Book: Thucydides

History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner.

There is a lot you could say about Thucydides. There’s a reason people have been arguing about him for 2400 years. It was an interesting read, especially after Herodotus. He certainly has a very different style, famously zealously detailed and at the same time “austere,” which seems like a favorite word of commentators.

I have plenty of thoughts and plenty of notes, but I want to go through one in particular. That’s enough for a simple blog post. One of the most important and also controversial elements of Thucydides is the speeches, which depending on your sympathy for the author are either fascinating insights into Greek political life or the farcical yarns of an ideologue (that Thucydides was an ideologue is indisputable–it is not a coincidence that he is the favorite ancient writer of the kind of tedious, pseudo-intellectual fuckboy whose ideology–whose very identity–is his transcendence of ideology).

I’m not going to talk about the historicity of the speeches or any other element of Thucydides. In just the same way I approached Herodotus, I’m going to look at Thucydides as a work of literature and analyze it unto itself. The existence of the speeches shows a few interesting things about decision in Thucydides, which is what I want to talk about.

Aside from generals’ exhortations–and there are several of these–Thucydides puts the political speeches at moments of key decisions. Figures like Cleon, Nicias, and Alcibiades speak to assemblies in order to persuade on a particular course of action. There is a situation, there are different options, and different statesmen hope to persuade their states or governments to embark on a particular one or in a particular way.

Thucydides makes three assumptions about these moments of decision, and about the ensuing actions as well, and all three result from his grander assumption (in support of which he marshals the speeches as much as anything else) that human beings and their states operate fundamentally along self-interest.

The assumptions

1. Self-interest is clear. Self-interest is the aggrandizement of a state’s power and is so objectively, and that is what people and states want.

2. There is a correct course of action given any particular situation. Questions of policy have correct answers. Should we sent a huge expedition to Sicily? Should we exterminate the Mytileneans or the Meleans? All of these questions have answers (and ensuing policies) that will further self-interest, and any other option is an objective mistake.

3. The correct course of action is discoverable. If you are not too hasty, think wisely, and listen to good counsel, it is possible to determine before the fact which policy choice will be beneficial and which policy choice is a mistake.

I believe that these are naive assumptions, but let me be clear. No one can blame Thucydides for making the first two: all of his contemporaries would have. The idea of “value pluralism,” even of values themselves, would have confused not only Thucydides but pretty much everyone at least in the West before the 19th century. Greeks thought of the world in terms of virtues and vices. They might have disagreed about what the correct way to live was, and they may have disagreed about whether it was discoverable, but they all assumed that such an objective, universal way did exist. It would be unfair to complain that Thucydides believes self-interest is objective. (Contemporary economists don’t get the same pass.)

I will only criticize Thucydides on the third assumption, because as I say, I consider it naive. Furthermore, it illustrates how Thucydides apparent cold, “rational” approach is more tedious than laudable.

Naive is not a word people typically associate with Thucydides. Thucydides often comes off as the solid, rational realist to Herodotus’ credulous dilettante. While Herodotus is off blathering about weird Scythian burial rituals (which he was right about) and how Apollo saved Croesus from burning to death (which presumably he wasn’t), Thucydides is combing through details with a “passion for accuracy and a contempt for myth and romance” (from the back jacket of my translation). How this passion for accuracy squares with making up speeches and never citing your sources, I don’t know.

(As a note, one of the main advantages of Herodotus in this respect is that if Thucydides didn’t believe something, he just left it out. Thucydides admits early on that his eyewitness testimony is often conflicting, but he never gives us any of the discrepancies. He chooses what he believes, states it as fact, and offers nothing else. Herodotus, on the other hand, is filled with phrases like, “I don’t believe this myself, but I include it nevertheless,” and “some people claim… while others…” With so few sources from the period, this is a gift.)

Thucydides’ naivete is deeper than any in Herodotus, and to illustrate, it helps to look at Book 8 of Thucydides, which describes the period of the war after the Sicilian Expedition until it abruptly cuts off unfinished. The Sicilian disaster convinces most of the Greek world that Athens is finished, and several of Athens’ allies turn against it. Among the most important of these is Chios, which Thucydides tells us is one of the most prosperous in the Athenian empire.

