zenpundit.com » Thucydides Roundtable

Archive for the ‘Thucydides Roundtable’ Category

Thucydides Roundtable: Daniel Bassill’s comment

Friday, February 10th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — a comment from a valued friend ]

My friend Daniel Bassill of Tutor-Mentor Institute has been following the Thucydides Roundtable here on Zenpundit, and sent me a comment which would probably be too long for the comment section, so I’m posting it “whole” here.

As he explains in his post, Daniel is a dedicated blogger and networker from Chicago who maps Tutor-Mentor Connections (see image above, or view full size) in an effort to provide a library of templates for similar projects in other cities.

I’m honored to offer you his guest post here.


Daniel Bassill writes:

I’d like to start out this post by saying “Thank you” to Zenpundit and Charles Cameron for luring me into your small circle of learners who have read Thucydides’ guide to The Peloponnesian War over the past 10 weeks. I started a few weeks after you all had introduced yourselves and had posted comments on the introduction and book, but finished at about the same time as the rest of you. Throughout my reading, your articles and comments greatly enhanced my understanding of what I was reading. Whoever said this is a “difficult book to read” was absolutely correct.

I’ve a long interest and majored in history in college. This book reminded me of a history of the American Civil War that I read while in 8th grade (I’m 70 now), which was about two inches thick, with small type densely packed on each page, and recounted every battle and troop movement in the entire war. I don’t know how I made it all the way through.

As I read Thucydides I used my yellow marker to highlight passages I wanted to come back to later. During the past year a few on-line friends have introduced me to annotation tools such as Hypothes.is which allows readers to highlight on-line material and comment in the margins. Others can do the same and interact with each other. That might have been an interesting way to read Thucydides with you. However, since we didn’t I put some of my highlighted text on a Hackpad over the past couple of weeks, so I could use them to help me write this post.

As I read the book, and your comments, I kept thinking of how little mankind has changed over 2400 years and how the politics and war that Thucydides was writing about relates to the current political situation in the US and the world. I was struck by how much power and influence Pericles had, as well as how much Alcibiades seemed to have. There are a few people surrounding our new president who seem to have similar power. That scares me.

Right from the introduction onward, when Thucydides wrote, “So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.” pg 15, I began to relate what he wrote 2400 years ago to how many of us make decisions today.


Three themes stood out in this book, that seem to still be relevant today

a) War brutalizes people, and civilians suffer the most. Throughout the book was countless reporting of massacres and pillage of captive people and surrendered cities. It seems that this hasn’t really been much of a concern for leaders until the late 1600s and Age of Enlightenment, when Rousseau and others began sharing their ideas.

b) Might makes right, and the powerful have a right to rule the weak ….this might be Teddy Roosevelt saying “Speak softly but carry a big stick” or Donald Trump saying “America First”.

c) The historical glorification of Athenian Democracy is based on a myth, in my opinion, since their ‘democracy’ only applied to the people in Athens, and not to the people in the Athenian Empire.

I want to focus on the middle of these three observations. Below are some quotes from Book One,
which I highlighted:

“For it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” pg 43
“Where force can be used, law is not needed.” pg 44
“The weaker must give way to the stronger” pg 44
“Men’s indignation, it seems, is more excited by legal wrong than by violent wrong; the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior.” pg 44

These arguments were further developed in Book 5, where the Milian Argument was reported, and which was discussed in depth on the Zenpundit site. I highlighted these two comments.

Book 5, 16th year – The Melian Argument — (see discussion of this on Zenpundit site)

“Athenians: For ourselves, we will not trouble you with specious pretenses……. since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”” pg 352
“Athenians: Of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us;” pg 354


I live in Chicago and grew up in the years following WW2. I’ve worked for social justice almost all my adult life, leading efforts to help inner city youth connect with adults from beyond poverty who would serve as tutors, mentors, network builders, and in other roles that helped lead youth to adult lives free of poverty.

Thus, I’ve been over exposed to “justice” and “fairness” arguments, where abused populations have
sought better treatment, apology, and even reparations from their oppressors.

Yet, little real change in condition of the poor has resulted from these challenges to oppression, and now there may be a backlash in the US as a result of the Trump election.


As I was preparing to write this, two other resources came to me from my web network.

I was asked to view this “potential war with China” video showing the US Empire as of 2017.

This video shows that regardless of who the US President has been, business interests, particularly the industrial-military-financial sector, for more than 150 years, maybe since the US was founded, have been driving actions that bully weaker countries and create pain and suffering for millions of people, mostly the poor. We’ve created plenty of reasons for people to hate us, and fear us. While there is growing visibility being given to protest movements, victories are small and hard to sustain.

