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Friday, March 29, 2013

Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty: Cracking the Thucydides Code

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln
Spielberg has made a marvelous film. Day-Lewis is perfection. It is a memorial to a time when some men were almost gods in political office leaving resonances lasting beyond a century. The strength one feels in these United States led men against the storm of mediocrity and self-seeking to simply do what they felt was right and honest and best for a people.  
It is a film steeped in nostalgia for a time that has 

passed. Spielberg attempts to infuse his audience with a 

respect and renewed energy fueled by the integrity we 

feel as we watch this film.

You will watch it with tears in your eyes, with a never 

again felt pride in 

being an American

And remorse that it is not now nor ever will be again. 

Jackson, M 2007, "Cracking the Thucydides Code", Antioch Review, vol. 65, vol. 1, pp. 173-85.  ONLINE HERE:


The truth is that the explanation for most things is before our eyes but we see it not.
The truth is not out there, hidden; it is right before our eyes most of the time. 

The secret is that there is no secret.

Thucydides knew all of this and passed the word in his book the History of the Peloponnesian War. It is an X-file that explains much of what happened in that war and does so in a way that sheds light on our wars, too. He wrote about the famous war between Athens and Sparta.

One of Thucydides' greatest accomplishments was to see a single conflict in the period 431 - 404 B.C.E.
A comparison with modern history makes the point. We take for granted that World War II began on September 1 1939 with the German invasion of Poland but that excludes the Spanish Civil War and more than three others before. 

Thucydides was an Athenian. That simple fact needs to be stressed as will become clear. 

Thucydides tried to write history avant le mot; so restrained is he that he speaks in his own voice about eight times in 500 plus pages of the book.

 On one such occasion early in the book he declares it was his intention to write a book that would last.

 One means to that end was the concept of the conflicts as a single war with a single meaning.
 A second means to that end was his insistence on facts and evidence.
The History of the Peloponnesian War  is a keystone in the wall of history.
There is in Thucydides a twin of Aeschylus, the playwright, not just in the large-scale drama but also in the personal intensity of the characters. 

As with Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes,there is a moral in Thucydides.

Thomas Hobbes's magisterial Leviathan, a study of political authority and life, is reduced to a passage about life in the state of nature being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" as though there is nothing else of note in the book. Equally, Niccolo Machiavelli's subtle Prince is reduced to "it is better to be feared than loved." 

What sentence is Thucydides reduced to?

In the case of the History of the Peloponnesian War, it is abridged to this:

 "the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must." 

...they agree on conferring the title "Founder" on Thucydides. Against that tide of opinion, I argue that Thucydides neither deserves nor would want this accolade, 

....but that the book is best understood to have a different meaning.

Rather than meaning that the strong rule the weak, what Thucydides tells us in that line is 

that Athens is now finally, fatally corrupt and, what is more, that those who think like those Athenians fail to realize this simple and all-important fact: things change.

That lightning bolt - the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must - strikes in a context that the playwright in Thucydides conjures for a purpose. 

It occurs in the fifteenth year of the war and from its position in the book, it would seem to have been intended to be placed near the middle of the book. That is not where it would lie if the book simply followed the chronology, since the war went on for twenty-seven years. 
(Genealogy does not follow chronology.)

(This may be the first recorded historical happening presented to the reader or listener as a genealogical CUT rather than an historical occurrence in the continuum. I would love to be able to ask Foucault this question.)

Aha, I now have my answer to this. Foucault's first year of lectures at the College de France in 1970-71 which we have no auditory transcriptions of, only notes, but what a note!LINK

In these first lectures at the Collège, the most prestigious teaching appointment in the French Academy, Foucault invited his audience to begin where he would eventually end in 1984: in sixth and fifth century Athens.

It occurred on the island of Melos in the Aegean Sea, a place of no military importance.

Athens sent a fleet to Melos in 415 B.C.E. to demand that it come into the war on its side. Melos had been settled by Dorian people from Laconia seven hundred years before, making them distant cousins of the Spartans. While the war had criss-crossed the sea it had only lightly touched Melos until the day the Athenians arrived, in force, with a demand for immediate acceptance. 

