BMCR 1995.11.13

1995.11.13, Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides

, The humanity of Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. x, 235 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780691034492. $35.

Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has given us an important, provocative, and ultimately unsettling new book on Thucydides. Twelve years in the making, The Humanity of Thucydides draws upon and goes beyond the author’s previous articles on the subject. As the title intimates, O. puts forward a comprehensive interpretation of the historian and his aims. He is primarily concerned to determine T.’s views on the complex relations between justice, piety, necessity (i.e., actions that are morally obligatory), and human nature. O. finds T.’s work characterized by a deep humanity, which he defines as a sympathy for the victims of power and fortune (which is to say, all of us).

Before outlining O.’s argument, it will be useful to highlight his most important methodological assumptions. First, O. treats T. as primarily a political thinker. Although well-grounded in the relevant philological and historical scholarship, 1 O. consistently locates the text within an intellectual framework anchored by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. Second, he takes I.22.1-3 to mean that the speeches are reasonably accurate facsimiles of what was said upon particular occasions. Third, he adopts a unitarian view on the Thukydidesfrage, treating the text as a coherent work with a central meaning. Finally, O. sees T.’s work as a reservoir of deep paradoxes. These “perplexities” and “inconsistencies” are intentional, hint at T.’s deepest concerns, and represent “the articulation of different perspectives on these problems.” (6) The text is thus an heuristic vehicle for the proper education of T.’s readers. 2

Like his Thucydides, O. proceeds indirectly. He does not state his own views at the outset, but rather lets them emerge through an extended sequence of question and answer, contradiction and redefinition. The reader in search of a straightforward exposition is best advised to begin with Chapter 9, the last in the book. Given the importance O. attaches to reflection and rereading, a linear summary of his argument runs the risk of obviating the educational process he intends. Nevertheless, it will be useful to sketch his central thesis, and then treat the individual chapters in detail.

For O., T.’s work is about regimes. Sparta and Athens represent incompatible Weltanschauungen, opposed poles within the domain of “Greekness”. Sparta is a conservative state committed to moderation. It practices old-fashioned virtue, conducting its foreign affairs according to traditional notions of piety and justice. It strictly observes oaths and treaties, and is committed to the autonomy of other Greek cities. By contrast Athens is an innovative state devoted to daring. It glories in imperial expansion, consistently pursuing its own interest at the expense of others. In this regard it propounds a particular thesis: all cities rightly prefer their own safety, honor, and advantage to the demands of justice and piety. For the Athenians, the latter are avowedly second-order concerns, obligatory only when they do not conflict with the former. T.’s narrative attests to the truth of this “Athenian thesis”; no city is deterred by traditional morality from ruling where it can. Upon close inspection, even Sparta’s moderation stems not from a superior regard for justice and piety, but from an inability to expand safely. (The helot population constituted a danger which outweighed the potential gains in honor and profit.) T. uses the figures of Diodotus and Hermocrates to refine the Athenian thesis. Given human nature, states will tend to: 1) pursue their own good; 2) confuse that which is truly necessary (safety) with the lesser goals of honor and profit; 3) overreach themselves; 4) overrate the justice of their own actions; 5) expect the gods to honor “justice” and shield them from adversity; and 6) meet with disaster. O. is sympathetic to the Athenian thesis, and draws several conclusions. Inasmuch as it deters states from overreaching, fear is the most salutary emotion, and its embodiment in society via law our greatest hope. Furthermore, the best regime trains its citizens to a studied mediocrity, limiting rather than exciting their aims. Finally, human inability to accept the poverty of justice makes hypocrisy a necessary virtue in dealings between and within cities. The text testifies to T.’s earlier bout with the “noble political fever” (205) of Athenianism, and seeks to help readers through its later recrudescences.

