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Thucydides Book III: Class Conflict and Politics

The main war that Thucydides describes is between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League, but there is another, even larger conflict that rages throughout:  a class war between the aristocratic class and the new class of plutocrats.

In democratic Athens the plutocrats, wealthy commercial men like Cleon the leather merchant and Nicias the silver mine magnate, are in charge.  There is a direct relationship between wealth and political power.  The Athenians have found democracy so much to their liking that they have forced most of their colonies and client states to adopt democracy on the Athenian model.

Paulus voor de leden van de Areopagus in Athene, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The Aeropagus in Athens, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

In Sparta the situation is very different.  The old military class, the Hómoioi or “Peers”, has relaxed a bit from the iron discipline handed down from Lycurgus, but they still rule.  Sparta is an oligopoly and her leaders are born into a life devoted to the service of the state.  When they speak of their fight for “freedom” they are generally referring to the freedom to no be forced into the Athenian system.

In the rest of the Hellenic world, there is still open conflict between the forces of democracy and oligopoly.  In many cities, the two factions are perpetually on the verge of civil war–a situation which both the Athenians and Spartans happily exploit.  In the smoldering trouble-spot of Corcyra, for example, the democratic faction has recently seized control and a group exiled aristocrats have been waging a guerrilla war on their own people, becoming little better than pirates.  Now, in Book III, the Corcyran situation reaches a moment of crises and a chaotic revolution breaks out.  The democratic faction called for help and Athens sends ships.  However, a nearby Spartan force also hears of the chaos and sails to Corcyra to aid their own partisans.  A confusing battle results in which the Spartans come our somewhat ahead but decide to withdraw.  The democratic faction uses the confusion of the battle to slaughter all of the remaining aristocrats and the city briefly descended into anarchy as men grasped the opportunity to eliminate private enemies.

According to Thucydides, the Corcyran revolt is the first of many over the next few years,

So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being every where made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

Political affiliations become even more important than ties of blood, but politics are based on a desire to cease power that could not have been satisfied if the whole ecumene were not in the grips of war.  While the various revolutionary leaders might espouse the causes of either democracy or oligarchy, all are mainly motivated by personal greed and ambition.

Class warfare was hardly a new phenomenon in Greece.  The Athenian democracy itself had been born from the reforms of Solon, a compromise intended to restore order after a massive wealth imbalance had created intolerable tensions between the commoners and aristocrats,

The poor, finding their situation worse with each year–the government and the army in the hands of their masters, and the corrupt courts deciding against them–began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth.  The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them, and angry at the challenges to their savings and property, invoked ancient laws and prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established order, all religion, and all civilization.” Durant, The Life of Greece p. 112

Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Solon van Athene, Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Now, in the 4th century, there is no compromise.  The plutocrats and oligarchs fight it out.  Eventually, the oligarchs win, but only after impoverishing themselves so much in wealth and numbers that the whole country is easy prey for the Macedonian conquest a few generations later.  The first great age of democracy ends with the Peloponnesian war and the world will not see another true democracy until the Renaissance.

Class conflict never truly stopped, however, rising to the forefront of history whenever real or perceived inequalities became too extreme.  As I continue these notes on the Great Books, we will see that many of the Great Thinkers wrote about social class, class consciousness, and class warfare; these concepts seem critical to any understanding of civilization itself.

Nowadays, as has periodically been the case, Western society is again under extreme social tension because of wealth inequality between plutocrats and proletarians, to say nothing of the reactionary flailings of a bourgeoisie feeling a marked decrease in its size and influence.  Perhaps studying history in the form of the Great Books will hold the key to finding a wise compromise like the reforms of Solon, rather than plunging our society into decades of internecine warfare and revolution like the Peloponnesian Wars.

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.