When the war began Thucydides portrayed Athenians as moderate. ...They are judicious, not bellicose; they are rational, not blinded by ambition; and they are restrained, not out of control.  In their speech defending the integrity of Athens against those trying to rouse Sparta to action, they invoke an Athens that is the defender of Greece from the Persians at Marathon. 

Other Athenians repeat this claim at Plataea in the fourth year of the war. 

At the end of the first year of the war there occurs another major event in the book, the speech of Pericles at the ritual of burying the war dead. If a contemporary reference be needed, it is Armistice Day in the course of the Iraq War today.  On that day Pericles gave a speech reminding Athenians of the nature and value of their city. In it he praised Athenian democracy ....

He also celebrates Athens as the educator for all the Greeks in its lustrous arts, drama, poetry, philosophy, architecture, and monuments.
...that speech again shows Athens to be magnificent in its aspirations for Greece.
Thucydides shows Athens at its best in the early days of the war, and this brings us to a major theme.  On one level the History of the Peloponnesian War is about Athens. It is certainly much more about Athens than it is about the war. Thucydides loved Athens; he did not love the war. 

 In part, the History of the Peloponnesian War is a story of how the wonderful and beautiful city of Athens destroyed itself along with a great deal of the Greek world.

Returning to Melos, the Athenians pronounce their ultimatum: join us and pay tribute or we will slay one and all. There is nothing subtle and self-restrained about this message. There is nothing in this message about the greater good for Greeks.

The elders of Melos ask for a private discussion.
The dialogue at Melos is so remarkable that it needs no exegesis. The Athenians demand compliance. The Melians argue for their neutrality.  The Athenians admit the Melians have been neutral these many years but say they can no longer tolerate any neutrals. It is as if they say,
"If you are not with us, then you are against us." 
The Melians plead the justice of their cause, neutrality. The Athenians say, let us be practical and put matters of justice aside.

Indeed they go further and say "justice" means nothing. 

None of the Melian elders is identified by name and neither are the Athenians, though we do know some who were there...Again one suspects that this omission is contrived by Thucydides to make this unique dialogue, placed at the center of his book, generic, beyond this space and time. 

...arguments remind us that Melos had no military significance. Their arguments undercut, reduced, and rebutted, the Melian elders finally say,

 "We trust to the gods and the Spartans." 

To which one Athenian replies

,"the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must." 

This quote is in Cloud Atlas BTW.

From this astounding assertion erupts the argument that this is the natural law, and the Athenians are the helpless tools of it;...This claim, that it is the natural law of the jungle, is the claim upon which the house of Realism in International Relations theory is founded

If that is so, then let us look to the foundations

It is time to put that line and that dialogue in context, and not just within the war, but within the moral life of Thucydides and his kind. 

Hesiod's Works and Days was a well-known poem at the time and it includes these lines:

Thus said the hawk to the nightingale with speckled neck, while he carried her high up among the clouds, gripped fast in his talons, and she, pierced by his crooked talons, cried pitifully. To her he spoke disdainfully: "Miserable thing, why do you  cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame."

Hesiod describes savage nature, not civilized people. 

These Athenians, the most civilized of people, act like a hawk, a feathered beast of nature; moreover, they admit that is what they are doing. It is likely that Thucydides realized this parallel. It is also likely he realized another parallel that his first intended readers knew, especially the cultured and learned Athenians.

In 490 B.C.E. a Perisan fleet crossed from Asia to Eurpoe. On a hot day in September, an Athenian army of perhaps 10,000, counting camp followers, sutlers, squires, and the like, as well as armed men arrived at Marathon on the coast.  The Persian army landing there greatly outnumbered it. ...What is sure is that the Athenians knew that they were substantially outnumbered, and they probably also assumed that however many Persians were already there on that day, a lot more of them were to come. 

The Persian commander offered terms to these Athenians. What did they say to the ultimatum of Imperial Persia? 
They said, "We trust to the gods and to the Spartans," 

for the word had been sent to Sparta that the Persians were massing and help was needed to defend Greece. 
They trusted to the gods because their cause, Greek liberty, was just, and to the Spartans who could be relied upon to rally to this pan-Hellenic cause.  

