MY TOP SHELF – 42 – THUCYDIDES

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides

Everyman, 1910; translated by Richard Crawley; rebound in quarter navy calf with gold embossed tangerine title on French blue boards.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.

The war described in this great work of history is the war between Athens and Sparta about four centuries before the birth of Christ.  This is sometimes said to have been the time of the flowering of Greek civilization.  We need to bear two things steadily in mind.  There was no such thing as a Greek nation – there was only a bunch of city-states generally at war with a number of the others, and held together only by an unashamed arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world who were dismissed as ‘barbarians’.  Secondly, the relevant notion of ‘civilization’ may be one that exists mainly in the heads of Oxbridge dons who have never been out in the real world.

The Greeks treated outsiders with contempt and their women as doormats; they routinely buggered young men; their economy was based on slavery; their religion involved sacrifices to very personal gods who treated humanity like wanton boys treat flies; Athens ran a protection racket that it called an empire, and it did so ruthlessly; the Athenians were saints beside the Spartans, who were a military caste that would make the Prussians look like a Lutheran Sunday school.

The life of a Spartan was devoted to the State; this was required in order to hold down a conquered people called helots; if a child survived eugenic testing, it was consigned to the care of a state-officer at the age of seven; at the age of twenty he went into barracks; as part of his military training, he would go out and hunt and kill helots.  To Plato, the Spartan approach was close to ideal, and in The Republic he set out a blueprint for the fascist state.  A war between Athens and Sparta was likely to be very ugly and terminal to the ability of the warring states to hold out foreign predators.

This great work of history commences in this way.

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past.  (All citations are from Rex Warner in the Penguin version.)

In the course of a debate at Sparta at the start of the war, the Athenian envoy says:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so – security, honour, and self-interest…it has always been a rule that the weak should  be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power….now, after calculating your own interests, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong.

That is the law of the jungle, and it is not now espoused by Athenian envoys in Berlin.  The Athenians display the same realpolitik much later in the war in the debate over Melos.

We on our side will use no fine phrase saying we have the right to our empire because we defeated the Persian….since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

The people of Melos accept that ‘you force us to leave justice out of account and confine ourselves to self-interest.’  They just want to be friends.

No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.

Hitler, Stalin and company thought like that – exactly?  But did they ever say so in public?  Athens’ war-time leader, Pericles, riffed on the imperial theme in one of his orations.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.  Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some who in a mood of sudden panic actually think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do.  Your empire is now like a tyranny; it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go….those who are politically apathetic can only survive if they are supported by people who are capable of taking direct action.  They are quite valueless in a city which controls an empire, though they would be safe slaves in a city that was controlled by others.

In this brutal world according to Darwin, could a democracy – another question – run an empire?  Not so, according to Cleon, in words that might be born in mind by those regimes that have to stand tough to hold down subject peoples.

Personally, I have had occasion often enough to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others….because fear and conspiracy play no part in your personal lives, you imagine this is so with your allies, and you do not see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision, and when you give way to your own feelings of compassion, you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them love you any more.  What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercized over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests to do them a favour; your leadership depends on your superior strength and not upon their goodwill.

The Spartans did not bother with so much talk.  The author remarks that ‘Spartan policy with regard to helots had always been almost entirely based on the need for security.’  One time they announced the helots could choose those who had done the most for Sparta implying that freedom would be theirs.  About 2000 were selected and they put on vine leaves.  But the Spartans reasoned that the ones who showed most spirit and stepped up to claim their freedom were the most dangerous to Sparta – so they killed them ‘and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed.’

They were the same in war.  The enemies of the people of Plataea persuaded the Spartans to put to each man in the defeated city: ‘Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in this war?’  (Couthon had a similar question during the Terror.)  ‘As each man replied ‘No’, he was taken away and put to death, no exceptions being made.  Not less than 200 Plataeans were killed in this way…The women were made slaves’.  But that was war, and in war, Athens was no better.

When the author deals with the coup of the oligarchs near the end of the war, he records that the Four Hundred appeared accompanied by 120 ‘Hellenic youths’ who looked after the rough stuff, the precursors of the Brownshirts.  Fashions rarely change for fascists.

But it is in describing the civil war at Corcyra that this historian shows writing of astonishing power.

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…..

In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards….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…

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 one way of saying that you were a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an 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.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership….Revenge was more important than self-preservation.

Has there ever been a better picture of Paris under the Terror or of Berlin under the Nazis?  But our author is not finished.

Love of power, operating through greed and personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils…It was in Corcyra that we saw 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 rather than wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, who wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions carried out by men not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept 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 under 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 he pernicious power of envy, men would not have so exalted vengeance above innocence, and profit above justice.

Those who have trouble coming to grips with the barbarous denial of humanity achieved under people like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis, Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler can accept this insight into our perilously fragile condition at the rim of a live volcano from this Greek historian writing these words thousands of years ago.  This book, as it seems to me, is one of the great breakthroughs for the human mind.

 

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