making the ascent is a slow and steady climb. If you go forward too fast your snow tires will find no grip. But you must move forward. If you take your foot off the gas pedal. even for the smallest moment, you invite death (or an expensive insurance claim) to your door. When the road is that slick, the car cannot stay in place. In that day not even your parking breaks will be of any use to you. Either you press forward, or you find yourself in a terrifying, uncontrollable slide back down the hill.

This moment—the moment where you are offered an unfeeling binary between surging forward and crashing backward—is the Alcibiades point.< Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, defended the Athenian invasion of Sicily with an interesting argument:

Moreover, we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it for, if we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” (6.17)

Pericles famously argued that the Athenians should “attempt no new conquests, and expose the city to no new hazards” (2.65). Alcibiades was too young at the time of Pericles’ reign to debate him then, but his rebuttal came nonetheless. In Hellas there cannot be a sated power. Athens was not a polis “inactive by nature [and] could not choose a quicker way to ruin itself than by suddenly adopting such a policy” (6.17). Both Athenian culture and regime type awarded the daring and bold; this daring must be turned outwards before it turned inward. Her wealth was won through the spoils of empire—an empire whose strength was only as staunch as its subjects believed it to be. It was an empire built for war and conquest—and if this carefully constructed constellation of oppression did not keep spinning, it satellites would careen out of orbit.

The spinning top is an intriguing metaphor here, for unlike the van on the hill the top is designed to stay in one place. But to maintain balance the top must spin—the faster, the better. If the spinning slows the top will topple. A top’s stability requires constant motion. It is not difficult to imagine counterparts in the social world. Perhaps it is a company. Possibly it is a political party or an insurgency. Maybe it’s a country. Maybe it is an empire. Whatever it is, it must move. External expansion is the only way to maintain its internal equilibrium. It must be kept in motion, or it will topple.

One of the clearest examples of this sort of system was the ancient Chinese kingdom of Qin. The House of Qin reigned in an age of contending states; it is remembered as the most terrible kingdom in a most terrible age. Qin was by modern measures tyrannous; some scholars have termed it the world’s first totalitarian society. Qin philosophers wrote of politics in terms so bleak they make Thucydides’ pronouncements sound like the script of a Disney musical:

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The Diva and the General: Who Wins?

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

[by Pauline Kaurin]

One of the most striking conversations or interchanges in Book 6 is between Alcibiades and Nicias. Alcibiades is arguing in favor of the expedition to invade Sicily, largely on this basis of his excellence and skills, as well as youthful energy, in addition to using his political skills to build a coalition against Sparta (6.16-7). He argues that the adversary is politically weak, will be easily divided and that the Spartan’s will be unable to harm the Athenians while they are on this expedition. Finally, he appeals to the desire to maintain and expand empire and that this expedition promises large benefits with very few risks.

Meanwhile Nicias is urging caution, pointing out the possible dangers, and refuting the idea that Sicily is weak and will put up very little resistance. He also points out that distance will make it difficult to keep Sicily subdues and also goes through the various difficulties that Athens has been through (the plague) and that they ought not be swayed by youthful eagerness that may not be based in fact and experience (6.11-12). He argues that they will need to be well provisioned, will require overwhelming force to succeed in this very dangerous mission.

One classical way to read this is as the politician who wants war, assumes it will be easy and is really in it for his own glory, as opposed to the seasoned warrior who sees the difficulties and dangers of warfare and views it as a last resort. This is certainly how my students viewed it and spent time discussing historical and contemporary parallels. One student even compared Alcibiades to Donald Trump! (An interesting discussion on that ensued…but I digress.)

But as a philosopher, I see these two characters through the lens of the Platonic dialogues in which they both appear. For Alcibiades, who appears at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a discussion on the nature of love and beauty, I see a Diva. Allow me to explain. Alcibiades enters the conversation at the very end of the dialogue and enters highly drunk, recounting his attempts to seduce Socrates. “Good evening gentlemen, I’m plastered,” (212E). As the master politician with a very high view of his abilities, we are treated to a recounting of the Machiavellian machinations he goes through in this process, along with Socrates’ rejection and disinterest in anything other than philosophical discussions. We also get a picture of both of them at war, in the retreat from Delium (221A), which reinforces this picture of Socrates as unconcerned with material privations, brave and generally obsessed with philosophy. Alcibiades professes his ire since he clearly thinks (in keeping with the practice of pederasty) that Socrates could benefit his career and ambitions and that Alcibiades represents a good catch! How could Socrates not find him attractive? Inconceivable.

