Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Fear, honor, and Ophelia

[by Lynn C. Rees]

“Fear, honor, and interest” is common shorthand for the political realism blamed on Thucydides. It appears twice in Book I, first at 1.75.3 (in Attic and Crawley’s English)…

ex autou de tou ergou catênancasthêmen to prôton proagagin autên es t?de, malista men hypo deous, epita cae timês, hysteron cae ôphelias..

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.

…and second at 1.76.2

houtôs oud? hêmis thaumaston ouden pepoeêcamen oud? apo tou anthrôpiou tr?pou, i archên te didomenên edexametha cae tautên mê animen hypo triôn tôn megistôn nicêthentes, timês cae deous cae ôphelias, oud? au prôtoe tou toeoutou hyparxantes, all? aei cathestôtos ton hêssô hypo tou dynatôterou catirgesthae, axioe te hama nomizontes inae cae hymin docountes mechri hou ta xympheronta logiz?menoe tôi dicaeôi l?gôi nyn chrêsthe, hon oudis pô paratychon ischui ti ctêsasthae prothis tou mê pleon echin apetrapeto.

It follows that it was not a very wonderful action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Besides, we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice—a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.

There’s a trick found in the distance between 1.75.3 and 1.76.2. E. C. Marchant’s note on 1.75.3 hints at its identity:

28. déous—fear of the Persians. times—the honor enjoyed by Athens when she had once accepted the hegemonía. óphelos —interest.

In 1.75.3, “fear, honor, and interest” is not an unchanging trinity of human neuroses outside of time but an all too historically grounded sequence of:

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