Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lectures 1 - 4

Recently The Leo Strauss Center began providing audio recordings of many of his lectures. I saw a listing for Thucydides and decided to listen to them during my commute. This course was offered during the 1972-73 academic year at St. John’s College in Annapolis. Strauss died later in 1973 but it’s clear to hear his health was failing at the time—he mentions courses he had to cancel due to health reasons and he apologizes for spending time in the hospital. His voice isn’t nearly as clear as the recordings of courses 15 years earlier. Even with these limitations (not to mention uneven recording quality and consistency), these lectures provide some wonderful insights into Thucydides’ history.

I will mention that for the next week or so I’ll be posting comments on these recordings, so if it isn’t your interest right now feel free to check in later. The lectures/recordings on this course can be found at the center's site.

What follows are some of my notes on topics I found of interest in these recordings. I don’t pretend to cover everything he discusses in the lectures and my quotes are close but may not be exact. His class uses the Rex Warner translation while I mention and quote from the Thomas Hobbes translation, which can found here. On a final note I'll refer to my summary page for my posts on The Peloponnesian War.

Lecture 1
Several of the recordings have noticeable gaps. This tape starts during a discussion on the history’s opening claims, specifically the rest vs. motion theme. Several other themes and claims are missing, which were probably covered before this recording starts.

Most of this class looks at the appeals from the ambassadors of Corcyra (Book I, Ch. 32-36) and Corinth (Book I, Ch. 37-43) to the Athenians. It’s nice to see I had touched on or stressed on many of the same topics in this post. Strauss highlights the first word (in Greek) used by each set of ambassadors: “just” for the Corcyraenas, “necessary” for the Corinthians. Strauss notes this could summarize the tone and theme of the entirety of Thucydides’ history—what is just versus what is necessary or expedient. He briefly touches on possible (intended) irony since the Corcyraenas start with an appeal to justice but quickly move to arguments of expediency while the Corinthians start with appeals to necessity but change tactics and talk of justice.

My biggest disenchantment in the course as a whole was learning that Corcyra (modern day Corfu) is pronounced in class as something similar to kor-KYUR-a. And here I was thinking Oom pa-pa mow mow whenever I saw the name during my reading. I’ll recover, I’m sure. On a sidenote, I remember my first exposure to the name Corcyra was in a letter by Edger Allen Poe, using it as an allusion for many names: “Poetry! That Proteus-like idea, with as many appellations as the nine-title Corcyra!”

Lecture 2
This lecture focuses on the Spartan vote on whether Athens had broken the thirty-year peace treaty in their hostilities against Corinth, focusing on the speeches-–who calls for justice and who calls for necessary action.

Before the Spartan Archidamus’ speech, Thucydides stresses he is reputed to be both wise and temperate. Strauss:
“Of course this speech must be, and Thucydides’ judgment of that speech, will only come out through the history as a whole. How did Sparta behave in victory? How did she behave in disaster? How did Athens behave in victory? How did Athens behave in disaster? And now I believe you would find that Athens stood up much better in disaster than Sparta. Much better. And that therefore what Archidamus says is simply not true. And therefore Thucydides has a perfectly good reason in making a distinction between Archidamus’ reputation and Archidamus’ being. He was not as prudent…the speech is not as prudent as he was [as his reputation]. He appeals, as it were, to an ideal Sparta of which one cannot possibly know prior to the war whether it exists or not. It will appear in the sequel that it did not exist. So that we must keep this in mind.”
[Sidenote—implied by Strauss but not said] This standard can be applied to Athens, too. Does it live up to the ideals in the speech presented here by Athenian strangers in Sparta? Or in Pericles’ funeral speech? Of course not…but it seems a matter of who falls less short of the ideals.

Also mentioned by Strauss is Thucydides’ linking the fortunes in war for Athens and Sparta with who felt or seemed to break the peace. When things seemed to turn against Sparta in the first part of the war, many felt it was because Sparta had broken the peace (even if justified by necessity). Athens clearly broke the peace in 415 BC and then the war turned against them. Is Thucydides making a statement on justness vs. the necessity of war in these turns of fortune? [Strauss will cover this in more detail later]

A student makes the point that the Athenian “delegation” argued that actions taken out of fear (necessity) can be called just. Earlier, Thucydides frames the Spartans entering the war out of a feeling of necessity due to their fear of the Athenian increase in power. Can the Spartans be excused in starting the war using the argument from the view of the Athenian “delegation”? Strauss points out that Sthenelaidas, a Spartan ephor, does not use that argument. In other words, Sthenelaidas ‘ successful argument relies on reasoning that is the opposite of Archidamus—less talk and deliberation, more action—which feeds into Strauss’ point that Sparta did not live up to the ideal Archidamus presented.

