Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: War is an intermediate stage between peace and civil war

Map of Greece
Corcyra (Corfu) is located toward the upper left (c1)
Plataea isn't depicted, but is southwest of Thebes (E4)
Picture source

The post’s title comes from Leo Strauss’ essay on Thucydides and it describes perfectly the short section in Book Three, Chapters 51 – 85, covering the fall of Plataea and the civil strife in Corcyra. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Thucydides has mentioned incidents from the Spartan/Theban siege of Plataea several times already (and the exploits are interesting but would take too long to relate) but we don’t get a fuller history of the conflict between Plataea and Thebes until after the city falls. The Plataeans plead their case to the Spartan judges while the Thebans’ response fills in many blanks on the conflict. After the presentations from both sides, the Spartans ask the Plataeans one question: did you help us in this war? (How could they? They had been besieged for four years at this point.) The chosen Plataeans, one by one, answer no. The Spartans have two hundred Plataeans put to death as well as twenty-five Athenians trapped in the city during the siege. The women of Plataea are sold into slavery. Sparta turns Plataea over to the Thebans who raze the city.

The Spartan judgment of Plataea stands in contrast with the Athenian discussion of Mytilene. The Athenians never judge Mytilene’s guilt, deliberating on what punishment is just and expedient. Sparta doesn’t debate Plataea’s punishment, instead “judging” their guilt, although it was more of a show trial. The Spartans make their ruling based on political expediency—they need the Thebans as allies. “So far were the Lacedæmonians alienated from the Platæans, especially, or rather altogether for the Thebans’ sake, whom they thought useful to them in the war now on foot.” Political expediency came up during the Athenian debate on the penalties for Mytilene but so did justice since Athens could point to an actual crime, that of Mytilene breaking their treaty. Sparta could only point to Plataea helping Athens.

Corcyra and civil war
The Athenian ally Corcyra became a central focus again when Corinth returned the captives captives they held back to the island. The returning Corcyreans planned to undermine their government in order to help Corinth and Sparta. The former captives try to end Corcyra’s alliance with Athens but that motion fails. They are able to win a resumption of friendship with the Peloponnesian alliance, though. The plotters put one of the democratic leaders on trial for attempting to enslave the island to Athens but that fails. That leader turns the tables and wins a judgment against the plotters. The plotters (mostly former oligarchs or in a league with them) turn from legal means to assassination, breaking into the council meeting to kill many members. Violence escalates between the democratic and oligarchic factions and peaceful solutions are ruled out. A Peloponnesian fleet, led by Alcidas, wins a skirmish against the Corcyrean navy but the Athenian ships already at the island keep Alcidas from complete victory. Brasidas urges Alcidas to attack again the next day to take advantage of Corcyra’s confusion but Alcidas chooses to flee .

I’ll let Thucydides take over at this point because his powerful description of the terror on Corcyra is used to describe the coming state of affairs across the Hellenic world. I realize these are long excerpts but they are well worth reading (going from mid-Chapter 81 through Chapter 84). Some of the oligarchs have returned to Corcyra having been promised a trial. Eurymedon, the Athenian general, does nothing to stop any of the following actions:

And coming to the temple of Juno, they persuaded fifty of those that had taken sanctuary, to refer themselves to a legal trial; all which they condemned to die. But the most of the sanctuary men, that is, all those that were not induced to stand to trial by law, when they saw what was done, killed one another there–right in the temple; some hanged themselves on trees, every one as he had means made himself away . And for seven days together that Eurymedon stayed there with his sixty galleys, the Corcyræans did nothing but kill such of their city as they took to be their enemies; laying to their charge a practice to have everted the popular government.

It’s not clear why Eurymedon allowed the slaughter to continue. Did he think it helped Athens? Was this a change in Athenian tactics? Here are a few reasons "the like in the like space had never been seen before”:

Amongst whom, some were slain upon private hatred, and some by their debtors, for the money which they had lent them. All forms of death were then seen; and (as in such cases it usually falls out) whatsoever had happened at any time, happened also then, and more. For the father slew his son; men were dragged out of the temples, and then slain hard by; and some immured in the temple of Bacchus, died within it. So cruel was this sedition; and seemed so the more, because it was of these the first.

This didn’t just happen on Corcyra but became widespread across the Hellenic world. Those favoring a democracy would turn to Athens, the oligarchy to Sparta.

82. For afterwards all Greece, as a man may say, was in commotion; and quarrels arose everywhere between the patrons of the commons, that sought to bring in the Athenians, and the few, that desired to bring in the Lacedæmonians. Now in time of peace, they could have had no pretence, nor would have been so forward to call them in; but being war, and confederates to be had for either party, both to hurt their enemies and strengthen themselves, such as desired alteration easily got them to come in. And many and heinous things happened in the cities through this sedition, which though they have been before, and shall be ever as long as human nature is the same, yet they are more calm, and of different kinds, according to the several conjunctures.

War, the “violent master”, changes everything as men descend into civil war. Language has no meaning. The rule of law becomes passé. A perverted sense of manliness trumps moderation. Debate has been replaced with scheming.

