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The City and Man

Strauss entitled his famous collection of essays on Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and Thucydides’ History (in that reverse chronological order) “The City and Man.” He drives home the significance of this choice, asserting, on the first page of the introduction, that “the theme of political philosophy is the City and Man.” Thucydides certainly shared this view. As I pointed out in chapter 2, almost all political realists have traditionally worked with groups rather than with individuals. Most students of international affairs have tended to concentrate on nation-states, since these have been the conventional dominant structures of European diplomacy since the Peace of Westphalia over 300 years ago, but analysts readily concede that fiefdoms, tribes, and city-states would be more appropriate in other historical circumstances. Thucydides’ focus upon the polis thus places him squarely in the tradition of realist thought. When he attributes speeches (and the points of view that they inscribe) to aggregates such as the Corcyraeans (Thuc. 1.32–36), Corinthians (1.37–43, 68–71, 120–124), Athenians (1.73–78), Plataians (2.71, 3.53–59), Mytileneans (3.9–14), and Thebans (3.61–67), he has, like any analyst, self-consciously reduced and simplified his data. Such simplifications are necessary in realisms as in any paradigms. The exclusion of some details can be justified by the increase in focus, and the exchange, in theory at least, helps us see much more than we lose. And, of course, we must reduce and simplify if we are to get anywhere—as our colleagues in cognitive science have shown, we cannot perceive anything unless we apply patterns to fields of detail. All that we can do is strive for the most finely meshed and insightful patterns.

Thucydides, however, narrows his intellectual focus to an extraordinary degree. I have elsewhere explored at length the extent to which he marginalizes in his work not only religion and women (as often, the realist voice is also distinctly masculine),[14] but ll kinship ties and social bonds.[15] Thucydides’ simplified model of the world systrematically minimizes all relationships that intervene between the city, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. Against speeches by the “Athenians,” “Corinthians,” or other groups stand speeches by individuals such Archidamos, Sthenalaidas, Perikles, Kleon, Diodotos, Nikias, Alkibiades, Hermokrates, and Euphamos, to name only the most prominent.

This extreme dualism reflects the most dynamic thought of the fifth century. Although the Platonic corpus, as we have it, begins with Euthyphro, earnestly intent upon prosecuting his own father for a dubious case of accidental homicide, this young man’s unreflective moralism has made it difficult to appreciate the underlying strength and idealism of his position.[16] In Sophokles’ Antigone, Kreon’s character proves so brittle and his fate so catastrophic that few have recognized what (I at least would argue)[17] is the idealism that mark much of his opening speech: when Kreon publicly values the polis above his family and friends (Ant. 163—210) and then maintains this stance against his own niece, he espouses a dramatically radical principle that the Thucydidean Perikles vigorously advances as well (see esp. Thuc. 2.60). Protagoras may have done most to articulate this subordination of individual to state, buy the historical Perkles seems to have contributed to it as well. Plutarch (Per. 7) reports that s soon as Perikles entered public life, he ostentatiously cut himself off from all of his social ties. Where the aristocratic Kimon exploited a network of personal friendships and familial alliances, Perikles devised a lifestyle that would dramatize that nothing could distract him from his devotion to the state.[18] Thucydides exploits the importance of subordinating individual to state by its converse: he does not object to the Greek tyrants because they were harsh rulers who took away freedom, but because they subordinated the polis to—indeed, treated the polis as an extension of—their own oikos.[19]

Here as elsewhere, Thucydides’ practice as an historian runs parallel to the reported practice of Perikles as statesman.[20] In this case, however, the results are at best problematic. In focusing on states and individuals, Thucydides imposes on his material an idealized view of the world that often did not fit events. His representation of Alkibiades makes this point, but much of what can be said about it could be extended to the complex diplomatic maneuvers of book 5 and especially to the events of book 8, where personal machinations and rivalries often drive the actions of states.

The confrontation between Nikias and Alkibiades establishes the latter as a brilliant and charismatic figure, but Thucydides pushes his Alkibiades to an extreme. Alkibiades, like Perikles before him, appears as an isolated individual, and the friendships and alliances—which were a crucial source of his power—receive little emphasis, appearing only when necessary to explain particular events and never identified as a general source of Alkibiades’ power. From the opening of this confrontation (Thuc. 6.15.2), Thucydides contrasts Alkibiades’ “political differences” (diaphoros ta politika) with his “private” good fortune (ta idia). Again, at 6.15.4 we hear that Alkibiades had an outstanding record in his public (demosiai) conduct of the war, but that his private (idiai) lifestyle offended his fellow citizens. The spotlight shines on Alkibiades alone, and Alkibiades reinforces this as soon as he begins speaking:

Athenians, I (moi) have a better right to command than others—I must begin with this as Nikias has attacked me (mou)—and at the same time I believe myself to be worthy of it. The things for which I am abused bring fame to my (mou) ancestors and to myself (emoi), and to the fatherland (patris) profit besides.

