Classics Essays Political Philosophy

The Geopolitics of Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”

Thucydides is generally not considered a philosopher in the sense that Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle are. David Bolotin, for instance, said, “[Thucydides] is not generally thought of as a political philosopher.”[1] Yet his only work, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians,[2] is the densest and most profound work that deals with philosophy from antiquity. If political philosophy concerns itself with the nature of the human city, as Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics do, then Thucydides’ work stands alongside those canonical classics as a volume concerned with the question of the human city and is therefore a work of political philosophy.

Classical political philosophy presupposes nature. This is what demarcates it from modern political philosophy, or science, which ultimately rejects the notion of an established nature which necessarily erodes political philosophy into malleable political ideology.[3] Insofar that classical political philosophy presupposes nature, classical political philosophy also dichotomizes itself between the holy city and the naturalistic city;[4] that is, to borrow a division given to posterity by St. Augustine, the city of God and the city of man. What role do the gods play in the origins and development of the city, and what role does human will, geography, and cunning play in the origins and development of the city?

In the confines of classical political philosophy Thucydides seems modern because he rejects the holy city and concentrates solely on the naturalistic city. Insofar that Thucydides’ city is premised on a naturalistic sine qua non he is perceived as objective and scientific by modern readers who share his metaphysical axiom which presupposes naturalism. Insofar that Thucydides’ city is premised on a foundational nature which explains things, a nature that is established and knowable, he is thoroughly ancient rather than modern. For Thucydides, human nature is real,[5] and the things that make up the natural world have knowable natures—thus permitting Thucydides to examine the question of the law of nature and our relationship to it. In doing so, Thucydides rightly states that his work “was done to last forever,” or, more precisely, will be heard forever.[6]

To understand Thucydides’ law of nature one must carefully examine the many speeches contained in his work; for it is through the speeches that Thucydides examines the question of nature and the human city. What moderns interpret as the objective wie es eigentlich gewesen is, in actuality, the particular project of a particular man: Thucydides. As Leo Strauss said, “[E]very political speech serves a political purpose.”[7] Some historians have recently acknowledged Thucydides as a partisan revisionist of sorts. Donald Kagan, for instance, has written about Thucydides as a revisionist historian responding to popular criticism and opinion on the issue of the Peloponnesian War.[8]

But Thucydides is doing more than responding to the critiques and concerns of his fellow Athenians. He is engaged in a systematic attempt at understanding the working of politics and war through the acceptance of the axiom sine qua non which compelled the war between Athens and Sparta and why the various powers acted the way they did, thereby carving out a space for human agency, cunning, and intelligence in the outcome of events and not presenting mankind as mere puppets of the gods. It is now well-documented that Thucydides’ work is unified by the theme of  justice and compulsion, of right and necessity,[9] but it is also the case – to my mind – that the question of nature, more specifically the law of nature, is the more immediate unifying theme of the work to which the themes of justice and compulsion are contingent.

De Rerum Natura

I have proposed that Thucydides is a political thinker centrally concerned with the question of the working of politics through a law of nature which compels cities to act in a manner befitting of their nature. This presupposes that all cities are not the same and that different cities will have different “constitutions,” so to speak, to follow. More than any written code of law the more natural code of law inscribed into the city rests on its geographic situatedness determining its geopolitical nature. This is revealed in the first major speech written by Thucydides, the speech debate between the Corcyraeans and Corinthians before the Athenians.

The speeches by the Corcyraean and Corinthian representatives before the Athenians is the first dialogue contained in the work. The speech follows the Corinthian defeat at Epidamnus. Epidamnus, as Thucydides informs us, “is right of the approach to the Ionic Gulf.”[10] Epidamnus is a maritime city and the colony of a colony—Corcyra. The incident that supposedly sparked the war was the democratic overthrow of the oligarchic ruling class which fled in exile to the mother colony, Corcyra, and petitioned for redress and restoration. Corcyra complied. The new democratic regime of Epidamnus appealed to Corinth, itself the mother city of Corcyra which was originally established a Corinthian colony, for help and Corinth complied. Here we see that political constitutions bared no marker on Epidamnus—Athens was the most radical democratic polity at the time but they did not ask Athens for any help.

What began as a minor political incident soon boiled over to give way to the deadliest war in ancient Greek history. Corcyra achieved a major victory which granted Corcyra “complete control of the seas in her own area.”[11] This is no little fact to overlook since the question of maritime prowess and situatedness will become a major issue raised by the Corcyraean representatives when petitioning for an alliance with Athens. While not yet disclosed to the reader by Thucydides when the Corcyraean representatives ask for Athenian help, Corcyra’s location as a port city with open access to Sicily undoubtedly played a factor in the Athenian decision to ally with Corcyra. For Thucydides does later reveal that the imperialist ambition of Athens dreamt of a maritime imperium from the coasts of Ionia, down to Libya, and west to Sicily and beyond; Pericles himself states, “The whole world before our eyes can be divided into two parts, the land and the sea, each of which is valuable and useful to man. Of the whole of one of these parts you are in control – not only of the area at present in your power, but elsewhere too, if you want to go further. With your navy as it is today there is no power on earth . . . which can stop you from sailing where you wish.”[12]

Athens was the predominant maritime polis among the Greek city-states prior to the war. Sparta, by geographic contrast, was the predominant continent (or land) polis among the Greek city-states and remained the most powerful military force in Greece when the war erupted. In fact, Athens’ early success against Sparta shocked much of Greece which expected the Spartan-led alliance to easily defeat the more energetic but militarily weaker city. What is also noticeable about the contrasting alliances led by Athens and Sparta is that the Athenian-led Delian League was comprised of most of the seafaring cities of Hellas while the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League, with a few exceptions, was comprised mostly of the land-based cities of Hellas.

