Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I couldn’t let what I found around the close of book five slide. Near the end of that book, Athens makes an expedition against the small island of Melos. But before they invade, they send a few representatives to the islands to negotiate with the Melians. Here’s how, near the beginning of the ensuing dialogue, the Athenians justify the pending invasion:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of a wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That sounds an awful lot like what Thrasymachus tells Socrates in Plato’s Republic: that justice “is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

The Athenians attacked Melos in 416 BCE, Socrates drank the hemlock in 399, and Plato wrote the Republic somewhere around 380. I don’t know if Thrasymachus’ argument was supposed to be representative of popular Athenian opinion; nor do I know how much of Socrates’ positive moral realist argument in the Republic actually came from Socrates, and wasn’t just Plato putting words in the mouth of his mentor and surrogate. But if we take Thucydides’ transcription of events as evidence that Athenians were largely Thrasymachans, and if we take Plato at his word regarding Socrates’ metaethical beliefs, then all of this adds a new shade to popular understandings of the trial of Socrates.

The beliefs that got Socrates killed are generally understood to be negative beliefs. He is said to have questioned the gods, or challenged democratic rule. But maybe his moral realist critique also got him in some trouble. Applying Socratic standards, Athenian behavior during the Peloponnesian War certainly doesn’t look all that stellar. Maybe the shame of the Athenians helped doom Socrates.

But hey, what do I know? I’m no classicist, and this is just uninformed speculation. I’d like to hear from some people who know more about this.

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Breakdown of the Global Order: Thucydides, 1.50 – 1.88
May 10, 2011

Apologies for the length of my introductory post on Thucydides. This next one is a lot shorter and requires much less setup.


I’m too lazy to rifle through 800 pages for the relevant quote, but I seem to recall that somewhere in his landmark work Diplomacy Henry Kissinger argued that the global order of the Cold War era was more stable than people realized — indeed, more stable than the global order of the early 90s. That’s because a bipolar world is one in which states tend to gravitate towards one of two massive powers. Contrast that with pre-WWI Europe, a multipolar order maintained by a tangled network of alliances. That network is what allowed the chain reaction which turned a regional conflict into a continent-wide slaughter. A Cold War scenario lacks those complications; there are still wars, but they don’t go global.

On a superficial level, Greece circa 435 BCE looks a lot like the world of the Cold War and not very much like pre-WWI Europe. You’ve got two great powers, roughly evenly matched, and the vast majority of the other Greek city states are allied with either one or the other. Two states as strong as Athens and Sparta are inevitably going to compete with one another — as the USSR and the US did — but not on a scale that would sink the rest of the city states into conflict.

Of course, we all know how that turns out. Because as much as Ancient Greece looks like a bipolar order, it’s a lot more tangled and porous than you would expect. Case in point: Potidae.

Potidae is officially an Athenian client state, but they also have deep ties to Corinth. And while Corinth and Athens theoretically have a treaty, they just finished fighting a massive naval battle over the city-state of Corcyra. To make matters worth, Corinth is a member of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League.

By now you should see how the dominoes are stacked. And the next one to fall is Potidae. The Athenians, not wanting the Potidaeans to defect to Corinth’s side, order them “to raze the wall on the Pallene side of the city, to give hostages, to dismiss the Corinthian magistrates, and in future not to receive the persons sent from Corinth annually to succeed them.” When Potidae demurs, Athens sends a military force. But by using the stick instead of the carrot, they only hasten Potidae’s switch over to Team Corinth.

So all of a sudden the Athenians and Corinth (and Corinth’s ally Macedonia) are fighting a war over the whole region surrounding Potidae. And while that’s going on, Corinth goes to Sparta to urge that they get involved as well.


Back in February the foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead argued that Thucydides — long considered the patron saint of the realist school — was in fact anti-realist in very fundamental ways. He wrote:

Realism in political science is often tied to the idea that the behavior of states is determined by the structure of the international system and the balance of forces within it. In a famous analogy, realist theory takes states as “billiard balls” knocked about the geopolitical pool table by impersonal and predictable forces. Another analogy calls them “black boxes”; the analyst of international relations doesn’t need to know what is going on inside the black box in its domestic politics in order to understand what the box is doing.

If we define realism this way, then Thucydides isn’t a realist. In fact, he’s the greatest possible enemy of this kind of theoretical realism. He mocks it, spits in its face, and gleefully dances on its grave.

For Thucydides, the internal politics of a state are crucial to understanding and anticipating the policies of that state. Sparta has a set of interests that are not dictated by the nature of the international system so much as by the structure of Spartan society.

And in fact that’s exactly what we see when Corinthian emissaries demand a formal declaration of war from the Spartan assembly. King Archidamus of the Spartans urges caution, suggesting that his countrymen should prepare for war while delaying it further. If Sparta were a simple tyranny like some of its neighbors, he could just make it so, and we might remember the Peloponnesian War very differently. But he must defer to the assembly — the masses — and they vote for war, “because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them.”

And just like that we’re in the midst of the Peloponnesian War proper.

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Thucydides, 1.24-1.49
May 9, 2011

Thucydides, whose history provides many of the...

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Hey guys, I’m back. Sorry for the extended radio silence.

For at least the next month or so, I’m going to be dropping the occasional post about passages from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which I’m told is an essential read for anyone who aspires to make a serious study of international relations. If anyone wants to follow along, I’ll be working from The Landmark Thucydides, which was recommended to me by several people and seems to be the most comprehensive edition out there. For those who are unfamiliar with Thucydides aren’t following along, I’ll provide enough context to take each post individually.

I’m starting at book one, chapter 24 (the chapters each run about a paragraph long) because the first 23 chapters are all setup. Called the Archaeology, they sketch out a brief history of Ancient Greece prior to when the real story begins. Here’s what you need to know: in 449, the Greeks finally beat back the Persians, who for decades had been looking to make Ancient Greece part of their vast empire. The two city-states leading the Greek resistance are the martial totalitarian state of Sparta and the proto-democracy Athens. Once the war ends, these two cities are the great powers of Greece, and nearly all of the other states become dependents of one or the other. The Spartans stand at the head of an international institution called the Peloponnesian League, whereas the Athenians reign over something closer to a traditional empire. And whereas the Spartans have the most fearsome infantry force in all of Greece, the Athenians’ exercise military dominance through their massive navy.

By 435, war between Athens and Sparta is inevitable. Thucydides — an Athenian — tells us that Athens is more powerful than Sparta can tolerate, and they are already getting ready for a protracted struggle unlike any the Greek world has ever seen.

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