[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.