Fear and Loathing in the Ancient Peloponnese: Reading Book One of Thucydides.
Last night I read the first book of the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides starts in high drama and vivid circumstance with the Cocyrians asking the Athenians for help. Let's combine our navies, the Cocyrians beg, and we will hold strong against the Corinthians.
Because of a peace treaty they made ten years before the Athenians cannot attack the Corinthians, but they can defend, so after much discussion Athens agrees to defend but not fight. A fine line there is crossed.
Next a long messy battle goes down over the Corinthian city of Potidaea. It creates bad blood. Cocyrians and Athenians descend on Sparta to beg Sparta to fight, to save Potidaea. The Athenians speak up and freak out the Spartans with their arrogance. So the rest of Greece decides they hate the Athenians and want war. Problem is, Athens has overwhelming strength in Greece, so they can't do anything yet. Less than a year later they fight anyway because Athens is so hated.
That's the plot of book one. It's a train wreck of a story, full of drama and outraged speeches.
But there's a load of really cool extras in book one. The dialog between the Athenians and the Cocyrians, the Introduction which gives the ethnology of how Greece was settled (written in a style very like Herodotus), the marvellous debate at Sparta which unsparingly shows the vitality and arrogance of the Athenians, and the awesome digression named the 'Pentacontaetia'.
The theme of the first book of Thucydides is that fear breeds fear. Just before war starts, Pericles speaks. He tells the Athenians to not give into Spartan demands because that will make them look scared. But the Spartans made the demands in the first place because they were afraid of the overwhelming power of Athens! The fear seeded in Cocyra and grown in Potidaea bears fruit in the Spartan diplomatic demands.
What are we to make of Pericles' argument that they have to treat Sparta with consistent defiance? No doubt Pericles is correct when he says "there is often no more logic in the course of events than there is in the plans of men, and that is why we usually blame our luck when things happen in ways we didn't expect." This obscure statement is is Rex Warner's translation, Book 1:40.
Let's look at two other versions:
Crawley: "For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected."
Jowett:"The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation."
Translation gossip aside, Pericles seems to be saying that since the plans of others and roll of the dice of luck cannot be relied upon, at least we, the Athenians, can pursue a consistent policy of zero tolerance towards the Spartans. How confident his words must have fallen on his countrymen's ears, and how misplaced his pride in the power of Athens! He would better have been able to practice some small humility and conceed:- but even as I write that I see it's foolish: nothing Pericles or the Athenians could have done would have avoided war by that time. Things already had gone too far.
And that is why, when the famous 'Pentecontaetia', a marvel of concision, tells how Athens came to be so very powerful and arrogant over the previous 50 years, it is so bittersweet to read: we read it foreknowing the end of Athens. This 'Pentcontaetia' sharpens the urgency of the present moment; we feel the fear of the Spartans and the thirst of Athen's enemies for power, and we sense the largeness and centrality of the Greek consciousness becoming both narrow and fanatical as expressed through the Athenians.
Perhaps, I thought as I read this, perhaps the Greeks have not changed at all throughout history? Perhaps the one great Greek virtue and vice is their shining individualism, and, as Pericles suggests, throughout time they keep a single consistent policy of bright selfishness?
Perhaps the chaos of history and chance has not changed Greece one bit from ancient times to today, and the fanatical and ferocious and intellectual and political powers displayed in Thucydides are actually the attendant spirits of the main genius of the age, its vibrant and unrivalled sense of the power and potential of the individual human being?