Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.05

Gregory Crane, Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: the limits of political realism.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 348.  ISBN 0-520-20789-0.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Peter R. Pouncey
Word count: 3261 words

This is a book which has passed through various versions and mindsets. In particular, in his acknowledgments Crane mentions his debt to Peter Euben, who led him "to rethink the entire manuscript and to frame it as a study not only of Thucydides, but of Thucydides' contribution to the development of political realism." The idea is not at fault, but in this case the frame or wrapper does not seem fully integrated or consistent with the argument on Thucydides' text; Crane's mind is well-stocked but diffuse in its allusiveness, and his associations sometimes let him wander further from the path than he should go, especially when he is campaigning with as hard-driving a historian as Thucydides, who is always stealing a direct march past his chattier predecessors. In The Ancient Simplicity, we are given parallels and contrasts from William Tecumseh Sherman, Einstein and quantum mechanics, Mark Twain and his critique of James Fenimore Cooper, with particular reference to the Celebrated Jumping Frog, Marxist theory and its Gallic twists in Althusser, Machiavelli and Hobbes, as well as useful anthropological writers and lecturers such as Malinowski, Mauss and Tambiah. There are interesting points along the way, and a classicist should not regret an expanded sphere of reference for his arcana. The point is that the expanded frame should not extenuate the power of the original, by fraying the logical structure on which it is built. There are places in this book where the busy-ness of Crane's critical work seems likely to bury Thucydides (never an easy writer to see clearly even in the brightest light) in a cloud of dust. On the whole, the book is at its best when it sketches attitudes and values still present in fifth century Greek society, which Thucydides plays down or chooses to ignore. In what follows I shall try to show both what I think Crane illumines and what he obscures.

A word first on Crawley's "ancient simplicity," a phrase he uses to translate to euethes at 3.83.1: "The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared." The phrase has suddenly caught on, and we now have a second book using it in a title, M.F. Williams' Ethics in Thucydides: The Ancient Simplicity. Crane himself adopts it into his own translation (pp.7,53,313), but not invariably; at pp.100 and 142 it appears as "good nature" -- which is not quite the same thing. I'm not sure Crawley was right to mark the antiquarian or nostalgic note so sharply, and Crane does not help his thesis by following him, with the added gloss of "the well born (to gennaion) -- the old elite to which Thucydides belonged" (p.7). It is true that euethes and gennaion both start life as qualities pertaining to class, and so do other adjectives (agathos, kalos and their various contrary negatives), but they all broaden over time into more common evaluative uses. Crane's argument wants them to be generic and contemporary values, present in Thucydides' world but ignored by him, apart from the occasional spasm of regret; and he should be encouraged in this view by the verb metechei, present tense, which both he and Crawley translate in the past. The best sense of to euethes at 3.83.1, I think, might be "straightforwardness," still pristine, but soon to start its slide on its way through "gullibility" to "silliness." (There are a few other infelicities in Crane's translations: his taking of ergoi with dunamin at 2.43.1 ("power in real fact", p.318) instead of theomenous ("actively contemplating") must be classified a minor howler.)

