Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Thucydides on Tyranny and Human Nature

Thucydides wrote only one book, which is one more than Socrates, The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians better known to us as The History of the Peloponnesian War. It is easy to understand why many wrongly assume Thucydides as an objective historian. He does not appeal to the gods or omens to explain the events of the war. The sine qua non of Thucydides’ history is an apparent naturalism—his historia, inquiry or investigation, is a study of nature and not random factoids and events like modern history entails.

The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians is the deepest and densest work of ancient Greek philosophy and it should be regarded as a work of philosophy more than just a dry work of history in the spirit of Leopold von Ranke’s maxim, wie es eigentlich gewesen. There are at least three identifiable themes that Thucydides concerns himself with: first is an investigation into the “law of nature” from which everything else flows (which I have written on more extensively in this article); second is a penetrating deconstruction of the cause of Athenian democratic imperialism and its collapse into tyranny; third is the place of justice in nature, or, more accurately by the end of the work, how justice stands apart from nature. All three themes, however, seem to be interrelated to each other.

If Thucydides remains known to modern audiences, it is likely for truncated international relations theory conceptions like the “Thucydides’ Trap,” or from high school history and social studies proclaiming him the first objective—scientific—historian. Such views concerning Thucydides are admittedly sad because Thucydides is the most profound thinker of the Greek world and every bit the rival of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle in the annals of great thinkers. Thucydides, in particular, probes the depth of human psychology, the soul, and human nature in a way that even Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle fail to be his equal.

It is well-known that Thucydides was not a proponent of Athenian democracy. Thucydides’ opposition to Athenian democracy may strike the modern reader as a reason to toss Thucydides out into the trash bin of history as just another intellectual sympathetic to authoritarianism (which is somewhat ironic given the idolization of other intellectual thinkers who are sympathetic to authoritarianism). But such a crass and apoplectic reaction misses the real reason why Thucydides was an opponent of the democratic imperialism of Athens: Athenian democracy was tyrannical, and democracy is not synonymous with benevolence as moderns have been socialized to believe. Thucydides everywhere casts the democracy of Athens as a tyrannical and uncontrollable force, a polity famous for its embrace of the passions which remained the principal reason why Plato and Aristotle were skeptical of democracy in their works.

Thucydides informs us in his opening pages that his history will be a “possession for all time” (a work that will “last forever” in Rex Warner’s most famous English translation). Thucydides’ statement that his work will be a possession for all generations comes in the aftermath of his statement about human nature being what it is, namely, erotic and evil. Unlike the post-Socratic philosophers, the stoics, and the Christian theologians, Thucydides decidedly breaks with the eventual prevailing outlook that humans are rational animals (an outlook that triumphed with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire which then dogmatized that anthropology); instead, Thucydides concludes that humans are erotic animals and this is simultaneously the root cause of Athenian greatness and tyranny.

The heart of Thucydides’ work is an investigation into the deep and darkest crevices of human nature and its relationship to the political. We are political animals. But the type of polis we live in is determined by the nature we inhabit.

During the Corinthian-Spartan congress after the Athenian intervention into the dispute between Corinth and Corcyra, the Corinthians are the first to bluntly and explicitly state that Athens is a tyrannical power, a polis turannos, a “dictator city.” This is the first time that Thucydides uses the word turannos in his work and it is, perhaps surprisingly, describing the very city that he served. The Corinthians even conclude by appealing to the Spartan love of liberty: Together they can “liberate” Greece from the tyranny thrust upon it by Athens. “Freedom for the Greeks” becomes the rallying cry of the Spartans and their allies.

In their appeal for Spartan aid, the Corinthians connect Athenian tyranny with its daring, impetuous, and energetic character. The Corinthians inform the Spartans that Athenian overconfidence and daring will be her own undoing. “Brave men when an attack is made on them, will reject peace and will go to war,” the Corinthian representatives say. Thus Thucydides begins his long penetrating journey into the darkness of the human soul and what causes it to have an instinctive proclivity toward the tyrannical.

