Monday, December 31, 2012

Insomnolence, Greek historians, New Year's tidings, et cetera & more et cetera.

Oof. I arrived in Jersey at about 10:00 AM yesterday morning and slept until 6:00 PM. Took a nap from 5:00 to 7:00 AM and NOW I AM WIDE AWAKE. My circadian rhythm is doing the polka.

An update about what I've been reading lately is good a way as any of perking myself up and getting primed to stay awake for another sixteen hours.

I've been reading a book called The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, which is basically a series of essays about ancient Greek thought, culture, and primarily literature. Since I seem to be the only person my age on the planet who reads big dry texts by Greek historians for pleasure, I was eager to see the astute Hamilton's writeups on Herodotus, Xenophon, and especially Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War, an account of the conflict between Athens and Sparta that ruined ancient Greece.

I am a Thucydides evangelist. I've given it to people as birthday presents. I often place my copy in friends' and plead with them to take it and read it, for the love of god read it. I want to talk about it with other people, dammit. (As long as I'm casting useless wishes into the ether, I would also like more non-Poles to read Bolesław Prus novels.) But since my efforts are useless and nobody else I know has read Thucydides, I leaped on The Greek Way's chapter on him and his History like a desperate alcoholic on a can of turpentine.

If you're a person who's read the book only once, Hamilton will make you want to read it again. If you've never read it before, she offers an eloquent pitch on its behalf -- much better than my usual overexcited DUDE YOU'VE GOT TO READ THIS JUST POWER THROUGH IT MAN I PROMISE YOU WON'T REGRET IT. Let's see an excerpt!
Knowledge for the sake of knowledge had little attraction for the Athenians. They were realists. Knowledge was to be desired because it had value for living; it led men away from error to right action. Thucydides wrote his book because he believed that men would profit from a knowledge of what brought about [the Peloponnesian War] precisely as they profit from a statement of what causes a deadly disease. He reasoned that since the nature of the human mind does not change any more than the nature of the human body, circumstances are bound to repeat themselves, and in the same situation men are bound to act in the same way unless it is shown to them that such a course in other days ended disastrously. When the reason why a disaster came about is perceived people will be able to guard against that particular danger. "It will perhaps be found," he writes, "that the absence of storytelling in my work makes it less attractive to listen to, but I shall be satisfied if it is consider useful by all who wish to know the plain truth of events which happened and will according to human nature happen again in the same way. It was not written for the moment, but for all time."

. . . .Extraordinary as this statement is, it is proved true by the book he wrote....[H]e was able "to watch quietly the course of events," free from bitterness and bias, and to produce a history as coldly impartial as if it had dealt with a far-distant past. He looked at Athens exactly as he did at Sparta, with no concern to give a bit of praise here or blame there. What occupied his mind was something above and beyond the deadly and destructive contest he was recounting. He saw his subject in its eternal aspect -- sub specie æternitatis. Underneath the shifting surface of the struggle between two little Greek states he had caught sight of a universal truth. Throughout his book, through the endless petty engagements on sea and land which he relates with such scrupulous care, he is pointing out what war is, why it comes to pass, what it does, and, unless men learn better ways, must continue to do. His History of the Peloponnesian War is really a treatise on war, its causes and its effects.

The War broke out in 431 [BCE]. A succession of petty quarrels had led up to it, insufficient, all put together, to give any adequate reason for a fight to the death between the two chief states of Greece. . . .

The real cause of the war was not this or that trivial disturbance, the revolt of a distant colony, the breaking of an unimportant treaty, or the like. It was something far beneath the surface, deep down in human nature, and the cause of all wars ever fought. The motive power was greed, that strange passion for power and possession which no power and no possession satisfy. Power, Thucydides wrote, or its equivalent wealth, created the desire for more power, more wealth. The Athenians and the Spartans fought for one reason only -- because they were powerful, and therefore were compelled (the words are Thucydides' own) to seek more power. They fought not because they were different -- democratic Athens and oligarchical Sparta -- but because they were alike. The war had nothing to do with differences in ideas or with considerations of right and wrong. Is democracy right and the rule of the few over the many wrong? To Thucydides the question would have seemed an evasion of the issue. There was no right power. Power, whoever wielded it, was evil, the corruptor of men.

I'm forcing myself to stop typing -- otherwise I'd just keep transcribing. It's fun to peruse this slowly, and I would very much like other people to read it. But let's jump ahead.

Some pages later, Hamilton arrives at the catastrophic failure that was the Athenian excursion to conquer Sicily (a neutral territory that had virtually nothing to do Sparta or the affairs of mainland Greece) and proceeds to reemphasize and illustrate that Thucydides is not nearly as interested in battlefield maneuvers as he is in the effects of war (and the avarice that generally drives it) on a society and its people:

There has never been, there could not be, a more complete defeat. To inflict on the enemy what the Athenians suffered in Sicily is still the brightest hope that can animate a nation going to war. But it was not the worst disaster the war brought Athens.  The climax of Thucydides' history is his picture of what happened within the city to the individual Athenians during the years of fighting. It is a picture of the disintegration of a great people. He shows how swift the process was by two stories he tells, one early in the war, the other late. The first is about the revolt of an important island tributary. Athens sent a fleet to subdue her and then in furious anger voted to kill the men and enslave the women and children. In the debate before the vote was taken the popular leader of the moment [Cleon, painted by Thucydides as the epitome of what we would today call a "demagogue"] warned the Athenians not to be misled by the three deadly foes of empire: pity, enjoyment of discussion, and the spirit of fair dealing. He carried the meeting, and a ship was dispatched with the fatal order. Then, still true to the spirit of Euripides' Athens [Hamilton earlier cites a line from Euripides's Suppliants: "Athens of all cities is compassionate"], the Athenians came to themselves. A second ship was sent to overtake the first, or at any rate to get to the island in time to prevent the massacre. The eagerness was such that the rowers were fed at their oars, taking no rest until they landed in time.

