Preferred Citation: Crane, Gregory. Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of Political Realism. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Archaeology I

The Constituent Ties of Society: Aidôs and Dikê

Plato’s Protagoras emphasizes at least one other major theme that sharply contrasts with Thucydides: the attitudes toward “shame” and “respect.” If Plato is accurately representing views held by Protagoras and widely known in the Greek world, then Thucydides may well have had them in mind when he composed his Archaeology, and seen his own analysis as an argument against the Protagorean position. Even if no such connection exists, the tale in the Protagoras sheds light upon an attitude that plays a central role in Thucydides’ History and that emerges in a particularly clear form in the course of the Archaeology. Thucydides does not portray an entirely amoral world, in which interest alone determines the choices that individual actors make, but the problems of human motivation are a major theme in the History.

Consider what unifies society in the Protagoras. Fearing lest mortals be utterly annihilated, Zeus sends Hermes to provide them with aidôs and dikê (“shame” and “justice,” Prt. 322c) so that they might be the ornaments of poleis and the unifying bonds of friendship (hin’ eien poleôn kosmoi te kai desmoi philias sunagôgoi). In this passage, dikê, “justice,” seems to be insufficient: the formula aidôs kai dikê is repeated four times in 322d-e. If dikê describes justice as an objectified system, aidôs describes the manner in which individual social actors respect the boundaries of dikê in their own lives. Aidôs is that quality which makes people respect both those who are stronger and those who are weaker than they. Aidôs restrains individual subjects from pushing their immediate interests too far. Aidôs is also a social phenomenon, shame rather than guilt:[40] one feels aidôs before other people, not in the privacy of one’s own heart. Dikê and aidôs are meant to combine with one another and together bind the members of a community together with desmoi philias sunagôgoi, “ties of affection.” The myth in the Protagoras locates the strength of a community in a moral and emotional framework.

No quality is more problematic in Thucydides than “shame” and the general importance of ties based on affection or social judgments. Before examining Thucydides’ analysis of human motivation in the Archaeology, a brief survey of “shame” in Thucydides as a whole will help us frame the problem. Thucydides understands perfectly well that emotional factors other than raw self-interest and fear do affect human behavior, and gentler possibilities provide the background for some of the most brutal action in the History. Thucydides sketches an apocalyptic vision of society torn by stasis on Corcyra (Thuc. 3.83.1), in which old-fashioned “good nature (to euêthes), of which nobility (to gennaion) had such a great share, was mocked out of existence.” Yet the whole point of the description is to reveal the extent to which stasis could spread “evil character” (kakotropia). Thucydides expatiates upon the sufferings at Corcyra because they provide what we might now call a case study in behavior and reflect events that took place in many parts of Greece (3.82). Thucydides argues that human nature, placed in circumstances such as obtained in Corcyra, will always react in much the same way. At the same time, however, he implies the existence of an earlier, less brutal society from which Corcyra degenerated.

For all of his emphasis on what is expedient and on the harsh calculus of self-interest, Thucydides uses the main Greek terms for shame, aidôs and aischunê, substantially more often than the more conventional Herodotus (nineteen vs. eleven times, just over twice as often when the differing sizes of their works are factored in).[41] Shame is, as noted above, a social phenomenon: it consists not in the internal feelings of guilt, but in the pain that one suffers at a loss of public esteem. Thus the Corcyraeans, according to their Corinthian detractors, refuse to be entangled in alliances, because they do not wish to have witnesses to their crimes and thus to feel shame (Thuc. 1.37.2: aischunesthai). Archidamos urges his fellow Spartans not to let the insults of their allies fill them with shame (1.84.1: mê aischunesthai). According to Perikles, shame binds Athenian society together more firmly than force: Athenians yield not only before written laws but before those that are not written (and thus have no legal penalty) but that bring with them “shame in the common opinion” (2.37.3: aischunê homologoumenê). The participants in Corcyraean stasis are morally bankrupt, but they have a keen sense of shame: “they prefer to be called (keklêntai) clever evil doers than noble fools, because they are ashamed (aischunontai) of the latter and take pride in the former” (3.82.7).

Thucydides puts shame at the center of the martial ethos and thus echoes in at least one regard Homeric values that he otherwise treats with disdain.[42] The dead Athenians praised by Perikles held firm “under the influence of shame” (Thuc. 2.43.1: aischunomenoi) in the heat of battle. This valorization of aischunê is not, however, an Athenian prerogative. A Boiotian general urges his younger troops “not to cast shame upon those virtues that are theirs” (4.92.7: mê aischunai tas prosêkousas aretas). The Spartan Brasidas, faced with battle against barbarians, reminds his troops that barbarians feel no aischunê at running away in battle (4.126.5), just as, a bit later, he urges his own men “to feel shame” (5.9.9: to aischunesthai) when they fight.

One specific passage, however, does raise some questions about and dramatizes the dangers of the efficacy of a “shame” ethos. Four times, speakers on both sides of the Melian Dialogue cite aischunê. Melos is a Spartan colony, and the Melians accordingly express confidence that the Spartans will come to their defence, because if they do not, their “shared kinship” (Thuc. 5.104: suggeneia) would bring aischunê upon the Spartans. The Athenians ridicule such hopes (5.105.3). The Spartans, they argue, exercise the utmost virtue (5.105.4: aretê) in defence of themselves but follow expediency in dealing with others. The Athenians perform for us here the action schematically described at 3.83.1, for they mock the old-fashioned good nature that characterized the well-bred members of Greek society. The ruthless negotiators for Athens acknowledge aischunê but see in it a force of secondary influence.