Now, of course, this is all presented as a comedic end to the dialogue and Plato clearly has Alcibiades playing the fool’s part—even to the point of raising questions about whether he is really drunk or just being overly dramatic.

Nicias, on the other hand, who appears in the Laches—a discussion of courage and how to teach young men this virtue—is the very sober, sympathetic interlocutor with Socrates and Laches. Its clear from the dialogue that Nicias has tangled with Socrates before, knows the routine and professes to enjoy the intellectual conversation. In the course of the discussion he is charitable and genuinely tries to engage, while Laches gets (as most of Socrates interlocutors do) frustrated and cranky with Nicias. Of all the people who ought to be defensive about having trouble defining courage, it ought to be the good general.

What are we to make of all this? I would argue that looking at these figures through Plato only deepens my students assessments.  Nicias is the thoughtful, non-ego driven team player who is thoughtful and willing to consider a wide range of things. Alcibiades is entirely ego driven, sure he is right and cannot imagine how he can possibly be wrong or how anyone would disagree with him or resist his course of action. But who wins here? In the short term, Alcibiades gets his way; in the long term Nicias is right. So we ought to think about the reasons that we listen to the Diva Politicians, and not the Sober, Experienced Generals. Perhaps the Diva is the picture we want to believe and portray, and the General is the reality that we would rather not see or face.

The Thucydides Roundtable

Thursday, October 13th, 2016


  1. Announcement, by T. Greer
  2. Marching Orders, by Mark Safranski
  3. Panel of Contributors, by Mark Safranski

Book I:

  1. An introduction, by T. Greer
  2. Fear, honor, and Ophelia, by Lynn C. Rees
  3. The Broken Reedby Jim Lacey
  4. How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War, by Joe Byerly
  5. It Would Be A Great Warby Cheryl Rofer
  6. Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemyby Marc Opper
  7. Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?, by Pauline Kaurin
  8. Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint, by Mark Safranski
  9. Reflections in a Beginner’s Mindby Charles Cameron
  10. Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective, by Joseph Guerra
  11. Honour or reputation?by Natalie Sambhi

Book II:

  1. Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptionsby Pauline Kaurin
  2. Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataeaby A.E. Clark
  3. When Bacteria Beats Bayonets, by Joe Byerly
  4. Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap, by T. Greer
  5. On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part Iby Mark Safranski
  6. Treason makes the historian, by Lynn C. Rees

Book III:

  1. Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. The Most Violent Man at Athensby Mark Safranski
  3. The Medium of Heralds, by Cheryl Rofer
  4. A Layered Textby Joseph Guerra
  5. Understanding Stasisby A. E. Clark

Book IV:

  1. What a Man Can Do”, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. General Demosthenesby A. E. Clark
  3. History is Written by the Losers, by T. Greer
  4. Hoplite Perspectiveby Mark Safranski
  5. Devastationby A. E. Clark

Book V:

  1. What Would the Melians Do? Power and Perception in a Time of Deep Connectivity, by Steven Metz
  2. The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hourby A. E. Clark
  3. Men of Honor, Men of Interestby T. Greer
  4. Debating the Dialogueby A. E. Clark

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. Spot the Alcibiades Pointsby T. Greer
  3. The State with the Golden Armby A. E. Clark

Book VII:

  1. Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai, by A. E. Clark


  1. What Do You Mean by “We”?, by A. E. Clark

Concluding Analysis

  1. What have we learned?, by A. E. Clark


  1. Cleon Revisitedby Mark Safranski
  2. Fellow Thucydideansby Mark Safranski
  3. Hoffman on Reading Thucydidesby Mark Safranski
  4. Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanationby Mark Safranski


A survival kit for all time

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