China is not a weakling that can be pushed around. This is where DT offers much to be afraid of. Maybe China is our “Sparta” and we’re it’s “Athens”. Nothing good came from that.

The second resource is an article that traces current world events and power structure back over 2500
years to the time of Thucydides and Athenian democracy. In this section of thearticle is a comparison of two long-term
trends (demonstrated in two articles), with one titled “Plato to NATO” and another “based on the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease’. ”

This paragraph offers a brief summary of the two articles:

‘Plato to NATO’ separates human beings from nature and presumes we have not just the right but the duty to bend the natural world to our will. Wetiko says we are nature, and our cognitive and technological prowess means not that we have a right to dominate nature and extract all its value for our own aggrandizement, but that we have a responsibility to care for it and leave it in a better state than we found it.

This first section could have been a statement delivered by an Athenian in Thucydides’ book. The second relates to Pericles’ description of Athenian strengths, given in Book One, which concludes with “they were born into the world to take no rest themselves, and to give none to others.” pg 40

These articles prompted me to dig deeper.


Further research for writing this comment includes this article about Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived in France from 1469-1527. This statement shows how 15th century Europe had not changed much from BC400 Greece “Machiavelli’s era was that of the Medici family, of naked conquest by military force”

There’s an unsaid comparison to Thucydides in this statement about Machiavelli: “It has been suggested that Machiavelli wrote out of resentment, but the emotional forces that drove him were stronger than mere resentment.”

Reading further in sections summarizing Machiavelli’s book, “The Prince”, I see many ideas that could
have come directly from reading Thucydides.

I next looked to see if I could find a connection between Thucydides and Machiavelli, which led me to this article. The Influence of Thucydides in the Modern World – The Father of Political Realism Plays a Key Role in Current Balance of Power Theories, By Alexander Kemos http://www.hri.org/por/thucydides.html

This is the first paragraph of the article:

Thucydides, the Ancient Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., is not only the father of scientific history, but also of political “realism,” the school of thought which posits that interstate relations are based on might rather than right. Through his study of the Peloponnesian War, a destructive war which began in 431 B.C. among Greek city-states, Thucydides observed that the strategic interaction of states followed a discernible and recurrent pattern. According to him, within a given system of states, a certain hierarchy among the states determined the pattern of their relations. Therefore, he claimed that while a change in the hierarchy of weaker states did not ultimatley affect a given system, a disturbance in the order of stronger states would decisively upset the stability of the system. As Thucydides said, the Peloponnesian War was the result of a systematic change, brought about by the increasing power of the Athenian city-state, which tried to exceed the power of the city-state of Sparta. “What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta,” Thucydides wrote in order to illustrate the resulting systematic change; that is, “a change in the hierarchy or control of the international political system.

How this affects us in 2017 is shown in this paragraph:

The impact of Thucydides’ work upon scholars of the Cold War period consists evidence for the relevance of his realist theory in today’s world. In fact, while his Peloponnesian War is chronologically distant from the present, Thucydides’ influence upon realist scholars in the post-1945 period, and in turn upon American diplomacy, is direct. Specifically, the foundations of American diplomacy during the Cold War with regard to the struggle between the two superpowers and the ethical consequences or problems posed for smaller states caught in the vortex of bipolar competition are derived from his work.

In the conclusion of this article about Machiavelli, the author wrote, “In twenty-first century liberal democracy, perhaps there is a little of the prince in everyone: it is only to be hoped that there is more than a little of the people in today’s princely political elite.”


In his concluding article on the Zenpundit site, A.E. Clark wrote “What we can learn from Thucydides may therefore be a purely theoretical question, if in fact no one is going to read Thucydides.”

He went on to say “Few have read this book, and few in our time will ever do so.”

I’d argue that few have read any of the articles I put on my hackpad as a result of reading Thucydides. I was motivated to read the book by reading Zenpundit articles for the past year or so, which was motivated by meeting and building a relationship with Charles Cameron, starting in about 2005. And that was motivated by my own efforts to connect more people to the work I was doing in Chicago to help build a better system of supports for inner city kids, by building better support for the tutor/mentor organizations they needed in their lives.

You can see a cycle of cause and affect.

I’m an archivist, librarian, teacher and advertiser. I put these articles on a Hackpad as a way to archive them for myself and for others. I will continue to add to this and hope others join in. I’ve been pointing to these on my Twitter and Facebook feeds for the past two weeks.


