Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity
The Reluctant Warriors
The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy
The books under consideration all touch on major Greek inventions: historiography, the theater, and especially politics. The word “invention” is meant seriously and rather literally, though its appropriateness to politics has perhaps not been sufficiently noticed. One can see the beginnings at least as far back as 600 B.C. Solon in Athens discussed constitutional issues, justice, and class conflict not in terms of divine authority and precept, of royal and priestly prerogatives, but in terms of achieving a workable equilibrium within society, of distributing rights, duties, and privileges among the estates which constituted the community (the “body politic,” more modern commentators would have said). At that moment politics and political analysis were in being, as they had never been in the older civilizations of the Near East, for all their dynastic conflicts, palace plots, power struggles, and wars. And two centuries later, in Thucydides, political thinking had reached a state of great sophistication and rigor of analysis.
Ever since Thucydides the writing of history, at least that writing which had vitality and significance, has tended to dwell largely on politics, and in particular on politics as it extended into war. It was not for nothing that Thomas Hobbes translated Thucydides into English. He explained in his dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Devonshire that in the work there “is profitable instruction for noblemen, and such as may come to have the managing of great and weighty actions”; in it “actions of honor and dishonor do appear plainly and distinctly.” Thucydides would have agreed; so would many other ancient thinkers, at least in principle. History should instruct, and it should offer moral instruction, for political science is inextricable from ethics. History tells not only how people behaved politically and why, but also how they ought to have behaved.
PROFESSOR PETER FLIESS takes his stand in this long tradition. Although he introduces various warnings and limiting cautions, he accepts the possibility of learning lessons: “much common substance remains.” The subject he has chosen for this purpose is the period in Greek history from the Persian Wars to the end of the fifth century B.C., when two power blocs dominated the scene, the Athenian and the Spartan, who finally collided in the long Peloponnesian War which destroyed the power structure Professor Fliess calls bipolarity.
The period’s characteristic distribution of effective international power between two super powers bears a striking resemblance to the bipolarization of power which has occurred on a global scale since 1945 and which has relegated all nations other than the United States and the Soviet Union to a different and inferior status.
The “striking resemblance” is weakened by the fact that the bipolarity between Athens and Sparta existed within a world in which there were other powers, Persia for one, that can’t be so easily relegated, and Professor Fliess’s efforts to do so are transparent special pleading. But let that go, and also the intriguing formula in the Preface—Sparta: Athens:: USA: USSR—which it would have been entertaining to see developed a bit. The pertinence of the questions raised seems unassailable: how “those engaged in the political struggle had to be prepared to act in accordance with certain necessities which were not of their making,” how this leads to the very difficult question of distinguishing “between the inherent necessities and the area of free choice retained by man,” how to draw the balance between political and moral motivation.
It has to be said right away that Professor Fliess’s inaccuracies at important points often weaken the force of his argument. It is not only untrue, but also very tendentious, to assert that the Spartans sent home the Athenian force, which had come to help them put down a major helot revolt in the late 460s, because “the Athenian troops made common cause with the rebels.” It is similarly tendentious to call Greece “little more than a frontier of the Persian empire” which, after the Persian Wars, succeeded “in raising itself above the level of a mere appendage to the powerful Persian realm.” Greece was never either frontier or appendage to Persia (and I don’t understand what the saving clause, “from a long-range point of view,” is supposed to mean). The pivotal year 411 is mishandled. An oligarchic coup had taken place in Athens and the new government began secretly to seek peace with Sparta, a move which failed because the oligarchs were soon thrown out by the democratic majority who wished to pursue the war vigorously. Professor Fliess somehow gets it the other way round, that Sparta and not Athens rejected the possibility of peace, and then draws an untenable conclusion which is unhappily central to the book:
What is decisive for the present argument is that here the bipolar conflict was not resolved by the existence of oligarchic orders in the two battling states.
The answer is that the conflict might have been resolved had the oligarchic order survived more than a few months in Athens. And when Professor Fliess goes still further and expresses doubts “that a mutual adaptation of the Spartan an and Athenian ways of life or a reconciliation of the hostile classes would have appreciably alleviated political tensions,” he has moved clean away from political or historical analysis.
