Friday, June 27, 2014

Thucydidean Reason

Given the unparalleled misery, pain and death of war, how can we see it as anything but irrational?

Roughly thirty years ago I read an English translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.  I had trouble following it.  Part of that stemmed from my profound ignorance of eastern Mediterranean geography--seems like most of the time I didn't know where anyone was.  But a greater part stemmed from the paucity of what I expected in a history of a war between Athens and Sparta:  big battles between Athenian and Spartan armies.  Unlike the Persian wars narrated by Herodotus, there is no Marathon, no Thermopylai, no Salamis.

Late last year I thought I'd try to go through it again, slowly, in Greek.  My geography is much improved.  I have some idea what not to expect.  Even so, now that I've reached the end of book I, I find that what I most forgot was how much talk there is in the book.  Much more talking than fighting.

War stories go back a long way.  The war-ballad is one of the first products of almost any literary culture, from the Iliad to the Chanson de Roland to Beowulf.  Accounts of war are commonplace in world literature and history.  But Thucydides, I think, has the distinction that his account is the first where center stage belongs, not to wrongs revenged, or deeds of heroism, or the praiseworthy leadership of the chieftain or the king or the general,  but to the careful, reasoned exposition of calculated advantage.

Τῆς μὲν γνώμης, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, αἰεὶ τῆς αὐτῆς ἔχομαι, μὴ εἴκειν Πελοποννησίοις.  So, at the end of Book I, begins Pericles, "ἀνὴρ...πρῶτος Ἀθηναίων," in a long speech advising war, and weighing the factors that will determine its outcome.  It is an appeal neither to honor nor justice, but a careful consideration of the land superiority of the Spartan army, the countervailing utility of Athenian sea power, the relative vulnerability of Attica and the Peloponnese to marauding armies, the capability of each side to remedy their current weaknesses, the relative wealth of Athens, the availability of mercenaries, and the greater reliability of Athens' allies.  The speech has a surprisingly familiar feel to it (perhaps because we, in far different circumstances, and with distressing frequency, continue to publicly discuss going to war).  But it is here merely the last in a series of appeals for help, complaints about interference, and solicitations for alliance.  By and large these speeches deal very little with right, or the will of the gods.  Rather, they weigh the advantages and disadvantages of organized violence.

In Thucydides war is rooted in reason.  And reasoned discourse, that for which we most honor the Greeks, doesn't always get it right, as Pericles, hedging, acknowledges.  And as Thucydides, knowing his readers know the outcome of the war, shows without comment.  As noted by another ancient,

כִּי לֹא לַקַּלִּים הַמֵּרוֹץ וְלֹא לַגִּבּוֹרִים הַמִּלְחָמָה

The race is not always to the swift, nor the war to the mighty.

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