I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.
Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.
Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,
The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.
However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,
‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’
Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,
After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.
This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.
This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.
So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.
Apology of Xenophon
Since in the last post I wrote about Plato’s Apology, it seems timely to consider Xenophon’s Apology, which was probably written around the same time or shortly later. Xenophon, like Plato, had studied under Socrates as a young man. unlike Plato, it is impossible that he could actually have attended Socrates’ trial because we know he was fighting in a Persian civil war in 399 (the story of which is told in his book The Anabasis). His information comes second hand, though a friend named Hermogenes, son of Hipponicus.Xenophon’s apology is considerably shorter than Plato’s. By his own admission, he makes no attempt to dwell on philosophy but merely strives to explain Socrates’ attitude towards death. In a way this is a back-handed critique of Plato and other philosophers who, in their accounts of Socrates, tended to put words into the master’s mouth to legitimize their own philosophic theories. Actually, however, Xenophon’s Apology is just as much a testament to the writer’s personal philosophy as any of the others. The difference is that Xenophon, while he was prolific writer, was never a professional philosopher like Plato. He was, above all else, a mercenary soldier and his Socrates demonstrates a simple soldier’s philosophy: Don’t fear death, because it’s better do die quickly and escape the depredations of old age. Live as well as you can, but don’t apologize to anyone.
Xenophon’s Socrates makes no effort to craft an artful speech in his defense, even when urged by his friends, saying that his life so far is all the defense he needs,
Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have; since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing 10 that my whole life has been spent holily and justly? And indeed this verdict of self-approval I found re-echoed in the opinion which my friends and intimates have formed concerning me. 11 And now if my age is still to be prolonged, 12 I know that I cannot escape paying 13 the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dulness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living?
The Athenian juries disagrees when the time comes, but this is of no great import to Socrates, who answers to no one but his daemon and himself. He takes the poison with good grace, embracing the painless death at the the height of his intellectual prime which, to him, is so preferable to future senility or present exile.
Two posts ago I wrote about the difficulty we encounter, when reading Plato’s dialogs, distinguishing his teachings from those of Socrates. Because the Apology is an early dialog and the subject matter is Socrates himself, it may give the most accurate portrait of him of all the dialogs. The apology is a “transcript” of Socrates’ defense while on trial for his life. In the decade following his execution (in 399 BCE) a number of authors wrote their own accounts of the trial, and Plato probably wanted to create a definitive version to defend the memory of his teacher. Of course no record of the trial is completely accurate, if only because the Greeks had not yet invented the concept of a court reporter and thus had to rely on their memories of what was said.One of the most important things to remember when reading the Apology, is that Socrates really didn’t care whether he won or lost the trial. He was 70 years old and had already reached a place in his philosophy in which he no longer feared death,
For let me tell you, gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows when one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man; but people dread it as though they are certain that it is the greatest evil; and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. (29a-b)
Transcending fear, particularly the fear of death, is one of the great benefits of studying philosophy. Unmotivated by fear, Socrates was free to follow his own convictions–and possibly the urgings of his daemon–and seize on the trial as one more chance to educate the Athenians and set an example for his students by demonstrating his dialectic.
Thus Socrates, whose disclaimer that he doesn’t know how to speak in court sounds weak from a man who has already put the greatest sophists of the day in their place, spends most of the trial bringing up edgy theological ideas, such as when he calls on the god Apollo as a witness or when, in passing, he asserts that the Gods cannot lie. Both of these points required a number of unorthodox assumptions and would have made most of the jurors uncomfortable. Socrates then goes on to demonstrate his teaching method by cross examining Meletus which, to most of the jurors, would have been more a demonstration of how annoying he could be. Towards the end of his defense he declines to beg for the court’s mercy (a standard section in Athenian court practice) and explains away his lack of political service by saying that he just would have been gotten himself killed by the other Athenians had he involved himself,
The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone. (32a)
No one, least of all Socrates, is surprised when the court returns a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution recommends the death penalty. Athenian law allows the defendant to propose his own penalty, and everyone expects him to suggest exile, which the jury will probably accept. Instead, he proposes a trivially small fine, saying its the most he can afford. He then raises the number, after Crito and others offer to pay. Obviously, though, if Socrates’ friends are paying it won’t really be a punishment.
