Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lectures 5 - 8

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 5

The lecture begins with a side-note on claims and comparisons:

• The greatest war (demeans previous wars). But Thucydides was not just an observer of this war but a participant. How does that impact his claim and history?

• Instead of speaking about Greek “culture”, Thucydides talks about the emergence of “Greekness.”

• When Thucydides compares the Peloponnesian war to the Trojan War he also engages in a battle with Homer (“never forget that”). Thucydides also stresses the importance of the “demonic” (divine) in the Trojan War. Keep an eye on the differences between human and demonic things.

• The distinction Thucydides presents between rest and motion: what items are at rest? What items are in motion? Why is rest a higher level of being than motion? Can we have rest without motion? How does mastering unrest fit into this distinction?

• How to size up Athens and Sparta: “These two cities are distinguished from one another not only by their political and military arrangements but also by their state of mind, their spirit. Therefore, they must be understood not merely in terms of the cleverness and the stupidity of their policies but must also consider their form, their character, their ideals.”

Strauss finishes going through Pericles’ funeral oration. Strauss makes an interesting claim, saying Pericles only uses the word death at the very end of the speech. Reading back through the speech, there are many references to death and the word is used a few times, although I am reading in translation. Even if the translation is correct, it is striking how little death is referenced in a funeral speech.

Strauss doesn’t mention it directly but a topic he raised in an earlier lecture can be applied here, showing the intent of this speech is to describe the ideal Athens. How does Athens measure up to this ideal as the history progresses? We don’t have long to wait since the plague follows the speech and undermines many parts of Pericles’ speech.

Lecture 6

“All Thucydides’ statements, we can say, are deliberately incomplete. … Yet, Thucydides never continues his incomplete statements.” Strauss is pointing out that Thucydides will have two statements that are related but in different parts of the history but they are not explicitly tied together. The second statement may append the first reference. Or the second statement will have a slight alteration or stress something different.
“One cannot avoid wondering whether there is a connection between Thucydides’ way of writing and his subject. His subject matter is, at least partly, the demonic (daemonic) things (whatever that may be) and of course the city. The relation between those two items is presupposed, not explained. Now this answer to explain Thucydides’ way of writing by his subject matter is manifestly insufficient. Yet how many great writers have dealt with these subject matters and yet without any hidden thoughts. The most obvious example which occurs to me is Thucydides’ alleged continuator, Xenophon, who also deals with demonic things and he also deals with a war.”

Strauss then looks at the difference between Thucydides (“severity and gravity”) and Xenophon (light-hearted, yet shows fear of the demonic). “By thinking of this simple difference between Thucydides and Xenophon one comes somewhat closer to the understanding of why Thucydides writes in the manner of which he writes.”

During his discussion of the Plataeans’ defense before the Spartans and the Thebans argument against Plataea, Strauss raises the issue of how to define a city. What happens when the leaders do not reflect the wishes of the people?

“We hear all the time of the laws of cities. … But what does that mean, the city? Was Thebes, for example, at the time of the Persian invasion, a city? Was the government of Thebes at that time…was this Thebes? Or was it not simply usurpers of power? … So we must make a distinction in each case between the polis, the common, and a part which claims to be or to speak for the common.” … “You see the complication of the political issue that you do not have merely cities, but cities consisting of antagonistic parts. So that does not really help us know what precisely is a city.”

A theme Strauss comes back to several times in this lecture looks at progress vs. non-progress—where do all the uprisings in Book Three fit in such a framework? How to account for the terror and the atrocities committed in this section? In viewing these occurrences, does man…does the history…reflect progress?

Lecture 7

This lecture covers the end of Book Three and begins looking at Book Four and the following items: Sicily and Demonsthenes, Pylos and Sphacteria. During the sections read Strauss highlights the natural phenomena and how much of a role chance plays during the war (important to keep in mind since luck/fortune will be stressed often in arguments for or against something).

Demosthenes is scared to return to Athens after his initial losses in Aetolia. How much does the fear of the Athenian council punishing generals impact decisions in the field? Strauss mentions Machiavelli’s Discourses, Book One, Chapter 28, from which I’ll quote:

The very contrary happened in Athens, for her liberty having been taken away by Pisistratus in her most florid time and under the deception of goodness, so soon then as she became free, remembering the injuries received and her past servitude, she became a harsh avenger not only of the errors of her citizens, but even the shadow of them. From which resulted the exile and death of so many excellent men: From this came the practice of ostracism and every other violence which that City at various times took up against her Nobility.

The stress that Thucydides lays on the Athenian victory at Sphacteria goes beyond a simple battle. At the end of the battle Athens' supremacy seemed a certainty as Sparta begged for peace. This victory provides some foreground to the later Sicilian debacle. Why were the Athenians victorious at Sphacteria? How do the principle characters (Cleon and Demosthenes) compare to principles in the Sicilian expedition? Cleon, encouraged by a mob mentality, makes reckless claims, yet he proves to be successful. How does such reckless behavior stack up against the impetuous nature of the later expedition? (The next lecture explores this topic some more.)

Lecture 8

The first 55 minutes were spent talking about Thucydides as historian—I failed to make any notes on this section of the lecture.

Some excerpts from later in the lecture:

• “There is a post-Periclean conflict between the private good and the common good—in Pericles there was perfect harmony between the two. What Pericles wanted for himself was good for Athens. And that was no longer the case as far as his successors were concerned. That we know. Now we enter on the story of Demosthenes and his concern with the private good. This disruption by the concern for the private good was due not merely to base ambition but to sensible fear of mad men—the demos. And you remember that Demosthenes returned to Athens only after his [???victory???] the following spring, not without fear that he might be impeached, but with less fear, because he had made somewhat of a restitution. One can say that Demosthenes here foreshadows Nicias’ conduct in Sicily. Nicias and Demosthenes were colleagues in Sicily and Nicias was very much afraid of what they would do to him if her were to come back to Athens without having [???defeated???] the Sicilians.”

• “But the success [at Sphacteria] was decisively due, we are [??sorry???] to say, to Cleon…to his madness. Nicias and the other sane men [are] the opposite of madness… they said ‘That’s wonderful, let him go out and he’ll either defeat the Spartans—fine—or he’s defeated and killed—still better.’ But these clever moderate views are themselves defeated, because when he [Cleon] comes back his reputation is higher than it ever was. He makes good his mad promises. They force Nicias, a sober man, to abandon his command to madman Cleon. This also has a parallel later with Sicily where Alcibiades, who one can hardly call a madman…but also one cannot call a moderate man…Alcibiades forces the sober Nicias to share his command with him. And this leads to entirely different results.”

• “It seems that moderation is superior to madness, but when you look at the result…madness proves to be superior to moderation.” Strauss goes into detail how this has parallels to parts of Plato’s Phaedrus.

• After the loss at Sphacteria, the Spartans act hesitant, not willing to commit to conflicts because of fortune’s turn against them. This change in confidence, in a way, returns them to the Spartan caution which the Corinthian delegation complained about in Book One.

The next post will look at lectures 9 and 10.

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