This maritime-continental division recapitulates itself through the speeches of the various actors, named and unnamed, throughout the work. In conjunction with the speeches, there is often talk of physis, of nature, the law of nature or “enemies by nature.” Athens’ control of the sea was something the city used for its economic and political advantages. Through her navy Athens controlled the corn and grain routes out of the Black Sea. Through her navy, which was the primary arm of her power, Athens enforced the supremacy of Athenian coinage throughout her empire—forcing even her allies to adopt her monetary system. Her allies were also required to participate in Athenian festivals.

Sparta may have been the most powerful military force in ancient Greece, and although the Athenians were undeniably engaged in an imperial project, this does not mean Sparta was not without her share of questionable actions. All male citizens were rigorously trained in martial arts without exception. Athens, by contrast, relied on a citizen-army to be called up in times of crisis; the Athenian military was not premised on forced militarization. Sparta maintained an oligarchic rule on agrarian slavery, something largely foreign to the commercial-oriented city-state of Athens and her allies. The Spartan army necessarily served as the police force to keep the large population of slaves (which surpassed the native Spartan population) servile and subservient. During the course of the war the slave population swelled as Spartan took slaves from the captured enemy. The structures of the Spartan regime were premised on the maintenance of the oligarchic ruling class and its subordinate military institutions premised on Sparta’s land-based agrarian constitutional nature.

The Speech of the Corcyraeans and Corinthians

The speech of the Corcyraean representatives focuses on the futility of their earlier isolationism and their status as a sea power. This is interesting because the manner by which the Corcyraeans try to persuade the Athenians for help is by striking at what was the heart of Athenian exceptionalism—her cunning, intelligence, and ingenuity. When the Athenian representatives debate the Spartans over the declaration of war, and when Pericles eulogizes the Athenian dead in his magnanimous Funeral Oration, it is Athenian cunning and intelligence that is extolled, subtly and overtly, in both speeches. The Corcyraeans, aware of the exceptionalist psychology of Athens, present themselves as being imitators of the Athenian psyche insofar that they recognize and openly admit of the futility of their earlier isolationism. Only an intelligence people could realize their wrongheadedness and adopt innovative and new policies to counteract it, “We used to think that our neutrality was a wise thing, since it prevented us being dragged into danger by other people’s policies; now we see it clearly as a lack of foresight and as a source of weakness.”[13]

That the Corcyraeans begin by acknowledging their lack of foresight, they thereby paradoxically inform the Athenians that they are, in fact, a cunning and ingenious people who are ready to embrace adventure and innovation. After appealing to Athens that they would also be acting justly, because the Corcyraeans are the “victims of aggression,”[14] they subsequently pivot to the geopolitical reality which has moved them to seek their alliance with Athens. “[W]e are, after you,” the representatives state, “the greatest naval power in Hellas. You would have paid a lot of money and still have been very grateful to have us on your side. Is it not, then, an extraordinary stroke of good luck for you to have us coming over voluntarily into your camp, giving ourselves up to you without involving you in any dangers or any expenses?”[15] Near the end of their appeal, the Corcyraeans bluntly state the most significant geopolitical reason why the Athenians should help them, “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.”[16]

The speech of the Corcyraeans follows a process of development reaching geopolitical revelation. It begins by acknowledging the futility of isolationism as a maritime power. Maritime powers are naturally internationalist; thus Corcyra is finally embracing its geographic constitutional nature by aligning with Athens. This alliance with Athens is beneficial to the Athenians precisely because Athens is the predominant maritime civilization in Hellas. In acknowledging the futility of their previous isolationism the Corcyraeans present themselves as imitators of Athenian intelligence and cunning. They are able to recognize their faults and change accordingly. Their ambition also makes them natural allies for the Athenians who value cunning and intelligence above all other things in men.

After acknowledging the wrongheadedness of their earlier policies, which esoterically presents themselves as being humans akin to the Athenians, the Corcyraeans then shift to explaining why the maritime reality of their city has led them to embrace internationalism and seek an alliance with the Athenians. It is only natural, once one discovers their nature, to embrace and embody it. Therefore, it is only natural that the Corcyraeans align themselves with the master maritime imperium having discovered their physis.

Physis, in Greek, is not something static. Physis entails growth and maturation. Nature is something one grows into and must eventually embody. Failure to grow and embody one’s nature has disastrous consequences. In the conflict with the Corinthians the Corcyraeans have discovered their nature and discovered who is the god of this particular geographic nature: Athens. Thus they invoke Athens’ maritime nature in their appeal for aid like a devotee would his god. It is noteworthy that the practical and pragmatic reasons for an alliance is what the Corcyraeans also drive home with. While stating that they are victims of aggression and that Athens would be acting justly in aiding a victimized power, along with advancing the cause of liberty by liberating Corcyra from the tyranny of Corinth, the bulk of the speech rests on the maritime advantages that Athens would gain if coming to Corcyra’s aid.

