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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?


[by Pauline Kaurin]

In reading and discussing Book I with my students, they were fascinated by the role of speeches and the ways in which the speeches seemed to drive action. This seemed counter-intuitive to my students who – amidst the general election season of 2016 – saw speeches, political rhetoric more generally as empty and meaningless exercises in candidate ego or manipulation by appeal to fear and other negative emotions.  I found this interesting because it demonstrates important differences between how the Greeks viewed and used political rhetoric and how we might view and use it today.

                To begin, the crisis caused by the Corcyareans and Corinthians results in a typical assembly being called and then the two sides make their respective cases by giving speeches.  (433/1) The Corcyareans  go first, and then the Corinthians make their case, largely by counter-arguing the previous case.  Thucydides then describes the actions taken by the Athenians in the aftermath of the speeches, making it clear that deliberation on the speeches (taking into account various factors including a change in public feeling) produced certain actions.

After the siege of Potidea, we have another round of accusations and fussing, then followed by more speeches, “ Last of all the Corinthians came forward, and having let those who preceded them inflame the Spartans, now followed…”  (1.67)  Athens weighs in as well, and then Sparta decides for war, and articulates the reasoning with a speech laying out what we might think of as Just Cause in the Just War Tradition.  One of the issues at stake is whether to go to war now, or whether they will be “men of action” or if the Spartans are stalling.  Book I, in fact, concludes with a speech from Perikles where he makes the case that ‘war is a necessity’ (1.144) and Thucydides notes that the Athenians were persuaded by his speech and voted and acted as he had suggested.

These highlights are designed to show that there is a pattern here: speeches and rhetoric are embedded within a larger process of reflection and deliberation that is oriented towards making a collective decision and then implementing it into action.  This is, I would argue, very characteristic of the classical Greek mind. We find this exact process laid out in Book III of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and it is reflected in many Platonic dialogues (like Meno, Crito, Phaedo and the Republic) where the occasion for the conversation about virtue, justice or death is some kind of decision or action that is being contemplated.

We should also recall the role of the Sophists in Athens and particularly in the development of Western philosophical traditions. They are frequently Socrates’ interlocutors and opponents, and their relativistic worldview is what Plato and Aristotle are positing their accounts of objective knowledge over and against. The Sophists were well known figures, traveling teachers who tutored the young Athenians in the art of rhetoric.  Rhetoric was an absolutely critical career skill for the young, free (and often wealthy) men of Athens to master, as their success in life (political and otherwise) was tied to it.  So rhetoric occupies a critical and prominent space in Greek (and especially Athenian) culture, as it was necessary for the political processes and as Thucydides points out, had a clear impact on what happened and how it happened.

So these observations are all very interesting but what of it? 

              The reason that I bring up the role of rhetoric here, especially in the context of the development of the Western philosophical traditions, is that I think my students’ reactions show a stark difference in how we view rhetoric today and Socrates helps us understand why.  It is not the case that speech and political rhetoric has no impact in our lives. We might think of the Gettysburg Address, JFK’s Inaugural speech. Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech, George Bush’s ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ speech, Barack Obama’s speech on race during the 2012 election or Michelle Obama’s convention speech from this summer.  Political rhetoric is alive and well, but I would argue serves a different function now.

For Plato especially, dialogue contra the Sophists, became not about deliberation to make a decision (his dialogues often frustratingly have no closure in that respect) , but as a mode of self-reflection in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.   With the exception of Reagan’s speech, the other speeches that we remember as a part of our political or personal life, those that resonate still, are not speeches that necessarily are aimed at action – except indirectly.  They are speeches that ask us to reflect on our sense of self (both individual and communal), that ask us to think about who we are and we want to be, very often in moral terms.  Most of these timeless speeches (judgement reserved for Michelle Obama as it is too soon) still have resonance because they connect to some aspect of the human condition, to our political life both in this moment and across time and are aspirational in some way.  They ask or challenge us to look beyond the current moment and decision/action cycle to something else – to truth and knowledge.

As we continue through Thucydides, I ask you to watch for this dynamic in the speeches.  What is the intent and effect of the speeches?

2 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?”

  1. zen Says:

    You have tested my memory with this one as my reading of Aristotle and some of Plato was quite some time ago. That said, there is much here that is contextually very important to understanding the politics of the events Thucydides described.
    Pericles was not a sophist but he had constructed a regime with an ethos – a democratic regime that uplifted and celebrated the demos, a democratic regime with an aristocratic-heroic face as it were. Thetes with collective arête might be a way to describe it. It was a political ideology that was carved into the marble reliefs that decorated the Parthenon for all with eyes to see and one that rejected oligarchy, the old domineering aristocracy of the Aeropaegi and tyranny alike. The political message could hardly have been lost on Sparta or Sparta’s upper class Athenian sympathizers and it was directly tied to Pericles military strategy. In persuading the Athenians to eschew the traditional phalanx battle with Sparta in favor of a naval strategy, he was severely diminishing the political and military importance of the middle and upper class dominated hoplites in favor of the fleets dominated by the thetes at the oar bench.
    If democratic -thete -naval Athens bested oligarchic-hoplite Sparta, what political message would that say to the Hellenic world?
    Rhetoric indeed mattered.

  2. Neville Morley Says:

    Really interesting and important point, that could be pushed further; the modern tendency to understand speeches as self-reflective is echoed in modern readings of Thucydides’ speeches that understand them as revealing his own ideas or theories and/or the state of mind of the people to whom they’re addressed – which may be true, and useful, but isn’t the whole story.

    I also wonder about the modern tendency to regard all (or almost all) rhetoric with suspicion, as attempted manipulation (again, a very Platonic attitude). Of course all rhetoric is an attempt at persuasion, but we tend to give a few speeches a free pass (Gettysburg Address, for example) as simply reflecting truth (whereas, like Pericles’ Funeral Oration, it could equally be seen as manipulative) while rejecting anything else that looks too rhetorical. Other than the Platonic school, is there a case that the Greeks were more willing to recognise rhetoric and yet accept that it has a necessary place in processes of deliberation?

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