Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lectures 12 - 14

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 12

Continuing Book VI
In this lecture the Athenian debate about the invasion of Sicily continues, starting with Alcibiades’ speech. Strauss looks at Alcibiades’ attitude, noting he “doesn’t hesitate to question a certain simplistic democratic notion. In a democracy people are not equal. Some are rich, some are poor. Some gifted, some ungifted. And so on.” Strauss summarizes the effect of Alcibiades’ speech on the Athenians: “The main point is that precisely the alleged effect of Alcibiades and the admitted virtue of Nicias, together, will produce a winning combination. And therefore Nicias’ argument is defeated.” The oaths the Athenians swore to help allies on Sicily are noted again. “You see the oaths play a very great role before the Athenian demos, who are more pious than the upper strata. And that leads to interesting developments later on.” After Alcibiades’ speech: “So it is said Nicias thinks he has lost the argument and he cannot fall back on what he has said in his [???opening???] speech. So he [Nicias] must persuade the Athenians in an entirely different way—that the gamble is too great.”

In Chapter 20 Nicias raises the expectation that certain groups of people on Sicily will join them because of their racial connection. “Keep this issue of racial connection in mind. It plays a considerable role—not too strong an emphasis, but it is always there. That is the great hope of the Athenians, that the racial diversity of the Sicilians might be helpful to the Athenians.” Why do the Athenians go along with Nicias’ exaggerated requirements for the Sicilian invasion? “Because Nicias shows them a way of how to overcome that obstacle. He shows Sicily is a tough proposition but [paraphrasing Nicias] ‘I see a way to overcome that if we make the proper preparations’. And therefore he proves … that the combination of Nicias’ long experience and Alcibiades’ tempestuous temper is wonderful for that purpose.” The exaggerated requirements backfire since they show Nicias as a good planner and leader.

Strauss, continued: “Nicias is a very fine gentleman but he doesn’t belong to the top drawer. Thucydides never says that. Thucydides is such a decent man he would never compromise a noble character like Nicias. But for those among us who are willing to learn something, he indicates it clearly enough—that in a tough situation [??????] Nicias is not good enough. … That is the point: Nicias’ judgment is not the best.”

After the mutilation of the statues of Hermes, decrees were passed granting immunity to anyone providing information on this or any other sacrilegious act. “That is a key point: wholly unexpected impious acts, which of course would endanger the military enterprise in the opinion of the people.” When Alcibiades’ name is mentioned in connection with mock celebrations of the mysteries of Eleusis, Strauss interrupts: “May I mention here in passing a suspicion of mine which I believe is not entirely groundless. Most of you will have read Plato’s Banquet [Symposium] and there at the end a drunken Alcibiades comes in. … In the banquet, Socrates divulges mysteries, and the dramatic date of the Symposium is a year before the Sicilian expedition, 416 [BC]. In brief, what I think what Plato jocularly does in the Banquet is to tell the true story of what happened prior to the Sicilian expedition. They [the terrified Athenians persecuting Alcibiades] are all wet, that is what Plato is saying. The truth is Alcibiades didn’t divulge anything. … But some secret, some mystery was divulged, maybe by Socrates.”

Before I leave these speeches, I wanted to mention that Strauss mentions Thucydides’ comment on Pericles (Book II, Chapter 65) and the alignment of his concern for public and private good. The obvious comparison is Alcibiades since he presses for the expedition for private gain, at least according to Thucydides. Not discussed here, but I think something that would be an interesting topic for a paper, is Nicias’ alignment. How does his emphasis on what’s best for Athens line up or impede his own personal good in the first speech and the third speech? Untangling the multiple layers of meaning is a lot of fun.

The lecture continues with quick summaries about the Athenians setting sail for Sicily, the Athenian generals’ plans, speeches in Syracuse about appropriate actions to take, the failure to obtain alliances on Sicily, and Alcibiades’ recall to Athens. From this section I’ll focus on Strauss’ comments on Athenagoras. I noted in my initial post on this section that Athenagoras sounds like Nicias at times. Regarding chapters 38 through 40 and their ringing defense of democracy, Strauss opined “This is the democratic argument in Thucydides, not in the funeral speech—but this one. … It is usually not considered, when people consider the point of democracy in Thucydides, [instead] they think of Pericles’ speech. Thucydides says that the regime [in Athens] was called in name a democracy but in fact it was the rule of the first man [during Pericles’ rule].” Later in the lecture Strauss, in answering a question on why Athenagoras was so wrong on his predictions about Athens’ invasion of Sicily: “He [Athenagoras ] was blinded by his notion of democracy. He thought that all democrats [democracies] must be such nice people as the Syracusian model.”

Lecture 13

The Athenian expedition in Sicily (Book VI continued)
Crucial items such as the lack of Athenian cavalry, leaving the troops exposed to Syracusian cavalry and the failure to take advantage of racial antagonism on Sicily (to line up allies) happen shortly after landing on the island. Chapter 53—Alcibiades is recalled to Athens for alleged sacrileges regarding profanation of the mysteries and the mutilation of the Hermes statues. Thucydides notes that the Athens were concerned for acts that might lead to a return to tyranny, leading to the digression on the banishment of tyranny in Athens. Strauss: “One can say the story which Thucydides tells [VI, starting with Ch. 54] concerns the democratic myth about the tyranny in Athens. And he has his version.”

