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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be able to comment on such a classic work of strategic thought in such a forum as this.  I thank Mark/zen for this opportunity and hope that I am able to do justice to this subject.

I approach Thucydides’s work from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. The book can be seen as perhaps the earliest attempt in Western literature to come up with a theory of grand strategy.  There is a lot to be said for this approach.  If we consider that Clausewitz’s general theory of war could be part of a larger general theory of strategy, or grand strategy, then a relationship between the two classic works, that is Clausewitz’s On War and Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War becomes clear.

This could come across as questionable for many, since at first glance the two books are quite different.  Clausewitz discusses various types of theory in his book providing military historical examples to make his point.  Thucydides gives a detailed history of a specific conflict from various perspectives; provides a intricate view of political relations, including narratives of the time.  Raymond Aron came up with an interesting comment on the two authors which puts these distinctions within a common context:

It seems that we owe the great books on action to men of action whom fate deprived of their crowning achievement, men who arrived at a subtle blend of engagement and detachment which left them capable of recognising the constraints and shackles of the soldier or the politician and also capable of looking from outside, not indifferently but calmly, at the irony of fate and the unforeseeable play of forces that no will can control.  Philosophy presents an image of pessimism.  For what, may one ask, makes victories precarious and the state unstable?  Whoever devotes himself to the state chooses to build sandcastles.  There remains for him only the hope  of Thucydides or that of Clausewitz: “My ambition was to write a book which could not be forgotten after two or three years, but which could be taken up several times when required by those who take an interest in this subject.”   Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, p 12.

Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War offers various points for consideration from a Clausewitzian perspective.  The conflict is rooted in the political relations of the various communities involved (see “War is an Act of Human Intercourse”, Book II, Chapter 3).  Sparta initially uses a Strategy of Annihilation, whereas Athens a Strategy of Attrition, to use Hans Delbrück’s terminology.  Both sides display various stages and types of moral and material cohesion which varies as the conflict progresses.  All three of these would warrant comment from this perspective, but there is an additional aspect which I intend to introduce here and deal with in future posts.  This is the concept of strategic narrative.

One of the advantages of Clausewitz’s general theory of war is that it is compatible with a wide range of other strategic thought which is not limited to the military.  Such different (non-military) thinkers as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King approached social action and community perceptions from a distinctly Clausewitzian outlook.  All would understand the importance of strategic narrative.

In his book, War From the Ground Up, Emile Simpson not only defines strategic narrative, but links it to Clausewitz:

‘Strategic narrative’ is a contemporary term, but is a formalisation of a concept that has been present in all conflicts.  Strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.  It can usually be detected chronologically before conflict starts, in some form, as the explanation for participation in, or initiation of, the conflict; strategic narrative also operates as the explanation of actions during and after conflict.

Strategy seeks to relate actions to policy.  A policy outcome is ultimately an impression upon an audience.  It can be a physical impression, which in war would typically be defined in terms of death and destruction.  It can simultaneously be a psychological impression, typically defined in terms of an evolution in political alignment, not necessarily by consent.  For strategy to connect actions to policy it must therefore invest them with a great meaning in relation to its audiences, both prospectively and retrospectively. page 179-180.

This narrative should be realised in a coherent set of actions which give it expression . . . strategic narrative is not just concerned with audiences exterior to one’s side, or coalition.  One of the key functions is to achieve unity of effort, ideally to give coherent expression to that side’s will, as Carl von Clausewitz would put it.  page 182.

A strategic narrative that is seen as incoherent or contradictory by the various audiences, or becomes incoherent over time, will obviously fail in its purpose.