The second story concerns another offending island, seven years later. This was little Melos, of no importance in herself, who only wanted to be neutral. But those seven years had left their mark on Athens. This time she did not have to be warned against pity and fair dealing. The conversation Thucydides gives between the envoys of the Athenians and the men of Melos shows what war did to the people who had stood, as Herodotus said, in perpetual choice between the lower and the higher, always for the higher.
Hamilton goes on to paraphrase what scholars generally call the Melian Dialogue. But since I love you more than she does, I'm giving it all to you, and it's well worth your time to read in its chilling entirety. Ctrl-V'd from The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book V:

Some last-minute notes to aid reading comprehension:

1.) Lacedaemonians: read "Spartans"
2.) "...because we overthrew the Mede:" Athens led Greece to victory during the second Persian invasion, and this became its pretense for installing and expanding an Athenian hegemony. (Side note: The Spartan effort at Thermopylae, popularized by Frank Miller's 300, only stalled the Persians. It was the Athenian navy that struck the decisive victory against Xerxes's forces at Salamis. THE MORE YOU KNOW!)
2.5) Speaking of Frank Miller and 300, I would like to take a moment to point readers to one of the best blog posts any blogger has ever blogged. (After they read the Melian Dialogue, of course.)
3.) Brasidas: Spartan general
4.) Hellas: read "Greece" (hey, just in case)

Athenians. Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people, in order that we may not be able to speak straight on without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before the few), what if you who sit there were to pursue a method more cautious still? Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.

Melians. To the fairness of quietly instructing each other as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.

Athenians. If you have met to reason about presentiments of the future, or for anything else than to consult for the safety of your state upon the facts that you see before you, we will give over; otherwise we will go on.

Melians. It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However, the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country; and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way which you propose.

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences -- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us -- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians. As we think, at any rate, it is expedient -- we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest -- that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if they can be got to pass current. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.

Athenians. The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians. And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians. Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians. So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians. No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians. Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians. As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.

Melians. But do you consider that there is no security in the policy which we indicate? For here again if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

Athenians. Why, the fact is that continentals generally give us but little alarm; the liberty which they enjoy will long prevent their taking precautions against us; it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians. Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians. Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians. But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.

Athenians. Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.

Melians. You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.

Athenians. When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.

Melians. But it is for this very reason that we now trust to their respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians. Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians. But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians. Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. At least, such is their distrust of their home resources that it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbour; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians. But they would have others to send. The Cretan Sea is a wide one, and it is more difficult for those who command it to intercept others, than for those who wish to elude them to do so safely. And should the Lacedaemonians miscarry in this, they would fall upon your land, and upon those left of your allies whom Brasidas did not reach; and instead of places which are not yours, you will have to fight for your own country and your own confederacy.

Athenians. Some diversion of the kind you speak of you may one day experience, only to learn, as others have done, that the Athenians never once yet withdrew from a siege for fear of any. But we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore show great blindness of judgment, unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this. You will surely not be caught by that idea of disgrace, which in dangers that are disgraceful, and at the same time too plain to be mistaken, proves so fatal to mankind; since in too many cases the very men that have their eyes perfectly open to what they are rushing into, let the thing called disgrace, by the mere influence of a seductive name, lead them on to a point at which they become so enslaved by the phrase as in fact to fall wilfully into hopeless disaster, and incur disgrace more disgraceful as the companion of error, than when it comes as the result of misfortune. This, if you are well advised, you will guard against; and you will not think it dishonourable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best. Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

Hamilton resumes:

The Melians were unpractical and they fought. They were conquered with little trouble to the Athenians. She put the men to death and made slaves of the women and children. She had reached a point where she did not care to use fine words about ugly facts, and the reason was that they had ceased to look ugly to her. Vices by then, Thucydides says, were esteemed as virtues. The very meaning of words changed: deceit was praised as shrewdness, recklessness held to be courage, loyalty, moderation, generosity, scorned as proofs of weakness. "The good will which is the chief element in a noble nature was laughed out of court and vanished."

On that peppy note, I need breakfast and a vat of coffee.

Have a festive and optimistic New Year, all. If you are of the habit of making a personal resolution on December 31, choose a good one.

1 comment:

  1. I actually picked up The Landmark Thucydides from a closing Borders like 4 years ago for like $7.50. I haven't read it, but perhaps I'll pick it up next. And as far as Prus goes, I had never even heard of him, but I read a synopsis of Pharaoh and it sounds up my alley. There's a Hungarian novel called Metropole that I loved that had the same fate befall's completely unknown, here in the US at least.