The very daring and energetic character that the Corinthians say will be demise of Athens is precisely what the Athenians most enthusiastically proclaim during their debate with the Spartans on the eve of war. Athenian exceptionalism, the delegates inform the Spartans, is rooted in their cunning, daring, and intelligence which is unrivalled in Greece and the whole world. As the Athenians hubristically proclaim:

This is our record. At Marathon we stood out against the Persians and faced them single-handed. In the later invasion, when we were unable to meet the enemy on land, we and all our people took to our ships, and joined in the battle at Salamis. It was this battle that prevented the Persians from sailing against the Peloponnese and destroying the cities one by one; for no system of mutual defense could have been organized in face of the Persian superiority. The best proof of this is in the conduct of the Persians themselves. Once they had lost the battle at sea they realized that their force was crippled and they immediately withdrew most of their army. That, then was the result, and it proved that the fate of Hellas depended on her navy. Now, we contributed to this result in three important ways: we produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of the generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage. Out of the 400 ships, nearly two-thirds were ours: the commander was Themistocles, who was mainly responsible for the battle being fought in the straights, and this, obviously, was what saved us. You yourselves in fact, because of this, treated him with more distinction than you have treated any visitor from abroad.

In this remarkable passage the Athenians assert that their contribution during the Persian War outweighed the contributions of all the other Greek states. They also belittle the Spartans by saying that Marathon and Salamis were the decisive battles of the war and were won primarily because of Athenian ingenuity (which is historically true, the myth of Thermopylae is largely a poetic English fantasy created by Don Juan and other English philhellenes in the nineteenth century). Lastly, the Athenians make clear that Themistocles was the most intelligent and daring of the generals—a true Athenian in his character. Themistocles was even lauded by the Spartans afterward, a subtle knife into the heart of Spartan pride which manifests the truth of the Athenian assertion.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration is the most famous speech in The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians and is probably one of two most widely read speeches in the work (the other being the Melian Dialogue). But reading the speeches in isolation of the larger corpus of the work does a disservice to the reader. While we moderns may find much to love about Pericles’ proclamations of a city committed to tolerance, the public-private distinction, and freedom, Thucydides is not presenting Pericles and Periclean Athens in a benevolent light. Instead, Thucydides is subtly revealing the naked tyrannical character of Athens (and Pericles).

As we have approached the most famous speech in Thucydides’ work, Thucydides has revealed to us the character of the Athenians. The Athenians are an erotic people, an intense people, a passionate people. The daringness and cunning, the intelligence and energy, of the Athenians is rooted in the unprecedented liberation of eros which stemmed from the Persian War. Eros, in Greek, does not necessarily mean mere sexual desire as it does in English. Eros is about the intensity of the passions which can exert itself in sexual and non-sexual ways. Previously restrained, the erotic impulse deep in the heart of human nature has been unleashed by the Athenians in a century of exuberant activity and energy hitherto unknown and can rightly be said to be the cause of the “great motion” moving the Greek world.

Eros is that passion which is so powerful that it at once subjugates the object of its desire and subjugates the individual to the point of self-annihilation and enslavement to that which arouses it from its slumber. The eros of the Athenians is at once the cause of their “daring and cunning” which allowed them to forge an empire, open sea lanes, and expand across the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Persian War, but also the cause of their downfall and movement into tyranny. The division between the Athenian and Spartan character relate to the erotic impulse and its constraint or liberation. The Athenians are men liberated from the constraints placed upon eros which manifests itself in the energy and activity of that sublime city. The Spartans, by contrast, are men who restrain the erotic impulse and are a much more reserved and conservative people as a result.

At the acme of Pericles’ speech, the Athenian leader implores his fellow citizens to become “lovers” (erastai) of the city. Pericles’ Funeral Oration invokes erotic imagery to mobilize the passion of the people and direct it to outward ends. Pericles so movingly says: τὴν τῆς πόλεως δύναμιν καθ’ ἡμέραν ἔργῳ θεωμένους καὶ ἐραστὰς γιγνομένους αὐτῆς(set your sights on the great power of the city day after day and become her lovers). After imploring his fellow Athenians to become enraptured by the beauty and power of Athens, Pericles then shames the Athenians to complete their subjugation to the war effort, “When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.”

