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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’?

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VII: Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

[by A. E. Clark]

The Sicilian debacle that unfolds in Book VII arises from more than one cause and offers more than one lesson: but this reader was struck by the recurring motif of timing, which the Athenians keep getting wrong while their adversaries usually get it right. An obvious approach to this subject is through the Greek word kairos, which denotes an opportune moment that must be seized promptly when it comes along. Wikipedia has an interesting overview of how this concept, which appears to have originated in archery or perhaps the craft of weaving with a shuttle, came to be elaborated in classical rhetoric and Christian theology. Its military applications are obvious. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles notes, tou de polemou hoi kairoi ou menetoi: in war, moments of opportunity do not linger. (1.142.1)

Thucydides makes it clear that Gylippus, from his first entrance on the scene, is a man of kairos.  “[H]e had arrived at a critical moment” (7.2.4); “at last he thought that the moment had come” (7.5.2); the word in both instances is kairos. The Athenians by no means lacked such insight, but usually they failed to act on it: it is worth reading carefully the analysis Lamachus gave at Syracuse in 415, after which he allowed himself to be overruled (6.49.1-4). The Athenians repeatedly tarry precisely when decisive action is needed. Thucydides credits Demosthenes with proceeding to Sicily “without delay,” but the account suggests otherwise: the general stops at various places to build forts, ravage territory, and collect troop increments of marginal utility (7.20.2-3, 7.26, 7.33). By contrast, in this fateful summer of 413, the Spartans begin their invasion of Attica “in the first days of spring, at an earlier period than usual.” (7.19.1)

After they have been defeated but when they can still escape, again and again the Athenians prove fatally dilatory. The generals disagree after Epipolae, and so do nothing (7.47-49). The Athenians finally decide to sail away when the enemy brings in a fresh army, but a lunar eclipse persuades the superstitious Nicias to defer the departure by 27 days (7.50.4). They let themselves be cheated of their last chance to slip away by land when they uncritically accept a spoofed message of disinformation telling them to wait (7.73.3-7.74.1).

The very Greek theme of kairos, then, reverberates through this drama: the Spartans and the Syracusans know how to seize it, while the Athenians don’t, and that spells the difference between victory and defeat. But I will confess that this is not what first occurred to me as I read Book VII. Instead I heard echoes of a work of strategy by an author who certainly never read Thucydides and was steeped in a profoundly different culture. Go Rin No Sho, the “Book of Five Rings,” by a masterless samurai of the early seventeenth century, subsumes both individual dueling and large-scale warfare under the same “art of the advantage.” Miyamoto Musashi knew about kairos, but he called it Crossing at a Ford.  Of particular relevance to students of Book VII, he explores with Delphic intensity the role of hyoshi: timing (or ‘rhythm’).

The way to win in a battle according to military science is to know the rhythms of specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect, producing formless rhythms from rhythms of wisdom. (transl. Cleary)

If that key passage from near the end of the Earth Scroll sounds too much like a fortune cookie, be assured that Musashi explores the matter in greater detail. He stresses pre-emption, the seizure of the initiative by attacking suddenly, or by interrupting the enemy’s attack at its very inception, or by exploiting momentary imbalances when you are attacking each other more or less simultaneously.

Unfortunately, I do not know Japanese, and the language of Musashi presents difficulty even for those who do. Go Rin No Sho was probably a set of notes meant to supplement allusively an oral teaching that is unavailable to us. The translations by Thomas Cleary and William Scott Wilson are both respected by experts, but they differ from each other enough to indicate that the text must not be entirely clear. Here are two fine articles by Musashi enthusiasts that unpack some of the subtleties:



In practice, Musashi was a past master at screwing up his adversaries’ timing and finding ingenious ways to fluster them. He often showed up late for his duels and is reported to have despatched his most formidable antagonist by wielding not a sword but a long bludgeon that he had whittled from an oar while being ferried to the battle-ground.