Returning to the Sicilian expedition, Strauss doesn’t completely articulate his hypotheses on what Thucydides is doing with mentions of the gods but I think this comes close to summing things up: “Later on, when the going gets rough, or tough, and the Athenians approach defeat, then Nicias comes to the fore with his piety, and there with constant reference to the gods. And therefore the silence about gods here, as it were, was a foil to Nicias’ speaking about the gods.” As Strauss mentioned in Lecture 11 when Archidamus finally appeals to the gods, most of the characters in the history are silent about the gods until after they experience some profound change—something beyond their control or understanding—which causes them to call on or rely on the gods.

(The following occurred during the discussion of Hermocrates’ speech at Camarina, starting in Ch. 76) Strauss: “That is a great theme, the racial antagonism within Sicily. And the Athenians come to the help of their kinsmen, the Chalcideans. But the very same kinsmen in Euboea, i.e. men near Athens, are subjugated by the Athenians.”

The reply to Hermocrates at Camarina is given to Euphemus, an ambassador from Athens. Strauss analyzes his speech closely and I found the comparison of Euphemus’ speech to that of the Athenians in Sparta (in reply to the Corinthians, Book I Chapter 75) particularly interesting. In the earlier speech the Athenian ambassadors linked Athenian’s actions in expanding its empire to fear, honor, and profit (Hobbes’ wording). Euphemus, in his speech, starts with ‘security’ as the reason for Athens’ actions but then links security directly to fear. This speech, in conjunction with Pericles’ funeral oration and the Melian dialogue, cements Athens’ reputation as a “tyrant city” in the history. Strauss: “Athens is a tyrant city, as Pericles had said [??????] before, and Cleon also, and even Euphemus in his euphemistic speech cannot deny it. And everything else is implied, so that the Melian dialogue is only an extreme formulation of what was simmering beneath the surface… .”

Strauss, commenting on the tyrant expanding power through fear: “And we learn from a later man, who presents a somewhat different picture, and in many ways the same: The foundation of justice is fear: Hobbes. And [the fact] that Hobbes translated Thucydides, it was his first work that he did, is no accident. He was very much attracted to that. And only Hobbes saw that this would lead not only to justice (of course, that’s also what Thucydides says in his way) but to much greater justice than from any other principle.”

Strauss takes a break and looks into a question he has raised several times: why does Thucydides quote some speeches and why does he sometimes only report (paraphrase) a speech? Strauss doesn’t go into great detail, but notes “In Sparta, old-fashioned Sparta, the punishment, human or divine, plays a much greater role than in Athens.” … “What seemed to him, to Thucydides, enters into the speeches but not into the narrative of actions. In the narrative of action he lays down what he has found out as actually having been done. But in the case of speeches, what seemed to him the right thing to say for this man in this circumstance.”

Lecture 14

After a brief recap of where we are in the history, the lecture starts with the Syracusians asking for aid against the Athenians from the Corinthians and Spartans (Book VI, Chapter 88). Alcibiades, having fled during his recall, makes an eloquent speech to the Spartans. Strauss has all of Alcibiades’ speech read to the class, commenting as it unfolds. Reading and hearing Alcibiades’ speech again, I have additional respect for him. I’m sure that was the intent.

Beginning of Chapter 92 (Hobbes’ translation): “Now I must crave this: that I be neither the worse esteemed, for that having once been thought a lover of my country, I go now amongst the greatest enemies of the same against it; nor yet mistrusted, as one that speaketh with the zeal of a fugitive.” The Warner translation (and others) uses “exile” here. Strauss ties this argument in with another student of Thucydides: “This is no feeling of an exile who wants to return home and take revenge on his enemies. There is a beautiful chapter on this subject in Machiavelli’s Discourses…that exiles are very unreliable…, because their longing for their homeland deceives them.” Strauss then points out, consistent with many sections in Machiavelli, there are multiple levels of possible meaning in such a claim.

Strauss spends plenty of time on Alcibiades and his mention in other works (including the difficulty of finding an equal in other historical figures), as well as discussion of loyalty versus treachery (with emphasis on Plato’s Crito). Strauss then discusses the split-personality nature of Athens and the problem of Alcibiades: “It was the tragedy of Athens. Athens could have won on Sicily if it had a military leader like Alcibiades, or, more precisely, Alcibiades had been the military leader. But on the other hand they couldn’t trust Alcibiades because of the [??????] of their forefathers. They knew Alcibiades wasn’t [?????sound ??????]. What should they do? And therefore when these rumors came, these ugly rumors of the slanders, they believed the slanders. And so they called him back and ruined the [expedition].” The reader witness the struggle in the Athenians between piety and justice, on one hand, and what is necessary to protect the state. Thucydides' everlasting possession has proved to be exactly that for all these years.

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