Alkibiades argues that he has benefited his fatherland—a logical assertion given that he is trying to persuade his fellow citizens. Alkibiades even refers to his own family, but only, it should be noted, to the dead and not to any of the many kin to whom he was related. His household, extended family and friends, pale before the lone figure brilliantly illuminated in the textual spotlight. Inflected forms of the first person singular pronoun egô appear four times in the first sentence. Thucydides presents Alkibiades, like Perikles, as a charismatic figure who acts alone and influences events with the force of his personality. But if the Thucydidean Perikles is also fond of the first person pronoun and tends to depict a world in which the only major players are himself and the polis, Alkibiades reverses the polarity in this exchange, placing himself, not the state, in the dominant role. Where Perikles asserts that the individual is nothing without the state (Thuc. 2.60.2–4), Alkibiades, in his arresting definition of “patriotism” (to philipoli), argues that the state counts for nothing if it does not support him as an individual (6.92.2–5).

Alkibiades, of course, mattered little as an isolated individual, and he would never have risen so far at so young an age had he not been born into an important family and inherited a network of preexisting connections, but Thucydides systematically minimizes in his History the role of such personalized alliances—or, more properly perhaps, from the Archaeology and Corcyraean debate onward, he minimizes these alliances when they work properly, so that gratitude is stored up, loyalty repaid, and ritualized friendship effective. Thus Thucydides has much more to say about Alkibiades’ enemies (who provide a major theme of his speesh at Thuc. 6.16–18) than about the widespread and influential friends who clearly helped Alkibiades rise to power, provided him with the levers that he needed to manipulate events outside of Athens, protected him during his exile, helped engineer his return to Athens, and allowed him to withdraw from Athenian affairs one final time. The importance of these relationships shows through from time to time. We hear, for example, that Alkibiades had persuaded the Mantineans and Argives to contribute major forces to the Sicilian expedition, but this corporate aspect of Alkibiades’ position occurs only in passing, when Thucydides explains the caution with which the Athenians recall him (6.61. 5). When the Athenians initially take him into custody, Thucydides remarks that not only Alkibiades but “those who had been verbally attacked along with him” (6.61.6) set sail for Athens. The subsequent escape is a collective one—the Athenians search for “Alkibiades and those with him” (6.61.7)—but these unnamed extras quickly disappear. In the very next sentence, Thucydides turns his attention to “Alkibiades, now being an exile,” and his passage back to the Greek mainland. Thucydides drops this thread of the narrative for a bit, and Alkibiades’ “fellow exiles” reappear briefly (6.88.9), but again immediately drop from sight.

When Alkibiades is summoned to Sparta, his extraordinary defence of his actions drives home, even more forcefully, his isolation:

It is necessary first to speak to you of the prejudice against me (tês emês diabolês), in order that suspicion may not make you disinclined to listen to me (mou) upon public matters. [2] The connection with you as your proxenos, which the ancestors of our family by reason of some discontent renounced, I personally (autos egô) tried to renew by my good offices toward you, in particular upon the occasion of the disaster at Pylos. But although I (mou) maintained this friendly attitude, you yet chose to negotiate the peace with the Athenians through my enemies (tois emois echthrois), and thus to strengthen them and to heap discredit upon me (emoi).

There are only two active parties here: Alkibiades and the Spartans. Alkibiades refers to the prejudice against himself, demands that the Spartans listen to him, claims that he personally reestablished the proxenia with the Spartans, defends his goodwill with the ingratitude of the Spartans. He continues in the next section (Thuc. 6.89.3) to speak of how he, in the singular, managed to influence the Mantineans and Argives—as if he had direct and unmediated access to both these groups and did not have to work through a network of friends and allies at each of these city—states. If Alkibiades pictures individual Spartans, they appear as an indistinct “someone” (tis). When he portrays his political status at Athens, he speaks of how he as an individual was attached to the common people (dêmos) as an undifferentiated group. At 6.89.4–6, he briefly widens the focus, shifting to “we,” but only because for the moment he wants to lessen his personal responsibility.