When the Corinthians rebut the Corcyraean argument, the Corinthians rest their argument not on any geopolitical nature but on justice and wisdom. The Corinthians also assail the character of the Corcyraeans as deceitful and untrustworthy, “Though they are colonists are ours, they have never been loyal to us and are now at war with us.”[17] This, the Corinthians argue, is the main manner by which they mask their wrongdoings and selfish pursuits. The Corinthians end their speech by simply appealing to common justice, honor, and nobility—the Athenians can be on the side of justice, honor, and nobility by not aligning with the devious, deceitful, and rebellious Corcyraeans. The Corinthians even say, “Do not be influenced by the fact that they are offering you a great naval alliance.”[18]

In between the lines there is a commentary over the distinction between nature and convention. The Corcyraeans make their appeal to nature. Nature is, as Thucydides reveals in his discussion on the civil war in Corcyra and the Melian dialogue, that which is in one’s self-interest. This self-interested nature is, of course, rooted in a geographic reality. The Corinthians appeal to the conventions of justice, honor, and nobility and end by arguing against geopolitical realism. “The right course, surely, is either for you to preserve a strict neutrality or else to join us against them.”[19] According to the Corinthians, the legal course of action is that the mother nation has ruleship over their colonies and that colonies ought to be loyal to their mother nations. This is the precedent of legal right. If the Athenians ally with the Corcyraeans they would be putting themselves against the side of legal right. Furthermore, in such an action the naked self-interest of Athens would be revealed for the whole of the Greek world to see. To help the Corcyraeans, the Corinthians state, would be to “aid and abet them in their crimes.”[20]

But what determines criminality? Legal right and precedent determine criminality. The Corinthian argument is premised on the concept of legal right determined by conventional law and common precedent. Law maintains that a colony is the possession of the mother nation and that the colony should be subservient to the laws and customs of the mother nation. Insofar that Corcyra has always been disloyal and promulgating its own judicial system to serve their interest and subvert Corinthian oversight,[21] the Corcyraeans have long been engaged in criminal activity by the legal precedent of custom and using their “geographical situation” to their own self-advantage.[22] For the Athenians to help the Corcyraeans would mean that the Athenians have no concern for legal right and precedent and be swayed entirely by the law of nature which is self-interest dictated by geographic reality. That is precisely the argument made by the Corcyraeans while veiled with the beautiful but deceitful language of liberty and victimization which the Corinthians show great insight in recognizing and rebutting in their speech.

The law of nature, not the law of legal convention, triumphed in Athens’ decision to ally with Corcyra. As the war between Corcyra and Corinth raged, the Athenians sent a small detachment of ships led by Lacedaimonius to aid the Corcyraeans. The ships participated in the Battle of Sybota where both sides claimed victory. Yet it was the Athenian arrival that prevented the destruction of the Corcyraean navy and thus allowing Corcyra to recover from what would have otherwise been a disastrous defeat. This intervention by Athens which saved Corcyra from destruction thus giving Corinth the legal right to declare war on Athens which would eventually drag Sparta into the war and give birth to the war of “great movement.”

Maritime Realities and Athenian Exceptionalism

The speeches between the Athenian and Spartan representatives over the declaration of war between the two great Hellenic powers in the middle of the first book is the most nakedly exceptional of the Athenians speeches. The speech borders on excessive pride and hubris but also contains some of the most remarkable language in the text. It is during the speech that the psychology of Athenian exceptionalism is fully manifested. Yet a closer inspection of the exceptionalism contained in the speech reveals an undeniable maritime basis for it.

We have already established the geopolitical and geographic realities of nature in Thucydides as a leading factor for the imperial thesis of Athens. The world, according to Pericles, can be divided into land and sea, both of which have their usefulness to man. But it is the sea which Athens dominates which permits her navy unrestricted access to the seas. The Athenians can go wherever they want to go because of this mastery of the sea. The speech by the Athenians at Sparta, giving an apologia for the Athenian Empire, rests on the maritime reality of Athens and, it seems, the superiority of sea to land and what the sea brings to the usefulness and progressive development of man.

When the Athenian representatives give a defense of their empire before the Spartans, they openly acknowledge the reality of the sea as essential to her greatness:

“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.”[23]

In this remarkable passage in which the Athenians defend themselves and their empire against the Spartans, the speech is not only filled with praise of Athens but also an implicit belittlement of Sparta and, by contingency, the usefulness of land. While it is true that all historians agree that the Battle of Salamis was far more important than the Battle of Thermopylae the Athenians lose no chance in making sure that this reality is a sticking point—a sort of dagger into the side of Sparta—during the opening debate. We also see from this passage the superiority of the sea to the land (at least in the psychology of the Athenians). It was the Battle of Salamis, not any of the land battles, which proved to be the decisive engagement against the Persians. As the Athenians say, Greek liberty “depended on her navy.” Moreover, the Athenians do not hesitate in promoting the fact that they contributed the most to the most important battle. As the representatives say, “[W]e produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage.” It was, above all, the cunning and intelligence of Themistocles, which won the battle and saved Greece from eastern despotism. As such, Themistocles, as the representatives remind the Spartans, was treated as a greater hero than any Spartan for his role in the defeat of the Persians and the salvation of the Greek people.

The Athenian Empire, thus, was born from a defensive war won at sea. “We did not gain this empire by force. It came to us at a time when you were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians. At this time our allies came to us of their own accord and begged us to lead them.” In this striking passage, immediately following the hubristic opening of the Athenian apologia, the representatives from Athens highlight the exceptionalism of their empire. Their empire is, literally, the exception of all history. “We did not gain this empire by force.” Instead, the Athenian Empire was consummated through a defensive act. The other Greek city-states threatened by Persian tyranny “begged” Athens to lead the fight for liberty. Athens was, in this way, compelled by her nature as a maritime polis to contribute the greatest amount to the war against Persia and thus contributed the most to the salvation of Greece from the hands of the conquering and warmongering Persians. The Persian Empire, as the speech entails and as Greek memory would have testified, was won by force of conquest. This is not the case with the Athenian Empire. The Athenian Empire was won by the defense of her fellow brethren who also requested that Athens lead them in the fight against Persia. The Athenian Empire, then, was not the product of naked aggression but benevolence defense.

