Thursday, February 09, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lectures 9 - 10

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 9

I don’t always discuss Strauss’ initial discussions in his lectures—usually he raises a question or topic and talks about it before turning to the text. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to see the connection between the discussion and the text, other times they fit together in an obvious manner. In the opening discussion for this lecture, Strauss looks at Thucydides from the standpoint of history versus philosophy (taking into account religion).

Some quotes and comments from all of the lecture:

• “To state this as harshly as possible [about the history], there is no shred of evidence for gods, but there is a lot of evidence, according to Thucydides, for the need for gods. But there is no confusion, no darkness in Thucydides’ mind caused by the possibility of gods. After all, Thucydides could be called an agnostic."

• This lecture continues in Book 4, reaching Thucydides’ introduction to the Spartan general Brasidas. At the same time we meet him, however, Thucydides relays the following incident to color the reader’s attitude toward Sparta (Book IV, Ch. 80, Hobbes’ translation):
For they did also this further, fearing the youth and multitude of their Helotes: for the Lacedæmonians had ever many ordinances concerning how to look to themselves against the Helotes. They caused proclamation to be made, that as many of them as claimed the estimation to have done the Lacedæmonians best service in their wars, should be made free; feeling them in this manner, and conceiving that, as they should every one out of pride deem himself worthy to be first made free, so they would soonest also rebel against them. And when they had thus preferred about two thousand, which also with crowns on their heads went in procession about the temples as to receive their liberty, they not long after made them away: and no man knew how they perished.

Strauss, as an aside, compares this to the Katyń massacre of the Polish officers by the Russians during World War II. “The tragedy is absolutely shocking, but it was part of the secret of Spartan power.” … “This is the other Sparta—the non-Brasidean Sparta. And Brasidas is of course simply an organ, an instrument of that Sparta. So that all admiration for Brasidas’ nobility of character must be qualified.”

• The lecture turns to the topics of Delium and Amphipolis. About Delium and Socrates’ participation in the battle: “Further, as [historian George] Grote observes…Socrates was exposing his life at Delium nearly at the same time when Aristophanes was exposing him to derision in the comedy of The Clouds as a dreamer, [????] morally worthless and physically incapable.” (Strauss notes some people don’t believe Socrates was present at the battle.)

• The speeches before the (first) battle of Amphipolis are compared—Pagondas (Theban general, ch. 92) and Hippocrates (Athenian, ch. 95). “What is most [?????] difference between the Boeotian and the Athenian speech? The complete absence of any reference to the gods in the Athenian speech. And what happens? The Athenians are terribly defeated. So even assuming that Pagondas was [???an unbeliever???], his hypocrisy helped him.”

• Strauss lightly covers the(first) battle of Amphipolis, noting Thucydides’ generalship (and subsequent exile) is mentioned. Strauss highlights the fact that Brasidas (Spartan) is given a speech by Thucydides while Cleon (Athenian) isn’t. With Thucydides you always have to ask why one side is given airtime but the other isn’t (and look beyond the obvious answer that inclusion doesn’t suit his purpose)—what was Thucydides trying to show or shape in his presentation? Arguments can be supported by including some data and excluding other facts. Add the framework of dramatizing the history and you have several dynamics at work within his history beyond simply what happened.

One thing Strauss pointed out I completely missed in my initial reading last year. In Book Four, Chapter 132, the Spartans

took with them from Sparta, contrary to the law, such men as were but in the beginning of their youth, to make them governors of cities, rather than commit the cities to the care of such as were there before. (Hobbes’ translation)

Compare this action to Brasidas’ speech to the men of Acanthus, particularly the start of Chapter 86—“ I come not hither to hurt, but to set free the Grecians: and I have the Lacedæmonian magistrates bound unto me by great oaths”. Now that Sparta sets up puppet governments where they claimed to fight for freedom we see what their word is worth.

Strauss turns to Book Five and quickly covers the second battle of Amphipolis. Once again he raises the conflict between public and private good (see Lecture 8) as highlighted by Thucydides in Book Five, Chapter 16:

But when also this other overthrow happened to the Athenians at Amphipolis, and that both Cleon and Brasidas were slain: the which on either side were most opposite to the peace; the one, for that he had good success and honour in the war; the other, because in quiet times his evil actions would more appear and his calumniations be the less believed : those two that in the two states aspired most to be chief, Pleistoanax the son of Pausanias, and Nicias the son of Niceratus, who in military charges had been the most fortunate of his time, did most of all other desire to have the peace go forward. Nicias, because he was desirous, having hitherto never been overthrown, to carry his good fortune through, and to give both himself and the city rest from their troubles for the present; and for the future to leave a name, that in all his time he had never made the commonwealth miscarry; which he thought might be done by standing out of danger, and by putting himself as little as he might into the hands of fortune; and to stand out of danger is the benefit of peace. (Hobbes' translation)

Strauss calls the Melian dialogue the most theoretical part of Thucydides’ work. It’s difficult to say what Thucydides thinks about this dialogue. On one hand, the Sicilian expedition comes soon after this dialogue (compare to the plague in Athens following Pericles’ speech). Yet the Sicilian expedition, as disastrous as it was, did not cause Athens to fall. “As Thucydides says, the Athenians had an amazing resiliency. And if I read him correctly, what brought the Athenians down was folly. The leading Athenians of that time, in disregarding Alcibiades’ advice regarding a naval battle [??? … ???], they are defeated and that led to the ruin of Athens.”

Lecture 10

Strauss revisits (at the beginning and the end of the lecture) the comparison between the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ combining two distinct fighting periods with the so-called ‘peace of Nicias’ between them to World War I and World War II—what was intended as a peace treaty proved to be only a temporary armistice. Thucydides addresses this issue in his second preface of the history in Book V (chapters in the mid-20s). Strauss jumps ahead to Book VII when he looks at the Spartan feelings of guilt for breaking the peace, which they believe leads to their defeats in the first section of the war. Since it is much clearer that the Athenians broke the peace of Nicias and started the second section of the war, the Spartans believe this helps lead to their ultimate victory.

Strauss takes plenty of time to go through the Melian dialogue, reading the dialogue and pausing to recap and discuss parts of it. Since the dialogue is pretty straightforward, I’ll only provide one quote from Strauss that puts the dialogue in company with other literary discussions:

“So this situation in which the conversation takes place is in the absence of the common people. … Melos being a Spartan colony means it is not a democracy, and they don’t want the common people to have any say in the matter. And that is of some interest because the three most famous documents of what is now called Machiavellianism, or maybe extreme Machiavellianism, we have from antiquity—the Melian dialogue, Thrasymachus’ speech in the first book of The Republic, and Callicles’ speech in Plato’s Gorgias—are all behind closed doors (are not public speeches).”

The dialogue raises many questions. Some topics mentioned by Strauss includes the truth of the Athenian declaration—is justice only possible between two equals? Did the Melians make the right decision not to submit? Another question, mentioned at the end of the last lecture, involves how to interpret Thucydides’ attitude toward the dialogue. Similar to Pericles’ funeral oration, a terrible setback immediately follows a speech or dialogue. Even though Thucydides makes it clear the Sicilian expedition was not the immediate cause of Athens’ fall, it did play a role and set the tone in leading to the city’s ultimate demise.

The next post will look at lecture 11.

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