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Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Understanding Stasis

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The reflections of Thucydides on the murderous polarization at Corcyra (III.82-84) are justly celebrated. He himself claims a timeless insight into human nature:

…sufferings … such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same


The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition . . .

Yet he also makes it clear that these horrors could not occur in the absence of certain conditions:

In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war . . .

This is the context for his memorable epigram that war is a violent teacher. The hasty reader might conclude that Thucydides is saying merely that war is hell and it brings out the worst in people. This would be a mistake.


The passage is a difficult one.  An early critic — Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing from Rome in the reign of Augustus —  singled out these chapters for censure as “affected, artificial, and crowded with all kinds of ornamental additions.” And he was Greek!  While the translator has smoothed out some difficulties for us, he may have introduced a new one. The subject of this passage is stasis, which Crawley renders as “revolution.”  Stasis is related to the word for “stand” and can mean ‘the place in which one stands or should stand.’ It came to be applied to political faction and the strife arising from the mutual antagonism of factions. This etymology brings to mind the language of the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards would often exhort a person “to take a stand,” which often meant “drawing a line between” oneself and some friend or relative who carried a political taint. But I wonder if the most natural translation for Americans today might be ‘polarization,’ except that when we talk of polarization, we are usually just talking about strong differences of opinion. The stasis of which Thucydides writes is something that leads rapidly to the breakdown of all morality in a fight to the death.  Where does that come from?


Our author drops a strong clue in Chapter 84:

In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion . . .

This is pretty clear.  It must have made an impression on the seventeenth-century British scholar who produced the first English translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War.  Decades later, after surviving England’s own Civil War, he developed a social philosophy on the following premise:

. . . during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

Thomas Hobbes usually translates stasis as ‘sedition,’ which doesn’t seem quite right to me. Rather than overthrowing a civilizing top-down power, the stasis of Thucydides arises in the absence of that power.

And the horror with which Thucydides describes stasis suggests that for him it is not the natural state of man, held at bay by a central power. He seems to be describing extraordinary conditions in which human nature is unable to express its true qualities in the social sphere.  One thinks of W. B. Yeats (“the centre cannot hold”) when reading

. . . the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two [extremes] . . .

Yeats understood this unnatural state of society, at least symbolically, in eschatological terms. As we work out what Thucydides’ understanding may have been, we may learn from his description of another phenomenon that, like stasis, dissolved all morality: the plague at Athens.


As the plague spread and subjected the Athenians to unbearable stress, funeral customs (which there, as in many other pre-modern societies, were endowed with a sense of propriety verging on taboo) were violated in shocking ways. (2.52-53) In Thucydides’ view, such behavior was not an uncomfortable adaptation to necessity but rather a symptom of a complete loss of moral standards: Men now did just what they pleased . . . Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none . . . [‘Honor’ translates to kalon, primarily meaning ‘the beautiful’; and its identification as a profound moral value is characteristically Greek.]

As he tells of the plague’s impact, Thucydides does more than shake his head in horror. He posits two reasons for the collapse of morality.  The first is an acute scarcity of vital resources: from want of the proper appliances through so many of their friends having died already.  The second is a contraction of the time horizon: regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. This second factor is readily understandable to us: a modern economist would say that during the plague, the Athenians applied an extremely high discount rate.  This is always demoralizing. Students of poverty have long observed that the poor are driven to do whatever they can to survive in the present, making little provision for the future; but this very style of behavior, as much as anything else, ensures that they will remain poor. And as I will observe in a moment, the time horizon is even more important socially than economically.

If you will permit me some freedom of interpretation, the first factor (acute scarcity) also resonates with modern analysis. For the life we are used to is one of ‘moderate scarcity’ and that circumstance profoundly shapes our sense of values.  Recall the thought experiments David Hume offered in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: in scenarios of effortless unlimited abundance or desperate deprivation, “the strict laws of justice are suspended.” While Hume was exploring the conditions for morality, his thought experiment is more broadly suggestive. Homo economicus chooses a combination of goods to maximize utility under an income constraint. What is popularly called the law of diminishing returns makes itself felt all the time: a person of normal income will not consume ‘too much’ of one good — even if there is no risk of satiety — because to exceed some level of consumption of that good he would need to reduce his consumption of other goods to the point that he felt a pressing need for them, a need that would outweigh the additional benefit of consuming more of the first good.  Increased consumption of one good thus incurs, at some point, negative feedback, and that ensures both stability and the choice of a variegated basket of goods. 

