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Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: Spot the Alcibiades Points

[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:

“If virtuous officials are employed, the people will love their own relatives, but if wicked officials are employed, the people will love the statutes. To agree with, and to respond to, others is what the virtuous do ; to differ from, and to spy upon, others is what the wicked do. If the virtuous are placed in positions of evidence, transgressions will remain hidden ; but if the wicked are employed, crimes will be punished.

In the former case the people will be stronger than the law; in the latter, the law will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the law, there is lawlessness in the state, but if the law is stronger than the people, the army will be strong. Therefore is it said: “Governing through good people leads to lawlessness and dismemberment; governing through wicked people leads to order and strength.”[1]

Bottom to top, the state of Qin was a society ordered for war. “Optimize everything” is a 21st century phrase the Qin would understand. Every man was plugged into an elaborate 13 rank social hierarchy, his position determined entirely by his martial accomplishments. The old aristocracy was seen as superfluous, and so were suppressed; independent artisans, ritual masters and musicians, philosophical schools, and wealthy merchant clans won no wars, and so were rooted out and eliminated. Those who farmed more and fought more prospered. Those who failed to do either were punished. Roads, coins, letters, measures, and laws were standardized in the name of efficiency. The shape and size of houses and farming plots were dictated by the state to maximize crop production and taxation. A mammoth bureaucracy—the largest of the pre-modern era—was created to impose all of this on the wider population. Families were organized into collective responsibility groups to enforce these measures; failure to report the failings of your neighbors meant everyone in the group would be punished for them.

The Qin built their empire on a nightmare. But it was a nightmare that worked. The Qin fought war after war after war—more wars, in fact, than any other Warring State—and incorporated what they conquered into their system. They went from strength to strength. After a century of constant conflict there was no one left to oppose them. The Qin rode their nightmare straight to universal empire. For the first time in history, all of inner China was in the control of one man. The Qin imagined they had established a dynasty that would last through the millennia.

It was a vain vision. It had taken 150 years for the House of Qin to conquer China. They would rule it for 15.

The story of the rebellion against Qin is too long, and its details too complex, to relate here. It is sufficient to say that part of the dynasty’s problem was a structural one. They had built the ultimate conquest state, but had run out of places to conquer. As historian Mark Edward Lewis comments:

So why did the Qin dynasty fail? The most insightful discussion of this catastrophe is also the earliest. Writing only a couple of decades after the Qin collapse, the early Han scholar Jia Yi argued: “One who conquers the lands of others places priority on deceit and force, but one who brings peace and stability honors obedience to authority. This means that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not use the same techniques. Qin separated from the Warring States period and became ruler of the whole world, but it did not change its ways or alter its government. Thus, there was no difference in the means by which they conquered and the means by which they tried to hold it.”

For all the ambition of the Qin reforms, with their vision of a new world where measures, laws, and truths flowed from a single source, the implementers of these reforms carried the basic institutions and practices of the Warring States unchanged into the empire. The direct administration of peasant households who were mobilized for military service continued as the organizing principle of the state, with a large servile labor pool formed from those who violated any of the numerous laws. No longer necessary for inter-state warfare, this giant machine for extracting service had become a tool in search of a use.

To occupy these conscripts, the Qin state engaged in an orgy of expansion and building that had little logic except employing Warring States institutions that had been rendered obsolete by their own success. Armies were launched on massive, pointless expeditions to the south, north, and northeast. Colossal projects to construct roads, a new capital, and the First Emperor’s tomb were initiated. Laborers were dispatched to the northern frontier to link old defenses into the first Great Wall. A state created for warfare and expansion, Qin wasted its strength—and alienated its newly conquered people—by fighting and expanding when there were no useful worlds left to conquer. Mutinies by labor gangs led to a general rebellion of Qin officers and people against their rulers, and the first Chinese empire went down in flames only fifteen years after it was created. [2]

The Qin had shot past the Alcibiades point. They realized too late that they had no way to keep the tops spinning.

It is not clear if Alcibiades actually believed the argument Thucydides put into his mouth. It is an unusually self-serving one. Given the outcome of the Sicilian Expedition, it is easy to dismiss it. I would not be so quick to do so. Alcibiades needed something convincing to inspire his fellow citizens to war, and at this point in the contest the Athenians had fallen deep into the cold rhetoric of realpolitik. Alcibiades made a compelling point—the Athenians were a people who could not sit still. Her empire was built on fear of her power and strength of her word. What could maintain that fear in times of plenty and peace? “Take one’s character and institutions for better and for worse,” he advised, “and to live up to them as closely as one can” (6.18).

Athens had reached its Alcibiades point. The Athenians would now either climb the hill or come crashing down it.


[1] Book of Lord Shang, Book 5, Par 1. Translated in J.J.Duyvendak, The Book of Lord Shang, (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1928), 117.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han

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