Ch. 1 examines the Funeral Oration’s presentation of the Athenian empire. According to O., Pericles offers a solution to the problem posed by the divergent interests of the individual and society. He redefines these interests so that they coincide: citizen deaths become voluntary offerings, repaid in the coin of imperial glory. P.’s redefinition devalues the body, the family, and the gods, and establishes the polis as the proper object of eros. Acquisition and maintenance of empire comprise the highest human good. Yet P.’s rhetoric masks a basic contradiction. Viewed as a lives-for-glory bargain, the empire appears at once more calculated and less noble. The Funeral Oration thus prompts a reexamination of the motives of empire. Ch. 2 revisits the ancient question of responsibility for the war. O. takes up the aitia/prophasis controversy, examines the Corcyra/Corinth debate before the Athenian assembly, and analyzes the speech of the Athenian envoys at Sparta. T. is deliberately ambiguous about the question of blame; T.’s intention is to demonstrate that the Spartans and Athenians hold differing beliefs about the necessity of justice. By Spartan lights, nothing justifies the contravention of justice and piety; according to the Athenians, justice and piety are subordinate to safety, honor, and advantage. This gives rise to a paradox. Given the terms of the Thirty Years’ Peace and Athenian willingness to submit to arbitration, the Spartan understanding of justice exonerates the Athenians. Seen from the Athenian vantage point, Spartan fears for the coherence of the Peloponnesian League are related to Sparta’s safety, hence a legitimate casus belli. Book 1 thus examines the nature of justice, and the extent to which it is obligatory. Ch. 3 offers inductive evidence supporting the Athenian thesis. During both the Mytilenian revolt and the debate surrounding the destruction of Plataea, the parties involved speak of the justice of their claims; in fact all act based on their respective self-interest. Even Sparta, the “liberator” of the Greek cities, clothes its own good in the garb of justice. Established as arbiter at Plataea, it dispenses justice by asking the captives what they have done for Sparta in the current war. The Athenians are thus unique not in in their preference of self-interest to justice, but in their candor. Ch. 4 turns to the issue of piety. The battle of Delium demonstrates that the Athenians have an equally novel understanding of when to observe the demands of piety. Retreating, they encamp in and desecrate a sanctuary of Apollo. At a parley with the Thebans, they deny “that the gods can reasonably expect [them] to put the sacred first, ahead of the compulsions to which [they] are subject as human beings.” (96) Although the Athenians refuse to evacuate, citing necessity, they nonetheless press the Thebans to return the corpses of their fallen comrades. This conduct is in some measure self-contradictory, and indicates a residue of piety among the Athenians. Ch. 5 presents a full treatment of Athens’ “political theology of imperialism.” (96) The Melian Dialogue represents a confrontation between the “Athenian thesis” and a Melian form of its Spartan counterpart. The islanders refuse to surrender, relying on the justice of their own cause, the Spartans, and the gods. The Athenians urge them to look instead to their survival. The subseqent reduction of Melos shows that the Athenians have not fully embraced their own thesis. In killing/enslaving the prisoners, the Athenians do not dispassionately consider their own advantage; they angrily avenge an earlier injustice. Ch. 6 examines the juxtaposition of the events at Melos with those in Sicily. According to one widespread view, the two episodes are linked: Athenian hybris is immediately followed by divine vengeance. This is not the case. The debacle stemmed rather from poor leadership. Under the command of Alcibiades Athens would have subdued the island, or at the very least avoided disaster. Yet the son of Clinias made one major mistake: he candidly extended the “Athenian thesis” to domestic affairs. According to A., all citizens are not equal; imperial glory does not constitute a shared good; each citizen pursues his own advantage. In asking the Athenians to accept his superiority for their own good, A. paralleled the actions of the envoys to Melos. Athens reacted just as Melos did, rejecting his terms and entrusting the command to a man devoted to piety and justice. “Athens fails in Sicily … because Nicias and the rank and file doom it by their Melianism.” (123) Athens’ failure stems from an insufficient commitment to its own thesis. Ch. 7 uses the speeches of Diodotus (III.42-8) and Hermocrates (IV.59-64) to reformulate the Athenian thesis. In urging clemency for the Mytilenians, Diodotus notes a general human proclivity to err. People are unable to distinguish among the demands of safety, honor and profit; “the poor strive for necessities, the rich for superfluities: the latter extenuate no less than the former.” (156) Transgression is the fundamental fact of human life. Hermocrates claims that human beings routinely underestimate the power of fortune, overestimating both their own justice and the gods’ regard for the same. The revamped Athenian thesis holds that false beliefs about justice and piety, combined with sheer miscalculation, transform cities’ pursuit of their own interest into calamitous daring. Consequently “fear, insofar as it lessens our hopes, is itself a beacon of hope.” (169) Ch. 8 explores the domestic ramifications of the Athenian thesis. Society succeeds by institutionalizing fear, seeing to the bodily needs of its citizens, and shielding them from extreme necessity. The best regime averts anarchy by enjoining a labored conformity; only a limited space remains for the cultivation of human excellence. Both plague and stasis demonstrate how fragile to kalon is, and how quickly the human moral horizon contracts. Hypocritical Sparta is preferable to candid Athens; each city needs an external threat (e.g., helots) to ensure the dour practice of virtue. Ch. 9 recapitulates O.’s main points, closing with the suggestion that the text constitutes a Thucydidean palinode. The historian had once subscribed to the Periclean vision of Athens, a city candidly committed to the daring pursuit of its own advantage and individual excellence. Now recovered, T. seeks to prevent his readers from making a similar mistake. Three short appendices conclude the work.