But what if there isn’t enough food and water?  For the starving, the whole self-equilibrating system of rates of exchange becomes irrelevant. “All that a man hath will he give for his life.” In a famine, the one who gets a morsel to eat will still want more food and he will sacrifice other things, if he has them, to get more food.  Negative feedback does not come into play, and if an equilibrium is attained it will be a “corner solution.”


How do these two factors of demoralization apply to civil strife?  First, consider the discount rate or time horizon.

Relationships persist, and the future constrains the present.  A. will think twice about doing an injury to B. because B. is going to be around for a while.  If the contemplated injury is serious enough, perhaps B. won’t be around: but his family, or his friends, or people who identify with him in some way, will be around; and A. will have to deal with their enmity and distrust.  If the society in which both A. and B. find themselves also has a functioning system of justice, then even people who have no personal tie to B. are going to come after A., unless he can neutralize the whole system. These considerations tend, under normal conditions, to restrain domestic political competitors from the commission of atrocities. 

The second factor mentioned above — a self-adjusting system of tradeoffs that supplies negative feedback — also seems applicable to domestic political tensions. If A. gains power at the expense of B., B. is going to start trying harder.  There will now be a greater number of people that A. needs to keep satisfied, or cowed. A. is more likely than before to be blamed when things go wrong.  This is why aggrandizement tends under normal conditions to be self-limiting.

During the Peloponnesian War, domestic conditions at Corcyra (and then other city-states) were not normal.  The crucial abnormality was the availability of external power without responsibility for it. By inviting either Athens or Sparta to enter into its domestic struggles, a party contending within a city-state nullified the two self-limiting mechanisms sketched above.  Getting one of the behemoths to fight your domestic battles for you gave you a power which your adversaries could not resist, and which had a good chance of eliminating them root and branch.  You would not have to face them tomorrow. And since the armed forces of the hegemon had no relationship with your adversaries, there was nothing but their sense of humanity to moderate their intervention.  At times, we see such humane intentions (Nicostratus in 3.75: He at once endeavored to bring about a settlement), but such efforts always fail, probably because the hegemon’s commitment is limited (he was about to sail away) and because as an outsider he doesn’t realize when he is being manipulated (the leaders of The People induced him to leave them five of his ships).

A. thus savors the realistic prospect of exterminating B.

But at the same time, because there are two hegemons out there who are nervously watching their dominoes, A. knows that B. may have a realistic prospect of exterminating A.  As much as the extreme potential gains, it is the extreme potential losses which take this conflict out of the “normal” realm of self-regulating equilibria and also contract the time horizon.  Behavior that would normally bring future punishment (formal or informal) now has the greatest survival value:

. . . the superior readiness of those united by [party spirit] to dare everything without reserve

The horrors of Corcyra flow from particular circumstances. Pace Hobbes, it is not merely the absence of a unitary power that leads to such a graphic breakdown of civilized norms.  Nor is it the fact of armed conflict — although, if an armed conflict were sufficiently destructive, we would anticipate the same demoralization that followed the plague at Athens.  It is the combination of domestic divisions with the willingness of external hegemons to intervene. This combination dismantles the feedback loops that normally keep competitive behavior “within bounds.”  Only a corner solution remains, and most of what we call civilization gets discarded on the way to it.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

In my first post on this Roundtable I brought up the concept of strategic narrative and how it serves as a link between Thucydides and Clausewitz from a strategic theory perspective.  Describing the layered nature of The Peloponnesian War, Ned Lebow, expanding on W. Robert Conner, outlines four levels of narrative:  The first regards “interest, justice and their relationship”.  The second is the story of Athens as a tragedy.  The third, following the second, is “the relationship between nomos (convention, custom, law) and phusis (nature) and its implications in the development and preservation of civilisation”.  The fourth and final level in this outline is the “meta-theme” of the entire narrative: “the rise and fall of Greek civilisation, and the circumstances in which different facets of human nature come to the fore”.

This follows a standard approach to many great works.  The idea that the author is not so much presenting a story, as much as attempting to engage with the reader, get them to question their own preconceived notions about a subject, essentially to create a dialectic in which the reader is able to achieve a higher level of understanding through a process of reading, questioning, contemplating and then going on to the next related element, while at the same time retaining the conceptual whole and how the various elements are related.  Not so surprisingly the same is said about Clausewitz’s On War.

