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Archive for December, 2016

Happy Christmas: Of Shia & Christian in Beirut and Aleppo

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — season’s greetings ]

Posted by Rami Al Khal on Tuesday, December 20, 2016

I trust you can see and hear this video, or at least click through to Le Liban c’est ça aussi : une chorale musulmane qui chante Noël dans une église and watch it. It presents, as the post in French tells us, a Lebanese Shiite choir singing Christmas carols in a church, and with it I offer you my Christmas greetings on behalf of one and all at Zenpundit, greetings secular, sacred, Maccabean, Nazarene, Muslim, or at the mall.


I’m, as you may know, in recovery from heart surgery and on kidney dialysis, and this year I received a very kind care package of renal-failure appropriate food from an anonymous source, so I’m reminded that while the mall, grocery store and food-laden table may not represent the “essence of Christmas” as my mother would have wished — the child born God to brighten our dark world — they can nonetheless represent generosity as well as commerce, a break in the relentless pursuit of dominance, human life as gift and giving.

On this day, therefore, of commercial, charitable and Christian celebration, we wish you all, according to your varied natures and our own perspectives, happiness this Christmas in the teeth of winter and the world.


That Muslim voices are raised above in a Christian church in praise of the Christian nativity offers a glimpse of hope for mutual respect in the strife-and faith-torn Middle East — but such matters as the overlapping and interconnections of faiths are never simple, and by way or remembering something of the nuance, here’s a quick sentence from COL Pat Lang‘s post at Sic Semper Tyrannis yesterday, Christmas in Aleppo – Attention Joe Scarborough:

One of our German correspondents on SST informed us the other day that there are now some Christian members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militia. This would make sense because after the 2006 war against Israel Hizbullah assigned priority of its own reconstruction money to Christians in south Lebanon.


To quote Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..

Best wishes & blessings to all..

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, Addendum: Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation

Saturday, December 17th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Ali Wyne

Ali Wyne of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Our friends at The Strategy Bridge are continuing their own explanation of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ timeless take on it. Ali Wyne from The Atlantic Council responds to Dr. Frank Hoffman’s previous post at War on the Rocks on “Thucydides: Reading Between the Lines“:

Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation of the Peloponnesian War

….Far from being incidental to the Spartan polis, slavery was among its central characteristics. Slaves—or helots, as they were known—widely outnumbered non-slaves, perhaps by as much as a factor of ten.[3] According to the director of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, a “fundamental feature of Spartan society was that the Spartiate citizens lived as rentier landowners supported by a servile population…who worked their estates.”[4] Any disturbance to this arrangement threatened not only Sparta’s agrarian economy, but also, by extension, the leadership’s authority. The English classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford observed how centrally “the constant menace of revolt” figured in its decision-making: “To meet this danger, and not for the purposes of conquest, their military system was designed and maintained.”[5] Sparta spared no measure to achieve domestic tranquility: the University of British Columbia’s Nigel Kennell observes that it “regularly sent young elite soldiers out into the countryside as armed death squads to murder any helot they found on the roads after dark or any working in the fields they thought too robust.”[6]

As Cornford’s judgment implies, however, fear of a slave revolt did more than influence Sparta’s approach to internal order; it was instrumental in shaping the city-state’s foreign policy, for an external antagonist—or even mere opportunist—could attempt to turn the helots against Sparta’s leaders. As it happens, they scarcely required encouragement. According to Jean Ducat, France’s foremost authority on Sparta, there existed “a state of open war between the helots and the Spartans throughout the period from 520 to 460.”[7] Most notably, following an earthquake in the Eurotas Valley in 464 that destroyed much of Sparta, the city-state’s slaves joined forces with their counterparts in Messenia to attempt a coup. Even though strategic tensions between Sparta and Athens had been rising following their collective defeat of the Persians in 479, the former initially welcomed the latter’s assistance in suppressing the uprising. Soon, however, Sparta asked the Athenian contingent to leave, fearing that the democratic ideology of its members might encourage further helot subversion: British historian Paul Cartledge explains that “[t]he Spartans simply did not want several thousands of democratically minded citizen-soldiers running loose among their Greek servile underclass in their tightly controlled territory.”[8]

The paradoxical nature of Spartan culture and its leadership in the Hellenic world is something worth pondering.