The Humanity of Thucydides is a valuable piece of scholarship. It asks important questions, marshaling an impressive breadth and depth of learning. Its somber description of the “permanent contours of politics” (3) is eminently persuasive. At the stylistic level, O. has a fine eye for nuance. One example will suffice: when commenting on T.’s descriptions of plague and stasis, he notes that “the articulation of the best regime [T.] leaves to his characters (Pericles, Archidamus, Athenagoras); the description of the political nadir he jealously reserves for himself.” (173) O.’s prose is clear, concise, and pithy in places.

For all its intelligence and persuasiveness, The Humanity of Thucydides should be read cautiously. Certain difficulties stem from O.’s methodological choices. It is not clear that T.’s primary interest was political philosophy; his concern was to record how the combatants fought with each other, not what they thought as they did so. (I.1) At bottom his work is a chronological record of events, with summer following winter and campaign following campaign. Moreover, O.’s reconstruction of Spartan and Athenian “theses” involves highly abstract generalizations. In arguing for the existence of characteristic national thought patterns, O. maximizes differences between cities and minimizes those between citizens. Sparta and Athens were in many respects similar, nor did all Athenians think alike. Even O. concedes that “most Athenians [were] never … as ‘Athenian’ as their envoys to Melos.” (122) O.’s arguments about national theses accordingly rely heavily on the speeches at the expense of the narrative. Yet even O.’s approach to the speeches is problematic. In principle he espouses the moderate claim that each one is “a joint endeavor of Thucydides and the original author—and so contrived that it is possible to distinguish only partly their respective contributions.” (210) Yet in practice O. treats the speeches as internally consistent philosophical tracts; T.’s historiographical concerns and sources receive scant attention. Particularly troubling in this regard is O.’s insinuation that T. knowingly engaged in false attribution at VI.82-7: “we must consider whether the name [Euphemus] does not fit the speech a little too perfectly to be credible as the name of the actual speaker.” (131 n.26) Finally, I.22 makes it clear T. hoped his work would have a lasting impact. But did he really construct his ktema es aei as an heuristic device reliant on paradox and reader response for its effect?

The Humanity of Thucydides is finally troublesome in its implications. O. is sensitive to paradox in T.’s text, and sympathetic to Diodotus’ views on the weakness of human reason and the desirability of hypocrisy. If deception is an essential component of free speech (160), what are we to make of this book? O. has shown us how to read T.—but how are we to read O.? O.’s reticence about his own agenda is disturbing. What, for example, is the reader to make of the following teaser:

“I approached T. with my own questions, without which it would not have made sense to approach him at all. At first these questions reflected my youthful experience of the sixties and behind that my unresolved preoccupation with the horrors of the decade preceding … I was fortunate enough to learn that the first answer to which a reader must remain alert is that he or she did not yet know to ask the right questions.” (12)

Here O. tantalizes the reader, highlighting his own personal stake in the inquiry but never specifying 1) his initial questions; 2) the “horrors” of the fifties; 3) the “right” questions to ask when reading T. What, then, is O.’s deception? Similarly, if public discourse is an inappropriate venue for discovering truth, why does O. offer his book to the academic general public? In one sense O.’s book offers us an example of the familiar interpretive problem: “all Cretans are liars … I am a Cretan.”

  • [1] Given his detailed philological argumentation, O.’s reference to the “optative voice” (107) remains puzzling. [2] O. acknowledges a profound debt to Leo Strauss’The City and Man (Chicago, 1964).