Socrates is sentenced to die and soon becomes the most famous martyr to philosophy in Western history (or perhaps the second most famous, depending how one classifies Jesus).At this point, let’s pause to contrast the careers of Socrates and Plato. Socrates “The Gadfly” was an outsider who was always as odds with, and ultimately executed by, the system. Plato was a respected citizen who died in his sleep at a party. Socrates’ teachings were primarily dialectical–dealing with ways to change and improve society. Plato’s were primarily metaphysical and idealistic and implied that one might as well accept society because the physical world wasn’t the real world anyway as well as advocating a world view that was ultimately static. Socrates discarded his (probably lower-middle) social class and became something else. Plato remained close to his aristocratic roots. Socrates conversed in the streets and at dinner parties. Plato taught at an a academy.
If we think of “philosopher” as a role in society then, in many ways, these two men are the original archetypes of the two kinds of philosopher that have historically been found in Western Civilization. For want of better terminology, I call them Outsiders and Academics, and I am currently writing a book about the Outsiders. While I would of course love it if you were to buy my book, when it comes out, everything you really need to know about the two can be found by studying Socrates and Plato. Outsiders like Socrates are the initiators: they force society to examine new ideas. Since societies don’t really like new ideas, the Outsiders usually suffer for it, financially and/or physically. The Academics, on the other hand, safe within legitimized social organizations such as universities, are the developers and guardians of the new ideas which were first introduced by outsiders. Occasionally, an academic is able to conceive and promulgate a truly original idea, but this is rare because the process they go through to earn their positions selects against innovators and because they have too much to loose to buck the system. Our civilization seems to need both types of philosopher to function.
Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates. Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle). At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.
Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask. When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance. Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted. On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions. We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.
Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,
I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.
We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato. The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made. Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates. His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors. After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead. Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.
The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education. The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier. The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly. To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy. As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.
“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions. We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books. On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education. At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints. The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman. Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates. More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach. The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.
In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy. This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.
Today this blog returns to the Greek theater with the works of Aristophanes. Aristophanes is the only writer of the Greek genre known as “Old Comedy” for whom complete plays have survived. Comedy, which tends to rely on pop culture references and current events, is often an ephemeral genre. The fact that Aristophanes’ plays still get laughs 2400 years after their first performance is the main reason they have survived so long. Like Shakespeare and Molière, he is one of an exclusive group of comedians whose work is timeless.The earliest extant Aristophanes play is The Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE when he was about 20 years old. Acharnia is a rural region of Attica which was particularly devastated by the Spartans’ annual raids during the Peloponnesian War, forcing its inhabitants to live as refugees within the walls of Athens. The Acharnians trivializes the Athenians’ reasons for going to war and criticizes the state for not making peace. The main character, Dicaeopolis, is an Athenian farmer who manages to negotiate a personal peace with Sparta, allowing him to live a comfortably hedonistic life, free from the hardships of war. Cameo characters of Euripides and Lamachus (whom we met in Thucydides as one of the generals of the Sicilian expedition) make appearances as Dicaeopolis’ next-door neighbors. In the final scene we see Dicaeopolis packing a food basket and preparing for a drinking party while Lamachus packs his arms and prepares to repel a Spartan attack (Euripides has long sense retired to an attic to bury himself in his poetry). At the close of the play Lamachus is carried back on stage, having been injured in battle, while a tipsy Dicaepolis wobbles in supported by two flute girls. It is simply incredible that a young playwright was allowed to ridicule state policy in time of war, and even make fun of a popular general. This is even more exceptional in that the play was performed in the Dionysian theater during one of the most important religious festivals of the year. It would be as if, at the height of World War II, the Church of England sponsored Benny Hill to write a play, put on in Westminster Abbey as part of the Christmas program, in which the main character mocked the government and made a personal peace with the Nazis. This would never have happened, even in England.
Admittedly, Aristophanes frequently ended up in hot water for his criticism of Cleon, but Cleon’s revenge took the form of private lawsuits, and he was never effective at shutting the playwright up. If anything, Cleon’s response seems to have inspired Aristophanes to greater heights of polemic. For example the next play we have, The Knights, is one long personal attack on Cleon.