The Spartans were at once the most Greek of the Greeks yet also in some respects rather weird and alien. Their religious zeal for attending to religious rites and habit of relying upon divinatory guidance to military campaigns has already been remarked upon in this roundtable. Similarly, A,E. Clark and T. Greer have debated the meaning attached to Spartan “honor” and it’s impact on Spartan moral reasoning. The upper classes of other Greek polities, including Athens itself, were often admirers of ascetic Spartan martial virtues, it’s Agoge and the despotic regimentation the Spartiates imposed on the lower classes and helots (we can include Thucydides to a degree among their number). I.F. Stone wrote of young Athenian aristocrats as “Socratified youth”, swaggering through the streets with red cloaks and clubs in imitation of Spartans. Even the Athenian hedonist noble par excellence, exiled Alcibiades, joined in Spartan customs with sufficient enthusiasm to charm his grim hosts.

But the Spartans were also strange. They were the only polity to enslave on a massive scale their fellow Greeks, which was both the basis of their power as well as their Achilles heel. They scandalized other Greeks with the boldness of Spartan women, their penchant for sadistic whipping contests and their eerie practice of living and working among the remains of their dead. Finally their harsh eugenic practices which made every Spartiate life almost too valuable to lose. These things made Sparta different from it’s allies and rivals, shaped the political judgement of Spartan leaders and the strategies by which they pursued victory.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The Roundtable moves on — we are supposed to be in Book 8, but the pace of postings evinces that “friction” of which Clausewitz wrote  — yet I would like to revisit the Melian Dialogue at the end of Book 5 and register my respectful disagreement with some of the thoughtful posts it received.

Professor Kaurin opened discussion of this celebrated passage, noting that it has been read both as a clash between Realism and the Just War theory and also as evidence that appeals to morality are the last refuge of a loser. Prof. Kaurin finds instead (I hope I am paraphrasing acceptably) that morality is an inescapable part of the framework of war, and that the Melians are calling the Athenians to account and get the better of the argument. Without repeating the points I made in an earlier post suggesting a different interpretation, I’d like to flag a couple of points which I think raise doubts about Professor Kaurin’s thesis:

The Athenians seem to be invoking the obligation (a moral term, oops!) of the Melians to preserve themselves asking why the Melians do not surrender? From the Athenian point of view, the Melian faith in the good favor of the Gods and help from the Spartans is irrational; from the Melian point of view, Athens unfairly have limited the discussion to questions of expediency only.  In short, the Athenians are arguing for Empire and the Melians for their survival.

The Athenians do not argue for their empire; they present it as a fact beneficial to themselves, and they take their intention to maintain it as the most natural thing in the world and therefore not requiring justification. They do explain the relevant mechanics of empire, namely that its continuance depends on maintaining a credible deterrent in the eyes of their subjects (5.95) — a deterrent which in this case will be established at the expense of the Melians. This I believe is the heart of the “messaging” on which Dr. Metz focused in his post

What brings the two states into conflict is not the Melians’ wish to survive, but their wish to be independent, which the Athenians will not permit them: a way of survival lies open, however, for the Athenians offer the status of tributary ally, “without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you.”

The Athenians argue that by putting their hope in aid that will not come, the Melians are making a terrible mistake. This is more of the nature of a pertinent technical observation than a moral injunction. The Athenians say quite frankly that it is in their interest, as well as the Melians’, for the Melians to survive: “We would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.” Philosophically, then, the Athenians are consistent.

The Athenians also argue that the Melians are at risk of making another terrible mistake, namely, of letting notions of honor and disgrace (“the mere influence of a seductive name”) lead them “into hopeless disaster.” The passage at 5.101 is clarifying: the Athenians are not dismissing all notions of honor (which here, as usual, denotes external honor or reputation) but stating that honor is not relevant in so unequal an encounter. 

