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An Attic Dilemma
by William Mathie

In 1629 the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published a translation of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. He had decided to teach Thucydides English, he later wrote, so that he might serve as "a guide to rhetoricians". Hobbes praised Thucydides as the best of moral teachers precisely because he did not preach or teach except through the events he narrated so vividly as to make his readers spectators. Hobbes postponed the publication of his translation when he recalled that it was bloody wars and battles and not the art that directs armies and cities that interested most readers in history; he went ahead to have it published when he reflected that he ought to "content himself with the few and better sort of readers." Later what Hobbes found, or claimed to find in Thucydides became Hobbes's own teaching as expressed in the theoretical language of his Leviathan. In that form he supposed that what he had learned from Thucydides could become the basis for a public education that would once and for all overcome the internal diseases that convulse political life.
According to Clifford Orwin, a professor at the University of Toronto, Hobbes was right to admire Thucydides' marvellous account of the long and deadly contest between Athens and Sparta, "the twin peaks of Greekness", and the several other cities that became involved in that struggle as allies or victims of the two great antagonists. He was right to suppose that the permanent truth about the human and political condition was to be found in that account, but wrong to think that the truth in Thucydides' narrative might be turned into a systematic treatise and in this form furnish an effective remedy for the ills he had analysed. For Thucydides as for Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind is a state of war and for both it is the human passions that make it so, but the human escape from that condition can never be as permanent or general as Hobbes supposed.
The "possession for all time" that Thucydides had promised his readers was and is, on the one hand, the dark and permanent truth about the political and human condition he so brilliantly reveals in his "dialectical" account of the war of the Athenians and the Spartans; on the other hand, it is also the meaning of the episodes of nobility and tragedy that occasionally pierce that darkness. Orwin's aim is to make that possession ours not by transforming the Peloponnesian War into a systematic theory but by making us more adequate participants in the discussion Thucydides begins.
If the Peloponnesian War is not a potential theory of political science, neither is it a mere aggregation of observations from different stages in Thucydides' experience of the war. The apparent differences that have led some commentators to think this are rather part of the dialectical structure of the book. The reader who has reflected upon the events and speeches Thucydides furnishes as Thucydides intends them to be reflected upon will be a different person than the one who first entered into that exercise, certainly a chastened and perhaps a wiser one. Being dialectical, Thucydides' text makes certain interpretive demands upon us: that we carefully consider the speeches it contains so as to see both why and how they fit the speakers' situation and how they lead us beyond that situation partly by identifying the limits that the speakers' situations impose upon them; that we listen always for the soft voice of Thucydides in its several forms.
The theme of Orwin's contribution to the vast literature on Thucydides' work-Orwin cites some 230 articles and book-length studies of the Peloponnesian War-is, I believe, what his title names: The Humanity of Thucydides. But this is far from obvious. What seems rather to lie at the heart of Orwin's discussion is what he and others have called "the Athenian thesis". This thesis is articulated with more or less clarity and self-consciousness by the various statesmen (Athenians and others) whose speeches, as recreated by Thucydides, are the chief matter of this book. So employed, "the Athenian thesis" amounts to an understanding of politics that justifies the empire Athens had imposed upon its allies, not because its creation or defence is just but because there is so little room for justice in a world ruled by natural necessity-including the compulsions exercised over human actions by fear and the desire for glory or profit. As stated by the wisest of those statesmen and by Thucydides himself in the overall argument that is the Peloponnesian War, "the Athenian thesis" is an understanding and acceptance of the weakness of justice in the world, which frees us from the indignation that is provoked by the false hope that justice might prevail through divine if not human action, and alerts us to the brutal consequences that so often result from that indignation.
To a very considerable extent Orwin's book, or Thucydides' book as he interprets it, is an argument for the Athenian thesis, against any possible alternative. We are led to see that every city-or nation-is "constrained to pursue its own safety, honour, and profit to the detriment of those of other cities: only when its appetite for these is glutted can it reasonably (and thus justly) be expected to study justice." Big and little cities obey the thesis, though the big ones punish the little ones for doing so; all that makes the big ones more "odious" is their usual hypocrisy-Athens is the exception. To be sure, Sparta has been reluctant to expand her empire and insists that she acts in accordance with justice and piety, not necessity, but mostly her caution is a consequence of the internal threat to which her subdued slave population constantly exposes her. And her insistence that she is guided by justice leads her to a sometimes brutal identification of whatever serves her interests as just.
The main alternative to the Athenian thesis is then human piety, as expressed, for example, by the Athenians who are ready to think that the plague that afflicts them early in the course of the war is a divine punishment. They are ready to believe this because gods who could punish humans so terribly might also be appeased by human prayers. More generally, piety is for Thucydides, as Orwin understands him, the faith that there are sacred limits to what necessity imposes, or that there are some actions of apparent utility from which the gods permit and demand us to refrain. In one of the two oracles that Thucydides explicitly confirms in his own voice, the god shows his "wisdom" by denying that he has this power.