Values are the focus of Crane's work, but sometimes at the expense of history. For example in the cagy preliminaries to the war, there is a critical piece of international law in play, which he ignores (he is not alone). In the treaty of 446/5, it was specified that differences (diaphora) should be settled by arbitration (Pericles at 1.140.2); the Athenians at Sparta have already made the point at 1.78.4, urging their hosts "not to violate the truce (spondas me luein) or break their oaths, but to settle differences by arbitration (diaphora dikei luesthai) according to the treaty." But there is a distinction to be made between a difference that can be arbitrated, and a substantial violation of the treaty which nullifies it. This is most clearly established when the Plataeans, the allies of Athens, kill the Boeotians, members of the Peloponnesian league, who have invaded their city. The truce was between Athens and her allies and Sparta and hers. At 2.7.1., the consequences are spelled out: "Once the incident at Plataea had taken place, the truce was conspicuously broken (lelumenon lampros ton spondon), and the Athenians prepared for war, as did Sparta and her allies..." The word used for a substantial violation of a truce, which effectively nullifies it, is the traditional adikia. The point in question over Athens' policy of brinkmanship prior to the war was just how close to a substantial violation they had come, especially in their interactions with Corcyra (cf.1.49.7, 1.53.2). This is the central ground of argument between the Spartan king Archidamus, and the belligerent ephor Sthenelaidas. Archidamus is clearly for giving Athens the benefit of the doubt and proceeding to arbitration, as the Athenians have offered, but begs the question: "The precedent is not to proceed against someone offering arbitration as against one who has committed an adikia", 1.85.2. Sthenelaidas will have none of this and hammers home the theme of actual adikia (5 uses of the verb in the single paragraph), and is loudly supported by the Spartans' shouted vote. Later on in the war, Thucydides tells us, they came to believe they had been wrong and Archidamus right (7.18.2) at this juncture.

But these are minor matters, and we should try to get to grips with the theoretical base on which Crane builds his argument. On p.38 he writes: "Thucydides' History exhibits four characteristics common to "realist" schools of thought -- not only political, but literary, artistic and scientific. These four realisms are "procedural" (getting the facts straight), "scientific" (believing that there really are objective facts out there somewhere that can be gotten straight), "ideological" (using your claim to privileged knowledge as a stick to beat your opponents), and "paradigmatic" (seeing some phenomena more clearly and perhaps gaining a better view of the whole, but at the expense of simultaneously minimizing or ignoring other factors on which your predecessors had laid great emphasis). This list is hardly exhaustive, but, like the varying forces that interact with any object, these elements, though complementary and intertwined, need to be distinguished."

"Procedural" realism is easy to accept, based on Thucydides' own statements on his methodology in the Archaeology; and we can also see that "paradigmatic" realism, as defined in the parenthesis, also fits Thucydides' contribution to the genre of history well: he recorded human events in a way no other historian had done before, concentrating on a range of facts sifted through a narrow band of categories and motives. No other historian for centuries to come would attempt to build the power of his history by channeling the emphases of his story in this way. But if this method results in "gaining a better view of the whole," what is the "expense" of minimizing the factors "on which your predecessors had laid great emphasis"? We shall return to this.

In the meantime, I think Crane creates a real problem for himself in his handling of "scientific" and "ideological" realism. The problem starts with his sloppy parenthetic definition of the brands and continues with his application of them to Thucydides. To start with science. The scientist believes that it is possible to analyse, measure and test the composition of entities and their interactions in the physical world. That there really is such a world amenable to such engagement is an assumption on which most of our living proceeds. I don't think Crane wants to fight an epistemological war on this assumption. So we can conduct an experiment in which unseen particles are driven in an accelerator into collisions at high velocity and produce among their detritus evanescent traces of sub-particles we call quarks; the traces appear as a small smear of a shooting star on a computer screen. It has been done. The "existence" of quarks had been postulated by theory, and this experiment confirmed it; scientists who understood the point at issue and the nature of the experiment saw the traces and were convinced. It was a useful experiment: it got the job done, and one more tiny piece of sub-reality was inserted into our jig-saw puzzle map of nature. Applying this instance of the verifiability of "remote" facts to Thucydides, we find him pretty straight-forward about his methods: he tries to establish those facts of a long conflict through which he has lived, which he believes will be most instructive for the course of history to come. The facts are there for everyone to find, but he works hard to get them, and to get them right, checking and re-checking with witnesses. And he is straight-forward about why he thinks this is important: he believes that human nature is relatively constant over time, permanently fueled by the same drives, principally fear and self-interest, so that individuals caught in the same web of pressures in future will react in the same way. The more accurately the facts of one period can be secured, the more accurate their predictive power and therefore the more useful the account. Thucydides by implication invites his readers over time to test his hypotheses against their own experience and to pronounce it useful or not (1.22.4). It is a bold challenge, which he was confident of winning. And, as we know, win he did, once his book got clear of antiquity and the perverse rhetorical obsessions of Dionysius of Halicarnassus ("Thucydides wrote of one war, and one unblessed by glory or fortune. It should never have happened, but given that it did, it would have been better to consign it to silence and oblivion, and leave posterity ignorant of it," D.H. Pomp. 3. Hobbes jumps all over this in the Preface to his translation: "... never ... so much absurdity in so few lines."). If we want to criticize Thucydides' "scientific" realism, the question we must ask is whether there are other sets of facts of a different character which yield even greater predictability for the course of human history.