Donald Kagan, in his open Yale lecture series, makes the point that the right to free of speech is one of the main factors that set the Athenian democracy apart from other Hellenistic governments. The Athenians considered it one of the most critical aspects to a functioning democracy. This is interesting, because when we think of the Athenian democracy, we tend to think of the Assembly. In fact, however, nearly every Greek city had an assembly, normally made up of all citizens of the Hopelite class and above. Only Athens had complete freedom of speech–in the assembly, on stage, and everywhere else. Contrast this to Sparta, where an Assembly vote was required to ratify declarations of war and some treaties. In these meetings the regular Spartans, who may have been mustered in ranks, were not allowed to speak. The council offered them a yes or no question and they voted by banging on their shields, with the louder side carrying the vote. In fact, Spartans did not even enjoy freedom of speech in private; Sparta was known for having one of the most efficient and ruthless secret police forces in the ancient world.
The United States today is more like Athens than Sparta. The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, and there is effectively no censorship of the theater. Even the the censors of broadcast media tend to be more concerned about obscenity than politics. This is a fairly recent state of events, though, particularly in war time. At any point from the Civil War to at least the end of the 1960’s a public performance criticizing the government during war would have landed the writer in federal prison. It was only with the backlash against McCarthyism, followed by the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s, that Americans began to take back their First Amendment rights.
Today, as in Classical Athens, freedom of speech is essential to Democracy. I have written in the past that Democracy, as a political system, seems to be on the wane. Once artists no longer have freedom of political speech, we will know for certain that it is finally gone.
After the introduction in Chapter 1, most of Thucydides first book is given over to examining the causes and events leading up to the war. While he describes several diplomatic incidents, Thucydides points out that,
The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth and power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still, it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of war.
The two Greek power blocks had essentially been fighting a cold war since shortly after the Persian conflict, and each had built up its military assets and financial reserves in anticipation of an eventual war. With both sides primed in this way, it didn’t require much to set them off. Despite this, the Spartans avoided declaring war as long as possible, even when pressed hard by their allies to do something about the Athenian situation. Thucydides blames this on the Spartan culture. As opposed to democratic Athens where risk-taking and quick decision were applauded, the Spartans are conservative and over-cautious. In 1:6 he puts this view in the mouth of a Corinthian envoy addressing the Spartan leaders,
The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.
This is certainly one possible interpretation. However, it is hard criticize the Spartans for wanting to avoid war, or trying to avoid conflict with an aggressive power that had many times their own military budget. The fact is that in our Western literary tradition, particularly since the renaissance, we tend to be heavily biased towards the Athenians. Mostly, this is attributable to the number of works by Athenian authors which have made it into our official Western Cannon. As later writers have striven to make a case for democracy as the one best form of government, an implicit narrative has emerged where the democratic, freedom loving Athenian philosophers fought nobly against the ranks of faceless, fascist, uncultured Spartans. Our high school history texts dwell on the Academy of Athens, but the brutal training of young men in Sparta.
History, as a genre, is about narrative. It straddles the line between literary and non-fiction, because all historic writing tells a story, yet must still conform to known facts.
Ultimately, it was neither the Spartans nor the Athenians who struck the first blows in the war, but some of the second-tier powers to whom they were allied. Things began to get tense when Corinth, allied to Sparta, and Corcyra, a neutral state, went to war over Epidamnus, which each claimed as a daughter colony. Corcyra soon managed to ally herself with Athens, who sent ships to support them. Only the rather convoluted rules of engagement given to the Athenian captains, prohibiting them from engaging Corinthian units unless they tried to land at Corcyra, allowed them to preserve the letter of their treaty with the Peloponnesian League. Reading this section, I was reminded of current events in the paper. The president of Estonia recently published an editorial in the Washington Post about how thrilled he is to have gotten into NATO just before Russia began aggressive operations in nearby Ukraine, because he knows the US and EU are now treaty bound to defend his country. He seems to be right, judging by the recent maneuvers of the 2nd Cavalry a few weeks ago as they helped Estonia “celebrate Estonian Independence Day” 300 yards from the Russian border. We can safely assume that, like those long ago Athenian officers, the US commanders in Estonia have instructions to make a show of force while doing everything they can to avoid actually fighting Russians.
Soon after the Corcyran affair, the several Athenian-aligned cities along the Macedonian border declared independence. Corinth, still bitter over the war with Corcyra, reinforced them. When Athens attacked, Corinth finally had the leverage they needed to convince Sparta that the peace was completely broken. While a formal declaration of war was nearly a year off, there was no longer any possibility of stopping the Peloponnesian War.