James Boyd White (“the other Boyd”) devotes an entire chapter to Thucydides in his When Words Lose Their Meaning.  The tight fit between the speeches provided by Thucydides throughout The Peloponnesian War and the strategic narrative then in effect act as an indicator of how these various strategic narratives develop or decay over time.  The words also act as reflections of the loss of moral and material cohesion within the various political communities depicted as the war progresses.  Boyd White describes accurately Thucydides world as related in Book 1:

. . . this was a highly structured world, rich in resources for argument and action.  The very fact that the cities could jockey for position as they did, each seeking to place the other in the wrong, shows that they operated on terms established by a shard and comprehensible discourse and that each was acting in part for an audience, internal or external, who would use that discourse to judge what it did.  Thucydides now gives us the opportunity to learn something about the nature of that discourse, for at this moment Corcyra sends a delegation to Athens to ask for an alliance, and Corinth sends a representative to resist them.  Thucydides presents their speeches in considerable detail.

This is a highly literary moment, of which we can ask: Of all the things that might be said here, what will the speakers choose to say? How will they try to persuade the Athenians to do what they want them to?  To what values will they appeal, for example?  What pleas, what charges, what veiled or explicit threats or promises, will they make?  Will they call on the gods, on compassion or justice, or on tradition of the law?  Will they appeal to the Athenians’ economic or military self-interest, and if so how will they define these things?  Or will they appeal to the Athenians’ sense of their own character, say, as virtuous or brave or generous, and how will they do that?  In what terms will they tell their stories?  page 62

Book 1 fittingly ends with Pericles’s speech to the Athenians (1.140-144), where he lays out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.  He accurately depicts Athens’s advantage at the onset and rightly fears the potential blunders of his own side over the strengths and strategy of the enemy.  Given her position among the Greeks, Athens has no choice but to fight.

On to Book 2.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part I.

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for pericles

Pericles, son of Xanthippus and strategos of Athens

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb”
– Pericles

“…like that star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.”
                            – Homer

Book II of the Peloponnesian War features the great Athenian leader Pericles and contains Thucydides’ remarkable apologia for his statesmanship and the Periclean regime over which he presided, which lasted only so long as he lived.  A kind of golden age within a golden age, thrown away by a senseless mob, at least as Thucydides tells the tale. What cannot be discounted however is that the man Thucydides called the “first citizen” of Athens was the dominant political figure of his day and put his stamp first upon Athens, then upon Hellas and then led his people into war to conserve and defend his vision of democratic empire against a jealous and fearful Sparta. Furthermore the novel strategy pursued by Pericles was integral the Athenian polis he had reshaped according to his vision and was designed to strengthen that regime as much as to win a military victory over Sparta.

In the text of Book II, Thucydides gives the reader three important narratives regarding the statesmanship of Pericles: his funeral oration; Pericles defense of his strategy before the Assembly; and Thucydides own analysis and eulogy of Pericles and his policies. From these we can see the continuity between Pericles political program for Athens at home and his imperial ambition for the role of Athens in the Hellenic world. Pericles, along with Ephialtes, had been pivotal in the decline the aristocratic, Aeropaegi faction that had been led by Cimon, whom Pericles had ostracized. Cimon’s regime was Athens as limited democracy, guided by the nobility, friendly to Sparta and deferential to Spartan hegemony. Pericles upended all of that root and branch. His Athens was to be at once radically democratic, investing power in the thetes of the Assembly, and gloriously heroic.

This was, to say the least, an unconventional viewpoint in classical Greece that had associated heroic qualities, or arête, with the well-born presiding over a hierarchical society. This cultural prejudice went back to at least Homeric times, if not to the older civilization of Mycenaean Greece. Pericles utterly rejected that and argued the excellence of all Athenian citizens was made possible by the political system of Athens and that Athens’ exalted status among Greek city states rested on the arête of its citizens:

….Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty….

….”Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule.