The Corcyrean revolution is chillingly described in 3.70-3.85.  Here we see all the levels of the narrative displayed as complex interactions.  Interest has overcome justice, which in any case is only achievable among equals.  But does actual equality exist between humans, as in democratic structures of government, or are they simply a myth?  Conventions and customs fall prey to human nature and impulse, while the meanings of words decay (through narrow interest) which in turn has an effect on actions, which in turn has to be justified thus leading to further decay of the overall narrative.  As with Thucydides’s description of the plague in Athens in Book II, some respond heroically to this turmoil (stasis), but most succumb giving themselves over to impulse and/or fear and act in ways that would have been inconceivable prior to the crisis.  Civilisation itself, which requires a basis (shared interests, justice, language, common conventions, etc,) for stability, starts to come apart.  This all follows more or less the development of a Greek tragedy, or repeated tragedies, with the implication that this is more the nature of humanity as a whole, than being limited to a specific time and place.

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Cleon Revisited

Friday, November 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

After posting about “The Most Violent Man at Athens“, commenter Neville Morely who is a professor of the classics, brought it to my attention that he recently offered a qualified defense of the populist Athenian politician, Cleon.  I thought that this would serve as an excellent rebuttal to my post that would interest and inform the readership. So, without further ado, Professor Morely:

Cleon and the Lying Media

Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious.

At best, what this offers us is the pantomime villain whom we can boo and hiss with a sense of smugness that we have a superior idea of how bad he really is. But this one seems riskier than normal, if it slides easily into the belief that the emergence of such a figure is also a judgement against the system that has allowed him to rise to prominence. That’s precisely how Thucydides and Aristophanes (the lying MainsSteam Media) present Cleon, as evidence of the negative tendencies of Athenian democracy that headed downhill from there; is there a sense that Trump, even as he denounces American institutions, is also fuelling a suspicion of those institutions among some of his fiercest critics? Yes, there may be a case for that – but it shouldn’t be a case based on this arguable interpretation of the relationship between Cleon and Athens.

I may return to this theme in more detail – currently supposed to be working on a paper on a completely different topic for tomorrow evening – but for the moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve already developed these ideas nearly twenty years ago in a piece for Omnibus called ‘Cleon the Misunderstood’ (can’t remember whether I put a question mark after that in the original). I’d certainly update this today with more discussion of how Cleon gets read in relation to Thucydides’ trustworthiness – George Grote’s criticism of the portrayal, and the academic row that ensued – but I think this stands up well enough as a summary to be worth reproducing here:

Cleon the Misunderstood

In the mid-fourth century B.C., an Athenian citizen called Mantitheus sued his half-brother for the return of his mother’s dowry. At one point in the speech, he tells the jury that his mother had once been married to a man called Cleomedon,

Whose father Cleon, we are told, commanded troops among whom were your ancestors, and captured alive a large number of Spartans, and won greater renown than any other man in the state; so it was not fitting that the son of that famous man should wed my mother without a dowry. (Demosthenes, 40.25)

Juries in Athens were made up of at least a hundred and one dikastai, chosen by lot from volunteers who had to be Athenian citizens over thirty years old. The speaker had to try to persuade the majority of these jurors to vote in his favour, whether because of the strength of his case or by appealing to their sentiments. Certainly he would not want to alienate too many people by expressing unpopular views; Mantitheus must therefore have assumed that his description of Cleon as a famous Athenian leader would be accepted by many among his audience. Yet such a positive assessment is likely to come as a surprise to most students of Athenian history, especially those familiar with Thucydides’ account of the part played by Cleon in the course of the PeloponnesianWar.

Read the rest here.

Thucydides Roundtable Book III: The Most Violent Man at Athens

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for Cleon Athens Bust

Cleon, son of Cleanetus, strategos and demagogue of Athens

“….Cleon was the first to shout during a speech in the Assembly, use abusive language while addressing the people, and hitch up his skirts [move around dramatically]”

                                                             – Aristotle

“….As a furious torrent you have overthrown our city; your outcries have deafened Athens”

                                                               – Aristophanes

This will be a shorter post as I am still working on Part II of Pericles, Strategy and his Regime from Book II. It seemed useful in Book III to turn our attention to Pericles’ nemesis and antithesis, Cleon.