The benevolence of the Athenian Empire is the subsequent pivot of the speech. It is easy to condemn the hubris of the Athenians and their psychology of imperialism, but in a dark world governed by barbarism and despotism, the imperial democracy of Athens was truly unique in the world.[24] The Athenians say, “No one bothers to inquire why this reproach is made against other imperial Powers, who treat their subjects much more harshly than we do: the fact being, of course, that where force can be used there is no need to bring law. Our subjects, on the other hand, are used to being treated as equals.”[25] Here the Athenians maintain that their empire is just. It was product of a just outcome in a war against aggressive tyranny and the voluntary appeal of the many Greek city-states for Athens to lead them in the struggle against Persia. Furthermore, after the consummation of this empire by defense, the Athenians treat their subject cities with equality. They do not engage in forced submission and impose, by violence, order over the people. Instead, the legal customs of the many cities now under the Athenian imperium remain, and Athens acts as a sort of benevolent guarantor of defense and of long-established customs threatened by foreign forces which lurk just over the horizon of many of her allies. Paradoxically, by embracing nature Athens has become the guardian of cherished customs and conventions throughout the Greek world. Athens, then, understood itself as the guardian of a new quasi-Panhellenic order and of the traditions of the Greek people.

Not only was the Athenian Empire acquired justly, and acts justly, the Athenian Empire is freer than the prospects of a Spartan imperium over Hellas. The Athenians close their speech by saying, “Your own regulated ways of life do not mix well with the ways of others. Also it is a fact that when one of you goes abroad he follows neither his own rules nor those of the rest of Hellas.”[26] Pericles’ Funeral Oration testifies to the public-private distinction critical to the flourishing of liberty. What people do in their private lives is of little importance to the Athenian state assuming they abide by the public orthodoxy which protects the city and fosters the open way of life offered in Athens. This is contrasted with the militaristic and regulatory life of the Spartans. The Athenians end their apologia by implying that not only is their empire just, it is also freer than the Spartan oligarchy with its insistence on militarism and regulative modes of living. This is further revealed as a point of contrast and contention when Pericles declares, “The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass our lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are.”[27] There is no benefit for the regulative way of life imposed over all in Sparta.

The exceptionalism of Athens, which is the content of this apologia as Athens and Sparta move closer to war, is premised on the maritime reality of the city and the superiority of sea to land—which is more fully revealed in Pericles’ Funeral Oration and his policy advocacy recounted in the second book. Therefore, there is an undeniable geopolitical dimension to the speech that cannot be missed or overlooked.

As hitherto stated, the Athenians state that it was the Battle of Salamis which proved essential in the salvation of Greece from Persian tyranny. This implicitly establishes the geographic hierarchy of superiority in which the sea is more useful to man than the land. This is borne out by the fact that Athens is not sustained by an elaborate totalitarian agrarian economy built on slavery but is otherwise sustained by having her ports “open to the world”[28] which leads to “all the good things from all over the world [to] flow in to us.”[29] Athenian democracy is also a byproduct of this commercial openness to the world. In fact, the economics of Athenian democracy is built on the fact that power is diffused and contested between the multiple factions that have arisen from this imperium.

Karl August Wittfogel has shown how irrigated agrarian societies develop the most totalitarian of political systems.[30] Because a society is built on a single economic mode of production, this single economic mode of production stratifies itself and leads to the creation of an extensive managerial bureaucratic system which forces mass labor for the sustenance of society. This was the case with Sparta. As an agrarian-based society with little commerce and trade, the Spartan mode of production and society could only be sustained by mass labor and a regulative system of life. This resulted in the extensive Helot slave system which, according to Herodotus, constituted over eighty percent of the nominal Spartan population.[31] The regulative tyranny of Sparta was the product of the geographic law of the land.[32]

Thus, the maritime reality of Athens fostered competition between the ascendant commercial and trading class with the agrarian class and the established oligarchic ruling class. This triangular competition fostered greater openness, compromise, and democratization (i.e. expanding political participation to what the Romans would have called the homines novi) to the Athenian population. The freedom enjoyed by Athens and her allies, almost all of whom were maritime polities, was the product of their geographic nature. The freer polis of Athens, in contrast to the more respective polis of Sparta, did not mean that Athens did not have a stratified society; it simply meant that Athens had more diversity to it than Sparta and less rigidity in those stratas than the singular dominant and rigid oligarchic strata foundational to Sparta. As such, Athenian democracy was the product of economic diversity and class competition which was spurred by open maritime and commercial policies. In Athens, people were not locked into a specified social condition as in Sparta. Rather, there existed the possibility of social mobility and changes in which class held political power in Athens. Such possibility ensured its democracy.

The City Open to the World

Of all the speeches in The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, Pericles’ Funeral Oration may be the most memorable. What makes Pericles’ speech so remarkable and stirring is its praise of the conventions and customs of Athens. The nobility of Athens is not, at least as first appearing from Pericles’ speech, a product of her nature. Instead, Periclean Athens is beautiful because of the customs, laws, and way of life described by Athens is beautiful. (And perhaps strikingly similar to our own.)

Pericles’ speech is stirring because, as mentioned, the reader or listener finds the conventions praised in the speech beautiful and noble. The commitment to law and justice, even unto the foreigner who is not expelled out of whim, strikes us as humane and humanistic. Pericles’ statement of Athens not copying the constitutions and institutions of others, and not relaying on a conscripted military to protect itself, is equally uplifting and exceptional. Pericles’ statement that the shame of poverty is not poverty itself but in not taking the political action to combat it is exceedingly accommodatable to modern welfare thinking. The distinction between public and private lives is also something modern Westerns find attractive in Pericles’ speech.

