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Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Hoffman on Reading Thucydides

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

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Dr. Frank Hoffman

‘Tis the season for Thucydides. At War on the Rocks, military scholar and theorist Frank Hoffman argues that we give The Peloponnesian War a read, but do it with a critical eye.


…His insights have proven invaluable to serious students attempting to understand the past and apply it to the present and future. But much of this reputation is based on Thucydides’ purportedly dispassionate style, attention to detail, and perceived objectivity. We often take him at his word that “those who want to understand clearly” the history he recounts. For example, Princeton’s James McPherson has stated that he relies on Thucydides “because he is a more careful, precise, and trustworthy historian who does not try to go beyond the evidence.” Williamson Murray, the strategic historian, appreciates and endorses the Greek author because he was able to examine with honesty and ruthlessness the reality of war—not glory, not colorful parades, little but desolation and tragedy, yet a fundamental and everlasting part of the human tableau.

Yet, while we can admire his realism, how ruthlessly honest was Thucydides in his analysis?

As the distinguished Yale classicist Donald Kagan shows in his impressive Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, the ancient Athenian is not simply the detached historian we have come to think he was. After he was exiled for presiding over the embarrassing loss of Amphipolis in 424 BC, Thucydides had much time to ponder the war. However, he was also biased by his close association with critical key participants, including Pericles. Murray later admitted that our good Greek admiral was capable of “loading the dice” a few times in his perceptions of what occurred. Murray himself points out the Pericles’ famous speech as recalled by Thucydides “proved more flawed in its long-range analysis of the future.” It is hard to disagree with Mark Gilchrist, who argues that Athenian strategic rationality declined, but we should also recognize it was not perfect to start with.

Read the rest here.

It is a fair point that Thucydides was a critic of his country but an admirer of the Periclean regime; in fact, he was something of an apologist for Pericles personally. The Democracy, in Thucydides view, functioned well only so long as the wise hand of Pericles was there to steer the ship of state. As Hoffman explained, eminent classicist Donald Kagan has gone further, arguing that Thucydides was the first revisionist historian. It seems at least fair to me to say that Thucydides is more concerned with the crimes and folly of the Athenian politicians who exiled him than those of their Spartan enemies. It is also arguable that Thucydides knew Athenian elite society far more intimately than he knew the leadership classes of the Spartans, Corinthians, Argives or Persians and his narrative inevitably unfolded accordingly.

A critical eye is useful indeed.

New Book: THE KNOWLEDGE by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Knowledge: A Too Close To True Novel

The Knowledge by Steven Pressfield

Long time readers know that noted novelist Steven Pressfield is a friend of this blog and that in turn we are big fans of Steve’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction masterpieces like The War of Art. Pressfield has a new novel out, one inspired by his struggles outlined in The War of Art and Steve was kind enough to send me a copy which arrived the other day.

What is The Knowledge about? From the book jacket insert:

Where did The War of Art come from?

How did creativity sensei Steven Pressfield come up with the notion that there is an insidious force in the universe called Resistance that keeps us from pursuing our life’s work and fulfilling our artistic destiny? And that until we recognize and engage in an end-of-days battle with the big “R,” our inner genius will remain blocked and unborn inside an internal protoplasmic goo?

Was he touched by angels as he contemplated the universe in an ashram?

Did he meet a mysterious stranger in a truck stop in Twin Falls, Idaho who imparted deep truths over a cup of muddy Joe?

Perhaps blunt force trauma in a Reno bar had something to do with it?

If only…

As his “too close to true novel,” THE KNOWLEDGE, riotously reveals, the truth of Pressfield’s Weltanschauung origin story lies somewhere between fact and fiction…

In the high-crime 1970s in New York, Pressfield was driving a cab and tending bar, incapable of achieving anything literary beyond the completion of his third-in-a-row unpublishable novel. Until fate, in the form of a job tailing his boss’s straying wife, propels him into a Big Lebowski-esque underworld saga that ends with him coming to a life-altering crisis involving not just the criminals he has become deeply and emotionally involved with, but with his own inner demons of the blank page.