Cleon, who dominated the Assembly for a time after the death of Pericles is an archetype for two figures who appear in many times and places, especially in times of civil strife, war and revolution – the populist demagogue and the extremist hardliner. Thucydides, who clearly despised Cleon, called him “the most violent man at Athens” and Cleon’s brutal style of politics seemed to have been a mixture of natural temperament, radicalism and tactical convenience. Aristophanes lampooned Cleon as an angry, malevolent, bawling, buffoon and this may have been because the playwright had been a victim of one of Cleon’s many malicious lawsuits and public prosecutions with which he harassed his political enemies. Although wealthy, Cleon came “from the marketplace” – today we might say “blue collar” – and his power base was among the poorest classes of the thetes. Often scorned by haughty Athenian elites for his coarsely vulgar and histrionic oratory, I can imagine that the oarsmen, dockworkers, tradesmen and shipwrights of Athens felt that Cleon “spoke their language”.

To whomever he was speaking, the counsel of Cleon reveled in blood and iron:

“I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mitylene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is ensured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty. The most alarming feature in the case is the constant change of measures with which we appear to be threatened, and our seeming ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority; that unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination; and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their wit in more important matters, and by such behaviour too often ruin their country; while those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate, instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions. 

…..Our mistake has been to distinguish the Mitylenians as we have done: had they been long ago treated like the rest, they never would have so far forgotten themselves, human nature being as surely made arrogant by consideration as it is awed by firmness. Let them now therefore be punished as their crime requires, and do not, while you condemn the aristocracy, absolve the people. This is certain, that all attacked you without distinction, although they might have come over to us and been now again in possession of their city. But no, they thought it safer to throw in their lot with the aristocracy and so joined their rebellion! Consider therefore: if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible? We meanwhile shall have to risk our money and our lives against one state after another; and if successful, shall receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue upon which our strength depends; while if unsuccessful, we shall have an enemy the more upon our hands, and shall spend the time that might be employed in combating our existing foes in warring with our own allies.

“No hope, therefore, that rhetoric may instil or money purchase, of the mercy due to human infirmity must be held out to the Mitylenians. Their offence was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore, now as before, persist against your reversing your first decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire—pity, sentiment, and indulgence. [….] Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you are fighting with your own confederates.” 

It had been Cleon, of course, who had originally moved that Athens should punish rebellious Mytilene by putting all of its citizens to death and subsequently spoke against reversing that decree. He failed but only by a slender chance of a speedy messenger was the massacre averted.

War tends to throw up into posterity characters ill-suited for a successful life in times of peace. And when in times of peace they tend to plot and agitate for war and civil disorder. The anti-Nazi journalist Konrad Heiden called them “armed intellectuals” and their more violent cousins “armed bohemians”; Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer developed a similar typology, “fanatics” and “practical men of action”. Cleon was such a man, I believe, and his constant incitement and advocacy of the severest measures corrupted the Athenian democracy and changed its character to mistake cruelty for strength and reckless aggression for courage. Worse, this acted in tandem with the Spartans, of whom it must be said they were the first and not the Athenians to deviate from traditional Greek customs of restrained warfare against fellow Greeks and make casual massacre and atrocity a war policy.

An escalatory dynamic that made the Peloponnesian War unprecedented in scale and barbarism for the Hellenic world.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016


[by Pauline Kaurin]

In Book III, we find ourselves facing a classic ethical question in warfare: How ought one treat the enemy? Should one show mercy and follow the rules and customs of war? Or should one be cruel and show no mercy, because that is what the enemy deserves and the harsh example may deter others?

In this case, the Athenians are trying to decide whether to put the Mytilenians to death. (3.36/7) Cleon notes in his speech,

“Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes… Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death” (3.40)

Diodotus rebuts the argument by noting that in war hope, greed, fortune and a whole host of other non-rational motivators are operant, in ways that make deterrence ineffective,

“ In short, it is impossible to prevent….human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent whatsoever.” (3.45)

His point here, is that punishing the adversary is not in the interest of the Athenians and is unlikely to be effective in any case, especially since it would involve violating a the idea of discrimination, that is punishment can only be visited on the guilty, not the guilty and innocent alike; the lack of discrimination, he argues involves ‘senseless force’ and will only show that the Athenians have no interest in guilt versus innocence.

