Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Understanding Stasis

[by A. E. Clark]

The reflections of Thucydides on the murderous polarization at Corcyra (III.82-84) are justly celebrated. He himself claims a timeless insight into human nature:

…sufferings … such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same


The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition . . .

Yet he also makes it clear that these horrors could not occur in the absence of certain conditions:

In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war . . .

This is the context for his memorable epigram that war is a violent teacher. The hasty reader might conclude that Thucydides is saying merely that war is hell and it brings out the worst in people. This would be a mistake.


The passage is a difficult one.  An early critic — Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing from Rome in the reign of Augustus —  singled out these chapters for censure as “affected, artificial, and crowded with all kinds of ornamental additions.” And he was Greek!  While the translator has smoothed out some difficulties for us, he may have introduced a new one. The subject of this passage is stasis, which Crawley renders as “revolution.”  Stasis is related to the word for “stand” and can mean ‘the place in which one stands or should stand.’ It came to be applied to political faction and the strife arising from the mutual antagonism of factions. This etymology brings to mind the language of the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards would often exhort a person “to take a stand,” which often meant “drawing a line between” oneself and some friend or relative who carried a political taint. But I wonder if the most natural translation for Americans today might be ‘polarization,’ except that when we talk of polarization, we are usually just talking about strong differences of opinion. The stasis of which Thucydides writes is something that leads rapidly to the breakdown of all morality in a fight to the death.  Where does that come from?


Our author drops a strong clue in Chapter 84:

In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion . . .

This is pretty clear.  It must have made an impression on the seventeenth-century British scholar who produced the first English translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War.  Decades later, after surviving England’s own Civil War, he developed a social philosophy on the following premise:

. . . during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

Thomas Hobbes usually translates stasis as ‘sedition,’ which doesn’t seem quite right to me. Rather than overthrowing a civilizing top-down power, the stasis of Thucydides arises in the absence of that power.

And the horror with which Thucydides describes stasis suggests that for him it is not the natural state of man, held at bay by a central power. He seems to be describing extraordinary conditions in which human nature is unable to express its true qualities in the social sphere.  One thinks of W. B. Yeats (“the centre cannot hold”) when reading

. . . the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two [extremes] . . .

Yeats understood this unnatural state of society, at least symbolically, in eschatological terms. As we work out what Thucydides’ understanding may have been, we may learn from his description of another phenomenon that, like stasis, dissolved all morality: the plague at Athens.


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