Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Leo Strauss lectures on Thucydides (1972-73): Lectures 15 - 17

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 15
Before moving on to Book VII, Strauss takes some time to look at descriptions of Nicias in Book VI since he ends up with sole command on Sicily. In Chapter 46, the Athenian generals (except for Nicias) are disappointed in native lack of support and money: “Nicias had the better judgment of the situation in Sicily than the others.” In Chapter 63, though, his extreme caution (as demonstrated byhis lack of aggression against the Syracusians) shows the “defective character of Nicias’ generalship, that he doesn’t go straight to the goal against Syracuse… .” Nicias’ preference for “rest” instead of “motion” ties back to an opening claim in the history. “What is Thucydides’ judgment about this after all? Thucydides is known because of his reticence. Hobbes said of him he was the most politic historiographer that ever was, by which he meant that he was very reticent in his judgment and let his reader to discern what the virtues and vices of the various characters are.”

Book VII
Book VII begins with the Spartan general Gylippus traveling to Syracuse, allowing Thucydides to compare and contrast him with Nicias. In response to a question about the Athenians and a possible lack of nerve, Strauss addresses one reason Nicias had been appointed general: “He had an unblemished record. He had always been lucky. And according to the way of thinking of the Athenians you choose rather a general who never lost a battle than any other general who may be much brighter but who was not so lucky. It is, you can say, an irrational consideration given the irrational character of chance and intelligence.”

In response to another question on the generalships: “That is the point. The Athenians were, on the one hand, enamored of Alcibiades’ brilliance and daring, and on the other hand they were god-fearing, and the two things were in conflict. And in Alcibiades’ absence the enemies of Alcibiades strengthened the side of what might be called by nasty people 'fundamentalism' in Athens and therefore they called him back—they didn’t know that they would harm themselves much more [by the recall].”

Strauss delves into the decision-making process in Athens, focusing on the difference of influences from the ruling circles and the general population. Thucydides highlights the different characteristics of a city and its rule—unity (real or apparent) and composite (which may disintegrate at any time). One of my favorite quotes from the course occurs at this point during a wide-ranging discussion. Strauss raises the point that Nietzsche called the state “the cold monster,” “an expression which was taken up by De Gaulle. But I believe with this difference. Whereas Nietzsche truly shuddered, De Gaulle stroked it.”

Chapter 18: “This is the difference between Sparta and Athens—the Spartans trace their misfortune in the first war, and which terminated in the Pylus/Pylos affair as a misfortune…as lack of luck…which was deserved because they had broken the treaty. And here their piety, of course, is behind them. You can’t break oaths without paying for it—the gods will interfere then. But this is the Spartan belief. Whether Thucydides believes this is an entirely different question.”

Chapters 47-49 covers he Athenian generals’ council after the defeat at night and Nicias’ hesitancy to withdraw for fear of potential claims: “The nature of the Athenians are a major factor. And you must never forget that when you read that statement in Book II, Chapter 65 of Thucydides’ overall judgment on the overall Peloponnesian War at the end of his eulogy of Pericles. The war could have been won, and he speaks there of some derivative things—the rivalries between the people who would like to take the place of Pericles, but there was a deeper underlying reason and this was the natures of the Athenians which gave these particular rivalries their characters and made it possible, for example, it made possible the expulsion of Alcibiades and his recall. But Nicias is still hesitant because he has hopes that an agreement could be reached with Syracuse and the fear of what the Athenian demos might do to him if he were to leave Sicily.”

Chapter 50, the eclipse, and the Athenians waiting twenty-seven days before doing anything: ”So here this other factor which is crucial, and it is connected with Nicias’ character as a whole, is being given exaggeratedly to divination and frenzy…(one could also say superstition) and has the opposite of a helpful effect on the situation of the Athenians. “

End of Chapter 67 (Hobbes’ translation):
Overwhelmed with calamities, and forced by the difficulties which they [the Athenians] are in at this present, they are grown desperate; not trusting to their forces, but willing to put themselves upon the decision of fortune, as well as they may; that so they may either go out by force, or else make their retreat afterward by land, as men whose estates cannot change into the worse.

Strauss: “So the Athenians minded by the sober, cautious Nicias are brought into a situation in which they can only trust chance and not any human foresight or deliberation. So much has the situation deteriorated.” Nicias’ reply to this turn of events involves an appeal to anything that might help, including the ancestral gods—the more critical the situation, the more the gods are mentioned and called on.

Chapter 71, during a naval battle between the Athenians and Syracusians (from Hobbes’ translation):

For the Athenians, who had their whole fortune at stake in their galleys, were in such a fear of the event as they had never been in the like: and were thereby of necessity to behold the fight upon the water with very different passions . For the sight being near, and not looking all of them upon one and the same part, he that saw their own side prevail took heart, and fell to calling upon the gods, that they would not deprive them of their safety”.