If you are reading Thucydides for the first time, keep Strauss’ comment on this section in mind: “What is your impression of the two speeches in Sparta? Where does Thucydides stand? After all, when you hear these two men [the speeches by the Corinthians and the Athenians] and see them, and Thucydides makes you see them, you can’t help siding with one or the other. … And that is important, otherwise one does not understand Thucydides. One does not reflect on what he presents to us.”

Lecture 3
Struass opens the lecture focusing on the upcoming section in Thucydides, the Pentecontaetia (the period of time between the end of the Persian wars on Greece and the start of the Peloponnesian War). For this approximate 50 year period, Thucydides provides a fairly bland chronological list of facts. One question Strauss says to keep in mind when reading Thucydides involves the process of the history evolving from a mere chronological presentation to “an everlasting possession” (Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides’ opening claim), conveying the truth about man (at least about man as a political being). In other words, how does Thucydides ascend from the “accidental” occurrences of the Peloponnesian War to the “essential” nature of his history?

Some stray points:

• Strauss also points out that the Pentecontaetia presents the true cause of the war as opposed to the superficial (proximate) causes that have been presented so far.

• Why does Thucydides give the Corinthians a second speech? The first speech was a call to war. This one highlights what they need to be concerned about in war.

• Thucydides does as much harm as help with his praise. In this chapter the subject of praise is Themistocles. Pericles will later be the recipient of Thucydides’ praise.

• In the history of this period, Thucydides highlights the differences between Athens and Sparta, partly by choosing men that “personify” each city—look for the correlation between Sparta and Themistocles as well as between Pericles and Athens.

Lecture 4
Strauss begins the lecture by looking at Nietzsche’s comments about Thucydides in general, then focusing on some points from “What I Owe to the Ancients”. Instead of summarizing, I’ll provide Nietzsche’s lines here:
My recreation, my preference, my cure from all Platonism has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and, perhaps, Machiavelli's Principe are most closely related to myself by the unconditional will not to gull oneself and to see reason in reality-not in "reason," still less in "morality."

One must follow him line by line and read no less clearly between the lines: there are few thinkers who say so much between the lines. With him the culture of the Sophists, by which I mean the culture of the realists, reaches its perfect expression... Thucydides: the great sum, the last revelation of that strong, severe, hard factuality which was instinctive with the older Hellenes.

In the end, it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes a man like Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward before reality, consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has control of himself, consequently he also maintains control of things.
Strauss looks at claims that Thucydides is guilty of sophistry [no sources given]. While speeches are important in Thucydides’ work, the emphasis lies instead on deeds and actions. [As Strauss pointed out in a previous lecture, many times speeches are given based on an ideal—the important point should be how does the history play out against that ideal?] Don’t forget that Thucydides uses people (whether real, composite, or manufactured) as characters to fill specific roles in his history.

Strauss emphasized the importance of looking at what Thucydides praises. What’s included? What’s excluded? What’s implied? For example, his first mention of Pericles is as follows (Hobbes’ translation, Book I, Chapter 139): “And Pericles the son of Xantippus, the principal man at that time of all Athens, and most sufficient both for speech and action, gave his advice in such manner as followeth.” Which reiterates the point of judging not just what a man says but what he does—in the long run, action appears to be more important to Thucydides. Compare this to Thucydides’ introduction to a Spartan king (Book I, Chapter 79): “But Archidamus their king, a man reputed both wise and temperate, spake as followeth.” Reputed, not was.

Also in this speech by Pericles (Chapter 140): ““Men of Athens, I am still not only of the same opinion, not to give way to the Peloponnessians; (notwithstanding I know that men have not the same passions in the war itself, which they have when they are incited to it, but change their opinions with the events)”. Thucydides provides several subtle descriptions of Pericles that sets the leader apart, not just from the opinion of other men but elevates him above mankind in general. Men change their minds on things, but Pericles remains “of the same opinion”—is there an implication here that he is god-like? The lecture ends covering the first part of the funeral oration by Pericles.

The next post will cover lectures 5 through 8.


Unknown said...

Excellent post and analysis!

Dwight said...

Thanks--there's plenty more to come. I'm about 2/3rds through. Funny how I would have hated doing this in college but love doing it now.

Unknown said...

Interesting that you say that. I spent college in almost exactly these types of lectures-- specifically, took a seminar on Thucydides that was led by my favorite professor, who was a graduate assistant for Strauss. Since then I've worked in the public and private sector doing financial work and strategy, but still seek out time to spend in this kind of thought. Working through these lectures during commutes is a great idea.

Dwight said...

Fiznik, got a notice on an additional comment but not sure why it isn't showing up. I should have said so much of a course like this would have been wasted on me in college.

Glad to hear of your experience--sounds like you had a great opportunity.

Spoudaios said...

Great post!

Dwight said...

Thanks...this was a pleasure to listen to and post on.