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Thucydides is the author of a single book, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. He is not generally thought of as a political philosopher, and for obvious and weighty reasons. Not only does he never use the term "political philosophy," but he doesn't address, at least not explicitly, its universal questions. Though he tells us what he regarded as the best Athenian regime during his lifetime, he never speaks of the best regime simply; and though he praises several men for their excellence, he never discusses the best or most excellent way of life as such. Moreover, he presents the results of his "quest for the truth" (I 20.3) as an account of a single political event, the twenty-seven-year war through which the Spartans and their allies brought down the Athenian empire. For these reasons, one is inclined to classify him as a historian. Yet unlike his predecessor Herodotus, Thucydides never uses the word "history." Nor, in fact, is his theme limited to the one particular war. He claims that his study of it will be useful for those who seek clarity, not only about the war, but more generally about the past, and even about the future, which in his view will again resemble the past that he has brought to light. Accordingly, he dares to call his work "a possession for all time" (I 22.4). Since, therefore, he sees his theme as a particular event that reveals the comprehensive and permanent truth, at least about human affairs, his focusing on that one event does not entitle us to regard him simply as a historian. Yet it is still hard to think of a man who says so little about universals, who, indeed, hardly even discusses his own claim for his work's universal significance, as a philosopher or a political philosopher. Perhaps it is best, then, instead of attempting to classify his thought, to turn to a closer look at the book's most distinctive features.
Thucydides' opening sentence tells us that he began to write about the Peloponnesian War from its outset, since he expected it to be a great one and the most noteworthy war there had ever been. He adds that the war did prove to be the "greatest motion," or change, that had ever occurred, at least among the Greeks. To support his claim, he observes that the antagonists were at a peak of wealth and power and also that the war was unequaled in the sufferings it occasioned (I 1.1–2, 23.1–2). But Thucydides does not restrict himself to these initial arguments to persuade us of the war's greatness or importance. More immediately compelling is the impact of the work as a whole, with its austere but vivid narrative that makes us witnesses to the actions and the sufferings it records. We feel the war's greatness because we feel its presence. This feeling is heightened still further through Thucydides' inclusion of political speeches, in direct discourse, by the participants themselves. We seem to hear the speakers as they argue in the name of justice or call upon the gods, as they appeal to the love of freedom or of imperial glory, and as they warn of the terrible consequences of mistaken policies. These speeches indeed make the war seem present to us. But, still more importantly, they speak to our own moral and political concerns, and they call upon us to respond to the war, as the antagonists themselves did, in their light. The order of the accompanying narrative, and its choice of emphases, are also designed to appeal to these concerns. And it is primarily in this way, by fostering our own moral and political concerns, that Thucydides makes us receptive to his claim for the war's greatness and its universal significance.
The speeches in Thucydides' book, with their moral seriousness and their urgency, call upon us to take sides for or against them, and yet every reader must be struck by the contrast between the outspokenness of these speeches and Thucydides' own reticence. He does, to be sure, make some explicit judgments. But for the most part he does not tell us what he would have us think of the warring cities and their leaders, or of the many speeches and actions that he relates. Now this silence does not mean that he is indifferent, or that he no longer responds to men and events, as he encourages us to do, with approval and disapproval. It shows, rather, that he is a skillful political educator. For the moral seriousness that he fosters in us remains immature, it does not sufficiently help us to promote the well-being of our communities, which it necessarily wants to promote, unless it is guided by or culminates in political wisdom. And since political wisdom is primarily good judgment about unprecedented, particular situations, it is not so much a subject matter to be taught as a skill to be developed through practice. Accordingly, instead of telling us whether or not he approves of a given policy, Thucydides asks us to make our own judgments, and then to subject them to the testing that the war provides. He thus lets us hear speeches in the assemblies both for and against some course of action, and like the assemblymen we must take our own stand, one way or the other, without explicit guidance. Only subsequently, and in stages, as in political life itself, do we learn the aftermath of the actions that were in fact taken; and even then it is primarily up to us to weigh their true influence and to make the appropriate inferences as to their wisdom. To be sure, Thucydides' selection and ordering of narrative details, along with his explicit judgments, whose weight is all the greater for their rarity, help us to find our bearings in these reflections, to such a degree in fact that his translator Hobbes could say that "the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept." But these helps become fruitful only when we accept the book's challenge to take positions of our own and to learn from our own mistakes. Indeed, an introductory statement such as this one would be worse than useless if it were to convey the impression of being a way to avoid this labor.