Crane does not quite answer this question, but he goes to work to color Thucydides' achievement with what he calls his "ideological" realism. Here again he is not helped by his casual definition above. Why should ideology claim that its knowledge is "privileged" (and come to think of it, why is this not at variance with Jean Howard's and Althusser's description of it as a purveyor of "obviousness," quoted with evident approval at pp.8-9?)? And how does this apply to Thucydides? Crane seems confused on this point. He is wedded to his category of ideological realism as applied to Thucydides, and it gets him into trouble with logic. "... Thucydides and Perikles exploit their procedural accuracy to further a third, subtle, often insidious project which I will call 'ideological realism'" (p.48). Perikles is an accurate accountant of the power game, and Thucydides plays it equally tough in narrating it. "Thucydides' ideological realism extends, however, beyond the claims of scientific accuracy. It encloses an extra dimension that appeals more openly to the emotions and bullies (my italics) its audience into submission" (p.53). And the same word and note occur again: "Thucydides' relationship to the bullying ideological realism that he alternately deplores and practices emerges with particular force in the Mytilenean debate" (p.55). We are not told explicitly what the extra dimension which appeals to the emotions is; perhaps it is once more the fact that Machtpolitik from the statesmen is matched by unsettling power-prose from the historian. Now it is true that Thucydides sometimes rubs his readers' noses in unpleasant facts and images -- the social collapse after the plague, the excesses of Corcyra, the end of the retreat from Syracuse with the Athenian remnant fighting each other for water in the bed of the Assinarus, physically and morally depleted past defeat to the point of self-destruction (7.84.2-5). Does grimness beyond the call constitute an ideology? I don't believe so: the harshness of the narrative, even at these points, has an important role in his system of explanation. Thucydides was taught by the war to believe that human beings under continual heavy pressure will behave badly. The dark narrative parades the instances that will validate the larger induction, which, again, our own experience is invited to test. And to match one's voice to the tenor of the events one describes is certainly not to applaud the events.

Now I think there is an ingredient of ideology in Thucydides' History, but that one should look for it not in the pose of science or the harsh voice, but in the rhetorical play made with the assertions of the naturalness of power and the "greatness" of its manifestations. The ideology consists, then, in extending his logic perhaps one step further than the facts, and putting these extended claims not only into the mouths of the unscrupulous (Cleon, Alcibiades, Euphemus), but of figures whose conduct he applauds (Pericles, Brasidas, Hermocrates). Crane gets most of this right, but he postulates a kind of inconsistency in Thucydides which sells him short ("the bullying ideological realism that he alternately deplores and practices.") This is at variance with a stronger assertion: "Thucydides makes little attempt to conceal his dismay at the collapse of moral society" (p.53). The fact is that Thucydides sees a tension in his own argument between the drive to power, which makes history, and civilized values, when citizens put aside their swords and old men wear linen, which the drive to power can secure -- but only for a while. Before too long, the same forces which impelled it, mostly fear and self-interest, will begin the process of unraveling everything power has built up. But if it is inevitable that men, like the gods, will rule wherever they can to the extent that they can (cf.5.105.2), then why protest their aggressions or their demise, or lament what is lost in the demise? The real ideology Thucydides is fighting, in himself as much as anywhere else, is dispassionate fatalism. To reconcile the opposites and build a bridge between power and civilized values Thucydides introduces the notion of moderation: "They deserve praise who use their human nature to rule others more justly than the power at their disposal requires; and we believe that if other people were to take over what we have they would show very clearly the degree of our moderation" (ei ti metriazomen, 1.76.3-4). The speakers are the anonymous Athenians, speaking at the full power of the Periclean age; and at Pericles' death, we remember, he is saluted for his moderation: literally, "he led them out moderately and ensured their security", 2.65.5. This claim to moderation at the start of the war allows Thucydides to test what happens to it as the war proceeds. After the Mytilenean revolt we see moderation win out by a whisker at the second attempt; at Melos we see it utterly submerged. War is a harsh teacher and it enforces its lessons of violence with a growing clarity on both sides. The political theorist and sociologist Robert MacIver postulated the Law of Antipathetic Contagion: in a long war one increasingly wants to trump the very worst one's enemy will do.

