Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: Spot the Alcibiades Points

The spinning top is an intriguing metaphor here, for unlike the van on the hill the top is designed to stay in one place. But to maintain balance the top must spin—the faster, the better. If the spinning slows the top will topple. A top’s stability requires constant motion. It is not difficult to imagine counterparts in the social world. Perhaps it is a company. Possibly it is a political party or an insurgency. Maybe it’s a country. Maybe it is an empire. Whatever it is, it must move. External expansion is the only way to maintain its internal equilibrium. It must be kept in motion, or it will topple.

One of the clearest examples of this sort of system was the ancient Chinese kingdom of Qin. The House of Qin reigned in an age of contending states; it is remembered as the most terrible kingdom in a most terrible age. Qin was by modern measures tyrannous; some scholars have termed it the world’s first totalitarian society. Qin philosophers wrote of politics in terms so bleak they make Thucydides’ pronouncements sound like the script of a Disney musical:

“If virtuous officials are employed, the people will love their own relatives, but if wicked officials are employed, the people will love the statutes. To agree with, and to respond to, others is what the virtuous do ; to differ from, and to spy upon, others is what the wicked do. If the virtuous are placed in positions of evidence, transgressions will remain hidden ; but if the wicked are employed, crimes will be punished.

In the former case the people will be stronger than the law; in the latter, the law will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the law, there is lawlessness in the state, but if the law is stronger than the people, the army will be strong. Therefore is it said: “Governing through good people leads to lawlessness and dismemberment; governing through wicked people leads to order and strength.”[1]

Bottom to top, the state of Qin was a society ordered for war. “Optimize everything” is a 21st century phrase the Qin would understand. Every man was plugged into an elaborate 13 rank social hierarchy, his position determined entirely by his martial accomplishments. The old aristocracy was seen as superfluous, and so were suppressed; independent artisans, ritual masters and musicians, philosophical schools, and wealthy merchant clans won no wars, and so were rooted out and eliminated. Those who farmed more and fought more prospered. Those who failed to do either were punished. Roads, coins, letters, measures, and laws were standardized in the name of efficiency. The shape and size of houses and farming plots were dictated by the state to maximize crop production and taxation. A mammoth bureaucracy—the largest of the pre-modern era—was created to impose all of this on the wider population. Families were organized into collective responsibility groups to enforce these measures; failure to report the failings of your neighbors meant everyone in the group would be punished for them.

Page 2 of 4 | Previous page | Next page