Thucydides Roundtable, Book VIII: What Do You Mean by “We”?
[by A. E. Clark]
. . . who, though he is received as the . . . accomplisher of ministerial measures, has only a private game to play. (Anon., The Vicar of Bray: A Tale, 1751)
At the siege of Plataea, we noted that the metaphor of a game implies certain mythic simplifications such as the representation of conflict as a sequence of moves allotted, in alternating turns, to the two sides. Another such simplification built into the game metaphor is the assumption that each contestant is monolithic and pursues a goal that can be summed up as victory for that side. In Book VIII, Thucydides explodes this assumption.
That “Athens” is not a unitary actor but a bitterly divided society — actually, two societies at war with each other — becomes clear when the Athenian military in Samos is pitted against the government back home
The struggle was now between the army trying to force a democracy upon the city, and the Four Hundred an oligarchy upon the army. (8.76.1)
and later when the hoplites at the Piraeus strain against the oligarchs in the upper city (8.92). The tension between The People and The Few, as Thucydides calls them, is one of the deep drivers of events throughout the Hellenic world at this time. After the pathos of 8.24.3-4, where the sufferings of Chios are sketched sympathetically:
…after this [third defeat] the Chians ceased to meet them in the field, while the Athenians devastated the country, which was beautifully stocked and had remained undamaged ever since the Persian wars. Indeed, after the Spartans, the Chians are the only people that I have known who knew how to be wise in prosperity . . . if they were tripped up by one of the surprises which upset human calculations, they found their mistake in company with many others . . .
it is startling to learn one reason for the Chians’ difficulty:
There were more slaves at Chios than in any one other city except Sparta, and being also by reason of their numbers punished more rigorously when they offended, most of them when they saw the Athenian armament firmly established in the island with a fortified position, immediately deserted to the enemy, and through their knowledge of the country did the greatest harm. (8.40.2)
A specter was haunting Greece. A widespread ideology of liberty contradicted the reality of acute inequality — an inequality not only of wealth but of civil and human rights — and the fault lines ran through every state. At Samos, the division was perceived as comparable to that between two different species, for after an uprising
…the popular party henceforth governed the city, excluding the landholders from all share in affairs, and forbidding any of The People to give his daughter in marriage to them or to take a wife from them in future. (8.21.1)
In Athens’ death-spiral, there is no shortage of oligarchs who would betray their city to the enemy rather than lose their domestic position (The wall in Eetionia 8.91.3, the garrison at Oenoe 8.98.3).
It is not only classes, however, but individuals who complicate the clash of states by pursuing their own private interests. Tissaphernes’ first overture to Sparta springs from his hope of solving the typical problems of an administrator under the Great King, notably a hole in his budget for which he will be held responsible (8.5.5). The course of Sparta’s subversion of Athens’ empire depends on a “keen competition” between Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus (8.6.2) as well as between Endius and Agis (8.12.2). Bad blood between Pedaritus and Astyochus rises to the level of a formal accusation of treason (8.38.4) and Astyochus and Dorieus come to blows (8.84.2).
But the supreme example of self-dealing on the part of a general or statesman, the figure who bestrides Book VIII like a venal and brilliant colossus, is Alcibiades. By the end of the tale, is there anyone whom he has not betrayed? Thucydides explains his cynical advice to the Persians to let both sides exhaust each other:
” . . . because he was seeking means to bring about his restoration to his country, well knowing that if he did not destroy it he might one day hope to persuade the Athenians to recall him.” (8.47.1)
This is the man, we recall, who promoted the Sicilian expedition in order to thwart a political rival “and personally to gain in wealth and reputation.” (6.15.2)
Thucydides thus anticipates a branch of economics called Public Choice Theory, the study of how agents — that is, officers of a corporation or a polity — may pursue their own private interests to the detriment of the organization they serve. It is a problem which corporations seek to solve by “aligning” compensation with performance so that their employees will find it in their own interest to increase the corporation’s profit. This is precisely what Pericles sought to arrange by such devices as death benefits for the families of fallen soldiers: “Where the rewards for merit are greatest, there are found the best citizens.” (2.46.1)
Other societies have relied on psychological identification at least as much as economic incentives. The Communist Party of China has for many years taught the citizenry to view the Party-State as their parent. This exploits — as a free resource, so to speak — the filial devotion long ingrained in Chinese culture. Other sovereigns have associated themselves with the supernatural to which their culture gave reverence: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king.” And of course sovereigns have always employed symbolic recognition as an incentive, because it is much cheaper than economic incentives. When it was pointed out to him that the Legion d’Honneur was a bauble, Napoleon said, “It is with baubles that one leads men.”
That even holders of high office tend to act on their own account, and that the destiny of nations is often the hard-to-predict resultant of individual self-seeking and dissembling, emerges in this final book (and chiefly in reference to Athens). That may be why it contains no speeches. The speeches of Thucydides are artful constructs summarizing collective interests; but here the collective is dissolving into individual components.