I’ve been hosting the http://www.tutormentorconnection.org web site and http://www.tutormentorexchange.net web site since 1998 and have been writing http://tutormentor.blogspot.com articles since 2005.

It’s probable that very few out of a planet of many billions of people have ever read any of what I’ve written.

But some have, such as Charles Cameron, and he’s made a continuous effort to encourage others to take
a look. Thus, I’m encouraged, and keep on doing this work.

Maybe that’s my take-away from this experience.

If we make the effort, maybe we can expand the band of brothers that A.E. Clark wrote about or that the writers of the Longreads site are hoping for.

And maybe that will result in helping more of us navigate the times we live in.

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tying our colloquium on Thucydides to current White House events ]


Well, I’ve been majorly out of it since the Thucydides roundtable started, and am only slowly getting back into the swing of things, but I’d like to bookend my initial roundtable comment with a closing observation, this one concerning Steve Bannon and his interest in the history of warfare. The quote that follows is from the Armchair General‘s column, Steve Bannon’s Long Love Affair With War, in today’s Daily Beast:

You can also find Bannon’s affection for military and strategic ruthlessness in what he reads. According to two of Bannon’s former friends from his West Coast days, two of his favorite books are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the hugely influential ancient Chinese text on military strategy, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The latter tells the story of a holy war to establish dharma.

Sun Tzu, check. Bhagavad Gita, double check. Dharma! Indeed!


The article continues:

Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime Hollywood writing partner and former close friend, recalls seeing him excitedly flipping through both books, and talking about them lovingly and often. She would frequently see various “books all over [Steve’s place] about battles and things,” among his clutter of possessions and interests. (Late last year, Jones — who identifies as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” — had a falling out with Bannon due to his work on the Trump presidential campaign, a role that she said absolutely “disgusted” her.)

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war — it’s almost poetry to him,” Jones told The Daily Beast in an interview last year, well before Trump won the election and Bannon landed his new job. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”

Almost poetry.

And back to dharma:

Jones said that Bannon “used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma… one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”

I suppose I should write a follow-up about dharma and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna instructed Arjuna in the dharma appropriate to a warrior.

And so to our roundtable topic — the Peloponnesian War:

She also noted his “obsession” with the military victories and epic battles of the Roman Empire’s Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar. But a personal favorite of Bannon’s was the subject of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta.

“He talked a lot about Sparta — how Sparta defeated Athens, he loved the story,” Jones said. “The password on his [desktop] computer at his office at American Vantage Media in Santa Monica was ‘Sparta,’ in fact.”

This is the mindset of Trump’s top White House aide who just earned himself a seat at the table on the National Security Council.


You’d like a more direct Bannon Thucydides connection? The topic is smaller than Bannon’s role at the NSC — the “war” between Breitbart and Fox — but Thucydides is front and center. In a Breitbart piece from August 2016, Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command, Steve Bannon writes:

Here at Breitbart News, we see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

See also: Titus in Space (Paris Review, November 2016)

Thucydides Roundtable, Concluding Analysis: What have we learned?

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

[by A. E. Clark]

In this parting post, my theme is learning. What have we learned from what we’ve read? What did the Greeks of the late fifth century learn from what they experienced? What did Thucydides learn from his research and writing? I’ll take these questions in reverse order.

I. Learning by Thucydides

As a book-in-progress, the History was Thucydides’ close companion for perhaps thirty years. A growing collection of papyrus scrolls — whose completion may have been the goal that sustained him through an illness typically fatal, as well as undeserved military disgrace — was somehow preserved and updated and polished through an exile’s years of wandering. Scholars have tried to identify in the text such corrections and interpolations as the author may have added in the light of subsequent events or later-obtained testimony. Some have then drawn conclusions about how the historian’s views changed over time. Eduard Schwartz (1858-1940) thought that the book was revised very late in the war to be a defense of Pericles. I think this must be considered highly speculative, but it is reasonable to ask, “What did Thucydides learn by writing his book?”

On general principles, I’d guess the answer is “A lot.” But it is hard to pick out from among the wealth of his insights any that could only have come to him as he worked; in almost every case, they could have been part of his outlook from the beginning. His cold realism, for example: when Pericles says that the wise place their trust “not in hope, which is the prop of the desperate, but in a judgment grounded upon existing resources (2.62.5),” he is sounding a theme that will echo at Melos and many other scenes in the war: but a mine-owner born to wealth and power, yet responsible for maintaining both, might have learned that lesson young.