…start by making a show of being slow, then suddenly attack strongly. Without allowing him space for breath to recover from the fluctuation of spirit, you must grasp the opportunity to win. Get the feel of this. (transl. Wilson)

This style is perfectly exemplified in Ariston’s “lunchtime” trick (7.39.2 – 7.40.4), which hinges on syncopated rhythm.

In the disastrous night battle at Epipolae, the turning point seems to have been a sudden change in rhythm which unbalanced the Athenians. They got used to an accelerating advance ( . . . the victors immediately pushing on” 7.43.5), and committed themselves to it by forgoing any consolidation (“the Athenians now advanced with less order, wishing to make their way as quickly as possible” 7.43.7). Being brought to a standstill and driven back by the Boeotians was a disorienting change of pace.  (“The Athenians now fell into great disorder and perplexity” 7.44.1)

Musashi noted the frequency with which deadlock arises in warfare and suggested antidotes to it.

Letting Go Four Hands is for when you and an opponent are in a deadlock and no progress is being made in the fight. It means that when you think you are going to get into a deadlock, you stop that right away and seize victory by taking advantage of a different approach. (transl. Cleary)

and, more psychologically,

When fighting with enemies, if you get to feeling snarled up and are making no progress, you toss your mood away and think in your heart that you are starting everything new. As you get the rhythm, you discern how to win. (transl. Cleary)

This is what the Athenians needed to do during the climactic naval battle of 7.70-71, in which the two sides seemed evenly matched (in unbearable suspense to the onlookers) and the Syracusan victory did not come until “after the battle had lasted a long while.”

Musashi was not a merciful man.  He wrote,

  . . . when opponents are demoralized and weakening, you concentrate your force on crushing them . . . In the context of individual martial art too, when your opponent is not as skilled as you are, or when his rhythm is fouled up, or when he starts to back off, it is essential not to let him catch his breath. Mow him right down . . . The most important thing is not to let him recover.

The Syracusans’ resolve to exploit their first naval victory to the fullest (7.56.2) and later their relentless pursuit and annihilation of the fleeing Athenian remnants exemplify this ethos.

In Musashi’s time, schools of swordsmanship had different opinions as to what the warrior’s eyes should chiefly focus on. His adversary’s sword? His adversary’s eyes, or feet? In the Wind Scroll, Musashi says the eyes should focus on “the hearts and minds of the people involved . . . on the state of the opposing troops,” but in a broad vision that takes in “the conditions for battle . . . the strength and weakness of the occasion” so as never to lose sight of the big picture. The speeches of Gylippus and Nicias offer an interesting contrast: Nicias talks about his men, their fate, their virtue. Gylippus addresses the motivations of his troops and their advantages in the battlespace at hand but, notably, he also analyzes the state of mind of the enemy and shares the intelligence he has received about it. (7.66.3 and 7.67.4)

I invite Roundtable readers who have shuddered through Book VII to pick up the Book of Five Rings, with particular attention to the Fire Scroll, and see whether they too find it a surprisingly apt commentary on the Syracusan campaign.

Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged. . . when the enemy start to collapse you must pursue him without letting the chance go. (transl. Wilson)

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The State with the Golden Arm

Monday, December 19th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

T. Greer offers two metaphors for the restless dynamism which Alcibiades considered a necessity to the Athenian State in the summer of 415: a motorist’s climb up an icy hill, where if you do not keep moving forward you will slide back; and a child’s top, which must keep spinning or fall.

I believe these are good images for what Alcibiades wanted the Athenians to think.  Whether they are good images for the reality Athens faced (and needed to understand in order to make the right decision about Sicily) is another question.

A dynamic system can find equilibrium in a steady state. If enough angular energy continues to be imparted to the spinning top to compensate for the degrading effect of friction, that top will stand forever. A snapshot of the forces and resistances in play, if taken today, will be identical to the snapshot taken tomorrow or a year from now. The icy hillside is a little different, because it is hard to imagine the hill ascending forever. Apart from the geographic implausibility, as altitude increases both air pressure and temperature will fall, adding new difficulties to the vehicle’s operation.  But for a limited distance, assuming the gradient is constant and the ice uniform, it is likely that the motorist will find a steady-state solution: a constant speed that maintains traction up the hill.

