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.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page