Periclean Athens was an honor-based society. The everlasting memorials and great tributes, to both good and evil things, were erected in the memory of the greatness of the previous generation of Athenians. The current generation of Athenians must match that “standard” by equaling or exceeding the daring and cunning of the dead. Pericles holds up the dead on a high standard to whip the Athenian public into an erotic frenzy—the glory and honor that the dead possess is a glory and honor that the living do not have. In order for the current generation to prove themselves as Athenians they must forcibly obtain the glory and honor which permeates all around them: The city the current generation inhabit and enjoy was built by the dead heroes whom Pericles has just eulogized in his speech.

Upon closer examination, and in the context of the whole movement of The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians, Thucydides is casting Pericles as a demagogic tyrant—a man who holds power by his control of the passions, the eros, of the citizenry. Plato famously said the tyrannical man is the individual completely controlled by lawless desire—such a figure is what we see in Thucydides’ Pericles. The historicity and facticity of the speech is irrelevant. (Most scholars, however, tend to agree that the speech is largely historical and accurate.) What matters is what Thucydides has written because the work is the work of Thucydides and not an objective history as nineteenth century Enlightenment English and German philhellenes reimagined. Thucydides exposes Pericles as a tyrant, but a very effective and dangerous tyrant who is effective and dangerous precisely on account of his ability to dig into the deep, dark, underbelly of human nature and unleash the erotic impulse in it.

Pericles as tyrant, and the tyrannical power of Periclean Athens more generally, rests on the ability to mobilize and weaponize the erotic impulses of the masses and then direct it to external ends. Thucydides, elsewhere in his history, informs us that Athens dreamt of an empire stretching from the Ionian Coast down to Libya and westward to Italy, Sicily, and even Carthage. In fact, when the Corcyraeans plead with the Athenians for aid, the Corcyraeans nudge the fact that they sit in a suitable geographic location for a westward expedition to Italy and Sicily, “Apart from all other advantages, Corcyra lies in an excellent position on the coastal route to Italy and Sicily, and is thus able to prevent naval reinforcements coming to the Peloponnese from there, or going from the Peloponnese to those countries.” The war is now the opportunity for Athens to unleash its erotic impulse to come into possession of the jewels which it does not have but desires: Italy, Carthage, and most importantly, Sicily.

Aesthetic sublimity and imagery are keys to unleashing the erotic impulse in humans. Thus Pericles puts on a rhetorical and flamboyant show to arouse the masses. The connectivity of the erotic to visuality and memory (something which is also contained in Homer) was already employed by Pericles when he called upon the people of the city to become lovers with it (thus subjugated the masses to the beloved, Athens).

Theoria, we must remember in Greek, is not about dry intellectual contemplation but ecstasy; theoria is about wonder, awe, and amazement—it is about the energetic rapture of being caught up in a frantic image. The imagery that Pericles conjures up to enslave the masses to their own passion is an amazing image, a grandiose image, an image of greatness, power, and beauty that borders on the self-flagellating. Thucydides links the arousal of the erotic with the frenzy of the ecstatic situated in theoria: a spectacular image that is the object of the erotic’s lust to dominate.

Since eros is the overwhelming passion that subjugates the object of its desire but also permits self-annihilation in service to the beloved, Thucydides begins to directly corroborate the erotic impulse unleashed by the Athenian demagogues, Pericles included, as the root cause for Athenian tyranny. The loving citizens, erestes, that Pericles calls upon the Athenians to become, permits their subjugation to the dreams and power of the abstract entity of Athens rather than remain attached to the more concrete and immediate demes which the citizens call their homes and labor in. The call to become erastai and the unleashing of the erotic impulse in the Athenians allows all borders, all distinctions, the public and private, restraint and impetuousness, to become blurred in one energetic and collective movement to captivity and self-immolation. All things private are now overwhelmed by the boundless ecstasy of eros.