While Pericles was called “conservative and moderate” by Thucydides – and he certainly was a wise steward of shrewd strategic judgement in comparison with Cleon or Alcibiades – he was also in the context of the wider Greek world a social revolutionary. Moreover, a social revolutionary with demonstrated imperial ambitions and policies which Greek cities with tyrannical, aristocratic or oligarchic leadership found unsettling. Furthermore, Pericles drove home the point with the Parthenon, which he openly financed with the Delian League treasury, demonstrating that “ally” in Athenian eyes meant “subject”, Chiseled into marble on the Parthenon amidst a reconstructed Acropolis were ordinary Athenian citizenry made ideal and deified. This was clearly a political as well as a religious statement in what was the greatest temple of the ancient world. If one wonders why the Peloponnesian war took on so lethal an ideological dimension of factional strife  in every city touched by the Athenians or Spartans, the answer is written on the ruins of the Parthenon.

End Part I

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: reflections in a beginner’s mind

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron ]
.

I’m entirely new to Thucydides, having received my copy of the book only on Friday, so I’ll keep this brief. I hope to have caught up a bit more by this time next week.

Meanwhile, my mind works associatively, so..

**

rich-vs-poor-in-rio
Riches and poverty in Rio

The goodness of the land favored the enrichment of particular individuals, and thus created faction which proved a fertile source of ruin. It also invited invasion.

trump-border-wall
Donald Trump

**

In Spencer-Brown’s inimitable and enigmatic fashion, the Mark symbolizes the root of cognition, i.e., the dualistic Mark indicates the capability of differentiating a “this” from “everything else but this.”

He does not even use the term barbarian, probably because the Hellenes had not yet been marked off from the rest of the world by one distinctive name.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech after a suicide bomb explosion in Istanbul on January 12, 2016, said: “Pick a side. You are either on the side of the Turkish government, or you’re on the side of the terrorists.”

**

The iconic 'Rumble in the Jungle' belt of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali is displayed for auction at Heritage Auctions house in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 19, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ belt of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali is displayed for auction at Heritage Auctions house in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 19, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

To this day among some of the barbarians, especially in Asia, where prizes for boxing and wrestling are offered, belts are worn by the contestants..

Koki Kameda of Japan, center, donning the newly-captured champion belt, green, in addition to the two he already has, poses with his younger brothers Daiki, left, and Kazuki after Koki's victory over Alexander Munoz of Venezuela in their 12-round WBA bantamweight world title boxing bout in Saitama, Japan, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010. Koki Kameda won a unanimous decision over Munoz to take the vacant title. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Koki Kameda of Japan, center, donning the newly-captured champion belt, green, in addition to the two he already has, poses with his younger brothers Daiki, left, and Kazuki after Koki’s victory over Alexander Munoz of Venezuela in their 12-round WBA bantamweight world title boxing bout in Saitama, Japan, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010. Koki Kameda won a unanimous decision over Munoz to take the vacant title. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Thucydides, Book I: Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

Image result for shattered greek helm

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

“…for me alone my strong-greaved companions excepted the ram when the sheep were sheared, and I sacrificed him on the sands to Zeus, dark-clouded son of Kronos, lord over all, and burned him the thighs; but he was not moved by my offerings, but still was pondering on a way how all my strong-benched ships should be destroyed and all my eager companions.”

                                                        – Odysseus

As to what happened next, it is possible to maintain that the hand of heaven was involved, and also possible to say that when men are desperate no one can stand up to them.”

                                                         -Xenophon

“The degree of force that must be used against the enemy depends on the scale of political demands on either side”

                                                         – Carl von Clausewitz

The Peloponnesian War was the first, great “civil war of Western civilization”—fought long before that embryonic civilization would fully cohere to endure; but it would not be the last. Far from it.

Like most conflicts of this kind, the nominal pretext for the Spartans and Athenians and their respective allies to go to war was a small thing, but the costs for the belligerents would prove to be very great. Nor was this unforeseen, another truism of such terrible wars. Sir Edward Grey, for example, was no outlier among the well informed classes, if not the people, on the eve of the First World War when he declared “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time“. Europe’s elites, like Jean de Bloch had been saying such things to each other with every crisis since Fashoda and the gruesome slaughter of the Russo-Japanese War confirmed the consequences of modern battle between even third rate industrial powers. Yet in August 1914, the Entente and the Triple Alliance enthusiastically took the plunge into the abyss anyway just as the Spartans and the Athenians had done 2300 years earlier.