Another theme, however, likely reflects a hard-won insight. The writer often expounds the law of unintended consequences and the almost inevitable disappointment of human hopes. No one is born with this knowledge. And nothing teaches it as surely as warfare and the study of warfare. In 1.78.1, the Athenian ambassadors note “the vast influence of accident in war.” After their setback at Pylos, the Spartans say, “Sensible men are prudent enough to treat their gains as precarious.” (4.18.4) People often bring about the opposite of what they seek, as when Nicias’ speech on the exorbitant requirements of a Sicilian expedition has the effect of heightening his audience’s enthusiasm (6.24.2) or when the efforts of the oligarchy undermine its own cause:

Things at Thasos thus turned out just the contrary to what the oligarchic conspirators at Athens expected; and the same in my opinion was the case in many of the other dependencies … (8.64.5)

The hapless invaders of Sicily “contrasted the splendor and glory of their setting out with the humiliation in which it had ended.” (7.75.6) There is a karmic quality to this arc of disappointment:

They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary. (7.75.7)

In his emphasis on how easily the plans of men go astray, especially when the planners are in the grip of hubris, Thucydides reminded this reader of the wisdom literature of the Ancient Near East, but whereas wisdom literature was typically deductive or simply apothegmatic, Thucydides is inductive, drawing lessons from his painstaking observation of events.

There is another insight which — though I can’t prove it — Thucydides likely reached only as a result of his experience and investigation. It comes near the end, when Athens is fighting for internal coherence as well as survival in a hostile world. After the Euboean disaster, the people assemble to depose the oligarchy of the Four Hundred and vote to restore the Five Thousand whose uncertain identity and role had inspired the remarkable passage:

Indeed this was why the Four Hundred neither wished the Five Thousand to exist, nor to have it known that they did not exist; being of the opinion that to give themselves so many partners in empire would be downright democracy, while the mystery in question would make the people afraid of each other. (8.92.11)

It is tempting to gloss: One morning,Thucydides awoke from troubled dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a Prague insurance clerk. In his description of the convulsions at Athens, our author is astoundingly modern, one might almost say post-modern. And of this moment of supreme danger he writes,

It was during the first period of this constitution that the Athenians appear to have enjoyed the best government that they ever did, at least in my time. For the fusion of the high and the low was accomplished with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold disasters. (8.97.2)

A world of Greek values is summed up in that phrase “with judgment” (metria, ‘with moderation or due measure’) but I think it most significant that this judgment is not the prerogative of one element of society but appears to emerge, somewhat mysteriously, from the whole community and its will to survive. This passage invites comparison with 2.65.8, where the success of Pericles was ascribed to his masterful pre-eminence over the multitude that enabled him to “lead them instead of being led by them;” and I sense here an evolution in Thucydides’ political thought.

II. Learning in Thucydides.

In the course of a long war, somebody had better learn something. The historian need not highlight the fact of learning, but when he does, we ought to take notice. The siege of Plataea, as previously noted, showed the adversaries learning from each other — though the Plataeans usually seemed in the lead. Recounting his triumph at Sphacteria, Thucydides notes that General Demosthenes took pains not to repeat a mistake he had made at Aetolia (4.30.1).

More striking are the indications of a failure to learn. And here, notwithstanding their image as a curious, observant, and reflective people, it is the Athenians who most often fall short. They launch the expedition to Sicily while having only a vague and inaccurate idea of the size and population of the island (6.1.1) and perform a slipshod ‘due diligence’ that lets them be easily gulled by Egestaean silver (6.46.3-5). We must contrast this episode with the care the Spartans take before committing to Chios:

… the Spartans first sent to Chios Phrynis, one of the perioikoi, to see whether they had as many ships as they said, and whether their city generally was as great as was reported . . . (8.6.4)

The Spartans were wise to choose one of their perioikoi, that is, a civilian businessman, for this intelligence mission.

It’s a poor student who repeats a mistake after being burned by it. The Athenian fleet’s reliance on a local “market” for their rations (even when in proximity to the enemy) seriously impaired their battle-readiness and made them vulnerable in a way that Ariston exploited in the year 413 at Syracuse (7.40). Two years later at Eretrea the Athenians lost Euboea by falling prey to an almost identical tactic (8.95.4-7). But they still didn’t learn. In 405 at the Hellespont they got into the habit of seeking their meals farther and farther from their ships. Alcibiades warned them about it. Lysander took advantage: Aegospotami was their final “lunchtime” defeat. (Xenophon, Hellenica 2.1.25-28)

But the Athenians’ worst failure to learn, coinciding with their adversaries’ greatest achievement, concerned naval prowess. Athens began the war with unquestioned naval superiority. She convinced herself that it must always be that way, that no enemy could possibly learn the same skills (1.142.6 — 1.143.2) and ultimately outclass her. This is exactly what eventually happened — mainly as a result of the widening of the war to include Syracuse, a maritime power, and the Persian Empire, which disposed of substantial naval assets. In small things as well as great, the enemy kept learning after the Athenians stopped doing so, as with the reinforced catheads and novel ramming technique of 7.34 and 7.36.