I am not here to discuss the merits of the exceptionalism contained in Pericles’ speech. But deep within his speech is a geopolitical element that is often missed behind the beauty and grandeur of Pericles’ rhetoric. The beauty and grandeur of Periclean Athens is, in large part, the product of Athens being the “city…open to the world” from which “good things from all over the world flow in to us.” These are not realities that have arisen through the dictates of conventions but from the necessity of geographic demands. When Pericles praises Athenian courage he acknowledges the imperial thesis of Athens when he says that “we launch attack[s] abroad.”[33] Pericles also praises the Athenian navy as the backbone of her strength – even when defeated in battle, often on land, the Athenians have yet revealed their total power because she still retains her navy.[34] That there are memorials to Athenians all over the world, commemorating both good and bad deeds and outcomes, one must ask how these memorials have been erected so far from Athens? The answer, of course, is in the fact that Athens possesses an empire maintained by her navy and control over international trade; thus, “good things from all over the world flow in to us.”

Athens is the city open to the world because Athens is geographically situated to be a city open to the world. Unlike the continental constitution of Sparta, which restricts Sparta to be a land-based entity, the maritime constitution of Athens permits her the possibility to “sail where [we] wish.”[35]

Upon closer inspection of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, there are two cities being spoken of by Pericles. The first, and most memorable and stirring, is the Athens of nomos. The second, and always forgotten, is the Athens of physis. As Pericles’ policies are later revealed by Thucydides, this dialectical tension between the Athens of law and the Athens of her geographic nature comes to the fore.

The Athens of grandeur, of daring intelligence and cunning, and of exceptional bravery – all things Pericles eulogizes and the Athenian representatives at Sparta also praised – is brought to fruition not by the customs of Athens but by the demands imposed on her by her imperial reality. The Athenians must be brave and cunning, like Themistocles, in order to rule the sea and sail wherever they wish. The Athenians must be good with others, and maintain positive relations with other cities, in order to engage in international trade which brings the best goods from around the world back to the Athenian market. This city “open to the world” necessarily comes into conflict with other sea powers that stand athwart its rule. Thus the geographic demands of Athens as a sea power leads us to the most famous dialogue contained in Thucydides’ grand investigation into the nature of politics.

The Melian Dialogue as Geopolitical Determinism

If Pericles’ Funeral Oration is the most eloquent speech in the work, and the most famous political speech in Western history, then the Melian Dialogue is the most notorious speech uttered from the mouth of Athenians and remains the most notorious dialogue in the work and among the most notorious in Western history. The Melian Dialogue is notorious for all the reasons most people already know: The Athenians demand the subjugation of Melos and premise their argument as the rule of the strong over the weak. The Melians, naïve or idealistic, refuse; their refusal prompting Athens to lay siege to their city which results in its extirpation. The Athens of our imagination, the Athens of Pericles, is shown here to be a naked brute which is why it is so shocking and notorious. The Athens we romanticize is far beneath the glorious and enlightened civilization of our imagination.

The Melian Dialogue recapitulates themes that we already discussed in the first book (especially as contained in the debate between the Corinthians and Corcyraeans). Thucydides informs us that “[t]he Melians are a colony from Sparta.”[36] Like the Corcyraeans, the Melians are a colony polity of a superior power. Like the Corcyraeans, the Melians are also a naval power which is something that separates them from their land-based masters. The Melians have, thus far through the war, showed great disloyalty to their mother city by remaining neutral—as a maritime polity, their neutrality is tantamount to isolationism which the Melian representatives stubbornly cling to (unlike the Corcyraeans).

Since Thucydides’ work is a work of instruction, the debate of the Corcyraeans and Corinthians with the debate between the Athenian and Melian representatives is an instructive study in contrasts. The Corcyraeans, as we know, opted to submit to Athenian power and become part of the Athenian Empire and alliance. The Melians, as we know, opted to resist Athenian power and were subsequently destroyed as a result. The Corcyraeans and Melians are both maritime polities who are colonies to larger political forces. The Corycraeans and Melians both engaged in a foreign policy of isolationism and neutrality. Why, then, do the Corcyraeans take a different path than the Melians? Melos is an identical city to Corcyra but the two cities traverse two different paths that results in two different outcomes.

The recapitulation of earlier themes is also seen through the beginning of the dialogue when the Athenians restate their defensive imperial exceptionalism. The Athenians begin their dialogue with the Melians by briefly mentioning their actions against Persia. However, they speak more strongly in their defense by employing false premises.

The Athenian representatives claim they will not claim a noble justification for their empire by recoursing to their actions against Persia. Thucydides uses the word kalon,[37] which Rex Warner translated as “fine.” Kalon, of course, is a word that Aristotle frequently uses for noble beauty. By claiming they will not recourse to the beautiful nobility of their prior actions, yet doing so in the same sentence, the hypocrisies of power are instantly revealed at the beginning of the dialogue. There is something sinister about the Athenian representatives which was absent in their otherwise hubristic but magnificent speech in defense of their empire before the Spartans. By claiming that they will not recourse to their beautifully noble action in defense of Greece against Persia, though implicitly having just done so, the Athenians begin with an aura of superiority.

It is during the dialogue between the two sides that the discussion over the “law of nature” finally materializes. The Athenians open by saying “our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made . . . We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.”[38] In this telling revelation the Athenians articulate the view that Thrasymachus (re)states in Plato’s Republic. Nature is the rule of the strong over the weak. The Athenians subsequently prevent any further discussion over this point by claiming that if the Melians were powerful they would be acting in the same manner that the Athenians are currently acting in.