Expanding empires encounter a complication that is absent from these examples.  By continuing to grow, they increase the burden of administration, the scale of required coordination, the potential for internal dissension, the number of things that can go wrong, and the vehemence of resistance to their reign. It is as if we said that the top must not only go on spinning but must carry a heavier weight with each passing hour; or that the car must ascend a hill that is becoming ever steeper. Reality enforces a limit on this kind of growth. In the parable of Icarus, closeness to the sun represents both the success of the enterprise and its catastrophic failure.

Dynamic systems in the social sciences are often modeled with mathematics. Such efforts require a great many variables whose values, as well as their partial first and even second derivatives, are linked in sprawling systems of equations. This science is a bit over my head, and I’m not sure it has ever proven notably successful in modeling social and economic realities. But there is a basic point central to this kind of math which many of us will remember from high-school physics: it is important to distinguish a value from its rate of change.  A car’s position is one thing (location); how that value changes with time is another thing (velocity); and how that rate of change itself changes with time is a third thing (acceleration). In this regard, Alcibiades shows some confusion:

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.” (6.18.3)

“If we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” This is exactly what Pericles had said at 2.63.2: “to recede is no longer possible . . . to let [our empire] go is unsafe.”  Pericles’ rationale was as much psychological as economic: to restore freedom to any of those from whom Athens had taken it would make them all restless, with a cascading effect.  Assuming that the flow of tributary income Y is proportional to the stock of subject territory S, Pericles is warning that neither must diminish: dS/dt < 0 would spell danger for Athens. But mindful of the burdens, distractions, and risks of expanding the empire, he has also warned his countrymen “to attempt no new conquests” (2.65.7) for the duration of the war: dS/dt > 0 is also dangerous.

Yet Alcibiades’ conclusion is different: “We must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it.”  It is not S, but dS/dt, that he would keep undiminished! In fact, considering the scale of the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades was actually calling for dS/dt to rise, as success in Sicily would have not merely continued but accelerated the imperial expansion.

Alcibiades seems to err, therefore, because his conclusion does not follow from his Periclean premise; yet it is possible that his counsel, fatal though it was, rested on something other than a mathematical mistake.

While many dynamic systems can settle into a steady-state equilibrium, others — intrinsically unstable — must accelerate until they collapse. Chain-letters and Ponzi schemes are examples of the latter in which a phase delay between revenues (R) and costs (C) is exploited to mask an insufficiency of revenues: R(t) pays off C(t – 1). If R(t) = k * C(t), where  0 < k < 1, then revenues must grow exponentially to keep paying the bills.

Another situation that promotes unstable growth is decaying efficiency with inflexible income requirements. Suppose a bank earns a certain profit by extending credit, and the profit per year is calculated as a proportion of the amount of credit extended.  Prescinding from many real-world factors, this will be the interest rate r. Now suppose r is halved. To keep the money coming in, the bank must extend twice as much credit. Suppose r is reduced to one-tenth of what it was . . . you see where this is going, and unless a good fairy has greatly increased the bank’s capital cushion, systemic risk will rise.  A declining rate of return on capital affects more than banks, of course. Individual investors seeking to preserve their income will employ greater leverage and incur a greater risk of being wiped out. (These examples are, of course, purely hypothetical.)

A third situation — or perhaps it is a special case of declining efficiency — occurs when a large part of the value of inputs consists in their novelty. We could also say that the recipient is densensitized over time.  The addict who is satisfied with one hit of speed on Monday will require more on Tuesday, and so on . . . The addict’s dose must increase with time. This analogy is not inapplicable to the life of nations.  Consider how Saudi Arabia used its oil revenues to fund and appease a parasitic class who might otherwise have challenged the Kingdom’s narrow oligarchy. These payoffs brought about both rising expectations and a rising birthrate. Internal social stability has become a pressing concern for the House of Saud.