We may imagine that the diplomat from the Persian camp used the same arguments with the Athenians at Marathon that the Athenians used with the Melians one hundred years later:

 "Let's be practical. If you don't surrender on our terms you will die.
 Don't talk of gods for they cannot help you today. The Spartans - well, they may not come and if they do, they will be slow, as Spartans always are. Face the facts."

Thucydides mastery lies in putting the same sentiments and perhaps the same words in the mouths of the Melian elders who confronted Imperial Athens of over whelming military superiority, only to have the officially designated representative of Athenian democracy ridicule their sentiments.
How Athens had changed!

The Athenians at Melos rely only on the strength they have today. They flattened the man-made world into a sword. The gods, justice, morality, these are all pounded into nothingness in their dialogue. When all else is flattened, what remains is force, and on that day the force was with Athens. 

Halfway through the book, in the dialogue at Melos, Thucydides, this lover of Athens, sees in the thing he loved a disease far worse than the plague that destroyed all that he loved about it. It no longer aspired to the heavens in art but instead built warships. It no longer led Greece into democracy but enslaved other Greeks; it was no longer home to philosophers but soon would kill that great philosopher Socrates...

This was no longer the Athens that Pericles described fourteen years before.

This was a second and dark Athens that dominates the rest of the book, the Athens ruled by democracy, that others called the Tyrant City .......

At Melos the Athenians were true to their vile words and made good their threats. 
....How would a gifted orator like Pericles find a way to praise this lesson?

At Melos Athens crossed a moral point of no return.

Thucydides shows us this with the third island of distant Sicily. ...it was a new world to conquer....for in attacking Syracuse the Athenians went to war against a democratic city for the first time. 
The final stage is tyrannical; the war was no longer about protecting Athens,....It was about conquest. It was about Athenians re-making the world in their own image, without realizing how changed and distorted that image had become

At Melos those unnamed Athenians showed they had not learned another powerful lesson that is woven through the pages of the History of the Peloponnesian War. 

It is that things change.

This theme surfaces at least five times in pages of Thucydides' book,...
When change is taken into account we see that Athens had forgotten the truth that one day it would no longer be strong, just as virile youths forget, despite all the evidence around them, that one day they will be old and frail.

In its strength Athens failed to use that strength to create a world in which it is safe to be weak. 

It failed to create the practice and even the institutions for a world of the weak, however inevitable it was that one day Athens itself would be weak and drop the heavy sword of conquest. 
It had flattened the world to one dimension, and in its turn it paid the price for it.

...but the Persians recouped their investment by denuding Athens of its wealth so that within a few years of the end of the war Athens was no longer the gleaming moral and material exemplary city that Pericles had built and described. 

Instead it was the city where a wealthy citizen, Thrasymachus, could declare that justice was but the interest of the stronger in Plato's  Republic.

In the moral tale of the History of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians made themselves into the self-destructive monsters, and this became obvious at Melos, but it did not end there; that was only the beginning of its insatiable appetite for conquest....
The war was no longer about Sparta or democracy but about the Athenian empire.

...Thucydides did not speak for himself through one character any more than Shakespeare did, and also to make the case that Thucydides would not accept the title Realist - one who pounds the world flat and then says, "The world is naturally flat and I must act accordingly." 

Instead his book records the change in Athens from the moral and artistic leader and military protector of the Greek world to its destroyer. 

 things change. It is that things change. 

 "the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must." Indeed they go further and say "justice" means nothing.

 In its strength Athens failed to use that strength to create a world in which it is safe to be weak. 

It failed to create the practice and even the institutions for a world of the weak, however inevitable it was that one day Athens itself would be weak and drop the heavy sword of conquest.

 This was a second and dark Athens that dominates the rest of the book, the Athens ruled by democracy, that others called the Tyrant City .......

It had flattened the world to one dimension, and in its turn it paid the price for it.
Instead his book records the change in Athens from the moral and artistic leader and military protector of the Greek world to its destroyer. 

How Athens had changed!

At Melos Athens crossed a moral point of no return.
 Athens is now finally, fatally corrupt 
In Iraq the US crossed a moral point of no return.
 The US is now finally, fatally corrupt 


 And Maya - maya is the veil of illusion over the world - a woman at last who seized some dominence still cannot join the good ol' boys' club. They celebrate her victory without her and as she leaves in the plane, tears down her face, all alone, she experiences how hollow a victory it was for her.

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