Why? When a polity dances on the edge of ruin why does it not come to its senses back away? Or at least wager lesser stakes upon a throw of the iron dice? Cheryl Rofer has discussed the effects of Pericles’ “motivated reasoning” in smoothing the path of Athens to war; Joe Byerly identified the increased power of “groupthink” in the Spartan Assembly under the direction of Sthenelaidas the Ephor while Dr. Kaurin established the importance of rhetoric in the cadence of classical Greek thought. Finally, Dr. Lacey illuminated the Athenian strategic miscalculation of Corcyra’s true strength. These points all have resonance, but I think another element is in play; one which Thucydides was at great pains in his history to draw as a lesson about the political deficiencies of the radical democracy that flourished in Athens after the death of Pericles: the failure to pursue a war policy of strategic restraint.

The truth is that the strategic value of restraint is often perceived by statesmen as Thucydides recorded, but the will to stay that course is seldom unwavering and this folly applied just as much to oligarchic Sparta as democratic Athens. Among the Greek leaders, both Pericles of Athens and his guest-friend Archidamus, king of Sparta, foresaw the dangers were war to break out and counseled after their own fashion, caution and restraint to their impetuous countrymen. Neither were successful.

Addressing the Assembly and the Gerousia, Archidamus gave not only a realistic political assessment but good strategic advice to be slow to take up arms against Athens and prepare carefully to fight the war on future terms more favorable to Sparta’s strengths and resources:

This, the war on which you are now debating, would be one of the greatest magnitude, on a sober consideration of the matter. In a struggle with Peloponnesians and neighbours our strength is of the same character, and it is possible to move swiftly on the different points. But a struggle with a people who live in a distant land, who have also an extraordinary familiarity with the sea, and who are in the highest state of preparation in every other department; with wealth private and public, with ships, and horses, and heavy infantry, and a population such as no one other Hellenic place can equal, and lastly a number of tributary allies—what can justify us in rashly beginning such a struggle? wherein is our trust that we should rush on it unprepared? Is it in our ships? There we are inferior; while if we are to practise and become a match for them, time must intervene. Is it in our money? There we have a far greater deficiency. We neither have it in our treasury, nor are we ready to contribute it from our private funds. Confidence might possibly be felt in our superiority in heavy infantry and population, which will enable us to invade and devastate their lands. But the Athenians have plenty of other land in their empire, and can import what they want by sea. Again, if we are to attempt an insurrection of their allies, these will have to be supported with a fleet, most of them being islanders. What then is to be our war? For unless we can either beat them at sea, or deprive them of the revenues which feed their navy, we shall meet with little but disaster. 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.

This was eminently practical advice for a land power whose strengths were optimized by short conflicts of a few day’s march away and that were based on traditional Greek hoplite phalanx warfare where battles were swiftly won or lost by the breaking of the enemy formation. The ability of Sparta to sustain a war of any duration depended heavily on the uncertain loyalty and continued agricultural productivity of a resentful and rebellious Helot population; a fact that made distant operations by the Spartan army either risky or required them to leave ample military forces at home. Fighting against walled and fortified cities in an era when the arts of siege warfare were extremely primitive eroded most of Sparta’s qualitative edge in heavy infantry and fighting a war primarily upon the seas could not even be executed at the time of the Assembly vote. Sparta’s triremes were few and in poor condition and no Spartan Themistocles was on hand to fill the office of Navarch or supervise the construction of a seaworthy battle-fleet, even if such a thing could be afforded. Facing Athens, the greatest maritime empire of the day and secured by its Long Walls, Sparta’s strategic position could only have improved with time diligently spent on diplomatic, fiscal and naval preparations.

