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Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

[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.

One Response to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text”

  1. Joseph Guerra Says:

    Clausewitz touches on the interaction of nomos and phusis as well in Book VI, Chapter 6 of On War:
    “Thus we believe must the idea of a balance of power be conceived, and in this sense such a balance will always spontaneously arise wherever several civilised states have many points of contact.
    How effective the tendency of these collective interests toward the maintenance of the existing condition may be is another question. We can, indeed, conceive changes in the relations of individual states to one another which promote this effectiveness of the whole, and others which obstruct it. In the former case they are efforts to strengthen the political balance, and as they have the same tendency as the collective interests, they will also have the majority of these interests on the other side. In the latter case, however they are abnormalities, excessive activity of individual parts, real diseases. That these should occur in a whole so feebly bound together as the multitude of greater and smaller states is not to be wondered at. After all, they occur in the marvellously ordered organic whole of all living nature.”
    On War, Jolles translation.

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