Did Athens’ reliance on tribute as well as on the psychological gratification of conquest exhibit the rising requirements characteristic of a stimulation that grows stale? It is striking to read, in the appeal of the Corinthians at Sparta (1.70.2),

The Athenians are addicted to innovation

We might hesitate, because the notion of addiction here seems to have been imported by Crawley into the text, which simply describes Athenians as neoteropoioi, “making things new,” i.e., innovative or revolutionary. Yet the Corinthians’ eloquent character portrait of Athens implies what Crawley has made explicit. His interpretation is confirmed in the words at 1.70.8, which Hobbes translates “What they have, they have no leisure to enjoy, for continual getting of more.”

Athens had the personality of an addict. Alcibiades’ personal attachment to debt and racehorses, then, made him a fitting representative of his city. His words “unless you are prepared to change your habits” (6.18.3) and “to take one’s character and institutions for better and for worse, and to live up to them as closely as one can” (6.18.7) suggest he was conscious of this. That he believed it would be “the safest rule” for Athens to keep feeding its accelerating addiction is typical of the wishful, unrealistic thinking common to all addicts. Because the addiction was not his alone but had come to be shared by the mass of the citizenry, Nicias and the ghost of Pericles found themselves like many elders, counseling prudence and moderation in vain.

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation

Saturday, December 17th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Ali Wyne

Ali Wyne of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Our friends at The Strategy Bridge are continuing their own explanation of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ timeless take on it. Ali Wyne from The Atlantic Council responds to Dr. Frank Hoffman’s previous post at War on the Rocks on “Thucydides: Reading Between the Lines“:

Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation of the Peloponnesian War

….Far from being incidental to the Spartan polis, slavery was among its central characteristics. Slaves—or helots, as they were known—widely outnumbered non-slaves, perhaps by as much as a factor of ten.[3] According to the director of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, a “fundamental feature of Spartan society was that the Spartiate citizens lived as rentier landowners supported by a servile population…who worked their estates.”[4] Any disturbance to this arrangement threatened not only Sparta’s agrarian economy, but also, by extension, the leadership’s authority. The English classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford observed how centrally “the constant menace of revolt” figured in its decision-making: “To meet this danger, and not for the purposes of conquest, their military system was designed and maintained.”[5] Sparta spared no measure to achieve domestic tranquility: the University of British Columbia’s Nigel Kennell observes that it “regularly sent young elite soldiers out into the countryside as armed death squads to murder any helot they found on the roads after dark or any working in the fields they thought too robust.”[6]

As Cornford’s judgment implies, however, fear of a slave revolt did more than influence Sparta’s approach to internal order; it was instrumental in shaping the city-state’s foreign policy, for an external antagonist—or even mere opportunist—could attempt to turn the helots against Sparta’s leaders. As it happens, they scarcely required encouragement. According to Jean Ducat, France’s foremost authority on Sparta, there existed “a state of open war between the helots and the Spartans throughout the period from 520 to 460.”[7] Most notably, following an earthquake in the Eurotas Valley in 464 that destroyed much of Sparta, the city-state’s slaves joined forces with their counterparts in Messenia to attempt a coup. Even though strategic tensions between Sparta and Athens had been rising following their collective defeat of the Persians in 479, the former initially welcomed the latter’s assistance in suppressing the uprising. Soon, however, Sparta asked the Athenian contingent to leave, fearing that the democratic ideology of its members might encourage further helot subversion: British historian Paul Cartledge explains that “[t]he Spartans simply did not want several thousands of democratically minded citizen-soldiers running loose among their Greek servile underclass in their tightly controlled territory.”[8]

The paradoxical nature of Spartan culture and its leadership in the Hellenic world is something worth pondering.