For in peace and prosperity, as well cities as private men are better minded, because they be not plunged into necessity of doing any thing against their will. But war, taking away the affluence of daily necessaries, is a most violent master, and conformeth most men’s passions to the present occasion. The cities therefore being now in sedition, and those that fell into it later having heard what had been done in the former, they far exceeded the same in newness of conceit, both for the art of assailing and for the strangeness of their revenges. The received value of names imposed for signification of things, was changed into arbitrary. For inconsiderate boldness, was counted true–hearted manliness: provident deliberation, a handsome fear: modesty, the cloak of cowardice: to be wise in every thing, to be lazy in every thing. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valour. To re–advise for the better security, was held for a fair pretext of tergiversation. He that was fierce, was always trusty; and he that contraried such a one, was suspected. He that did insidiate, if it took, was a wise man; but he that could smell out a trap laid, a more dangerous man than he. But he that had been so provident as not to need to do the one or the other, was said to be a dissolver of society, and one that stood in fear of his adversary. In brief, he that could outstrip another in the doing of an evil act, or that could persuade another thereto that never meant it, was commended. To be kin to another was not to be so near as to be of his society: because these were ready to undertake any thing, and not to dispute it. For these societies were not made upon prescribed laws of profit, but for rapine, contrary to the laws established.

Trust cannot exist in these circumstances. Corcyra and other Greek cities to follow in these civil wars resemble licentious Athens during the plague. In other words, civil strife is a man-made plague.

And as for mutual trust amongst them, it was confirmed not so much by divine law, as by the communication of guilt. And what was well advised of their adversaries, they received with an eye to their actions, to see whether they were too strong for them or not, and not ingenuously. To be revenged was in more request than never to have received injury. And for oaths (when any were) of reconcilement, being administered in the present for necessity, were of force to such as had otherwise no power; but upon opportunity, he that first durst thought his revenge sweeter by the trust, than if he had taken the open way. For they did not only put to account the safeness of that course, but having circumvented their adversary by fraud, assumed to themselves withal a mastery in point of wit. And dishonest men for the most part are sooner called able, than simple men honest: and men are ashamed of this title, but take a pride in the other.
(For fun, compare that last section to the opening of Cleon’s speech during the Mytilene debate) “For these love to appear wiser than the laws, and in all public debatings to carry the victory, as the worthiest things wherein to show their wisdom; from whence most commonly proceedeth the ruin of the states they live in. Whereas the other sort, mistrusting their own wits, are content to be esteemed not so wise as the laws, and not able to carp at what is well spoken by another: and so making themselves equal judges rather than contenders for mastery, govern a state for the most part well. We therefore should do the like; and not be carried away with combats of eloquence and wit, to give such counsel to your multitude as in our own judgments we think not good.”

Despite claims to the contrary, each faction destroys everything in their path "out of avarice and ambition", including those trying to remain neutral.

The cause of all this is desire of rule, out of avarice and ambition; and the zeal of contention from those two proceeding. For such as were of authority in the cities, both of the one and the other faction, preferring under decent titles, one the political equality of the multitude, the other the moderate aristocracy; though in words they seemed to be servants of the public, they made it in effect but the prize of their contention: and striving by whatsoever means to overcome, both ventured on most horrible outrages, and prosecuted their revenges still farther, without any regard of justice or the public good, but limiting them, each faction, by their own appetite: and stood ready, whether by unjust sentence, or with their own hands, when they should get power, to satisfy their present spite. So that neither side made account to have any thing the sooner done for religion [of an oath], but he was most commended, that could pass a business against the hair with a fair oration. The neutrals of the city were destroyed by both factions; partly because they would not side with them, and partly for envy that they should so escape. In seditions and confusion, they that distrust their wits, suddenly use their hands, and defeat the stratagems of the more subtle sort.

Thucydides makes it clear that Corcyra isn’t an isolated case but such desolation will spread throughout Greece during the war.

83. Thus was wickedness on foot in every kind throughout all Greece by the occasion of their sedition. Sincerity (whereof there is much in a generous nature) was laughed down: and it was far the best course, to stand diffidently against each other, with their thoughts in battle array, which no speech was so powerful, nor oath terrible enough to disband. And being all of them, the more they considered, the more desperate of assurance, they rather contrived how to avoid a mischief than were able to rely on any man’s faith. And for the most part, such as had the least wit had the best success: for both their own defect, and the subtlety of their adversaries, putting them into a great fear to be overcome in words, or at least in pre–insidiation, by their enemies’ great craft, they therefore went roundly to work with them with deeds. Whereas the other, not caring though they were perceived, and thinking they needed not to take by force what they might do by plot, were thereby unprovided, and so the more easily slain.

Thucydides again stresses the need for modesty (moderation)—a Spartan attribute.

84. In Corcyra then were these evils for the most part committed first; and so were all other, which either such men as have been governed with pride rather than modesty by those on whom they take revenge, were like to commit in taking it; or which such men as stand upon their delivery from long poverty, out of covetousness, chiefly to have their neighbours’ goods, would contrary to justice give their voices to: or which men, not for covetousness, but assailing each other on equal terms, carried away with the unruliness of their anger would cruelly and inexorably execute.

Human nature, unconstrained by the law, gives in to baser conduct.

And the common course of life being at that time confounded in the city, the nature of man, which is wont even against law to do evil, gotten now above the law, showed itself with delight to be too weak for passion, too strong for justice, and enemy to all superiority. Else they would never have preferred revenge before innocence, nor lucre (whensoever the envy of it was without power to do them hurt) before justice. And for the laws common to all men in such cases, (which, as long as they be in force, give hope to all that suffer injury), men desire not to leave them standing against the need a man in danger may have of them, but by their revenges on others to be beforehand in subverting them.
(Again for fun, here is Diodotus' comment during the Athenian debate over Mytilene)"They have it by nature, both men and cities, to commit offences; nor is there any law that can prevent it."

Concepts that bind men together, whether in families or through laws, are ignored when such factional fighting begins. Man’s true nature outside of civilization has been revealed.

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