As it turns out, the Athenians were far from finished, and fought on for another 9 years until 404. When it slowly dawns on the rest of the Greek world that Athens still has considerable power, some states regret joining the Peloponnesians after the Sicilian Expedition. Among these powers is Chios, and Thucydides’ defense of the Chian decision to turn against Athens is one of the most interesting points in the whole book.

“Indeed, after the Spartans, the Chians are the only people I know of who have kept their heads in prosperity and who, as their city increased in power, increased also their own measures for its security. One may think that this revolt was an example of overconfidence, but they never ventured upon it until they had many good allies ready to share the risk with them and until they saw that, after the disaster in Sicily, not even the Athenians themselves were any longer pretending that their affairs were not in a really desperate state. And if, incalculable as is the life of man, they made a mistake, there were many others who thought, like them, that Athens was on the point of collapse, and who came also to realize their error.”

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that this is the only point anywhere in which Thucydides offers even the slightest sympathy with someone for making a mistake. As I say, Thucydides almost assumes that the correct course of action is discoverable, meaning that if you make a mistake, you only have yourself to blame. He may pay lip-service to the inherent unpredictability of the future–“incalculable as is the life of man”–but if the life of many is so incalculable, why is it that figures like Pericles, Nicias, and Alcibiades so frequently predict the future in their speeches?

In the introduction to Rex Warner’s translation, M. I. Finley goes so far as to accuse Thucydides’ Pericles of “telepathy.” “On one occasion (I, 69) the Corinthians had said in Sparta: ‘you know that there have been many occasions when, if we managed to stand up to Athenian aggression, it was more because of Athenian mistakes than because of any help we got from you’; Pericles now echoes them in Athens (I, 144), ‘What I fear is not the enemy’s strategy, but our own mistakes.'”

The issue of mistakes is elemental to Thucydides. It is Athenian mistakes that bring about their end. The greatest mistakes is of course the Sicilian Expedition. Despite the incalculability of human affairs, Nicias correctly predicts the specific dangers that doom the Sicilian campaign. (Beginning of Book 6). But we can go back far earlier to mistakes as a theme. Before the war begins, the Corinthian emissary to Corcyra, encouraging the Corcyreans to reject an Athenian alliance, says, “overmastering desire for victory makes them [states] neglect their own best interests” (I, 41), and the Corinthian emissaries at Sparta: “the side that gets over-excited about it [war] is the most likely side to make mistakes” (I, 122). Go figure Nicias at VI, 9, “is it really a good thing for us to send the ships at all? I think we ought not to give such hasty consideration to so important a matter … [nevertheless] I know that no speech of mine could be powerful enough to alter your characters, and it would be useless to advise you to safeguard what you have an not to risk what is yours already for doubtful prospects in the future.”

This is not the only time overconfidence and hastiness lead to bad decisions and failure in Thucydides, but it is certainly the most important. Poor forethought is the main reason people come to grief in Thucydides (it’s worth noting how similar that makes him to Herodotus). If people in Thucydides listened to good counsel better, they would make fewer mistakes, but what an astounding coincidence that that good counsel is written up by a writer who, one, wasn’t there, and two, is writing after the fact!

That smart people can predict the future is Thucydides’ essential naivete, and I don’t think I’m wrong in finding it pedantic. It renders Thucydides-as-narrator almost (with the exception of the Chians–that’s one time) incapable of empathy. Thucydides doesn’t typically pass explicit judgement, but the assumption that the correct course of action is discoverable has a pretty clear implication. Bad things happen because mobs of people refuse to listen to “good counsel.” Therefore Thucydides’ reputation for detachment and objectivity is absurd. History of the Peloponnesian War might be re-titled, Athenians: How You Screwed Up.

Compare Herodotus, whose characters may well be flawed, but whose flaws are portrayed as inevitable elements of the human condition and therefore sympathetic. Possibly Croesus “should have known better,” but Herodotus is kind to him, just as Sophocles is kind to Oedipus. We see that Croesus is overconfident and overhasty, but the whole point of Herodotus is that it’s hard to imagine we would be any different, because no one can predict the future or know the will of the gods, and we all inevitably make mistakes.

But in Thucydides only most people make mistakes. The main mistake is not listening to the people who don’t. Thucydides was exiled from Athens for his failures as a general in Thrace. He presents his conduct as blameless, and he reads like he’s still bitter. It is hard to avoid the feeling that “if only they had listened to good counsel” might as well read, “if only they had listened to me.” If he’d included a speech of his own, I bet he’d have predicted the future.

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