This debate, echoing contemporary arguments about whether to use waterboarding in interrogation and whether and when to accord POW status (with all its legal protections) to the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, is a familiar one in the ethics of war. Since at least Vietnam, there have been regular calls to abandon or modify the jus in bello restrictions and  Geneva and Hague Conventions; the argument being that our enemies do not always follow these and following them requires our forced to fight ‘with one hand tied behind their back’ – that is, at a strategic and tactical disadvantage.

It’s hard not to hear in these calls a familiar version of a Realist argument about the lack of reciprocity, appearing weak in the eyes of the enemy or potential enemies (deterrence) and failing to serve the State interest.  The idea here is that State interest is best served by military victory and using every means at one’s disposal, if militarily required, ought to be done. Cleon actually seems to be making the Realist argument here even though it is cloaked in moral terms, while Diodotus, despite invoking State interest and effectiveness, is actually making the ethicist’s argument, especially at the end in reminding the Athenians that they actually do care about discriminating between the guilty and the innocent.

Before addressing this question of which side we ought to take in this debate, I would also turn our attention to Thucydides’ discussion of the moral erosion caused by revolution and war, which began with the Corcyraeans, but eventually spread to the whole Hellenic world. (3.82ff)  Now one could read this section purely as a tangential conversation on the problems with civil war and revolution, but I read it much more broadly as a discussion related to the earlier one about how to treat the enemy, as a discourse on moral erosion in war.  Does war blunt and erode our moral sensibilities and standards, making possible and reasonable actions that would have never been considered before?  Could a discussion of waterboarding have taken place in the same way and with such public support absent the context of 9/11?

The question of moral erosion has certain obvious implications for the moral injury debate (which I cannot pursue here), but it also has important implications for the debate about how we treat our enemy.  The Realist Deterrence in War argument becomes more and more attractive, I think, the more moral erosion has taken place, the more extreme the circumstances seem to be. But I rather agree with Diodotus that especially in such extreme circumstances, it does not work.  Why?

Any kind of deterrence view (whether in the strategy realm related to war and foreign policy or punishment theory) relies on the assumption that people are making rational judgments and weighing risk and cost in making their decisions about whether to embark on a particular course of action. The more extreme the circumstances, the more moral erosion has taken place, the less this is the case, I’d argue. In these circumstances, it is not rational judgement about self or State interest that are operating, but all the non-rational elements noted before; these are much less amenable to influence.

We might think about the brutal tactics that ISIS uses (torture, beheadings, etc.) which are designed to produce certain kinds of reactions when broadcast to the intended audience. It seems logical that in response to such brutality, the West and other opponents ought to up the ante and use even more brutal tactics to make the case that we are strong, will persevere and also to deter ISIS and other actors from such behavior in future due to the costs of such behavior. Sounds good! If anything seems like Hobbes classic State of Nature this seems it, so logically the brutality should produce accommodation in behavior.

But of course, there is a problem here. Brutality, as evidenced by scores of torture testimonies, does not produce much rooted in logic. It produces fear, fight or flight, anger, a desire for revenge or to defend one’s honor (which seems particularly apt for a group like ISIS). These are not things that lend themselves to rational thinking (think of your last serious and extended fight with a spouse or family member), but rather lends itself to retaliation and escalation of force with little concern for whether it is effective or not.

So on one of many ironies produced by Thucydides (Melian Dialogue anyone?),  we have the foundation for an argument that Realists should, in fact, uphold moral principles in war – both in the short and long term – because moral erosion undermines and accurate and rational assessment of State interest and good decision making. Deterrence will not work in war, because cruelty produces anger, offends honor and creates a desire for revenge – frequently the opposite effect that it is intended to have. Realists ought not abandon moral principles and legal restrictions in war, because that causes moral erosion which makes it much harder to win and bring the conflict to the desired End State. They may do so for non-moral reasons (as opposed to the ethicist), but I think a consistent Realist must reject Cleon’s argument as short term thinking, motivated by a anger and revenge, not rooted in rational State interest.

So we should uphold jus in bello requirements, maintain Geneva and Hague conventions and perhaps (as I argued in an article on Guantanamo Bay) extend mercy even when it is not required. Moral erosion, as Thucydides notes, is as contagious as the plague and perhaps more damaging, especially in the long term.

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