THE KNOWLEDGE is not just a writer’s coming-of-age story. It’s every writer’s coming-of-age story.

If you’re a fan of THE WAR OF ART, Pressfield’s new novel, THE KNOWLEDGE, is the story behind that story and the origin tale between its lines.

I love the novel’s setting. Most people have forgotten that in the 1970’s, New York City had come to symbolize American decline and decay. It was a rough place over which the Five Families held sway, where the police department was riddled with corruption, crime was rampant and several thousand murders took place annually. Here was the Bronx at the time The Knowledge takes place:


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The Subway

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Times Square

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This was the New York of Abe Beam, the Five Percenters, of a young and rising Donald Trump and an ancient and fading Robert Moses. This is where Steven Pressfield gained The Knowledge.

I look forward to reading and reviewing it here soon.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The Diva and the General: Who Wins?

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

[by Pauline Kaurin]

One of the most striking conversations or interchanges in Book 6 is between Alcibiades and Nicias. Alcibiades is arguing in favor of the expedition to invade Sicily, largely on this basis of his excellence and skills, as well as youthful energy, in addition to using his political skills to build a coalition against Sparta (6.16-7). He argues that the adversary is politically weak, will be easily divided and that the Spartan’s will be unable to harm the Athenians while they are on this expedition. Finally, he appeals to the desire to maintain and expand empire and that this expedition promises large benefits with very few risks.

Meanwhile Nicias is urging caution, pointing out the possible dangers, and refuting the idea that Sicily is weak and will put up very little resistance. He also points out that distance will make it difficult to keep Sicily subdues and also goes through the various difficulties that Athens has been through (the plague) and that they ought not be swayed by youthful eagerness that may not be based in fact and experience (6.11-12). He argues that they will need to be well provisioned, will require overwhelming force to succeed in this very dangerous mission.

One classical way to read this is as the politician who wants war, assumes it will be easy and is really in it for his own glory, as opposed to the seasoned warrior who sees the difficulties and dangers of warfare and views it as a last resort. This is certainly how my students viewed it and spent time discussing historical and contemporary parallels. One student even compared Alcibiades to Donald Trump! (An interesting discussion on that ensued…but I digress.)

But as a philosopher, I see these two characters through the lens of the Platonic dialogues in which they both appear. For Alcibiades, who appears at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a discussion on the nature of love and beauty, I see a Diva. Allow me to explain. Alcibiades enters the conversation at the very end of the dialogue and enters highly drunk, recounting his attempts to seduce Socrates. “Good evening gentlemen, I’m plastered,” (212E). As the master politician with a very high view of his abilities, we are treated to a recounting of the Machiavellian machinations he goes through in this process, along with Socrates’ rejection and disinterest in anything other than philosophical discussions. We also get a picture of both of them at war, in the retreat from Delium (221A), which reinforces this picture of Socrates as unconcerned with material privations, brave and generally obsessed with philosophy. Alcibiades professes his ire since he clearly thinks (in keeping with the practice of pederasty) that Socrates could benefit his career and ambitions and that Alcibiades represents a good catch! How could Socrates not find him attractive? Inconceivable.

Now, of course, this is all presented as a comedic end to the dialogue and Plato clearly has Alcibiades playing the fool’s part—even to the point of raising questions about whether he is really drunk or just being overly dramatic.

Nicias, on the other hand, who appears in the Laches—a discussion of courage and how to teach young men this virtue—is the very sober, sympathetic interlocutor with Socrates and Laches. Its clear from the dialogue that Nicias has tangled with Socrates before, knows the routine and professes to enjoy the intellectual conversation. In the course of the discussion he is charitable and genuinely tries to engage, while Laches gets (as most of Socrates interlocutors do) frustrated and cranky with Nicias. Of all the people who ought to be defensive about having trouble defining courage, it ought to be the good general.

