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Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

In my first post on this Roundtable I brought up the concept of strategic narrative and how it serves as a link between Thucydides and Clausewitz from a strategic theory perspective.  Describing the layered nature of The Peloponnesian War, Ned Lebow, expanding on W. Robert Conner, outlines four levels of narrative:  The first regards “interest, justice and their relationship”.  The second is the story of Athens as a tragedy.  The third, following the second, is “the relationship between nomos (convention, custom, law) and phusis (nature) and its implications in the development and preservation of civilisation”.  The fourth and final level in this outline is the “meta-theme” of the entire narrative: “the rise and fall of Greek civilisation, and the circumstances in which different facets of human nature come to the fore”.

This follows a standard approach to many great works.  The idea that the author is not so much presenting a story, as much as attempting to engage with the reader, get them to question their own preconceived notions about a subject, essentially to create a dialectic in which the reader is able to achieve a higher level of understanding through a process of reading, questioning, contemplating and then going on to the next related element, while at the same time retaining the conceptual whole and how the various elements are related.  Not so surprisingly the same is said about Clausewitz’s On War.

The Corcyrean revolution is chillingly described in 3.70-3.85.  Here we see all the levels of the narrative displayed as complex interactions.  Interest has overcome justice, which in any case is only achievable among equals.  But does actual equality exist between humans, as in democratic structures of government, or are they simply a myth?  Conventions and customs fall prey to human nature and impulse, while the meanings of words decay (through narrow interest) which in turn has an effect on actions, which in turn has to be justified thus leading to further decay of the overall narrative.  As with Thucydides’s description of the plague in Athens in Book II, some respond heroically to this turmoil (stasis), but most succumb giving themselves over to impulse and/or fear and act in ways that would have been inconceivable prior to the crisis.  Civilisation itself, which requires a basis (shared interests, justice, language, common conventions, etc,) for stability, starts to come apart.  This all follows more or less the development of a Greek tragedy, or repeated tragedies, with the implication that this is more the nature of humanity as a whole, than being limited to a specific time and place.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be able to comment on such a classic work of strategic thought in such a forum as this.  I thank Mark/zen for this opportunity and hope that I am able to do justice to this subject.

I approach Thucydides’s work from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. The book can be seen as perhaps the earliest attempt in Western literature to come up with a theory of grand strategy.  There is a lot to be said for this approach.  If we consider that Clausewitz’s general theory of war could be part of a larger general theory of strategy, or grand strategy, then a relationship between the two classic works, that is Clausewitz’s On War and Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War becomes clear.

This could come across as questionable for many, since at first glance the two books are quite different.  Clausewitz discusses various types of theory in his book providing military historical examples to make his point.  Thucydides gives a detailed history of a specific conflict from various perspectives; provides a intricate view of political relations, including narratives of the time.  Raymond Aron came up with an interesting comment on the two authors which puts these distinctions within a common context:

It seems that we owe the great books on action to men of action whom fate deprived of their crowning achievement, men who arrived at a subtle blend of engagement and detachment which left them capable of recognising the constraints and shackles of the soldier or the politician and also capable of looking from outside, not indifferently but calmly, at the irony of fate and the unforeseeable play of forces that no will can control.  Philosophy presents an image of pessimism.  For what, may one ask, makes victories precarious and the state unstable?  Whoever devotes himself to the state chooses to build sandcastles.  There remains for him only the hope  of Thucydides or that of Clausewitz: “My ambition was to write a book which could not be forgotten after two or three years, but which could be taken up several times when required by those who take an interest in this subject.”   Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, p 12.

Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War offers various points for consideration from a Clausewitzian perspective.  The conflict is rooted in the political relations of the various communities involved (see “War is an Act of Human Intercourse”, Book II, Chapter 3).  Sparta initially uses a Strategy of Annihilation, whereas Athens a Strategy of Attrition, to use Hans Delbrück’s terminology.  Both sides display various stages and types of moral and material cohesion which varies as the conflict progresses.  All three of these would warrant comment from this perspective, but there is an additional aspect which I intend to introduce here and deal with in future posts.  This is the concept of strategic narrative.

One of the advantages of Clausewitz’s general theory of war is that it is compatible with a wide range of other strategic thought which is not limited to the military.  Such different (non-military) thinkers as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King approached social action and community perceptions from a distinctly Clausewitzian outlook.  All would understand the importance of strategic narrative.

In his book, War From the Ground Up, Emile Simpson not only defines strategic narrative, but links it to Clausewitz:

‘Strategic narrative’ is a contemporary term, but is a formalisation of a concept that has been present in all conflicts.  Strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.  It can usually be detected chronologically before conflict starts, in some form, as the explanation for participation in, or initiation of, the conflict; strategic narrative also operates as the explanation of actions during and after conflict.

Strategy seeks to relate actions to policy.  A policy outcome is ultimately an impression upon an audience.  It can be a physical impression, which in war would typically be defined in terms of death and destruction.  It can simultaneously be a psychological impression, typically defined in terms of an evolution in political alignment, not necessarily by consent.  For strategy to connect actions to policy it must therefore invest them with a great meaning in relation to its audiences, both prospectively and retrospectively. page 179-180.

This narrative should be realised in a coherent set of actions which give it expression . . . strategic narrative is not just concerned with audiences exterior to one’s side, or coalition.  One of the key functions is to achieve unity of effort, ideally to give coherent expression to that side’s will, as Carl von Clausewitz would put it.  page 182.