The daring and cunning of the Athenians reaches a high watermark in the Sicilian Expedition. The debate to invade Sicily is the debate to manifest the erotic impulse which had been driving the Athenians to war in the first place. The call to invade Sicily is the very call which Pericles had issued to his erestes earlier in the war; when Pericles spoke of faraway memorials and glories won on fields and islands few have ever seen, the call to adventure and conquest in Sicily is the culmination of the erotic energy which Pericles had whipped up even if Pericles himself advised a defensive strategy to win the war by attrition.

Moreover, Alcibiades is the young lover whom Pericles had implored to take up the shield and sword for beautiful and powerful Athens. Alcibiades, who is the leader of the war party, intends to become the leader of the current generation of erastai to possession the glory and honor which has thus far eluded them. Alcibiades is, incidentally, also a man given entirely over to his own personal erotic desires. He is notoriously known throughout Athens as a transgressor of boundaries and norms; however eloquently he speaks and beautifully he dresses, few people trust a man like him who knows of no boundaries because eros knows of no boundaries until all has been subjugated to it in fantastical rapture.

The man tasked with trying to hold back the erotic storm is Nicias. Nicias is an honorable man. He is a conservative figure and his anti-erotic nature is seen in his presiding over the peace which bears his name and ended the first part of the Peloponnesian war. Nicias was also a noted opponent of Cleon and the democratic imperialists during the earlier phases of the war, as Thucydides now permits us to know more clearly, precisely because he was an anti-erotic figure. However, Nicias is a lone and decaying fence in the midst of a turbulent maelstrom rushing toward him. He is a tragic figure because the erotic overwhelms everything that it comes up against—so too is Nicias overwhelmed by the eros unleashed by Alcibiades during the debates.

Nicias may have been an honorable and pious man but because he is honorable and pious he must be defeated by the passionate energy of Alcibiades who is also much younger than the withering and conservative Nicias who is a decaying figure. When Alcibiades speaks he follows Pericles’ playbook. Just as Pericles was a tyrant and demagogue, Alcibiades is also a tyrant and demagogue because he weaponizes the erotic impulses of the masses for his own ends. Alcibiades speaks of past glories and triumphs, he speaks of glorious battles, faraway lands, and alludes to the Trojan War to excite the masses to march to their own destruction. Alcibiades mobilizes eros to become the Athenian that Pericles wanted the current generation to become, the great lovers who will surrender all to Athens—even their life to win renown and glory.

Alcibiades, as Thucydides presents him in this Periclean vein, is the model Athenian. He is young, energetic, and dashing. He is a passionate lover, a man who dwells and glories in the erotic which serves as the basis of his greatness. Alcibiades even concludes his speech by appealing to the exuberant love that the Athenians have which the Sicilians lack, “Do not change your minds about the expedition to Sicily on the grounds that we shall have a great power to deal with there. The Sicilian cities have swollen populations made out of all sorts of mixtures, and there are constant changes and rearrangements in the citizen bodies. This result is that they lack the feeling that they are fighting for their own fatherland.”

After Alcibiades ends his speech, Thucydides informs us of what transpired to the crowd assembled: καὶ ἔρως ἐνέπεσε τοῖς πᾶσιν ὁμοίως ἐκπλεῦσαι(an urgent passion to set sail fell upon all alike). Alcibiades has successfully unleashed and weaponized eros to launch in that most daring and Athenian of endeavors, the Sicilian Expedition. After informing us of the frenzy which gripped the audience, Thucydides proceeds to examine the psychological consequences of Alcibiades’ speech over the people, “The older men thought that they would either conquer the places against which they were sailing or, in any case, with such a large force, could come to no harm; the young had a longing for the sights and experiences of distant places, and were confident that they would return safely.”