The surprising thing about the Melian Dialogue is Thucydides' apparent reluctance to declare a conclusion that the Athenian recession from moderation seems to have put in place -- at the end why is he not prepared to call their action at Melos an excess? Instead, as the dialogue proceeds between invader and victim, the Athenians demolish every plank the Melians try to build in an argument for their safety. And the Athenians are right: the Melians are building in straw -- gods, Spartans, the fortunes of war, justice and hope are all unavailing. Crane sees this differently. "The Melians are the statistical outlier, the experiment that does not match the theory ... The Athenians destroy the Melians as a corrupt scientist might destroy inconvenient evidence ... For in killing the Melians, the Athenians prove that they are wrong. The weak do not always yield to the strong", pp.292-3. But Crane is misreading Thucydides, and his Athenians, whatever their moral standing, have not offended against logic: what they give to the Melians at 5.111.4 is advice for safe conduct in the real world. They should not, if they weigh things rightly, allow themselves to be trapped by words like disgrace: "those who never yield to their equals, but graciously concede to their superiors, and are moderate to those weaker than they are, would generally get it right." To see this as an ironic indictment of the Athenians through their own words (not being moderate to those weaker) is a mistake; the advice is for the Melians: if they submit as the weaker, they will receive moderation. But in refusing to compromise, they are casting themselves as equals and the correct stance against those is never to yield -- to concede nothing.

Crane's rhetoric has got the better of him here. No one is more aware than Thucydides that the weak do often try to hold out (as in the case of the Plataeans, to whom he is entirely sympathetic). But with the Melians, it seems to me, he may well be showing some irritation. Why? Perhaps because he believed that in failing to accept what was clearly the lesser of two evils (keeping their land but paying tribute), they were not tragic but foolish. Sitting on the fence between the two sides in exile, and catching every detail of the disintegration of his world, the iron may well have entered into his soul.

But this is where Crane makes a serious contribution. Against the rising storm of unrestrained violence, he offers a core of quiet at the center of his book. Thucydides' Athenians at 1.75.3 and 76.2 have listed the three great factors -- the tria megista -- in human calculation, fear, honor and advantage. Many scholars have noticed the disappearance of honor after the Funeral Oration and the death of Brasidas. But Crane restores it to Thucydides' world. Instead of the naked assertion of power, he sketches a world of more harmonious interactions, where power rarely asserts itself beyond spheres of influence. He shows it operating with civility in the exchanges between Gelon of Syracuse and Pindar (immortality at the price of a commission), and on the larger plane, between Sparta and her allies in the Peloponnesian League. Even when Greece is immersed in the war he finds it in the aspirations of Aristophanes' characters (he could have done more with the Acharnians here). The single-mindedness of Thucydides has swept the deck clean of all devotions and pieties, to allow the fastest run before the twin forces of fear and self-interest. His history drives us all towards an ever darker horizon from which he seems not to believe there can ever be a return. But Crane gives greater staying power and depth to the lost world Thucydides laments, and invites us to consider why that world should be considered as real as the grim one that replaces it. This is the most valuable part of Crane's ambitious book.

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