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Friday, July 29, 2011

#833 Words of wisdom from Thucydides

Does this sound familiar?  Thanks to Jonathan Van Hoose:

I keep coming back to this passage in Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War (5th Century BC), wanting to pull quotations from it, but it's hard to just pull out parts of it. Written by Thucydides, an Athenian general, this discussion of the civil war in Corcyra during the broader Peloponnesian War (itself a "world war" among coalitions of Greek states) contains so much keen and penetrating observation of how politics breaks down -- or how politics operates -- in intensely partisan environments.   It deserves to be quoted at length.  This is from Rex Warner's translation:      "To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.  What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one's blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever.  These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.  If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.      Revenge was more important than self-preservation.  And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available.  When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith.  It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence.  And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty.  They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.      Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils.  To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out.  Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable -- on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy -- but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves.  In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still.  Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour.  Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action.  As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.      As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world." --Thucydides 3:82-83.


1 comment:

Sandee said...

This nails our current flock of politicians in Washington. I do mean all of them on both sides of the aisle.

Have a terrific day. :)