If the Athenians challenge the effect of aischunê, they also explicitly question its inherent value. Reasonable men, the Athenians argue, do not let mere matters of aischunê influence them when survival is at stake. The Melians face a life-and-death decision, and they have more to worry about than “nobility” (Thuc. 5.101.1: andragathia) and aischunê. A few sections later, they repeat this idea: “Surely you will not,” they urge the Melians at 5.111.3, “be caught by that idea of aischunê, which in dangers that are disgraceful, and at the same time too plain to be mistaken, proves so fatal to mankind!” Disgrace “by the mere introduction of a seductive name” (onomatos epagôgou dunamei) leads people on to a real and manifest destruction. If the Melians yield to the influence of words (hêsseitheisi tou rêmatos) and in very fact willingly encounter irrevocable disasters, they will incur shame that is all the more disgraceful precisely because it could have been avoided. In effect, the Athenians argue here that no abstract notion of honor is worth dying for. This is not to say that nothing is worth one’s life (just as the Athenians do not deny that the Spartans can exercise the utmost aretê). But mere words and ideas do not constitute anything so substantial that they justify desperate acts.

Thucydides, of course, does not himself express this cynical view of “shame” but puts these sentiments in the mouths of the Athenian ambassadors. Nevertheless, the Archaeology analyzes human motivation in equally cold-blooded terms. From the very beginning, material conditions determine behavior: early inhabitants of Greece could easily be pushed out of their territory, because they made no permanent investment in any particular territory and knew they could meet their day-to-day needs anywhere (Thuc. 1.2.2).[43] Greeks from many states invited the sons of Hellen into their countries “for their advantage” (1.3.2: ep’ ôpheliai), presumably as allies in local struggles for power. Minos cleared the seas of piracy “so that revenues could more readily come to him.” [44] When the Greeks began to devote themselves to piracy, they also organized themselves into simple but hierarchically structured units: “The most powerful men led both for their own profit (kerdos) and for the support of those who were weak (tois asthenesi trophês).” [45] When sea travel—and with it wealth—increased, the Greeks began to surround themselves with walls and those (such as the Corinthians) who could seize any available isthmus “for the sake of trade and because of the strength that it gave them with respect to their neighbors.” [46] As trade continued to grow, the simple differentiation of people according to power intensifed. “The weak, seeking profits, endured slavery (douleia) under those who were more powerful, and stronger men, because they had surpluses of wealth, rendered weaker cities subordinate to them.” [47] At Troy, for example, raw power was more influential than emotional attachments. Agamemnon controlled the greatest number of forces, and this surplus of military power was the basis for his authority: “He assembled this expedition just as much by means of terror (phobos) as by … debts of friendship (charis).” [48]

Human beings act according to their own advantage, seeking money, power, and sustenance, while avoiding other actions in the interests of fear. Ultimately, Thucydides describes human beings as products of hard, material forces. He does not altogether deny the impact of debts of gratitude (charis) on the assembly of the Greek expedition against Troy, but the rhetorical form of his language suggests that phobos was in fact not equal to, but much more important than, charis.[49] Although dikê and aidôs are the qualities that make human society possible and that represent the climax of human evolution in Plato’s Protagoras, the same cannot be said of these qualities in Thucydides’ Archaeology. “Shame” appears only once (Thuc. 1.5.1), while neither the noun dikê nor its corresponding adjective dikaios, “just,” appear at all. By contrast, words for power reappear in every chapter of the Archaeology. The term dunamis, “power,” shows up ten times, and related terms for physical force bring the total up to thirty-five.[50] The same terms that appear so often in the Archaeology recur throughout the History, for a total of 931 times. The same group of terms appears in Herodotus, on the other hand, 285 times, or less than one-third as often. There can be little doubt that this fascination with power is conscious and polemical. Thucydides was not the first person to analyze historical events in terms of self-interest and a calculus of forces, but his History does so with greater intensity and thoroughness than any earlier surviving document. Thucydides in some measure anticipates the classic Marxian position, that material conditions (the “base”) determine the intellectual forms and ideas of a society (the “superstructure”).

Thucydides’ insights are complex, and he did not attempt to develop a coherent philosophical system. His History explores events and their causes, but he was acutely conscious that historical events did not follow the (to him at any rate) most logical path—otherwise, the sea power Athens would have defeated its atavistic Peloponnesian rivals—and the speeches in the History are designed to let us see the same events from very different and competing analytical perspectives. Nevertheless, money and its effect upon wealth are primary themes in the Archaeology as elsewhere in Thucydides. Thucydides’ understanding of money and power is fundamental to his working “model of history.” Thucydides displays attitudes that contrast sharply with those of earlier sources, and he self-consciously presents a culture in transition. To approach Thucydides’ distinct vision, I will begin by examining his analysis of wealth and of tyranny, a major cultural phenomenon of archaic Greece.

Archaeology I

Preferred Citation: Crane, Gregory. Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of Political Realism. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.