Now it is true, as we have already noted, that Thucydides' reticence extends not merely to particular questions, such as those regarding policy, but also, and especially, to universal ones, and this despite the fact that the speakers in his book make many and contradictory claims about the most important of these matters. But here too, we shall see, his reserve is not a sign of indifference but, rather, an important element in his education of his readers. For mistaken positions with regard to universal questions can result in a pattern of erroneous particular judgments, and Thucydides' narrative helps his attentive readers to notice, and thereby to overcome, some of these deep-seated sources of error. In addition, the arguments themselves by which the various speakers support their universal claims often contain inconsistencies, which reveal difficulties in the speakers' own positions. If we think through these difficulties, as our own concern with the matters at issue compels us to do, they point in the direction of a more adequate understanding. On occasion, Thucydides does indicate his own answers to these universal questions, in part by criticizing the mistaken views of some of the leaders in the war. But even in these cases, where he explicitly guides our thinking, he first encourages us to take our own positions, which may well differ from his, and to approach his perspective through our own experience with the book. Moreover, his explicit judgments are always incomplete, and they raise further questions, which we must answer on our own.
After his brief introductory account of the emergence and growth of Greek civilization, Thucydides begins his narrative of the war itself by looking at its causes. In his view the truest cause, though it was least manifest in speech, was that the Athenians, by becoming great and thus arousing fear, compelled the Spartans to go to war. But he adds that he will also record the causes, or rather—as we may also translate the same Greek word—accusations, that were openly spoken (I 23.5–6; cf. I 88). Indeed, Thucydides seems to devote far more attention to these openly spoken causes than to the one he regards as truest. This impression is somewhat misleading, however, since these open accusations concerned instances of the very growth of Athenian power that Thucydides saw as the war's truest cause. But the main justification for his procedure is that it helps us to feel the impact of the war's beginnings as they actually appeared, openly and in public. If these appearances should be deceptive, as indeed Thucydides says they were, his presentation encourages us to confirm this fact for ourselves rather than simply accepting it on his authority. Moreover, it is only by beginning from these simplest appearances that we can properly appreciate the primary theme of Thucydides' study of the war, namely justice, or justice in its relation to compulsion.
The first accusation of the war was an accusation against Athens by Corinth, a naval power like Athens itself and an important member of the Spartan or Peloponnesian alliance. The Corinthians charged that Athens, by helping the Corinthian colony Corcyra in a sea battle against them, had violated the truce that bound the Spartan and Athenian alliances (I 55.2; cf. I 44). The Athenians had recently entered into a defensive alliance with Corcyra, which was threatened by war with Corinth, despite Corinthian warnings that this would provoke a general war, for they believed that the war was coming in any event, and they didn't want to allow Corcyra, with its large navy, to come under Corinthian control. Corcyra's location on the coastal route to Italy and Sicily was also a factor in the Athenians' decision, though we are not told whether this impressed them more from a defensive or an offensive point of view. Soon after this first collision with Corinth there arose the occasion for a second Corinthian charge against Athens, to which the Athenians responded with a countercharge of their own. The sea battle against Corcyra had ended disappointingly for Corinth, and the Athenians feared that the Corinthians would retaliate by persuading Potidaea, a city they had colonized but which was now an ally of Athens, to revolt from the Athenian alliance. Accordingly, Athens ordered the Potidaeans to tear down one of their walls, to give them hostages, and to expel their Corinthian magistrates. The Potidaeans, however, refused these demands, which prompted them instead to carry out the revolt that the Corinthians had indeed been urging, and that Sparta had also encouraged by promising to invade Athenian territory if Athens should attack them. The Corinthians sent an army to help defend Potidaea; and when the Athenians in turn dispatched a large attacking force, there was another battle in which Athenians and Corinthians, despite the general truce, fought against one another. When the Athenians, who were the victors in this battle, proceeded to lay siege to Potidaea, Corinth accused Athens of besieging its colony, with Corinthian troops inside. The Athenians, for their part, charged Corinth with having brought about the rebellion of one of their tribute-paying allies and with having fought openly on its side (I, 66).