Although these are not mere matters of detail, one should nevertheless put them aside and go on to the fundamental methodology and implications of the study. Professor Fliess states his position categorically on the first page: “Yet unless we understand the past as it understood itself, historical study has little value.” We must struggle, difficult as it is, to “let the categories emerge from the historical substance” and not to “superimpose theoretical categories upon the subject.” Is this possible? Has Professor Fliess himself been able to do what he says we must do? Part of the answer is supplied by the reference notes, of which there are 527. Almost exactly half of them are just references to individual passages in Thucydides, which is fair enough in a book based on Thucydides. But the rest are largely references to modern authors, and specifically to those who say what Professor Fliess wants them to say and, more important still, who say the things Thucydides does not say but which Fliess wishes he had said.
ONE TEST CASE will reveal the implications. Thucydides devotes many pages to the Corinthian efforts to force Sparta into a state of belligerence against Athens. Not once is it suggested that Corinth was inspired by commercial rivalry with Athens, and this has been a notorious nuisance to modern historians who cannot understand how Corinth and Athens could have failed to be rivals and enemies, like the Dutch and the English, say; and everyone knows that commercial rivalry inevitably leads to war, like the Dutch and the English again. One scholar even argued that the merchants in the Athenian harbor city carried on a secret conspiracy to force the war, a secret so well kept that Thucydides never discovered it and that is why he missed the key fact in the whole story. Professor Fliess does not require so aberrant an assumption; he simply injects the alleged rivalry into his account as if it were just another fact, without warning his reader that it rests neither on Thucydides nor on any other ancient source. Once, however, he goes much further than any historian known to me and says that Sparta “used constitutional conformity as a weapon to protect oligarchic governments against the rising bourgeoisie.” For this he cites two passages in Thucydides, who says nothing of the kind (how could he have?) as any reader can judge for himself by turning to the text as indicated, at 1.18-19 and 1.82.
Are the “categories,” then, emerging from the “historical substance” or are they being “superimposed” upon them? I have no doubt about the answer, and it extends to the “cold war” and to much of the way the bipolarity is treated. Professor Fliess speaks of cold war with his customary cautions and qualifications (and it need hardly be said with a sobriety which wholly escapes General Armstrong, US Army, ret., who performs the astonishing feat of enlisting Carthage, peace-loving and with its “heritage received from Tyre,” as an ally in the struggle against communism). But again he burkes the first question: is “cold war” a proper component of Greek history as the past “understood itself,” and, if so, for how much of the period? “The first thing to be noted,” he writes, “is the appearance of a new temper,” which “manifested itself in the unprecedented enormity of military preparations made by Athens and Sparta.” Unfortunately there is no sign of Sparta making any special military preparations, and Professor Fliess must acknowledge that himself in his ensuing narrative. Indeed, the Spartans anger him by their unpreparedness: He speaks of “Sparta’s lethargy, based on miscalculation, false illusions, and domestic pressures.” Perhaps Sparta was unaware of the existence of Professor Fliess’s cold war, of the laws of behavior under conditions of bipolarity, and of all the other “categories” that “emerge from the historical substance”? I do not suggest that it is illegitimate to seek political patterns and trends in the past of which the actors were not wholly aware, or even not at all aware. On the contrary, that is the historian’s business; otherwise we can just read Thucydides and we do not need modern histories going over the same ground. But it is illegitimate to pretend that this is “understanding the past as it understood itself.”
IN SHORT, direct lesson-drawing from the past is customarily a cloak for drawing out the “lessons” one has first projected into the past. Such formulas as Sparta:Athens :: USA:USSR can be defended only at a level of abstraction which removes all usefulness or significance. When Sparta was at her peak, she could muster from her own manpower an army of 8,000 or perhaps 10,000 at the outside; Athens could produce perhaps 25,000. To ignore such factors of scale, not to mention technology and everything else that makes up modern society, is to cease to be serious about studying the past. Or to fail to pay sufficient attention to the qualitative differences in class structure and in ideology. Professor Fliess speaks of “the absence of ideological complication” in the Greek situation. I know of no definition of the word “ideology” which justifies that statement (and his own fifth chapter, “The Issues,” proves my contention). He himself uses the word in its popular sense, for example, as a commitment to democracy or oligarchy. There is a more technical meaning, however, which I can illustrate by quoting one of Oscar Wilde’s most brilliant and least known sentences:
To the thinker, the most tragic fact in the whole of the French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen, but that the starved peasant of the Vendée voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism.