To many readers what could seem to discredit, if not disprove, the Athenian thesis is the dramatic dialogue in which its Athenian champions try in vain to persuade the leaders of tiny Melos to abandon their neutrality in face of the overwhelming power of Athens arrayed against them. We want to say that there must be nobility in the stubborn resistance of the Melians. And though they perish in defending their hopeless cause, we ask if the sympathy of the gods is not revealed in the disaster that soon afterwards overtakes Athens when it invades Sicily. This might be so were Thucydides finally a tragic poet, but he is something more than that, as Orwin shows. What the Melians finally rely upon are things unseen and improbable: the willingness of Sparta to assert itself to relieve a friend in distress, the existence of gods able to defend or at least vindicate all just causes. What leads to the terrible failure of the Athenians in Sicily is not the Athenian thesis or their audacity in its pursuit but the "Melian" piety of the Athenian demos who turn against the impious Alcibiades. He would have made their invasion a success, but instead they trust the noble and pious Nicias, who is more than anyone responsible for the defeat and destruction of the Athenian forces. Indeed, if the Athenians at Melos are culpable, it is chiefly because their boldness in defending their thesis exceeds their clarity in considering its implications. Their hope of persuading the Melians and their indignation when they fail to do so are more "Melian" than "Athenian".
But where then is the "humanity" of Thucydides? For Orwin, it does not lie in the refutation of the Athenian thesis, or in the vindication of piety as limiting that power, but in the wisdom that sees more fully the implications of that thesis and in the limited but real role of justice made possible precisely when we acknowledge its weakness. We approach that wisdom in the speech of the Athenian Diodotus, the subject of the longest analysis Orwin supplies.
Diodotus replies to the demagogue Cleon. Cleon has maintained that it is both just and expedient for the Athenians to stick by their resolve to wipe out the Mytilenians, who have now given up their attempted revolt against Athens. Diodotus argues that the Athenians should do what is most expedient whether just or not. With a subtlety that matches the speaker's, Orwin shows that Diodotus' appeal to expediency hides an appeal to justice and thereby enables the Athenian demos to act on the remorse it now feels for its initial harshness. In the first place, the power of those same passions to which other Athenians appeal to justify empire make it inexpedient, because impossible, to deter, and unjust to condemn, those who rebel against that empire: the Mytilenians should be spared. Second, it is neither in Athens' interest nor just to punish the Mytilenian people, as distinguished from its leaders, for they are entirely blameless, or ought anyway to be treated as if they were, in order to divide people from leaders in other cities that may revolt: the people, not the leaders, of Mytilene should be spared. How and how far justice may prevail is suggested by the fact that Diodotus makes both arguments but must ignore the first and agree to condemn the Mytilenian leaders in order to spare their followers.
Is the wisdom or humanity of Thucydides finally an expansion or correction of the Athenian thesis? The answer to this question seems to me less clear than much else in Orwin's fine discussion. If the Athenian thesis above all asserts that the usual motives of empire-safety, profit, and honour-also justify it, the wisdom of Thucydides insists upon distinguishing the truly and less truly necessary. What Thucydides shares with all proponents of the Athenian thesis is the denial of the belief of the pious that the gods can shelter us from necessity. On the other hand, unlike the champions of the thesis, he sees the qualified necessity of piety and the superiority of Sparta-in fact, though not in its self-understanding. But Orwin's account of the Spartan alternative is puzzling. He suggests, for example, that it follows from the fact that she grants primacy to justice and piety that Sparta treats her adversaries as if they must be unjust and worthy of punishment for not supporting her, that she prosecutes the war vigorously only when sure of her foe's injustice, and that she interprets her early reverses as chastisement for her own wrong-doing. Though the first or the second and third conclusions might be drawn from various interpretations of the primacy of justice, it is not clear how all of them could be derived from the same interpretation of it.
How far is a coherent account of political life possible within the Athenian thesis? Orwin says once that it was "necessary and proper" for the Athenians to suppress the Mytilenians, for they were threatening their neighbours, but quickly adds that he does not mean to blame the Mytilenians for this, since the Athenian thesis precludes blame, i.e., makes meaningless his previous statement. At another point, Orwin suggests that any difference between cities or individuals as more or less just or law-observing can only reflect differences in how far they are fearful of whatever punishments await the unjust. But if cities may act on this understanding externally, can they survive its application to individuals? Orwin knows they cannot, but still suggests this is the truth about politics. But he also thinks that the weakness of justice reflects upon its alleged goodness. Does the fact that its acceptance internally is suicidal not similarly reflect upon the truth of the Athenian thesis?
Finally, can we distinguish wisdom from folly in leaders without questioning the Athenian thesis? From the elevated perspective of Thucydides (and Diodotus) as understood by Orwin, one can see the need for leaders who neither share nor scorn popular piety. But apart from the "noble Nicias", we encounter several such leaders in the Peloponnesian War. How do we distinguish them? Is it the wisdom or humanity of Diodotus that distinguishes him from his demagogic rival? Both, Orwin tells us, know that trust in the speakers outweighs reason in public deliberation and each gains trust for himself by cultivating distrust in his rival. Orwin shrewdly identifies what Diodotus and his rival and all democratic leaders then and now must exploit: the natural temper of the led, who at once distrust their leaders to the extent that they would rather reject good advice than think they have been hoodwinked, and long for leaders they can trust. A possibility he barely suggests is that the superiority of Diodotus' solution to this problem is moral as well as rhetorical, that it is linked to his original taunt that those who attack the very idea of public deliberation must doubt if they can persuade the many to do what is disgraceful. How far the Athenian thesis is the truth about politics may depend upon this possibility.

William Mathie is a professor of political science at Brock University in Saint Catharines, Ont.


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