Soon after the siege had begun at Potidaea, the Corinthians summoned their allies to Sparta, where they accused the Athenians of having broken the truce and of doing injustice to the Peloponnese. The Spartans themselves invited the allies to make their allegations of Athenian injustice before a Spartan assembly, and we learn that a number of cities had charges of their own against Athens. The Corinthian speech at this assembly, which Thucydides presents in its entirety, argues that Athenian actions at Corcyra and Potidaea are merely the most recent instances of a long-continued policy designed to enslave all of Greece. Many cities, the Corinthians say, have already been enslaved by Athens, and now even Sparta's allies are being plotted against and deprived of their freedom. To help convey a sense of the danger to Greece, the Corinthians give a description of the bold, resourceful, and acquisitive Athenian character, a description that they summarize by saying that the Athenians "are of such a nature as neither to have rest themselves nor to allow it to the other human beings" (I 70.9). The Corinthians conclude by urging the Spartans to invade Attica before it is too late to help Potidaea and the other cities. Later, the final speaker at this assembly, a Spartan ephor, also urges his fellow citizens not to betray their allies to the Athenian aggressors. The Spartan assembly then resolved, overwhelmingly, that the Athenians had broken the truce and were committing injustice, and they prepared to ask the allies to declare war against them in common (I 87.2–4). It appears, then, that the cause of the war was Athenian injustices, and the threat of future injustices, against the Greeks and, in particular, against Sparta's allies. And this impression was shared, Thucydides tells us, by the great preponderance of the Greek world, whose sympathies at the beginning of the war inclined toward Sparta, especially since it claimed to be engaging in a war of liberation (II 8.4–5). Even the god at Delphi promised the Spartans that he would assist them, whether called or uncalled, thus suggesting that the Spartan war effort was to be in the service of punishing Athenian injustice (I 118.3; cf. II 54.4–5).
Thucydides has already told us, however, that Sparta's decision to go to war, and to try to crush Athenian power, was prompted less by the allies' accusations against Athens than by its own fear. Moreover, his narrative of the fifty-year interval between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars tends to support this claim, at least to the extent that it shows Sparta's failure seriously to oppose the emergence and rapid growth of an Athenian empire (I 89.1–118.2). In keeping with this, the Corinthian speech at Sparta is at least as much a complaint about Spartan indifference as it is an accusation against Athens, and the Corinthians even threaten to desert the alliance if Sparta should continue to do nothing. Especially in the light of this threat, it does seem to be more a fear of losing their allies than a desire to protect them, let alone to save the rest of Greece from Athenian tyranny, that brings about the change from the Spartans' habitual reluctance to go to war. And this impression will be confirmed by subsequent Spartan behavior during the war—in particular, by their treatment of Plataea and their agreement with Athens to accept the Peace of Nicias. Yet however little of generosity there may have been in Sparta's motives for declaring war, Athenian aggression would still appear to have been responsible for its outbreak.
The case against Athens is weaker than it appears, though, in at least one respect. Though the Corinthians and the Spartans accused the Athenians of having violated the truce between them, this aspect of their argument seems to have been quite unsound. The Athenians' defensive alliance with Corcyra, however provocative, was not clearly forbidden under the truce; and even the Corinthians never claimed that Athenian harshness toward Potidaea was in violation of it. Moreover, the Athenians offered, in conformity with the truce, to submit all controversies to binding arbitration, which the Spartans neither offered nor accepted. The Athenian leader Pericles relied largely on these facts to persuade the Athenians not to yield to last-minute Spartan ultimatums (I 78.4, 140.2, 144.2). Even the Spartan king Archidamus, who opposed the war in the Spartan assembly, acknowledged that it was unlawful to go to war against a city that offered arbitration; and he warned that Sparta, if it did declare a war, would be regarded as having begun it. Later, in fact, when the war was going badly for them, the Spartans themselves came to believe that by their refusal of arbitration, and other such offenses, they had been guilty of first breaking the truce and thus starting the war (I 81.5; VII 18.2; cf. IV 20.2).
Thucydides, however, does not endorse this Spartan belief in their own guilt, nor the exoneration of Athens that it implies. According to him, we recall, the Athenians "compelled" the Spartans to go to war because of the fear that their growing power inspired in them. Though the Spartans' truest motive for waging war hardly deserves our praise, neither can they be blamed for having broken the truce, since they were compelled to do so (cf. IV 98.5–6). Their fear of Athens left them with no reasonable alternative, or so at least they had strong cause to believe. And we return, then, to our first impression that Athens, rather than Sparta, was guilty of having brought on the war.
Excerpted from History of Political Philosophy by Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey. Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Posted May 25, 2006
Strauss edits a wonderful book with essays on many thinkers/political philosophers. John Calvin and Martin Luther even made the list. Don't ignore this great study aide.
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