What are we to make of all this? I would argue that looking at these figures through Plato only deepens my students assessments.  Nicias is the thoughtful, non-ego driven team player who is thoughtful and willing to consider a wide range of things. Alcibiades is entirely ego driven, sure he is right and cannot imagine how he can possibly be wrong or how anyone would disagree with him or resist his course of action. But who wins here? In the short term, Alcibiades gets his way; in the long term Nicias is right. So we ought to think about the reasons that we listen to the Diva Politicians, and not the Sober, Experienced Generals. Perhaps the Diva is the picture we want to believe and portray, and the General is the reality that we would rather not see or face.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Men of Honor, Men of Interest

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

[By T. Greer]

The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue”, it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitik. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’ History. It was one of the opening chapters in the”standard-readings-in-IR-theory” primer assigned in my very first political science class. Its stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable, it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.

…Thus as far as the Gods are concerned, we have no fear…

A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V, Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable”. (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.

The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in Thucydides’ fifth book, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.

Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.


Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Fellow Thucydideans

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

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A couple of noteworthy posts.

First, commenter John Kranz of Three Sources.com has a string of posts up on The Peloponnesian War that you should investigate. A sample:

….Indeed it so happened that directly after the battle of Amphipolis and the retreat of Ramphias from Thessaly, both sides ceased to prosecute the war and turned their attention to peace. Athens had suffered severely at Delium, and again shortly afterwards at Amphipolis, and had no longer that confidence in her strength which had made her before refuse to accept the offer of peace, in the belief of ultimate victory which her success at the moment had inspired; [5.14]

The “Ten Years War” is complete. J. E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath [Review Corner] covers only this period. And Thucydides himself spends a small section defending his decision to consider the entire “three times nine years” period a single conflict, getting a dig in at the superstitious of his time:

So that the first ten years’ war, the treacherous armistice that followed it, and the subsequent war will, calculating by the seasons, be found to make up the number of years which I have mentioned, with the difference of a few days, and to provide an instance of faith in oracles being for once justified by the event. [5.26]

But if the play-by-play, battle-by-battle coverage takes a small break in Book Five, there’s some time for extended commentary (and highlights from other conflicts).

I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely. [6] I will accordingly now relate the differences that arose after the ten years’ war, the breach of the treaty, and the hostilities that followed. [5.26]

Sparta and Athens indeed complete a truce, essentially establishing a “status quo ante” distribution of territory with a few small exceptions. But Hellas does not become Hundred Acre Wood, and they do not spend these years in idyllic pastoral repose. Both combatants drag their heels at completing requirements of the treaty. “Oh, we’ll give them the hostages from Pylos someday…”

Secondly, over with our friends at The Bridge, a fine post by Mark Gilchrist: Why Thucydides Still Matters

….Thucydides intended his work to be “a possession for all time,” and through reading The Peloponnesian War we come to realise the complexities of modern life have not rendered everything experienced by past generations irrelevant to the problems of today.[1] In fact, as he intended, Thucydides provides a sound basis from which to discover how best to approach the complex problems facing contemporary strategists through allowing us to better understand war’s continuities and discontinuities.

Thucydides charts the impact of war on the character of the states involved. He uses Athens’ transformation as a cautionary tale about what war will do to a state unprepared for its influence and of the cost of applying power unwisely or unjustly in the pursuit of a political objective. His writing is grounded in the understanding that war’s nature is inextricably linked to human nature, which in turn shapes the strategic and military culture that manifest in war’s character and the political objectives for which it is fought. Through a narrative approach, his work serves as a warning about the moral decline of society over the course of protracted war. In doing so he demonstrates several points relevant for all wars, including today’s: War’s nature is unchanging and is based on the contest for power. “Fear, honour, and interest” are human characteristics immutable through time and have generally been the cause of wars throughout history.[2] These characteristics shape strategic and military culture and in turn the character of a given war. And the creation of a political objective based on a state’s vital interests is imperative in the formulation of a winning strategy. 

That’s it.


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