Friday, February 10, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lecture 11

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 11

Strauss begins the lecture with a final comment on the Melian dialogue. He had stated that during the dialogue the Melians do not bring up the subject of the gods, they only mention them in reply to an Athenian statement. He modifies that claim here after reading Book V, Chapter 103: “The question is did the Athenians bring it [the subject of the gods] up? And there is a slight difference of opinion. I would now put it this way. They [the Athenians] mention it only in passing. … Someone can say it was not brought up by anybody, which would be somewhat closer to the truth. … That is my proposal.” He further clarifies this stance by saying no one directly speaks of the gods but the divine (something much vaguer) is mentioned. What does Thucydides precisely say about the gods? Thucydides evades answering that question, but Strauss says he has started looking at the mention of the gods and will share some of his study later in the lecture.

He steps back in the text to the battle of Mantinea. If the Sicilian expedition is the Athenian tragedy, Strauss calls Mantinea the Spartan comedy, winning through unorthodox means. ”This fantastic story of the battle of Mantinea, it restored the prestige of Sparta. It was achieved in a wholly unorthodox way by a Spartan king who was not completely above suspicion of treachery. And all kinds of changes were made, we have seen, against the ancient law. And this is a kind of premonition the changes Sparta might be willing to undergo if necessary.”

Strauss returns to his earlier comments and says he thinks studying the inclusion and exclusion of the gods during the speeches may give some clarity on Thucydides view of the gods, especially their role in the war. This is long but I think worth including in detail here. (Strauss had only finished this through the early part of Book II. Also, I have not checked his claims with the text.)
I. Opening—claims
  a. The “bigness” of the Peloponnesian War
    i. The weakness of the ancients versus the strength of the present—nothing is said about the gods.
    ii. The greatness of the sufferings—the Greeks inflicted more suffering on each other than they received from the Persians or from the Trojans (I, 23). The sufferings are tacitly divided into two groups:
      1. Those that human beings inflict on one another—no mention of the gods
      2. Those inflicted by something else (earthquakes, famines, etc.)—sufferings from “demonic” origin, “demonic” being ambiguous. May be the gods, may mean anything outside the human (approaching the meaning of what we call natural). The term gods or demons is not used.

II. Speeches in Book One (direct or paraphrased)
  a. Corinthians and Athenians (Corcyra)—the gods are not mentioned
  b. The four speeches in Sparta (I, 68-86)
    i. Corinthians—appeal more emphatically to the gods who watch over the performance of oaths than the Athenians or Sthenelaidas
    ii. Athenians—mention the gods
    iii. Spartan king Archidamus—completely silent on the gods. Keep in mind Thucydides introduced him as having only the reputation of wisdom and temperance (the only one of the four that Thucydides dignifies by giving an epithet or praise, although obviously qualified).
    iv. Spartan ephor Sthenelaidas—mention the gods
  c. Speeches in Sparta (only the Corinthian speech is presented by Thucydides)—they refer to the oracle of the god
  d. Mutual recriminations between Spartans and Athenians on religious pollutions (I, 126). Thucydides refrains from judging on the merits of the cases. The Spartans note that their pollution was responsible for a big earthquake that hit Sparta. Note this is the Spartan opinion, not necessarily Thucydides’ opinion.
  e. Fate of final leaders of the Persian Wars (Spartan Pausanias and Athenian Themistocles—128) contains quotations from the generals' correspondence to the king of Persia (something approaching speeches by Thucydidean characters )—no references to gods. The god in Delphi (Apollo) had a weighty word to say about the Spartan king after he was stabbed to death for his treachery.

III. Speeches by Pericles—completely silent on the gods as Archidamus, with one exception
  a. End of Book One—no mention
  b. Funeral speech—refers in passing to sacrifices (part of the festivities of the things Athens performs).
  c. Final speech (II, 64)—no mention (see below)

IV. Speeches and narration in Book Two
  a. Speech by Archidamus to supreme commanders of Spartans just before invasion of Attica (II, 11)—no reference to gods
  b. Periclean speech to Athenian popular assembly that Thucydides paraphrases—Pericles mentions “the goddess”. Here he is referring to the most valuable statue Athens has with an eye toward its monetary value. (II, 13)
  c. Thucydides has quite a few things to say about the gods in his narrative of the plague
  d. Speech between the Spartans and the Plataeans—the exchange is based on relevant oaths. The Spartan king Archidamus begins his final reply to the Plataeans by calling on the gods and heroes who possess Plataean land to be witnesses to the justice of the Peloponnesian cause (II, 19)—a cause of somewhat dubious claim. Archidamus, who has been silent on the gods, suddenly appeals to the gods. In this context, it must mean that the whole moral political situation has undergone a profound change. Merely human means and motives are not sufficient anymore.

Book VI—The Athenian vote to invade Sicily

Strauss recommends Plutarch’s biography on Nicias. In Nicias' first speech (starting in chapter 9), attempting to discourage the Athenians from pursuing the Sicilian expedition, Strauss emphasizes (stronger than I did) that Nicias tries to discredit the peace (the peace that Nicias had helped negotiate) by pointing out its weaknesses. Another important point that Strauss raises that I didn’t discuss:

”These people [the majority that had voted to attack Sicily] are prepared to put into jeopardy what is available—what they have—for the sake of invisible things (the grandeur of [??????]). It’s very remarkable because later on Nicias himself will be compelled to put all his faith in invisible things when things go wrong in Sicily. But for the time-being, he is just a sober, practical, matter-of-fact man who says ‘We don’t need further conquests. We don’t need to endanger all we possess for a dubious prospect.’”

All of Nicias’ first speech against the expedition is read in class and looked at, setting up Alcibiades’ reply (in the next lecture). Strauss has noted several times that if there are three items, such as the three speeches here, the place of “honor” or emphasis is the middle item. What could Thucydides hope to stress or emphasize by placing Alcibiades’ speech in the middle?

Posting in this series will resume Tuesday—I’m accompanying a kindergarten class to the aquarium on Monday.

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