Today I leave behind my study of Greek tragedy and begin the second true history work of my Great Books project. Thucydides was a younger contemporary and sometime protégé of Herodotus. His book takes up roughly where Herodotus’ history leaves off, in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. His main focus is the Peloponnesian War, a long and bloody conflict which drew in the entire Greek world and ended the Golden Age of classical Greek Civilization.
Thucydides actually lived through the Peloponnesian War. As a young man in Athens he realized that the war was coming and, inspired by Herodotus and others, began gathering information for an eventual history. He served as a military officer in the early years of the war, eventually attaining the rank of strategos (general), but was cashiered and exiled when he failed to reach the important colony of Amphipolis in time to prevent its surrender. He spent most of the rest of his life observing the war from his country estate in Thrace. He finished the History shortly before his death in 395.
Thucydides was a more rigorous scholar than Herodotus, and was much more careful about comparing multiple accounts and evaluating the credibility of his sources. He had the advantage over Herodotus of being able to gather information in real time and communicate with people involved while their memories were still fresh. He also seems to have had a more analytical mind, unlike Herodotus who couldn’t resist writing down a good story even if it seemed a bit too fantastic to be true. His career as an officer also gave him a much better grasp of tactics and strategy than Herodotus.
A good example of this is shown in the first chapter of the history, in which he gives an overview of former wars. He makes a very cogent argument that the reason it took Agamemnon ten years to capture Troy was that his supply lines were non-existent. Therefore, after winning the initial beachhead, the Greeks had to detach large portions of their force to forage and even farm, so they never had enough men actually on the spot at Troy to make up for the defensive advantage the Trojans enjoyed because of their fortifications.
At times he is almost prescient in his conclusions. For instance, while trying to estimate the forces that Mycenaean Greece could have mustered for the Trojan war, he points out that the size of the ancient cities cannot be estimated purely on the basis of their surviving ruins,
Now Mycenae may have been a small place, and many of the towns of that age may appear comparatively insignificant, but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition of the magnitude of the armament. For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is.
Though history, the Agora of Athens has contained some of the most impressive ruins in the world, while Sparta has been hardly worth the stop for most tourists. J.A. McClymont, writing a travel narrative of Greece in 1906, says of Sparta,
The site of the ancient city is for the most part covered over with olive-groves and corn-fields and other vegetation. Traces of a large theater have been found, and there is a massive stone structure which goes by the name of Leonidas’ tomb. There are a few other remains, but none of any great interest.
Sparta, of course, defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and ruled the entirety of Greece up to the time of the Macedonian conquest.
Perhaps the most quoted line from Thucydides occurs in Book 1,
In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.
He was right about this, as well. One of our criteria for a Great Book is that it is timeless and speaks to people of many different periods. It is interesting that so many histories are found on most great Books lists. After all, as skilled a writer as Thucydides was, do we really care about a blow-by-blow account of a war that happened in Greece two and a half millennia ago? We study history not for facts, dates, and names, but to find general principles. People don’t change, nor do politics, diplomacy, or war. At the start of the history, Athens is enjoying an era of prosperity where culture, art, learning and literature have been allowed to thrive for several decades. They have come out of one major war with a much stronger economy and bigger navy than most of their allies. They feel, with some justification, that they are the masters of their world, and are becoming more than a little arrogant.
Does that sound familiar? Exactly the same things can be said for the United States after World War II. It remains to be seen if a new Sparta will manage to drag us down, ending our dominance in our own civilization. Perhaps we would all be wise to read Thucydides closely.
A Note On Translations:
Several English translations of Thucydides exist. The first of these was by Thomas Hobbes, whom I will be writing about later in my Great Books project. His translation, written in 17th century English, might be hard work for many readers, although it would be good practice for reading Leviathan later. Project Gutenberg has Crawley’s 1876 translation, which was the standard for nearly a century and is still perfectly readable, despite some Victorian vocabulary (e.g. “40 sail” instead of “40 ships”). My favorite translation so far is Rex Warner’s 1954 work, published by Penguin. Warner’s language is thoroughly modern and he moves much of Thucydides parenthetical comments into footnotes, on the theory that Thucydides would have used them if they had been available. This makes for a text the reads more smoothly than many current non-fiction books.
Unless otherwise noted, all of my quotations will be taken from the Crawley translation, since all my readers have access to it through Project Gutenberg.