Saturday, January 27, 2007


Lessons from Thucydides - Part 1

Nicholas Kristof has drawn the connection between the American invasion of Iraq and the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The similarities are eerie, although I will argue in subsequent posts that there are many uncanny presentiments for us in Thucydides. In this post, I thought I would look in more detail at the argument over the Sicilian Expedition.

You will recall that the wars between the Athenian coalition and the Spartan coalition lasted from 431 to 404 BCE. It is generally felt that a foolish Athenian decision to capitalize on its advantage over the Spartans in 415 by attacking Syracuse led, thanks to an overwhelming defeat in 413, to the overthrow of the Athenian government in 411 and its eventual loss of the war. The arguments for and against invasion are summarized by Thucydides in Book 6 of The History of the Peloponnesian War. (I shall be quoting from the online version maintained by the MIT Internet Classics Archive, using the translation of Richard Crawley.)

The anti-invasion argument was made by Nicias, who spoke despite the fact that the decision to invade had already been made and despite (or perhaps because of) his position as one of the selected leaders of the fleet. Kristof does not go into Nicias’s speech, so I will.

Nicias first stated that he spoke from neither fear nor eagerness for glory.
[I]ndividually, I gain in honour by such a course, and fear as little as other men for my person- not that I think a man need be any the worse citizen for taking some thought for his person and estate; on the contrary, such a man would for his own sake desire the prosperity of his country more than others- nevertheless, as I have never spoken against my convictions to gain honour, I shall not begin to do so now, but shall say what I think best.

And then, he goes directly to the nub of the argument.
Against your character any words of mine would be weak enough, if I were to advise your keeping what you have got and not risking what is actually yours for advantages which are dubious in themselves, and which you may or may not attain. I will, therefore, content myself with showing that your ardour is out of season, and your ambition not easy of accomplishment.

I affirm, then, that you leave many enemies behind you here to go yonder and bring more back with you.

Of course, the Athenians were not on the lookout for establishing democracy in the far west. Syracuse was a Greek colony and the point of the expedition was to reconquer and hold it. Nicias was firm on the difficulties.
[The Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise.

Thus, if it were necessary to go, it would not be wise to linger.

The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible. We all know that that which is farthest off, and the reputation of which can least be tested, is the object of admiration; at the least reverse they would at once begin to look down upon us, and would join our enemies here against us.

One might even think that Thucydides anticipated the Clinton surplus and Ahmed Chalabi in Nicias’s speech.
We should also remember that we are but now enjoying some respite from a great pestilence and from war, to the no small benefit of our estates and persons, and that it is right to employ these at home on our own behalf, instead of using them on behalf of these exiles whose interest it is to lie as fairly as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, and who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude, and if they fail will drag down their friends with them.

Nicias closes with a call to courage.
I, in my turn, summon any of the older men … not to let himself be shamed down, for fear of being thought a coward if he do not vote for war, but, remembering how rarely success is got by wishing and how often by forecast, to leave to them the mad dream of conquest, and as a true lover of his country, now threatened by the greatest danger in its history, to hold up his hand on the other side… [T]he virtue of men in office is briefly this, to do their country as much good as they can, or in any case no harm that they can avoid.

Alcibiades was the archetypal slimy villain, changing sides whenever it suited him and leading the enthusiastic Athenians into a terribly mistaken expedition. He argues that the Athenians must help their allies in Sicily, both to maintain their empire and (with chilling presentiment) because enemies must be fought in foreign lands to keep them from coming over to fight in the homeland.
They are our confederates, and we are bound to assist them, without objecting that they have not assisted us. We did not take them into alliance to have them to help us in Hellas, but that they might so annoy our enemies in Sicily as to prevent them from coming over here and attacking us. It is thus that empire has been won, both by us and by all others that have held it, by a constant readiness to support all, whether barbarians or Hellenes, that invite assistance; since if all were to keep quiet or to pick and choose whom they ought to assist, we should make but few new conquests, and should imperil those we have already won.

Accordingly, he favors preemptive war.
Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.

Alcibiades thus promises victory and the worth of war.
Be convinced, then, that we shall augment our power at home by this adventure abroad, and let us make the expedition, and so humble the pride of the Peloponnesians by sailing off to Sicily, and letting them see how little we care for the peace that we are now enjoying; and at the same time we shall either become masters, as we very easily may, of the whole of Hellas through the accession of the Sicilian Hellenes, or in any case ruin the Syracusans, to the no small advantage of ourselves and our allies.

Oh how wrong he was.

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