As other participants have already discussed, the Spartan Assembly failed to heed Archidamus and proceeded on the assurances of Sthenelaidas the Ephor, that while empty, fit the “laconic” rhetorical style much favored by the Lacedaemonians. While Sthenelaidas may have carried the day, it was Archidamus who was proved correct when the Spartan invasion and devastation of Attica failed to yield any strategic benefits. The Athenians remained behind their walls, their fleet ruled the wine-dark seas and harried the Peloponnesians at will. More to the point, by a stratagem of Cleon, the naval power of Athens later compelled the Spartans to come to terms (at least for a time) or see an irreplaceable part of their army trapped on an islet perish of starvation. The plague struck Athens a far greater blow than any Spartan phalanx marching uselessly back and forth to Attica. Without the decimation of Athens by the plague and the extreme folly of the Athenians in undertaking the Sicilian Expedition, it is difficult to see how cash-poor Sparta could have prevailed.

As other panelists have correctly noted, Pericles approached the prospect of war with greater elan vital than did Archidamus. This is true. Pericles oratory typically radiated confidence in all things Athenian. But to stop there would be to shortchange the difficulty of Pericles’ real accomplishment. Stopping motions for unwise or humiliating concessions to Sparta was not difficult. It was highly unlikely the Athenians would have voted to re-accept ancient Spartan hegemony or abandon their new empire simply to avoid war. In Athenian eyes, the Spartans were oathbreakers for refusing arbitration as their treaty demanded and arrogant and insulting blusterers whose power in Hellas no longer matched their words.

No, what Pericles managed to persuade the Athenians to abandon their instinctive rush to a decisive battle of traditional phalanx warfare for a novel strategy of limited warfare in a long war that played to the very Athenian strengths that Archidamus most feared. As Pericles concluded:

…This, I think, is a tolerably fair account of the position of the Peloponnesians; that of Athens is free from the defects that I have criticized in them, and has other advantages of its own, which they can show nothing to equal. If they march against our country we will sail against theirs, and it will then be found that the desolation of the whole of Attica is not the same as that of even a fraction of Peloponnese; for they will not be able to supply the deficiency except by a battle, while we have plenty of land both on the islands and the continent. The rule of the sea is indeed a great matter. Consider for a moment. Suppose that we were islanders; can you conceive a more impregnable position? Well, this in future should, as far as possible, be our conception of our position. Dismissing all thought of our land and houses, we must vigilantly guard the sea and the city. No irritation that we may feel for the former must provoke us to a battle with the numerical superiority of the Peloponnesians. A victory would only be succeeded by another battle against the same superiority: a reverse involves the loss of our allies, the source of our strength, who will not remain quiet a day after we become unable to march against them. We must cry not over the loss of houses and land but of men’s lives; since houses and land do not gain men, but men them. And if I had thought that I could persuade you, I would have bid you go out and lay them waste with your own hands, and show the Peloponnesians that this at any rate will not make you submit.

I have many other reasons to hope for a favourable issue, if you can consent not to combine schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war, and will abstain from wilfully involving yourselves in other dangers; indeed, I am more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.

Pericles, it must be said, offered at best an incomplete strategy of exhaustion—to stretch the economic resources of poorer Sparta and its political will to the breaking point from attrition and frustration. There was no method for Athens to “compel Sparta to do its will” in the vision of Pericles and bring the war to a favorable political conclusion; instead, it relied on Spartan leaders realizing the futility of the efforts and giving up the war. Pericles might have suggested investing Athenian resources in aiding another helot revolt to further increase pressure on Sparta but he did not. Overall, Pericles imposed an extremely conservative strategy of pursuing war with great restraint and calculated force; a plan designed to wisely husband Athenian resources and fighting capacity—but a politically unsatisfying one as it flouted Greek conceptions of heroism and honor. For this reason, among others including the untimely death of its author, the Athenian strategy failed.

It was however more of a strategy than what the Spartans could bring to bear.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?

