Some random thoughts.

It is sometimes interesting to go outside after these calls and look to the sky (“The same sky they saw.” as Andre pointed out to us a while back) and try to imagine what Pericles actually did think about before he gave that 2nd speech in Book II.  Perhaps he was as Paul said, a predecessor of Freud.  None the less, I am constantly amazed to be reminded that the limitations the Greeks faced were physical or technological, not mental.

When they went to war they had to consider doing so in places where they could get food.  They could never carry enough for the expeditions, and in fact did not know how long each may take.  They at times camped out and tried to wait out the inhabitants (think years) if they could not conquer through siege.  Their planning always must have considered the physical limitations, such as making sure they would be able to get enough food for lots of soldiers where they were going.  This was probably part of what Thucydides means by “ravage”.

But mentally, they were very advanced, and Thucydides is presenting us with the cream of the crop.  These are men that understood not just how to wage war, but also how to manage large quantities of people, to rule nations, and especially how to influence other men’s minds.  But the men’s minds that they are trying to influence are unique, as well.  They relied on a more primitive science to understand the world around them, and had various versions of deity to worship, but they did have a very strong sense of ethics that they felt connected them to their gods.  I do not know how they regarded death or an afterlife, but they held much respect for their ancestors and felt obliged to live up to their ancestors commitments, as well as their own.  They also seemed to place a lot of value in honor rightfully earned.

On page 111 – “For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted…”

The people of Sparta and Athens were probably far more alike than the differences we are trying to see.  I wonder what someone will think 2000 years from know if they read about World War II and try to find the differences between Germany and America.  Will they look at the countries or specific people?  The psychology of Hitler’s speeches?  And who for America? The atrocities?  Both sides committed horrors?  Allies?  National pride?  Honor?

Would the world be different today had Athens won?  How so?

Sorry, my mind is kind of wandering here but I left the call with many thoughts swirling and each led to another.


06. January 2009 by Arrian
Categories: Commentary, Thucydides | Tags: , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. <p>Hey,</p><p>What a great conversation. I continue to be impressed with how active this group of readers is – the original reading group, which is now reading Arisototle, has a lot to learn from you.</p><p>Let me add the following -</p><p>1. cultural relativism vs. shared culture<br>I’d like to focus on the point that Dan made before bringing in the Germany/America comparison – i.e. that while Athens and Sparta were clearly different in the ways Mark and others have outlined, they shared a broader Greek culture. </p><p>The people of Sparta and Athens were probably far more alike than the differences we are trying to see. </p><p>I don’t think he’s making a relativistic point – just the opposite. He’s making the important point that they shared a broad cultural tradition – that they were more alike than we might imagine. They were certainly more alike than either one was like Persia – though I must qualify that statement by saying that there is a lot that we do not know about the Persians because they did not leave the written record that the Greeks, especially the Athenians, left. Certainly even the Persians shared a general level of development with the Greeks – and they both emerged after the introduction of agriculture 9,500 years earlier and the introduction of civilizations about 4,000 years earlier.</p><p>2. Where would I rather live: Athens or Sparta?<br>The answer to Henry’s question may turn on whether you are male or female. In Athens, the women of the privileged classes lived difficult, sheltered (oppresive?) lives. Their Spartan counterparts, however, were comparatively free. </p><p>Professor Cartledge is an expert on Sparta. It’s worth asking him more about the two cities – how they differed and how they were similar. </p><p>Assuming I’m a citizen male, then knowing what I know today, I would choose Athens hands down. </p><p>3. The cause of the Athenian War?<br>Responding to Dan’s latest note below, I’d like to clarify at least what I believe Thucydides thought caused the war. Thucydides himself believed that the cause of the war – the underlying cause not the proximate cause – was the imbalance of power between Athens and Sparta. </p><p>You may remember Thucydides powerful words in the Introduction to Book 1 – 1.23:</p><p>"The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarms which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable."</p><p>Note that Thucyidedes says that the real cause is "kept out of sight." </p><p>Thucydides makes two important political/methodological contributions here. </p><p>The first is to clarify the difference between underlying or "real" causes and the more proximate "artificial" causes. This distinction has made a significant impact on western scholarship for thousands of years including right up to Jared Diamond’s great "Gums, Germs and Steel."</p><p>Second, his comment about the unchecked growth of Athenian power reflected Thucydides’ philosophy on the "balance of power" – one of the most widely influential doctrines from this great book. You may or may not agree with the "balance of power" doctrine but it is important to see that Thucydides was the first to so clearly write about it and explain it. It’s why his book is still taught in International Relations courses. Some politicians today right now are thinking "balance of power" and making decisions based on this framework. For this alone his book is worth reading.</p><p>4. Athens won the war?<br>I cannot disagree with Mark on this point. And this point ties back to Jim’s reference to "custom is king" – the Pindar quote from Herodotus (which, by the way, is one of my favorite quotes of that great work). </p><p>Athens made the bigger and more lasting *cultural* contribution to western civilization. Athenian theater, philosophy, history, art and, of course, democracy are still with us today. Sparta has an undeserved reputation for being "spartan." Recent scholarship shows that there was more art and more non-military culture than we realize. Nonetheless, Athens is clearly the Greek city we look to with our hearts and minds.</p><p>Yet Athens was one of 200+ Greek city states and its culture was influenced and shaped by all of them and by their surrounding civilizations, including, of course the Persians.</p><p>5. Beware the Persians<br>As you read Thucydides, never forget the Persians. While at times it appears that the Athenian Wars are happening only in the Greek city states separated and in isolation from the rest of the world, that is an illusion.</p><p>I hope you continue to enjoy this undoubtedly great book.</p><p>Phil </p>