I should not have expected a political scientist to confuse Thucydides’ great attention to factual accuracy with freedom from ideology, the correctness of his facts with the validity of his interpretations and value judgments, and to go on from there to confuse Thucydides with all Greeks.
In view of his own passion for accuracy and the tenor of other literary works of the period, it is more than likely that contemporary political thought was cast in the categories of the Atheno-Spartan dualism.
One would have liked more evidence for the “tenor of other literary works of the period” than a reference to two modern authors. And one cannot even imagine the evidence that would warrant the repeated attribution of beliefs and sentiments to “all Greeks”: for example, “no Greek could remain emotionally indifferent as all Hellas watched with tension and anxiety…”
Such Greeks would have been unique among historical peoples. All Americans and all Russians have never been known to “watch with tension and anxiety” and many have been known to show remarkable emotional indifference. Large sections of the Greek world actually sat out the power conflict without doing much of anything, except for brief moments when they were attacked—that is, those who were attacked, which does not include all of them—and Aristophanes suggests that many Athenians wished the whole lot would go away and leave them to live out their lives in peace. Aristophanes has to be reckoned with as part of the “tenor of other literary works of the period.”
WHERE MODERN HISTORIOGRAPHY has made a radical break from the past is not, as is sometimes said, in having relegated politics to a minor role, but in having abandoned the view that politics is an autonomous activity which can be explained from and by itself alone, that it has always rested on a constant, human nature, and that therefore the past is a mechanical textbook guide to the present. None of the works under review seems to have absorbed the new approaches and new conceptions. One should not be misled by Professor Fliess’s occasional flirtation with what he calls “the sociological point of view,” for it turns out to be nothing but a straw man which he wishes to assault. “Similarity of political form would normally provide a good foundation for a harmony of interests among allies” is such a straw man. Add “the role played by human nature in the course of historical events continues to be a modern problem” or “something is to be learned from history about man’s perennial problems” and the product is in the end trivial. That conclusion is reinforced by Professor Fliess’s failure to be incisive on central issues. They tend to disappear in a cloud of yes-and-no, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other hand, so that even if one shares his optimism about lessons, one doesn’t know what the lessons are.
The trivialization of scholarship is a fact of our time. So much earnest effort to so little purpose. Professor Fliess thanks six people for their advice and his university for generous grants-in-aid. Dr. Podlecki, in what I take to be a Ph. D. dissertation, thanks no fewer than eight scholars who helped him discover that Aeschylus approved of Themistocles, Argos, democracy, and possibly Aristides, but not Sparta, Cimon, or conservatives—some of which is obvious to any reader of the plays, some highly dubious, and nearly all of it of minor importance. Does “political background” mean no more than that? Is that what Aeschylus is about? Dr. Podlecki might one day try reading John Jones’s On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. (As for General Armstrong, his list of credits is the longest of all, headed by those two experts on Carthage, the chairman and the “consulting Program Manager” of the Standing Committee on Education Against Communism of the American Bar Association.)
Trivialization is a form of ideology. One by-product in Greek studies is worth special notice and concern, and that is the way in which historians who are themselves undoubtedly good professing liberals and democrats blindly repeat the anti-democratic judgments so abundant in Greek political writing. “The ascendancy everywhere of party interests above the general interests of the polis, then, goes far to explain the seeming mystery of constitutional conformity.” One expects that kind of rhetoric at every party conference (said with reference to the program of the opposition) and in every defense of the status quo, whether by contemporaries or by later historians who are so minded. One does not expect to read so naive a remark about the nature of politics in a book published in 1966 by a professor of political science. Or to be told by him that we may accept as evidence the statement made in an openly anti-democratic pamphlet, that “the usefulness of democratic governments was further diminished…by their proverbial unreliability,” because, despite the pamphleteer’s “well-known prejudices,” this “particular assertion seems psychologically plausible.” If we must have naive trivia, I prefer Dr. Podlecki’s. After quoting from a chorus in Aeschylus’s Persians that Athens is not a nation of sheep, slaves of no one, he comments: “How could the audience not have thrilled to these words?”
Trivia Preferred June 1, 1967