Friday, October 21st, 2016

aristotle

[by Pauline Kaurin]

In reading and discussing Book I with my students, they were fascinated by the role of speeches and the ways in which the speeches seemed to drive action. This seemed counter-intuitive to my students who – amidst the general election season of 2016 – saw speeches, political rhetoric more generally as empty and meaningless exercises in candidate ego or manipulation by appeal to fear and other negative emotions.  I found this interesting because it demonstrates important differences between how the Greeks viewed and used political rhetoric and how we might view and use it today.

                To begin, the crisis caused by the Corcyareans and Corinthians results in a typical assembly being called and then the two sides make their respective cases by giving speeches.  (433/1) The Corcyareans  go first, and then the Corinthians make their case, largely by counter-arguing the previous case.  Thucydides then describes the actions taken by the Athenians in the aftermath of the speeches, making it clear that deliberation on the speeches (taking into account various factors including a change in public feeling) produced certain actions.

After the siege of Potidea, we have another round of accusations and fussing, then followed by more speeches, “ Last of all the Corinthians came forward, and having let those who preceded them inflame the Spartans, now followed…”  (1.67)  Athens weighs in as well, and then Sparta decides for war, and articulates the reasoning with a speech laying out what we might think of as Just Cause in the Just War Tradition.  One of the issues at stake is whether to go to war now, or whether they will be “men of action” or if the Spartans are stalling.  Book I, in fact, concludes with a speech from Perikles where he makes the case that ‘war is a necessity’ (1.144) and Thucydides notes that the Athenians were persuaded by his speech and voted and acted as he had suggested.

These highlights are designed to show that there is a pattern here: speeches and rhetoric are embedded within a larger process of reflection and deliberation that is oriented towards making a collective decision and then implementing it into action.  This is, I would argue, very characteristic of the classical Greek mind. We find this exact process laid out in Book III of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and it is reflected in many Platonic dialogues (like Meno, Crito, Phaedo and the Republic) where the occasion for the conversation about virtue, justice or death is some kind of decision or action that is being contemplated.

We should also recall the role of the Sophists in Athens and particularly in the development of Western philosophical traditions. They are frequently Socrates’ interlocutors and opponents, and their relativistic worldview is what Plato and Aristotle are positing their accounts of objective knowledge over and against. The Sophists were well known figures, traveling teachers who tutored the young Athenians in the art of rhetoric.  Rhetoric was an absolutely critical career skill for the young, free (and often wealthy) men of Athens to master, as their success in life (political and otherwise) was tied to it.  So rhetoric occupies a critical and prominent space in Greek (and especially Athenian) culture, as it was necessary for the political processes and as Thucydides points out, had a clear impact on what happened and how it happened.

So these observations are all very interesting but what of it? 

              The reason that I bring up the role of rhetoric here, especially in the context of the development of the Western philosophical traditions, is that I think my students’ reactions show a stark difference in how we view rhetoric today and Socrates helps us understand why.  It is not the case that speech and political rhetoric has no impact in our lives. We might think of the Gettysburg Address, JFK’s Inaugural speech. Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech, George Bush’s ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ speech, Barack Obama’s speech on race during the 2012 election or Michelle Obama’s convention speech from this summer.  Political rhetoric is alive and well, but I would argue serves a different function now.

For Plato especially, dialogue contra the Sophists, became not about deliberation to make a decision (his dialogues often frustratingly have no closure in that respect) , but as a mode of self-reflection in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.   With the exception of Reagan’s speech, the other speeches that we remember as a part of our political or personal life, those that resonate still, are not speeches that necessarily are aimed at action – except indirectly.  They are speeches that ask us to reflect on our sense of self (both individual and communal), that ask us to think about who we are and we want to be, very often in moral terms.  Most of these timeless speeches (judgement reserved for Michelle Obama as it is too soon) still have resonance because they connect to some aspect of the human condition, to our political life both in this moment and across time and are aspirational in some way.  They ask or challenge us to look beyond the current moment and decision/action cycle to something else – to truth and knowledge.

As we continue through Thucydides, I ask you to watch for this dynamic in the speeches.  What is the intent and effect of the speeches?


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