Corruption of Language and Morality in History of the Peloponnesian War

In a celebrated analysis of the corruption of language and its relationship with deteriorated character, Thucydides reflects on the symbiotic relationship of language with moral character. Language is clear, meaningful, and understandable when there is moral clarity, meaning, and understanding in the human animal. That is, the clarity of language ebbs and flows with the moral character of the speaker and the populace at large. A morally upright person speaks clearly and doesn’t hide his intentions. A morally corrupt person speaks in tongues, is vague and misleading, so as to hide his intentions. Words, according to Thucydides, do not as much change meaning overtime, per se, as they change with this ebb and flow of personal character most especially in matters moral.

Concerning the civil war in Corcyra, which ripped the Corcyraean civil society apart, Thucydides notes:

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. 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.

The prescient nature of Thucydides is almost mind-numbing considering how long ago he wrote; especially to those moderns who have fallen for the Whig disposition that the ancients were all contemptible, ignorant, and stupid men with no wisdom to pass on to posterity.

Thucydides’ reflection is arguably the first capturing of what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of values.” Reservation, moderation, and compromise—once considered the worthy virtues that a man should possess—were now held in absolute contempt. What mattered was zeal, which is a lack of restraint; Aristotle would call it excess. But this excess was now what was precisely extolled in the confused landscape of Corcyra in her civil war. As Thucydides says, “Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.”

One could say that the destruction of the social fabric, the social and political edifice, of Corcyra reverted man to his primal nature—like man in the Hobbesian state of nature. Those “chains” that constrain man’s libido that Jean-Jacques Rousseau deplores as having enslaved man at the beginning of his Social Contract, are the chains necessary for ethical community and ethical life, social life, to emerge and flourish. Moreover, men cannot know each other because of their conniving and backstabbing intentions; all are kept at a distance from one another and no relationships can be formed. Even among the fanatical elite there can never be true trust among each other as the other may be plotting against me in the long-run. One might look to internal party and political struggles in nascent Hitlerian Germany and Soviet Russia as perfect evidence of this.

What Thucydides also recognizes is how clarity, relationship, and functionality exists in a society of trust—trust, that fabric of social life that Corcyra now lacked as it had fallen into civil war and civil strife. Language, that phenomenon which humans possess to know truth and build relationships, is tied to the moral character of individuals and the moral character of society itself. A society that is virtuous and built on trust has a clarity of language that perpetuates virtue and trust through the generations. A society that is corrupt, embraces fanaticism to the point of man becoming beast, and one where trust is absent, sees its language corrupted to “fit with the change[s]” occurring all around. In another way of putting it, “Can you trust someone’s word?” Because someone’s word, someone’s speech, is the outward extension of their inner character. An honorable man is honorable not simply because of his character, but because his word can be counted on; his speech reflects his character. A dishonorable man is dishonorable because his character is reflected in his word, his speech; a dishonorable man’s language cannot be trusted and, in not being able to be trusted, we can never truly build a relationship with such a person. Unable to build relationships with such people society cannot come about. In a society that falls into this confusion of language and morality it is not that society cannot come about but that the existing society collapses; the animalistic power struggle of man’s libido is released as a result of this moral confusion and corruption of language.

In this lawless environment, Thucydides remarks how nobility was no longer a virtue but something altogether untrue and a sham. There was no such thing as nobility. All that there was naked violence. The redemptive cult of violence is the primal nature of man. In fact, this is reality. Or so the base and lawless thought. And the base and lawless came to dwell in this naked violence and thrived in its naked glory. As Aristotle said, separated from law and justice, man becomes the worst of animals.

 

*This is part two of a four part series examining Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can find part one, three, and four by clicking on their respective links.

3 thoughts on “Corruption of Language and Morality in History of the Peloponnesian War

  1. Pingback: Athenian Exceptionalism and Pericles’ Funeral Oration | Discourses on Minerva

  2. Pingback: Geopolitics and the Cause of the Peloponnesian War | Discourses on Minerva

  3. Pingback: Geopolitics and the Melian Dialogue | Discourses on Minerva

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