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…
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