A strategic narrative that is seen as incoherent or contradictory by the various audiences, or becomes incoherent over time, will obviously fail in its purpose.

James Boyd White (“the other Boyd”) devotes an entire chapter to Thucydides in his When Words Lose Their Meaning.  The tight fit between the speeches provided by Thucydides throughout The Peloponnesian War and the strategic narrative then in effect act as an indicator of how these various strategic narratives develop or decay over time.  The words also act as reflections of the loss of moral and material cohesion within the various political communities depicted as the war progresses.  Boyd White describes accurately Thucydides world as related in Book 1:

. . . this was a highly structured world, rich in resources for argument and action.  The very fact that the cities could jockey for position as they did, each seeking to place the other in the wrong, shows that they operated on terms established by a shard and comprehensible discourse and that each was acting in part for an audience, internal or external, who would use that discourse to judge what it did.  Thucydides now gives us the opportunity to learn something about the nature of that discourse, for at this moment Corcyra sends a delegation to Athens to ask for an alliance, and Corinth sends a representative to resist them.  Thucydides presents their speeches in considerable detail.

This is a highly literary moment, of which we can ask: Of all the things that might be said here, what will the speakers choose to say? How will they try to persuade the Athenians to do what they want them to?  To what values will they appeal, for example?  What pleas, what charges, what veiled or explicit threats or promises, will they make?  Will they call on the gods, on compassion or justice, or on tradition of the law?  Will they appeal to the Athenians’ economic or military self-interest, and if so how will they define these things?  Or will they appeal to the Athenians’ sense of their own character, say, as virtuous or brave or generous, and how will they do that?  In what terms will they tell their stories?  page 62

Book 1 fittingly ends with Pericles’s speech to the Athenians (1.140-144), where he lays out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.  He accurately depicts Athens’s advantage at the onset and rightly fears the potential blunders of his own side over the strengths and strategy of the enemy.  Given her position among the Greeks, Athens has no choice but to fight.

On to Book 2.

October 8: ignore this till afterwards — or afterlife

Friday, October 7th, 2016

[ Charles Cameron — glance, okay, because it’s strange, and about tomorrow — no need to play the videos ]
.

Nostradamus:

Brother Nathanael:


Sheikh Imran Hosein:

Illuminati:


And:

**

Just dipping my toe in the strange waters of Matthew 24:36:

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

and Qur’an 33:63:

People ask you concerning the Hour. Say, “Knowledge of it is only with Allah. And what may make you perceive? Perhaps the Hour is near.”

So:

  • Socrates, The unexamined life is not worth the living…
  • Christ, That they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly..
  • Anais Nin, The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself..
  • Bob Dylan: It’s life and life only..
  • The best of war games?

    Thursday, September 29th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — this may be the most expensive single chess set ever, but let’s wait for part two ]
    .

    Chess:

    **

    From the catalogue description:

    Lavishly decorated and large in size, this extraordinary, elaborate chess set is the only one of its kind, and is perhaps the best ever made. Crafted by the hand of a master jeweler, the exquisite quality of its manufacture is showcased in each and every detail. Every 14k gold game piece is different, encrusted with semiprecious stones and brightly hued enamel, and each is endowed with mechanical movement. This ancient game of war truly comes to life on the breathtaking board, which is itself a spectacular sight to behold. This incredible chess set rests atop its custom-crafted mahogany and leather-topped table, and is accopanied by a pair of handsome 19th-century leather upholstered chairs.

    The ancient Battle of Issus is the subject of this extraordinary set and an apt reference to the military-like strategy of the game. What was one of the most important battles of the ancient world is beautifully retold here through pieces representing gods and goddesses, ancient structures, and creatures of both Greek and Persian origin. Alexander the Great and King Darius III take their places on the board as kings. At Alexander’s side is Queen Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, while the winged Persian god of war stands as Darius’ queen piece. War ships sailing over waves and massive elephants covered in elaborate trappings take the place of bishops, while the castles have been transformed into the columned temples of ancient Greece and the impressive Persepolis. Horsemen and footmen face off as well, each with their own sword, javelin, or bow.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt of the intricate quality of the workmanship, nor the costliness of the materials, in this chess set based on Alexander‘s victory at Issus..

    30-4695_9

    With any luck, the Go set I hope to describe in part two will be even more beautiful.

    Perhaps because I’m looking for the tauromachia

    Thursday, September 15th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — Syria echoes Guernica ]
    .

    This, from JM Berger today, offers a glimpse of Syria that is neither war, nor peace, if I might put it this way, but war longing for peace:

    Irresistibly, it reminds me of this:

    Isn’t that a bull’s head in cloth, hanging right above the shoulder of the leaping boy in the Syrian image — and isn’t that alnmost exactly Picasso’s swooping white head, again in cloth, just to the right of it? The illusion of their similarity is enhanced by the aspect ratio of the Twitter image from Syria, which cuts off a stretch of green in the original photo, just below the image as you see it here..

    **

    But it may be I’m seeing this because the bullfight and tauromachia have been on my mind recently — mythic combats of man pitted agains one of his worthiest opponents. There’s an archaic resonance there that’s inmportant in some way, but the actual killing of the bull, blood in the sand, horrifies me, the animal descending from grandeur to humiliation, its bowed head propped on one horn as it awaits finality — terrible.

    And I was accordingly happy to recall the less violent version of the sport, still pitting man’s skill against adversary — in the bull-leaping of Knossos:

    and its latter-day practice, shown here at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona:

    **

    Taurus:

    taup
    This image comes from the fabulous Constellations of Words site.


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