The Spartans also may be taxed with a failure to learn, though it became apparent only after the period of which Thucydides was the historian. They saw the energies of resistance which the Greek city-states put up against a hegemon that reduced them to vassalage, energies that, with Persian assistance, prevailed. And then, with Athens subdued, they tried to make themselves a hegemon reducing the other city-states to vassalage — and provoked energies of resistance that, with Persian assistance, prevailed.

All the Greeks of that time seem to have missed what Mr. Strassler, in his astute epilogue, identifies as “the increasing inability of the traditional polis (city-state) to deal effectively with new problems of war, trade, and politics in a larger, Mediterranean framework.” Of this deepest failure to learn, he adds, “their myopic vision and sterile objectives embroiled the Greek cities in continuous and increasingly expensive warfare that not only impoverished them but . . . also allowed Persia to . . . neutralize [them].” A new organization, pioneered by Macedon, would give the Greeks ascendancy: but that empire would prove fissiparous upon the death of Alexander.

III. Learning from Thucydides

Rather than expounding lessons from this book, I would like to make a confession. I read it only now, in my late fifties, as a result of the challenge posed by this Roundtable; earlier attempts had yielded to discouragement in the face of an unfamiliar geography. I am therefore indebted both to Mr. Greer for the stimulus and to Mr. Strassler for the cartographic aids of the Landmark Edition. But let me emphasize: we cannot learn from a book if we do not read it. Few have read this book, and few in our time will ever do so. No enthusiasm expressed here will change that fact.

For few read the classics, and there are reasons why. A progressive philosophy of education devalues them on principle. There has also been an adverse development in our language: intricately subordinated clauses occur naturally in translations from most Greek and Latin writers. The resulting complex sentences were natural in the eighteenth, nineteeth, and even early twentieth century, for formal prose was still largely modeled on the classics; but since then our language has evolved in a way that makes this kind of prose uncomfortable reading for most educated people (outside the legal profession, where the exact parsing of complex sentences remains an essential skill). And finally, a book like the History of the Peloponnesian War can neither be skimmed nor reduced to 140 characters: it requires a capacity for sustained attention, which has grown rare.

What we can learn from Thucydides may therefore be a purely theoretical question, if in fact no one is going to read Thucydides. It’s ironic: the classics, long the shared patrimony of Western elites, have now — not by design or the nature of their content, but simply as a result of the decline of successor civilizations — the classics, I fear, have now become an esoteric tradition accessible to few and happily stumbled upon by some who were searching for other things. To those who, like me, have found their horizons expanded by discovery of this book, I offer a discreet nod and the hope that one day we may recognize each other as graduates of the Roundtable. There ought to be a secret handshake.

But I won’t say goodbye without recalling one gleam of lightning from the work we have finished. For the most part, Thucydides writes objective narration and analysis, concerned with the schemes and mischances by which power is amassed, contested, or lost. But occasionally his tale shines an austere spotlight on a humble individual caught up in events. When the Peloponnesians were driven back from Amphilochia, after a sharp victory at Olpae the allies of Athens killed about 200 Ambraciots in a confused retreat. Meanwhile the main body of the Ambraciot army moved south, unaware of the defeat at Olpae and thinking to reinforce their friends there. The Athenians with their allies ambushed these Ambraciots at dawn and after routing them, hunted them down, trapping and killing almost all of them in territory unfamiliar to them. It was a fate — as no one could then know — much like what would befall the Athenians under the same general thirteen years later in Sicily. The next day a herald arrives from the Ambraciot contingent that fought at Olpae: he asks to recover their dead, unaware of the much larger battle that has been fought in the meanwhile and in which his entire army has been destroyed. Shown a large field filled with armor collected from the slain, he becomes confused. Thucydides recounts how the situation has to be explained to him, and how then

. . . he broke into wailing, and stunned at the magnitude of the present evils, went away at once without having performed his errand, or again asking for the dead bodies. (3.113.5)

The wail of that receding figure reverberates after 2400 years. It’s all here — everything — in this anecdote of the Ambraciot herald: war as an enterprise that consumes all the bravery, cunning, and endurance of men; that brings out both the best and the worst in them; and that leaves them in the end stunned and groping for meaning amid the wreckage.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VIII: What Do You Mean by “We”?