Strauss: ”And they call on the gods only if there is hope, they might win. Not in the other case. Despair and piety—they are understood by Thucydides as incompatible.” As I mentioned in this post, Nicias’ speech before the battle was already dependent on hope. Here is another indicator that hope was all the Athenians had at this point. Or as highlighted by Thucydides, Nicias’ hope is greater than his fear.

Nicias’ speech in Chapter 77 stresses his hope and places faith in the gods. Strauss: “Now here we have, in this short passage, what one could call Nicias’ theology, in contra-distinction to the theology of the Athenian ambassadors on Melos. You remember what they say: ‘the stronger rules the weaker.’ And the gods are the stronger and they do what they want. And Nicias injects an ingredient of justice into the gods. But the question is his alternatives do not exhaust the possibilities but they are at extreme opposites which Thucydides faces.”

Thucydides’ short eulogy to Nicias in Chapter 86 uses Nicias’ theology while at the same time refuting its conclusion—Nicias least deserved this fate, yet that’s exactly what happened. The theology of the Athenian ambassadors at Melos is confirmed, even if Thucydides remains silent on this point.

Lecture 16

Book 8 opens with Thucydides remark that the Athenian population, upon finding out about the Sicilian debacle, blames everyone but themselves. Or rather they blame the public speakers and soothsayers who “encouraged them.” Strauss notes at the end of the first chapter a miracle occurs, but not the kind that would have been foreseen by soothsayers—the Athenians return to moderation and frugality along with additional oversight in the city (of elder men, not younger impressionable men). This resilience demonstrated by the Athenians, despite their earlier folly, extends the war.

Chapter 3 provides foreshadowing of Sparta’s behavior once the war is over as they levy money, demand hostages, and order ships to be built by their so-called allies. Evidently these other cities did not think Sparta would become like Athens if they won the war. While allies of Athens begin to revolt, a schism between Spartan kings in addition to conflicts within the Persian royal family occurs—no one is presenting a unitary front. Note Alcibiades’ surreptitious presence early in the book.

Strauss has touched on the inclusion of treaties in the history several times: “There are a few of these treaties in Book Eight, more than elsewhere. They are the Book Eight substitute for Thucydidean speeches. … A Thucydidean speech is a speech made by an individual or a group of ambassadors from a particular point of view, say Athenian/Spartan/Persian. Here these treaties are also from a particular point of view, say here Persian-Spartan versus Athens [Chapter 18], but not from one particular city, says Athens or Sparta or Persia, but of a number or two of them. So they approach the impartiality, as I called it, of Thucydides own logos.”

From Chapter 24, an important sentence comparing the Chians to the Spartans for joining “advisedness to prosperity; and the more their city increased, had carried the more respect in the administration thereof to assure it.” (Hobbes’ translation) Strauss: “So the Spartans are the top, from this point of view. They’re sober in good fortune. That’s quite an achievement. … An error of judgment does not bespeak hubris, overconfidence. It was a sober judgment at the time. It was a safe risk, but it was a risk nonetheless [by the Chians], as the facts show.”

Chapter 39 through 44 highlights some of the infighting in Sparta and friction between Sparta and Persia, which benefits the neutrals as well as Alcibiades. The Persians benefit by continued conflict in Greece. The treason by Phrynichus of Athens (deemed a wise man in Chapter 27) in Chapter 50 shows the moral order of the day—“Personal safety comes first.”

Thucydides’ comments on the rule of the Five Thousand (after the removal of the Four Hundred)—Chapter 97 (Hobbes’ translation):

“And now first (at least in my time) the Athenians seem to have ordered their state aright: which consisted now of a moderate temper, both of the few and of the many. And this was the first thing, that after so many misfortunes past made the city again to raise her head.”

Strauss: “That is an amazing statement for this book. Not Athens under Pericles but Athens under the Five Thousand, as reorganized, was the best regime. That it didn’t last very long, that is not an argument against it according to Thucydides because the principle underlying the whole thing was much more sensible. In Pericles’ case, the stability depended entirely on the survival of a single man—Pericles. Here there was a large group, of five thousand, the people who counted in the city who were in control.”

More topics discussed: Does the placement of this judgment near the end of the work mean the work is complete? How should we view the regard for the stability in Sparta versus the outstanding men of Athens? Accuracy of treaties: “Thucydides was not a model scientific historian—he was after bigger game.”

Lecture 17

I'm not going to quote from this lecture. What started off as an “are there any questions” quickly moves to points Strauss wants to reiterate from the course, although it is helpful here in the context of the overall history. A wide-ranging lecture and Q&A session in addition to a good recap of several of the major topics. Most of the notes I made have been raised elsewhere in the course, although it's helpful to hear them here so they can be put in context.

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