Of course, we do not know what their fate would have been had they surrendered – the Athenians might have destroyed them anyway as deterrence or to ensure that they did not rebel at some later point in time.  

To me this is extremely doubtful. The Athenians had a reputation to keep up. With regard to “messaging,” it was almost as important for the hegemon to be known for keeping promises as it was to be known for following through on threats. Moreover, as they said, it was in their interest to secure the Melians as profitable tributaries.

Why are the Athenians even having to defend and justify their actions? If the classical Realist view holds, the conversation need not even take place and is completely pointless! Which naturally is my point: the rhetorical move whereby the Melian’s adopt the role of questioner and the Athenians as respondents is in fact an ethical move.

As I have attempted to show, (a) the Athenians are not trying to defend or justify their actions; (b) the conversation is not pointless, for the Athenians (by calling attention to resources and consequences) are trying to persuade the Melians to make, for their own survival, a decision which will also bring the optimal outcome for the Athenians.

Mr. Greer sees in the Dialogue proof that the Athenians recognized no principle but self-interest and contrasts them unfavorably with their adversaries who retained a principle of honor. To evaluate this contrast, we need to be clear what ‘honor’ meant to Thucydides’ contemporaries.

The honor about which Mr. Greer writes (in the constellation of “justice, honor, and mercy”) sounds like Victorian honor, which James Bowman, in his work Honor: a History, glosses as characteristic of the gentleman who owes allegiance to a universal and ethical standard. It represented a democratization of the honor of the Christian aristocracy, most vividly exemplified in the code of chivalry. Essential to this concept (and greatly complicating it) is a certain duality: “honor” denotes both recognition by others and one’s own inner integrity.  Tension between outward and inward honor was a frequent motif in Victorian novels. Trollope’s work often features an honorable protagonist enduring social obloquy: Phineas Finn arrested for murder and the Reverend Crawley accused of stealing a check. The inward kind of honor came to be seen as ultimately the “real” one, and to call someone an honorable man was a judgment of his inner values, not his reputation.

I doubt that anyone in the fifth century BCE would have recognized this concept. It is not what Thucydides meant by the word time. The classical Greek dictionaries make it clear that time was extrinsic honor. It was paramount in the ancient world — note that at 1.76.2 although the usual English translation (I think for the sake of tricolon crescens) is “fear, honor, and interest,” in the original, ‘honor’ comes first (Professor Morley pointed this out in his comment to Lynn Rees’s post). It remains paramount in the Muslim world, and it is close to the Asiatic concept of “face.”

It is with some unease that I point out that the meaning of ’honor’ has changed over time, because this is certainly not news to Mr. Greer. He has blogged elsewhere with erudition about the dramatic (and popularly unknown) evolution of family values, and the succession of honor, dignity, and victimhood as the changing forms of validating status in American society. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his discussion of honor in the Peloponnesian War suffers from an uncharacteristic anachronism.

Let us follow Mr. Greer into the argument over the fate of the Plataeans (3.52-68), a lengthy and emotionally arresting episode. I do not think it supports the conclusions Mr. Greer draws from it.

Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest

— but, he says, they appealed to the Spartans’ sense of justice and honor. Yet let us consider this carefully. When the Plataeans appeal to the Spartans’ sense of honor, they are referring to what people will say about you.  Look at the passage again: “most of the Hellenes regard you as a model…take care that displeasure not be felt at an unseemly [that’s closer to the Greek than Crawley’s ‘unworthy’] decision.” You will look bad!

As for the Thebans’ argument at Plataea, Mr. Greer is right that it refers often to justice and injustice; but after scrutinizing their speech I sense that the Thebans are tendentiously labeling as unjust and criminal anyone who has been on the other side in a war.  This is not unnatural: one who chooses to be on the other side harms my interests, and human beings have always tended to identify the Good with whatever is good for themselves, and Evil as whatever is harmful to themselves.  If we accepted this logic, then on the conclusion of a war every soldier on the losing side would be treated as a criminal. This may have been fair in the Theban view, but we should be clear that the Thebans are not using the word justice as we use it. And we certainly have no reason to place the Spartan and Theban decision at Plataea on a higher level, even conceptually, than the Athenians’ at Melos. The Spartans, too, were guided by their own interests, except that their calculation was based largely on the past (retribution) where the Athenians’ was based mainly on the future (keeping their empire intact).