This causes the Melians to retort by claiming that the law of nature, which is the law of self-interest, will lead Sparta not to betray the fact that the Melians are their colonists and brethren. The Melians put their trust in others rather than themselves for their salvation. The Athenians counter that the law of nature, of self-interest, is “to be safe.” They then assail the Spartans as not being adventurous and that because they lack an adventurous spirit they will not come to the aid of Melos. The Athenians implicitly argue that if the Melians were to follow their self-interest, the law of nature, then they would join Athens rather than remain an enemy.

Returning to an earlier portion of the dialogue, it is clear that the Athenians are not as nakedly brutal as it initially appears.[39] The Athenians give the Melians an opportunity to “save [themselves]”[40] by joining them. The Athenians also state that Melian acceptance of the Athenian alliance would be mutually beneficial. It is the lack of intelligence, or obstinance, exuded by the Melians which quickly becomes a problem. The Melians think that the policy of neutrality allows them to be friends of both sides. The Athenians, however, remind the Melians “[w]e rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.”

The Melians are islanders. The Melians are a maritime polity. The Melians are a sea-power just like how the Athenians are a sea power whose navy can travel anywhere they please. By being a sea-power the Melians are naturally, that is, geopolitically, under the orbit of Athens rather than Sparta. This is what the Corcyraeans recognized but the Melians did not. The Athenians inform the Melians that precisely because they are a maritime polity they cannot permit the Melians to remain outside of their imperial orbit. To do so would be make Athens look weak. And appearing weak is something Athens cannot afford in this war against Sparta. “As a matter of fact,” the Athenians say, “we are not so much frightened of states on the continent. They have their liberty, and this means that it will be a long time before they begin to take precautions against us. We are more concerned about islanders like yourselves, who are still unsubdued, or subjects who have already become embittered by the constraint which our empire imposes on them.”[41]

Before the Athenians state the obvious about the law of nature being the rule of the powerful over the weak, they offer an opportunity to the Melians to grow into their nature by recognizing themselves as “islanders” who are naturally under the orbit of Athens. To do so would permit their retention of customs and conventions while supporting Athens in the war. Moreover, Athens will remain strong and in control of the seas and Melos will benefit, politically, militarily, and economically, from their alliance with Athens. The Athenians even implore them, “Do not let this happen to you, you who are weak and whose fate depends on a single movement of the scale. And do not be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way.”[42] The Athenians constantly give the Melians every opportunity to recognize the reality of the situation that they find themselves and to truly embrace the law of nature and their self-interest which ought to necessitate the Melians to accept Athenian overrule.

Contained in the Melian Dialogue is an elaborate discussion on geopolitical determinism. First, the Athenians “rule the sea.” Second, the Melians are “islanders.” Third, the law of nature, which manifests itself in strength, is founded on self-interest. Fourth, it is in the self-interest of Melos—as a maritime polity—to accept Athenian rule which will save them from destruction and bring many benefits to their populace hitherto unexperienced from their prior policy of isolation because the law of nature necessitates the self-interest of Athens to make sure all island polities are under their geopolitical rule. Fifth, by accepting Athenian subjugation the Melians would be growing into their nature as an island city and abandoning the “wrong choice”[43] of isolation and embrace the policy of internationalism which will mutually benefit Athens and Melos in a win-win scenario (thereby implying that all politics is not a zero-sum game as the Melians seem to think).

If the Melians were intelligent as the Athenians are intelligent, whose intelligence is shown in their statement of having discovered the law of nature which they are now acting in accord with, then the Melians would have recognized the law of nature which determined them to be under Athenian rule. However, the Melians, as the Athenians end their dialogue by saying, have deluded themselves through the principle of hope and have brought ruination unto themselves. The Athenians are mere instruments of judgement against a people so obstinate and unintelligent as to recognize the law of nature so they must invariably be trampled over by those who exude the law of nature and are moved by it.

Thucydides is complicit in the Athenian destruction of the Melos. His reticence, coupled with his earlier statement that human nature being what it is and that his work is intended to teach generations forever to come, reveals that Thucydides agrees with the Athenian disposition and understanding of nature and self-interest. The Melian Dialogue and the fate of the Melians is a tale of instruction, not of restraint, but on the importance of knowing the law of nature which ought to necessitate decision-making accordingly. By not acting in accord with the law of nature the destruction of Melos was self-induced. And, as Thucydides repeatedly shows over the course of the dialogue, the Athenians constantly offered a path of survival and prosperity for the Melians until the Melians forced their hand in refusing to submit to the Athenian Empire. Failure to embody nature has dire consequences as the Melians find out the hard way. But we, as readers and learners from Thucydides, do not have to follow the same path as the Melians even though, as the Athenians imply, there will be other Athens’ in the future.

Nature had necessitated the Athenians to enforce their control over the “islanders” because failure to do so would prove fatal to the Athenians. As we’ve already covered, the geopolitical constitution of Athens is that of the sea. By this matter of geographic fact, Athens must ensure her dominance of the sea by controlling all the maritime polities. This is where her strength lies, as the Corcyraeans know and as Pericles openly states. Nature has determined that Melos is a sea power, an island power, a maritime polity that necessarily moves it under Athenian orbit.