The Spartans were at once the most Greek of the Greeks yet also in some respects rather weird and alien. Their religious zeal for attending to religious rites and habit of relying upon divinatory guidance to military campaigns has already been remarked upon in this roundtable. Similarly, A,E. Clark and T. Greer have debated the meaning attached to Spartan “honor” and it’s impact on Spartan moral reasoning. The upper classes of other Greek polities, including Athens itself, were often admirers of ascetic Spartan martial virtues, it’s Agoge and the despotic regimentation the Spartiates imposed on the lower classes and helots (we can include Thucydides to a degree among their number). I.F. Stone wrote of young Athenian aristocrats as “Socratified youth”, swaggering through the streets with red cloaks and clubs in imitation of Spartans. Even the Athenian hedonist noble par excellence, exiled Alcibiades, joined in Spartan customs with sufficient enthusiasm to charm his grim hosts.

But the Spartans were also strange. They were the only polity to enslave on a massive scale their fellow Greeks, which was both the basis of their power as well as their Achilles heel. They scandalized other Greeks with the boldness of Spartan women, their penchant for sadistic whipping contests and their eerie practice of living and working among the remains of their dead. Finally their harsh eugenic practices which made every Spartiate life almost too valuable to lose. These things made Sparta different from it’s allies and rivals, shaped the political judgement of Spartan leaders and the strategies by which they pursued victory.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The Roundtable moves on — we are supposed to be in Book 8, but the pace of postings evinces that “friction” of which Clausewitz wrote  — yet I would like to revisit the Melian Dialogue at the end of Book 5 and register my respectful disagreement with some of the thoughtful posts it received.

Professor Kaurin opened discussion of this celebrated passage, noting that it has been read both as a clash between Realism and the Just War theory and also as evidence that appeals to morality are the last refuge of a loser. Prof. Kaurin finds instead (I hope I am paraphrasing acceptably) that morality is an inescapable part of the framework of war, and that the Melians are calling the Athenians to account and get the better of the argument. Without repeating the points I made in an earlier post suggesting a different interpretation, I’d like to flag a couple of points which I think raise doubts about Professor Kaurin’s thesis:

The Athenians seem to be invoking the obligation (a moral term, oops!) of the Melians to preserve themselves asking why the Melians do not surrender? From the Athenian point of view, the Melian faith in the good favor of the Gods and help from the Spartans is irrational; from the Melian point of view, Athens unfairly have limited the discussion to questions of expediency only.  In short, the Athenians are arguing for Empire and the Melians for their survival.

The Athenians do not argue for their empire; they present it as a fact beneficial to themselves, and they take their intention to maintain it as the most natural thing in the world and therefore not requiring justification. They do explain the relevant mechanics of empire, namely that its continuance depends on maintaining a credible deterrent in the eyes of their subjects (5.95) — a deterrent which in this case will be established at the expense of the Melians. This I believe is the heart of the “messaging” on which Dr. Metz focused in his post

What brings the two states into conflict is not the Melians’ wish to survive, but their wish to be independent, which the Athenians will not permit them: a way of survival lies open, however, for the Athenians offer the status of tributary ally, “without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you.”

The Athenians argue that by putting their hope in aid that will not come, the Melians are making a terrible mistake. This is more of the nature of a pertinent technical observation than a moral injunction. The Athenians say quite frankly that it is in their interest, as well as the Melians’, for the Melians to survive: “We would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.” Philosophically, then, the Athenians are consistent.

The Athenians also argue that the Melians are at risk of making another terrible mistake, namely, of letting notions of honor and disgrace (“the mere influence of a seductive name”) lead them “into hopeless disaster.” The passage at 5.101 is clarifying: the Athenians are not dismissing all notions of honor (which here, as usual, denotes external honor or reputation) but stating that honor is not relevant in so unequal an encounter. 

Of course, we do not know what their fate would have been had they surrendered – the Athenians might have destroyed them anyway as deterrence or to ensure that they did not rebel at some later point in time.  

To me this is extremely doubtful. The Athenians had a reputation to keep up. With regard to “messaging,” it was almost as important for the hegemon to be known for keeping promises as it was to be known for following through on threats. Moreover, as they said, it was in their interest to secure the Melians as profitable tributaries.

