Voxiversity – Thucydides S1b

There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to how people did on the quiz from section 1.1 to 1.115. I think the ebook readers were under a bit of a handicap, from not knowing precisely where to stop reading to not having handy maps and summary notes at their disposal like the readers of the Landmark edition. If you have any questions about the quiz, feel free to ask them now. I have to admit that I am amazed so many people got the question about the Potidaean rebellion right.

Thucydides makes for fascinating reading because his analysis of the events he describes is so much more sober and incisive than what we see provided by commentators and journalists today. I’m less impressed by his recitation of events, which tends to leap around in both space and time, than by his explanations for how those events came to pass. His ability to cut to the heart of the matter is particularly impressive when one considers that he was an Athenian actively involved in the war, and yet his take on the events leading up to the war tend to read in a manner that could reasonably be taken as pro-Spartan. Can you even imagine Donald Rumsfeld or any of the neocons involved in the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism eventually writing a history of the War on Terror that gives equal time to al-Qaeda and takes the USA to task for its strategic, tactical and moral blunders?

The five lessons I took away from this initial reading were as follows:

1. The Law of Unintended Consequences has always applied to war and intelligent minds tempered by wisdom have long recognized this. Thucydides didn’t write that no plan survives contact with the enemy, he went well beyond it in implying that no plan survives the process of mental buy-in from one’s own side. Unfortunately, these wise and intelligent minds tend to be overruled by the excitable masses, the greedy for glory, and the hungry for wealth and power. From the refusal of the Spartans to heed the advice of King Archidamus to the inability of the Athenians to follow Pericles’s correct strategic vision, we see that the actual execution of the war inevitably departs, sooner rather than later, from the ideas of those theoretically charged with the responsibility of executing it.

2. The establishment of non-imperial empire and constant meddling in the affairs of others appears to be the unavoidable offspring of democracy and power. No one who reads this can fail to recognize and be worried by the many analogies between ancient Athens and modern America, whether it is the comparative wealth, the belief in an inherent superiority of character and system, the conviction that every action is to the benefit of both themselves and others, and the total confidence in their particular military advantages. Just as Athens felt that its primacy was more than justified by its heroic leadership in the trans-Hellenic war against the Persians, Americans believe they can do no wrong on the world stage due to their two wars against the Germans, and, to a lesser extent, the Cold War against the Soviets. And just as Athens badly overestimated the esteem in which they were held by their rebellious allies, the USA overestimates the way it is perceived by the rest of the world. The Delian league in some ways appears to disturbingly foreshadow the Coalition of the Willing.

3. Politics hasn’t changed much in 2,400 years. Neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton could avoid the salient points and offer mulish self-justification any more completely than the Athenian attempt to dissuade Sparta from following their lead and getting involved in the dispute between Corinth and Corcyra. And Themosticles’s successful effort to keep Sparta occupied while the Athenians rebuilt their walls is very remniscent of the European Unionists’ staunch denials of the intended nature of the EU over the decades, denials that were only ever intended to keep the opposition from forming until the necessary political infrastructure had been erected and it was too late to stop it.

4. Being one who grew up reading Plato and Demosthenes courtesy of the Collier’s Junior Classics, I’d long considered myself somewhat of a metaphorical Athenian. Thus, Thucydides comes as a bit of a shock when one realizes that the Spartans, for all their horrific attitude towards raising children for the good of the state, actually tend to come off as wiser, less grasping and more reasonable than those with whom I’ve long identified. It’s clear that the famous discipline of the Spartans served them well in areas beyond the battlefield. It certainly appears to provide some solid historical grounding for my skepticism about democracy and equalitarianism.

5. The arrogance of a naval/aerial power is understandable, but can be misplaced. The history of warfare shows that even huge technological advantages can be overcome in a surprisingly short period of time, especially if the side with the advantage foolishly expends its advantage on matters of strategic insignificance. When reading Thucydides, one finds oneself drawn time and time again to thinking of the long-term strategic positions of the USA and China.