The conflict of self-interest is not in Athens against Melos, per se, but is in Melos not embodying her geopolitical nature—which is to say, not following her self-interest. Athens is simply embodying her geopolitical nature which is necessitated by its geographic constitution. Melos had the opportunity to embrace her geopolitical nature which would have saved the city, her customs and traditions, and brought new prosperity and political security. Rather than recognize her geopolitical nature, Melos retreated into the abstractions of freedom and hope and subsequently lost both. The geopolitical reality of Melos meant that her self-interest was to ally with Athens. She opted not to do so and suffered the consequences of not embodying her nature.

Enemies by Nature: Hermocrates’ Speech Against Athens

The final speech I wish to examine is Hermocrates’ speech to his “fellow Sicilians.” Hermocrates’ speech is unique insofar that he appeals directly to nature, rather than customs, conventions, or the gods. But what does Hermocrates mean when he speaks of nature in his speech? He doesn’t refer to race as the natural unifying bond; in fact, he recognizes the racial differences that constitute the populations on the island.[44] Instead, he appeals to “Sicily as a whole.”[45] Hermocrates’ appeal to nature is an appeal to Sicily and all her cities and diverse peoples. They must, then, have something in common despite being separated by racial, linguistic, and political differences.

According to Hermocrates, “Sicily” is united by a common enemy: Athens. As he says so eloquently and with deep perception, “[W]e have also to consider whether we can still preserve the existence of Sicily as a whole. It is now, as I see it, being threatened by Athens, and we ought to regard the Athenians as much more forcible arguments for peace than any words that can be spoken by me. They are the greatest power in Hellas.”[46] The Athenians in Sicily are few but Hermocrates sees the future invasion of Sicily as the logical outcome of Athenian power and her control of the sea. In fact, Hermocrates recourses to the geographic dialectic formerly espoused by Pericles about the world being divided by land and sea. When speaking of Sicily as a whole, Hermocrates says that the Sicilians, though they live on land in a nominal sense, are surrounded by the sea, “[W]e are all of us neighbors, living together in the same country, in the midst of the sea.”[47]

Hermocrates, then, has ascertained the law of nature and the geopolitical constitution of Sicily. Though he is from the most powerful city in Sicily, Syracuse, Sicily is divided by race, custom, and language. Yet the world refers to all, as Hermocrates says, as “Sicilians.” What makes the diverse island united is not just a common enemy in Athens but the geopolitical reality of Sicily. Sicily is an island jewel “in the midst of the sea.” Divided, Sicily is weak and prone to Athenian intervention and subjugation. United, however, Sicily could be strong and the natural counterweight to Athenian maritime dominance.

Sicily has long been envisioned as the crowning achievement of the Athenian Empire. Sicily is a rich island. Sicily is situated in the center of the known world. From Sicily one could have a base of operations to control the entire Mediterranean. From Sicily one could have a floating city in which ships, merchants, and colonists could spread to Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and North Africa. Since Athens already controlled the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and Ionian seas and coastlines, Sicily is the great temptation for Athenian grandeur and daring.

Hermocrates realizes the perilous position that Sicily is in. When he speaks to his fellow Sicilians, who are Dorians and Chalcidians and Phoenicians, his appeal to nature is premised on a geopolitical cornerstone which finds a common enemy in Athens and maintains Sicily as a potential maritime polity in-of-itself. The petty divisions which have caused war in Sicily can all be overcome in the unity against Athens and the amalgamation of the many Sicilian city-states under a united political entity (undoubtedly to be led by Syracuse). “By acting in this way,” Hermocrates ends his speech, “we shall be conferring immediately two benefits on Sicily – release from the Athenians and the cessation of civil war; and for the future we shall have a country that is free in itself and not so much in danger from abroad.”[48]

Since, however, Sicily is a (rising) sea power, why didn’t Hermocrates align with Athens as Melos should have done?

Hermocrates’ speech is, therefore, an instructive contrast with the Melians. Hermocrates doesn’t appeal to convention or hope like the Melians do. Instead, Hermocrates appeals to nature. Sicily is also on the periphery of Athenian power in a way that Melos never was. Moreover, Sicily is strong where Melos is weak. Syracuse is a very strong city-state in its own right; thus it isn’t surprising that it is the Syracusan Hermocrates that spurs the advocacy of Sicilian unity (out of self-interest).

Because Sicily is strong and is potentially even stronger if united, Sicily is the enemy of Athens and the natural counterweight to Athenian maritime power. Sicily has the potential, as Hermocrates implies, to become the greatest power in the world and the dominant maritime polity superseding even Athens.[49] (Sicily could be that other Athens the Athenians warn the Melians of.) In being free from invasion from abroad Sicily would have the power to engage in her own foreign adventures. Moreover, just as Sicily is the springboard for Athenian dominance over the world, Sicily is already situated to be the great empire to control the world. Alas, Hermocrates’ vision of united Sicily and Sicilian Empire didn’t come to pass though he did achieve secondary goals of bringing civil war and internal division to an end. More importantly, he achieved these goals before the Athenian invasion he prophetically foresaw.

Hermocrates’ speech is instructive because it also shows, unlike with the future dialogue between the Athenians and Melians, how the embrace of nature can lead to the survival and growth of conventions and traditions. “[L]et us realize,” Hermocrates says at the acme of his speech, “that by following my advice we shall each keep the freedom of our own cities, and in these will be able to act in the true spirit of independent men, returning good for good and evil for evil; whereas if we take the opposite course we shall be under the power of others, and then there will no longer be any question of our being able to do harm to an opponent.”[50] Sicilian independence and power, power most importantly, rests on the “Sicilians” putting aside their differences and embracing their geopolitical nature. The mark of nature is power and the ability to “harm an opponent.” Thus we see, as implied by Hermocrates’ acknowledgement of the reality of nature and power, that Sicily does not need to yield to Athenian subjugation precisely because Sicily has the strength to subjugate others—“to do harm to an opponent” is a component of one’s freedom.