Why are the Athenians even having to defend and justify their actions? If the classical Realist view holds, the conversation need not even take place and is completely pointless! Which naturally is my point: the rhetorical move whereby the Melian’s adopt the role of questioner and the Athenians as respondents is in fact an ethical move.

As I have attempted to show, (a) the Athenians are not trying to defend or justify their actions; (b) the conversation is not pointless, for the Athenians (by calling attention to resources and consequences) are trying to persuade the Melians to make, for their own survival, a decision which will also bring the optimal outcome for the Athenians.

Mr. Greer sees in the Dialogue proof that the Athenians recognized no principle but self-interest and contrasts them unfavorably with their adversaries who retained a principle of honor. To evaluate this contrast, we need to be clear what ‘honor’ meant to Thucydides’ contemporaries.

The honor about which Mr. Greer writes (in the constellation of “justice, honor, and mercy”) sounds like Victorian honor, which James Bowman, in his work Honor: a History, glosses as characteristic of the gentleman who owes allegiance to a universal and ethical standard. It represented a democratization of the honor of the Christian aristocracy, most vividly exemplified in the code of chivalry. Essential to this concept (and greatly complicating it) is a certain duality: “honor” denotes both recognition by others and one’s own inner integrity.  Tension between outward and inward honor was a frequent motif in Victorian novels. Trollope’s work often features an honorable protagonist enduring social obloquy: Phineas Finn arrested for murder and the Reverend Crawley accused of stealing a check. The inward kind of honor came to be seen as ultimately the “real” one, and to call someone an honorable man was a judgment of his inner values, not his reputation.

I doubt that anyone in the fifth century BCE would have recognized this concept. It is not what Thucydides meant by the word time. The classical Greek dictionaries make it clear that time was extrinsic honor. It was paramount in the ancient world — note that at 1.76.2 although the usual English translation (I think for the sake of tricolon crescens) is “fear, honor, and interest,” in the original, ‘honor’ comes first (Professor Morley pointed this out in his comment to Lynn Rees’s post). It remains paramount in the Muslim world, and it is close to the Asiatic concept of “face.”

It is with some unease that I point out that the meaning of ’honor’ has changed over time, because this is certainly not news to Mr. Greer. He has blogged elsewhere with erudition about the dramatic (and popularly unknown) evolution of family values, and the succession of honor, dignity, and victimhood as the changing forms of validating status in American society. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his discussion of honor in the Peloponnesian War suffers from an uncharacteristic anachronism.

Let us follow Mr. Greer into the argument over the fate of the Plataeans (3.52-68), a lengthy and emotionally arresting episode. I do not think it supports the conclusions Mr. Greer draws from it.

Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest

— but, he says, they appealed to the Spartans’ sense of justice and honor. Yet let us consider this carefully. When the Plataeans appeal to the Spartans’ sense of honor, they are referring to what people will say about you.  Look at the passage again: “most of the Hellenes regard you as a model…take care that displeasure not be felt at an unseemly [that’s closer to the Greek than Crawley’s ‘unworthy’] decision.” You will look bad!

As for the Thebans’ argument at Plataea, Mr. Greer is right that it refers often to justice and injustice; but after scrutinizing their speech I sense that the Thebans are tendentiously labeling as unjust and criminal anyone who has been on the other side in a war.  This is not unnatural: one who chooses to be on the other side harms my interests, and human beings have always tended to identify the Good with whatever is good for themselves, and Evil as whatever is harmful to themselves.  If we accepted this logic, then on the conclusion of a war every soldier on the losing side would be treated as a criminal. This may have been fair in the Theban view, but we should be clear that the Thebans are not using the word justice as we use it. And we certainly have no reason to place the Spartan and Theban decision at Plataea on a higher level, even conceptually, than the Athenians’ at Melos. The Spartans, too, were guided by their own interests, except that their calculation was based largely on the past (retribution) where the Athenians’ was based mainly on the future (keeping their empire intact).