All restraint, all concern for hearth and home, family and fire, have been obliterated and the only thing that the Athenians desire is to set sail and conquer Sicily. Most importantly, when Thucydides decides to speak about why young men so willingly gave themselves over to the mad dreams of Alcibiades and the imperialistic intent of Athens, he informs us that the image of honor and glory to be won was the primary motivating cause: τῆς τε ἀπούσης πόθῳ ὄψεως καὶ θεωρίας (the youth yearned for distant sights of grandeur). Just as Pericles had conjured up spectacular images in the minds of the Athenians to embark on the war, Alcibiades also conjures up spectacular images in the minds of the Athenians to sail to their doom. We see, again, the connection between eros and theoria.

Unfortunately for both Nicias and Alcibiades, neither achieved their personal goals. Nicias, being a respected and honorable man, is chosen to lead the invasion he had just spoken out against. Alcibiades, though he undeniably would like to see Athens consummate its empire with the conquest of Sicily, wanted to be the leader—the Achilles of the West—of the expedition but his own dishonorable and erotic character led to the assembly choosing Nicias over him. As we all know, Alcibiades eventually fled to Sparta after charges of blasphemy.

Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians investigates the cause of Athenian tyranny and locates it not in institutions, structures, or laws but in the very depth of the human soul. The deep and dark passion that is the erotic, that passion which subjugates and permits subjugation to the beloved, is the root cause of tyranny. The tyrants are those men who effectively arouse the eros of the masses and then weaponize it for impossible causes.

The enduring relevance of Thucydides is in his psychological probing of the dark depths of human nature to find that most terrifying of human impulses awaiting to be awoken from its dormant slumber. Once aroused, the erotic impulse sitting in each and every one of us can be weaponized for collective purposes wherein people lose all sense of restraint and rationality and collectively march off under banners unconcerned with their now enslaved status. The tyrants and demagogues of Athens were all men who aroused the eros of the masses and then weaponized it for their own self-serving ends.

Far from eulogizing Pericles, Thucydides presents the most famous statesman-general of ancient Athens as a tyrant and demagogue. The very speech which we read and fall in love with is a testament to Pericles’ dark genius. In falling for Pericles, we fall for tyranny.

Incidentally, everywhere we find the erotic impulse unleashed is followed by disaster. When Pericles unleashes the eros of Athens from his speech, we are immediately met by the terrible Plague which swept through the city and brought forth chaotic lawlessness (made ironic by the fact that Pericles praised the Athenians as lawful men who would never sink to the abyss of lawlessness). After Alcibiades unleashes the eros of the masses to sail to Sicily, the soldiers are met with disaster and even abandon the wounded in tearful shame and humiliation to save themselves before being captured by the victorious Syracusans and other Sicilians. Even the Corcyraeans, the great imitators of the Athens who exude a similar energy and cunning to the Athenians, soon fall into civil war where the most passionate men—the most erotic of individuals—are held up as exemplars and paragons of true virtue against the more restrained and cautionary souls who are now held in contempt.

The contrast to eros is nomos, or law. The physis, the nature, which Thucydides investigates and discovers is a terrifying nature. This nature is, as he says, “evil,” and permits the flourishing of demagoguery and tyranny once unleashed. It is that dark and terrible nature of the erotic which the Athenians tapped into and unleashed leading to the sublime and spectacular energy of democracy, imperialism, and architectural grandeur hitherto unmatched in the Hellenic world. But it came at a very high cost. Law is everywhere the victim of eros. Once law is decapitated by the impulsiveness of the erotic, death, destruction, and disaster follow.

The origins of tyranny lay in human nature according to Thucydides. The birth pangs of tyranny are found in the winds of the erotic which sit in the deep and dark underbelly of all humans waiting to be aroused and unleashed in a terrible and terrifying maelstrom. We would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of Thucydides and not the fools who can only conceive of institutional tyranny as if all problems are mere socio-economic realities. Of course, coming to the terrifying reality that the problem is us (as Thucydides does) and not the law (as moderns do), marks a rejection of the very modern project we have all become enslaved to.


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