Friday, January 13th, 2017

[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.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Honour or reputation?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

[by Natalie Sambhi]

Should we discuss honour and war?

The question struck me when thinking about the three reasons Thucydides offers for going to war: fear, honour and interest. Fear and interest seem, to some degree, straightforward: ‘fear’ is an emotion to which we respond by pursuing security, and ‘interest’ defining the upper limits of when we should pursue the use of force. But what role does honour play?

Broadly defined, honour encompasses a sense of justice, what is morally right, values and beliefs. It could also encompass reputation, if that is intimately tied with a sense of doing what is right. However, the meaning of honour can vary from person to person, from state to state, and changes over time.

In his post on Book 1, Mark quotes Archidamus at length. In the excerpt, Archidamus assesses whether Sparta should go to war with Athens by comparing the relative military strengths and warfighting skills of Sparta and Athens. After establishing that the military balance favours the Athenians, he adds:

“Meanwhile our honour will be pledged to keeping on, particularly if it be the opinion that we began the quarrel. For let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war.”

It is not just for reasons of military inferiority that Sparta will lose, Archidamus is concerned that the Spartans might be compelled to fight for reasons of honour, and drag out the war. This prompted me to consider how the role of honour has changed in our consideration of war since Peloponnesian times. How is it defined today and what role should it play in war?

Today we do not speak about honour as blatantly as we do security and strategic interests when going to war. Leaders do not state they plan to commit troops on the basis of ‘saving face’ (as Mark points out in his Book 5 post), ‘guarding honour’ or even to pursue revenge, even if that may be the case.

An obvious problem is ‘honour’ can be quite subjective and defined in myriad ways depending on its context. We are encouraged often to ‘do the honourable thing’, in other words, to ‘do the right thing’. But in its extreme, doing something just for ‘honour’ can also appear irrational or illegal. The example that springs to mind is an ‘honour killing’ where a family member who has shamed the family is killed by a relative as a form of restoring the group honour or community standing.

In the context of war, how do we talk about restoring honour at a state level? We are far prone to think about the commitment to war in terms of strategic interest. But I’d like to use the example of Australia to show how ‘honour’ as a concept in pursuing war has lingered.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001. The next day, he told a press conference he intended to support a US military response, admittedly without yet receiving an American request. In a speech to the Australian Defence Association in October 2001, Howard explained why he chose to invoke the articles of the ANZUS Treaty and to commit troops to fight in Afghanistan:

“If we left this contest only to America, we would be leaving it to them to defend our rights and those of all the other people of the world who have a commitment to freedom and liberty. We will not do it. We admire their strength and greatness, but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.

To do anything less on this occasion would be both strategically inept and morally indefensible, especially given the strength of our mutual commitment with the United States under the ANZUS Pact.

Other civilised countries of the world have also recognised the global nature of the threat and the need to meet it.

The UN Security Council unequivocally condemned the attacks in New York and Washington, and affirmed the need for all nations to combat by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by such terrorist acts.”

He clearly states a desire to be a good ally but an intention to uphold Australia’s reputation as a defender of Western norms; as Howard saw it, to sit out that conflict would have made the country appear cowardly. Australia’s strategic rationale for participation was defined in terms of fighting terrorism, assisting our American ally, and liberating the Afghan people from the tyranny of an oppressive regime.

In Howard’s case, ‘doing the the right thing’ sounds like ‘honour’ but is actually ‘reputation’. If Australia were to fight for ‘honour’, what would that have looked like? Fighting to uphold reputation as ‘willing to fight’ and ‘being a good ally’ could be seen ironically as a face-saving way of appearing honourable. It allowed Australia to commit a mentoring and reconstruction force to one province and special forces deployments on specific missions to meet that reputational threshold, without having to clearly define what defending honour looked like.

By 2013, ‘doing the right thing’ was characterised as building girls schools in Uruzgan province. That is, of course, an honourable thing to do. But it was not the reason ADF personnel were committed to Afghanistan. Did Australia fight for ‘honour’ or ‘reputation’?

Should we acknowledge honour in war? What do we mean when we go to war, in the 21st century, for ‘honour’?

Switch to our mobile site