Even if we found reason to understand the ’justice’ mentioned here as comparable to our concept, it would be rash to conclude that the Spartans were imbued with justice simply because they talked about it. This is especially true if (as I think can fairly be said) the outcome of deliberations ostensibly guided by a criterion of justice happened always to be a choice that served Spartan interests. “Rationalization” may be a modern term, but the phenomenon is very old.

It is harder to evaluate the tendency for inauspicious sacrifices or an inviolable festival to delay Spartan military campaigns. It was the perception of other Greeks that the Spartans were cautious by temperament and loath to engage in action outside their borders. This may have been because their domestic situation was always somewhat precarious, or because they — with the sobriety typical of professional soldiers — were less keen to get into wars than amateurs were. I wonder if the often-invoked auguries were not simply a face-saving way to put the brakes on. I doubt that their sense of national security ever took a back seat to piety.

The combination of an anachronistic reading of ‘honor’ and a willingness to accept rhetoric as virtue leads Mr. Greer to be rather hard on the Athenians

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

while he gives the Spartans more credit

The Spartans were a very different sort of people. […] Her people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. […] To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

I, too, see much to admire in the way of Lacedaemon, but I am afraid the Spartans, like the Athenians (and every other long-lived society), underwent a moral and cultural decay. Helena Schrader, who has written a very pleasant trilogy fictionalizing the life of Leonidas, dates the commencement of that decay even before the Classical era, as the laws of Lycurgus began to be watered down or circumvented. She represents Leonidas as one of the last exemplars of the virtues of the Archaic era. Within the pages of Thucydides I do not observe consistent devotion to principle more frequently in Spartans than in others, though their military discipline was stronger. There is certainly no halo around Pausanias!

Yet in the end I am willing to draw a moral lesson, but it is that economic and political structures play an enormous role in determining moral tenor. The Athenians did not treat rebels ruthlessly because they were immoral or unprincipled. They treated rebels ruthlessly because they had an empire to preserve. Empire — that is, power without accountability to those over whom it is exercised for the purpose of extracting resources from them — necessarily involves treating certain people or communities as means, and not at all as ends. Since few wish to be treated as means, this arrangement requires coercion and (in all the cases I can think of) some degree of institutionalized cruelty. (A debate over Aristotle’s “natural slave” will await a different discussion!)  Admirers of the culture of Athens must acknowledge with regret that this was what the Athenians let themselves in for when they chose the path of Empire. The Spartans’ empire lay at home, and the krypteia marked helots, sometimes arbitrarily chosen, for murder — and in one case that Thucydides recounts (4.80.3-5), the murder occurred treacherously and on a very large scale.

It is hard to ponder the relation of morality to power, and the feasibility of remaining moral while exercising power, without thinking of Machiavelli. His work has been plausibly interpreted in such contrasting ways. Did he despise Christian morality? Did he believe that statecraft was a domain in which different rules applied, though the ultimate values were consistent with Christian morality? Was he trying to arm republicans against the wiles of tyrants — exhorting his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, except that the first took precedence over the second? I find the cool pragmatism of the Athenian imperialists rooted in a worldview that is not only pre-Christian, but untouched by the implications of monotheism; and comparisons with Machiavelli are therefore likely to mislead. The Florentine, like the Platonist and the Stoic, believed — or lived in a culture that professed to believe — that all men in some sense were brothers. The Athenians did not. That is why they are closer to Darwin than to Machiavelli.

Finally, when Mr. Greer observes that after all it was the Spartans who won the war, I trust he is not suggesting that they won because they more frequently talked about justice! Their victory may defy simple explanation, or it may turn out to have been overdetermined. The subsidies from Persia should not be forgotten, as well as the elephantine folly of the Sicilian expedition. And as I have written elsewhere, by exercising empire over fellow-Greeks the Athenians chose to sail against a powerful headwind — the ideology of Greek freedom — that they had done much to create.

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