If Alkibiades at Sparta concludes the political speeches of the History, the solipsistic patriotism that be articulates shapes almost all of the subsequent events that Thucydides describes in the home theater of operations. Once the Sicilian expedition has been treated in book 7, events in book 8 disintegrate, and Thucydides’ realist inclination to analyze human beings in groups breaks down. The struggle between oligarchs and democrats at Athens is a major theme of the book, but this internal dissension continues to spread throughout the Greek world (e.g., Chios [Thuc. 8.9.3]). Civil war has scattered exiles other than Alkibiades throughout the Greek world, and these seek help against their home governments wherever they can (8.6.1). The Athenians, their prestige damaged, cannot even trust those allies who serve with them (8.10.2). Thucydides cites the ritualized friendship that binds Alkibiades and the Spartan ephor Endios (8.6.3), but only because this traditional Greek institution helps Alkibiades play a more effectively divisive role in Spartan affairs (8.12.2). Likewise, we hear that Alkibiades was “a close associate (epitbdeios) of the leading men in Miletos” (8.17), but only so that we may better understand how Alkibiades sought to manipulate this relationship to his own personal advantage. The Athenian commander Phrynichos chooses to betray Athens so as to damage Alkibiades (8.50)

Neither the conservative Spartans nor the imperial Persians can escape this fragmentation. We hear that Agis had plenary powers while operating near Dekeleia and that, “in a word, the allies at this point in time were subject to Agis rather than to the Spartans at home, for the force that he had with him made him feared wherever he went” (Thuc. 8.5–3). The Persian empire is no Greek city-state, in which the people or a small elite share power: the Great King presides as absolute ruler, his domain is an extension of his personal household, and all his subjects are (at least as the Greeks see it) his personal slaves. Nevertheless, even Persia ceases to function as a unit, as Tissaphernes and Pharnabazos, the two Persian governors adjacent to the Greek world, compete with one another and pursue actions designed to promote their own immediate interests rather than those of the empire as a whole (e.g., 8.5.5, 8.6.1).

The focus upon Alkibiades as an individual and upon his private advantage thus reflects a larger theme in Thucydides’ History: the failure of leadership and concomitant decline of Athens after Perikles. Thucydides sums up this process in his overview of Perikles:

Perikles told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their navy, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war and, doing this, promised them a favorable result. What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions (idiai philotimiai) and private interests (idia kerdê), in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies—projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war.

Alkibiades, for all his brilliance, belongs to this group of politicians who subordinated the interest of the state to their own (see 6.15.2–3). He is thus an example of change and a symptom of Athenian decline.

But decline from what? If Alkibiades reflects a decline from Periklean leadership, Perikles, and not Alkibiades, constituted the anomaly. The Alkibiades of book 6 is no innovation. He is—and is feared as—a classic figure of the archaic Greek world. When he claims credit for having sponsored four chariot teams at the Olympic games, he appeals to the same system of prestige through which the patrons of Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides had, in the first half of the fifth century, sought to win Panhellenic distinction for themselves, their families, and their homelands (Thuc. 6.16).[21] At the same time, this traditional pattern has its drawbacks: two centuries before, Kylon had effectively opened Athenian history by becoming first a victor at Olympia and then by trying to make himself a tyrant.[22] The Athenians of the late fifth century had not forgotten this collocation of lavish expenditure and tyrannical ambitions: according to Thucydides 6.15.4, the people feared that Alkibiades wanted to make himself the new turannos of Athens. While this speech contributes to the thread of disarming Athenian candor, real or affected, that runs throughout the History,[23] the ideas expressed are not new. Far from being an innovative figure, Alkibiades hearkens back to the aristocratic world whose demise Thucydides seems to record.[24] Neither A1kibiades nor the general infighting that fills book 8 constitutes a decline from normal standards, except if viewed in comparison with the earlier books of Thucydides. Both reflect the resurgence of traditional figures and politics, but Thucydides has relatively little sympathy for charismatic masters of competitive generosity and even less for the networks of loyalty strengthened by the exchange of favors.

Decline is a major theme in Thucydides[25] —Alkibiades is no Perikles, and Melos is worse than Mytilene—and Athens, along with the world, clearly did not stay the same, but Thucydides’ narrative, by its own biases, exaggerates and distorts this change. In Thucydides, stasis destroys politics—or, to be more precise, the politics officially sanctioned by the city-state[26]—but it might be more accurate to state that politics remained as important as before, shifting its locus from citizen and citystate to the complex webs of ritualized friendship, political clubs, family connections, and ideological alliances.