The Athenians are the “enemies by nature” of the Sicilians because the Athenians threaten Sicilian unity and power. The Athenians are the “enemies by nature” of the Sicilians because they are both rival maritime civilizations with the potential to rule the world. The Athenians are the “enemies by nature” of the Sicilians because the Athenians plan on conquering Sicily, colonizing it, and taking “the good things of Sicily”[51] for themselves. Hermocrates’ speech, his appeal for peace and unity, is founded primarily on a geopolitical dimension. The law of nature has been discovered by Hermocrates, and Hermocrates intends to have his fellow Sicilians follow it for their salvation.

The Eternality of Thucydides’ Work

It seems evidently clear that the law of nature which Thucydides examines is a geopolitical one. This returns us to the naturalistic sine qua non that Thucydides takes as his axiomatic foundation to understanding human nature, human action, and the course of events. Insofar that Thucydides doesn’t appeal to a moral law established by God or the gods, insofar that Thucydides doesn’t appeal to supernatural events and omens as reasons for human actions and their outcomes, and insofar that Thucydides only looks to naturalistic causes for the war, he seems rather modern.

However, it is also clear from any reading of Thucydides that he does accept human nature—and that human nature tends toward evil. Convention, by contrast, civilizes men and makes him a noble animal. When law dissipates, as it does through war, nature (re)asserts itself. When nature (re)asserts itself the nature that rises to the fore is a geopolitical one—since man is a political animal and, more importantly, is found to living in a land or sea constitution as Pericles stated. As such, men either embrace their geopolitical nature or forsake it.

But Thucydides’ geopolitical law of nature is not a Jared Diamond-esque geographic determinism where human choice, intelligence, and will have no factor to play in the inevitable success or decline of a people and their civilization. Geography may dictate the path that people should take, but Thucydides leaves open the reality of human free will in making decisions—often with disastrous consequences for the wrong decisions. We see disastrous consequences repeatedly and we see many blunders made by fallible human agents. In carving out space for human cunning, intelligence, and free choice, Thucydides’ work is a triumph not only of political philosophy but of philosophy more generally. His work is a triumph in examining the seminal philosophical question: Quid sit homo.

Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians equally shows the paradoxical dichotomy and dynamism of human nature. Man is at once a slave to his geopolitical constitution yet has the power, through his free choice, intelligence, and reason, to thrive or die in the nature imposed onto him by geography. Thucydides doesn’t give us answers to the seminal questions of life but teaches us to think, and think deeply, about the seminal questions of life. Thucydides doesn’t answer the question of justice. Thucydides doesn’t answer the question of the good life. Yet Thucydides allows us to think about justice and the good life. Precisely because Thucydides’ work teaches us to think about the important questions of political life and human events it truly is a work that “will last forever.” And “last forever” it has.

This article was originally published at VoegelinView, 6 January 2020, under the title “The Geopolitical Law of Nature in Thucydides.”


[1] David Bolotin, “Thucydides,” in History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 6.

[2] I have opted for the traditional naming of the work of Thucydides now commonly known as the History of the Peloponnesian War. Unless noted otherwise, all citations come from Rex Warner’s translation, The History of the Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Books, 1972). I have opted to follow Warner’s notations of chapter and section (by paragraph) for easier reader access and referencing than following the traditional Renaissance notations.

[3] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 7-8.

[4] Ibid., 240-241.

[5] Cf. Thucydides, I.22.2; III.82.1.

[6] Ibid., I.22.2.

[7] Strauss, 166.

[8] See Donald Kagan, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History (New York: Viking Press, 2009).

[9] See David Bolotin, “Thucydides,” in History of Political Philosophy, 6-32.

[10] Thucydides, I.24.1.

[11] Ibid., I.30.2.

[12] Ibid., II.62.1.

[13] Ibid., I.32.2.

[14] Ibid., I.33.1.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., I.36.1.

[17] Ibid., I.38.1.

[18] Ibid., I.43.1.

[19] Ibid., I.41.1.

[20] Ibid., I.43.1.

[21] Ibid., I.37.2.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., I.73.3-74.1.

[24] Strauss, 169.

[25] Thucydides, I.77.1.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., II.39.1.

[28] Ibid., II.39.1.

[29] Ibid., II.38.1.

[30] See Karl August Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957).

[31] Herodotus, Histories, 8.28-29.

[32] It seems to me, however, that Wittfogel’s study misses one key element though it is nevertheless entailed in the general thesis of his work—population is also a factor in societies of “total power” because extensive irrigated agrarian societies need large populations to force the labor necessary for such a society’s construction and sustenance. Therefore, when a society lacks the population needed in having an extensive irrigated agrarian mode of production, it either does not develop toward total despotism and veers toward the path of agrarian republicanism (as in ancient, pre-imperial, Italy) or requires slavery to necessitate its development down the path of totalizing tyranny.

[33] Thucydides, II.39.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., II.62.

[36] Ibid., V.84.3.

[37] Ibid., V.89.1

[38] Ibid., V.105.1.

[39] Ibid., V.95.1-99.1

[40] Ibid., V.93.1

[41] Ibid., V.99.1

[42] Ibid., V.103.1.

[43] Ibid., V.111.1.

[44] Ibid., IV.61.1.

[45] Ibid., IV.59.1.

[46] Ibid., IV.60.1.

[47] Ibid., IV.64.1.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., IV.62.2; IV.63.1.

[50] Ibid., IV.63.1.

[51] Ibid., IV.61.1.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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