The Enduring Relevance of Thucydides
For some reason that I will never understand, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is not required reading for graduate students of international relations.1 I don’t know how I was handed a college degree without having read it, for that matter.
There is something for everyone in its pages, including reflections on: human nature (e.g., greed vs. fear; reason vs. emotion; prudence vs. hubris); leadership; necessity; the interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy; the nature of democracy; the balance between justice and expediency; the ties between wealth and military power; the “Law of the Stronger;” alliances, collective security and the balance of power; the distinction between appearances and reality; and, the importance of history both to the present and to the future.
I was reminded of a section from Thucydides this week while reading about the continued spate of crucifixions, beheadings, stonings, and assorted brutalities that the new barbarians are perpetrating throughout Iraq and Syria. The scenes in question come from the “Terrible Chapter” (Book III, ch 82), discussing the civil war in Corcyra.
During the seven days that Eurymedon stayed there with his sixty ships, the Corcyreans continued to massacre those of their own citizens whom they considered to be their enemies. Their victims were accused of conspiring to overthrow the democracy, but in fact men were often killed on grounds of person hatred or else by their debtors because of the money that they owed. There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there.
So savage was the progress of this revolution, and it seemed all the more so because it was one of the first which had broken out. Later, of course, practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state — democratic leaders trying to bring in the Athenians, and oligarchs trying to bring in the Spartans. In peacetime there would have been no excuse and no desire for calling them in, but in time of war, when each party could always count upon an alliance which would do harm to its opponents and at the same time strengthen its own position, it became a natural thing for anyone who wanted a change of government to call in help from outside. In the various cities these revolutions were the cause of many calamities — as happens and always will happen while human nature is what it is, though there may be different degrees of savagery, and, as different circumstances arise, the general rules will admit of some variety. In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances.
So revolutions broke out in city after city … To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect … Revenge was more important than self-preservation …
Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils … in professing to serve the public interest [leaders of parties] were seeking to win the prizes for themselves … As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.
As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world …
Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice; the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.2
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1 The whole book, not just the Melian Dialogue or Pericles’s Funeral Oration.
2 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War Book III, chs 81-84 (Penguin Classics: 1972; Rex Warner translation), pgs. 241-45.