Even if we found reason to understand the ’justice’ mentioned here as comparable to our concept, it would be rash to conclude that the Spartans were imbued with justice simply because they talked about it. This is especially true if (as I think can fairly be said) the outcome of deliberations ostensibly guided by a criterion of justice happened always to be a choice that served Spartan interests. “Rationalization” may be a modern term, but the phenomenon is very old.

It is harder to evaluate the tendency for inauspicious sacrifices or an inviolable festival to delay Spartan military campaigns. It was the perception of other Greeks that the Spartans were cautious by temperament and loath to engage in action outside their borders. This may have been because their domestic situation was always somewhat precarious, or because they — with the sobriety typical of professional soldiers — were less keen to get into wars than amateurs were. I wonder if the often-invoked auguries were not simply a face-saving way to put the brakes on. I doubt that their sense of national security ever took a back seat to piety.

The combination of an anachronistic reading of ‘honor’ and a willingness to accept rhetoric as virtue leads Mr. Greer to be rather hard on the Athenians

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

while he gives the Spartans more credit

The Spartans were a very different sort of people. […] Her people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. […] To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

I, too, see much to admire in the way of Lacedaemon, but I am afraid the Spartans, like the Athenians (and every other long-lived society), underwent a moral and cultural decay. Helena Schrader, who has written a very pleasant trilogy fictionalizing the life of Leonidas, dates the commencement of that decay even before the Classical era, as the laws of Lycurgus began to be watered down or circumvented. She represents Leonidas as one of the last exemplars of the virtues of the Archaic era. Within the pages of Thucydides I do not observe consistent devotion to principle more frequently in Spartans than in others, though their military discipline was stronger. There is certainly no halo around Pausanias!

Yet in the end I am willing to draw a moral lesson, but it is that economic and political structures play an enormous role in determining moral tenor. The Athenians did not treat rebels ruthlessly because they were immoral or unprincipled. They treated rebels ruthlessly because they had an empire to preserve. Empire — that is, power without accountability to those over whom it is exercised for the purpose of extracting resources from them — necessarily involves treating certain people or communities as means, and not at all as ends. Since few wish to be treated as means, this arrangement requires coercion and (in all the cases I can think of) some degree of institutionalized cruelty. (A debate over Aristotle’s “natural slave” will await a different discussion!)  Admirers of the culture of Athens must acknowledge with regret that this was what the Athenians let themselves in for when they chose the path of Empire. The Spartans’ empire lay at home, and the krypteia marked helots, sometimes arbitrarily chosen, for murder — and in one case that Thucydides recounts (4.80.3-5), the murder occurred treacherously and on a very large scale.

It is hard to ponder the relation of morality to power, and the feasibility of remaining moral while exercising power, without thinking of Machiavelli. His work has been plausibly interpreted in such contrasting ways. Did he despise Christian morality? Did he believe that statecraft was a domain in which different rules applied, though the ultimate values were consistent with Christian morality? Was he trying to arm republicans against the wiles of tyrants — exhorting his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, except that the first took precedence over the second? I find the cool pragmatism of the Athenian imperialists rooted in a worldview that is not only pre-Christian, but untouched by the implications of monotheism; and comparisons with Machiavelli are therefore likely to mislead. The Florentine, like the Platonist and the Stoic, believed — or lived in a culture that professed to believe — that all men in some sense were brothers. The Athenians did not. That is why they are closer to Darwin than to Machiavelli.

Finally, when Mr. Greer observes that after all it was the Spartans who won the war, I trust he is not suggesting that they won because they more frequently talked about justice! Their victory may defy simple explanation, or it may turn out to have been overdetermined. The subsidies from Persia should not be forgotten, as well as the elephantine folly of the Sicilian expedition. And as I have written elsewhere, by exercising empire over fellow-Greeks the Athenians chose to sail against a powerful headwind — the ideology of Greek freedom — that they had done much to create.

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:

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