Thucydides’ concluding segment has earned, and for good reason, a reputation as “the least satisfactory of his books.” [27] Its narrative is fractured, covering too much ground in too confusing a manner for the tastes of most readers. Thucydides mentions too many individuals in too brief a space.[28] There are no speeches, although a number of the events—especially the revolution and counterrevolution at Athens—would readily lend themselves to such extended treatment. Consider the conclusion of Pouncey, whose book on Thucydides concentrates heavily on book 8:

I believe that the importance of the eighth book has so far been neglected. It is clear to me that in this book Thucydides finally settles on a pessimistic view of human nature that is applied not merely in ominous isolated episodes but fairly systematically through the narrative, and shows the basic level at which it operates and the basic tendency it has. The basic level is the individual, and the basic tendency is towards aggression. Various speakers in the war have complacently conceded this, but Thucydides now seems to insist that at least under circumstances of continued pressure, the primary aggression is applied for oneself, at the expense of any claims from any society or institution to which one belongs. The pessimism at the end seems to override any of the more positive strands we had noted earlier in the work, and the possibilities of collective action recede. The bonds between human nature and war and stasis are now complete.[29]

This is, like much in Pouncey’s book, a very perceptive reading of the History. At the same time, however, this judgment, valid as it may be for the text at hand, derives from a weakness in Thucydides’ outlook and the distortions that this weakness introduced. The basic unit of measure does indeed shift from the larger group, at the opening of the History, to the atomized individuals of book 8. Thucydides truly did study the city and man, as Strauss believed. The problem for Thucydides was that his method, because it consistently reduced too much of human affairs to this simple dichotomy, was ill equipped to capture and assess the many more complex ties that enmeshed anyone prominent enough to warrant mention in the History—not just Alkibiades but Phrynichos, Agis, Tissaphernes, and the mere names who appear briefly to push their schemes.

Book 8 has proven unsatisfactory to so many readers because it is unfinished, but I suspect that it is unfinished because Thucydides found the material too unsatisfactory. Almost ninety years ago Francis Cornford aptly observed that “the eighth book is a mere continuation on the old chronological plan, unfinished, dull, and spiritless.” [30] When Thucydides is no longer able to describe “the Athenians as a unit in civic or collective narrative, or to select one or two individuals whose ideas and policies eventually shape civic action,” then a “narrative convenience” indeed disappears,[31] but the consequences go beyond this. Thucydides’ intellectual approach thrashes in book 8 like a machine digesting material that is too coarse or too fine. Thucydides’ History—at least such of it as he managed to complete—works best when a small number of intellects, whether individual or collective, guide events according to large ideas. Thucydides could not properly describe the forces at work in book 8 unless he returned to its proper place, and gave full credence to, that ancient simplicity that made personal alliances possible and without which these grasping schemers could not have undermined the interests of their state.[32] Thucydides gives us no reason to assume that Peisistratos and his sons, who spent years in the mid-sixth century building up alliances in the Greek world so as to seize power one more time in Athens, would have felt out of place if they had found themselves transported a century and a half later into the Ionia of book 8.

Nevertheless, Thucydides’ least satisfying book is more influential than the best work that most of those who followed him ever produced. Successful historians (and scientists) create engaging stories to account for events, and the idea of Athenian moral decline appeals to scholarly pessimism better than the notion that Greek politics in book 8, to a great degree, returned to their customary fragmented state. Certainly, the values and assumptions prevalent in the Greek world changed during a generation of near-continuous warfare, but Thucydides, in emphasizing the consistency of human nature, failed to give proper emphasis to the continuity that bound individuals such as Alkibiades and Phrynichos to Peisistratos and Isagoras in the sixth century. If the ancient simplicity were as defunct as Thucydides argues, then the Athenians, Spartans, Chians, Milesians, and Persians of book 8 would have had far less opportunity to pursue their divisive courses of action. If we have only in recent years begun to recognize the degree to which fifth-century politics was in many ways as complex and stylized as the politics of Homer,[33] the elegance of Thucydides’ idealizing emphasis on individual and state bears much of the responsibility. If an overemphasis on unitary groups and on isolated individuals is a common danger for all political realists, Thucydides led the way here as elsewhere.

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