May 012010

It is a recurrent trope in writing about Thucydides to place him in opposition to Plato. I would like to consider some of the ramifications that this opposition may have for our understanding of Thucydides, and to evaluate its limitations. But first we must try to disentangle the various guises that it assumes.

At the most specific level, the contrast between Plato and Thucydides may be broken down into various small polarities, in each of which the two thinkers do indeed seem to hold irreconcilable views. Thus the Socratic maxim that no one does evil knowingly seems to directly contradict Thucydides’ tragic vision of human nature, as the Platonic search for universals stands in opposition to the Thucydidean concern with the con­crete particular. None of the individual contrasts between Plato and Thucydides, how­ever, adequately capture the opposition that historians and philosophers have argued exists between them. This opposition is taken, rather, to arise from a funda­mental difference in one’s way of seeing, which subsumes all of these smaller dis­tinctions, and which leads the two thinkers to systemically different conclusions.

This opposition dates back at least to Nietzsche’s vision of Thucydides as a “cure for Platonism,” which is discussed at length in Darien Shanske’s Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History, and, following Nietzsche, is generally formulated in antagonistic terms. There are notable exceptions to this, such as David Grene’s Greek Political Theory, in which Plato and Thucydides are regarded as complementary oppo­sites.[1]  But most writers who have made the comparison, including Heidegger and Shanske himself, have done so in Nietzsche’s terms. I will return to Grene’s com­par­ison of Plato and Thucydides, in order to consider the ways in which it complicates the picture presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Shanske. But first I would like to look more closely at Nietzsche’s description of Thucydides. This passage, despite its length, is worth quoting in full:

My recreation, my preference, my cure for all Platonism has always been Thucydides. Thucydides, and perhaps the Principe of Machiavelli, are related to me closely by their unconditional will not to deceive themselves and not to see reason in reality—not in “reason,” [sic] still less in “morality”…[…] One must turn him over line by line and read his hidden thoughts as clearly as his words: there are so few thinkers as rich in hidden thoughts.  Sophist culture, by which I mean realist culture, attains in him its perfect expression—this invaluable movement in the midst of the morality-and-ideal swindle of the Socratic schools which was then breaking out everywhere.  Greek philosophy as the decadence of the Greek instinct; Thucydides as the grand summation, the last manifestation of that stern, hard matter-of-factness instinctive to the older Hellenes.  Courage in the face of reality ultimately distinguishes such figures as Thucydides and Plato; Plato is a coward in the face of reality—consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control—consequently he retains control over things…[2]

Most of the “antagonistic” comparisons between Plato and Thucydides, including those of Heidegger and Shanske, have followed Nietzsche’s lead in considering the funda­mental root of the opposition to be the question of value, or the distinction between facts and values.  Thus Heidegger:

But Thucydides, the thinker of history, was not able to overcome the Platonism reigning at the basis of Nietzsche’s thought.  Because Nietzsche’s philosophy is metaphysics, and all metaphysics, is Platonism, at the end of metaphysics, Being must be thought as value; that is, it must be reckoned as a merely conditioned condition of beings.[3]

And Shanske:

It is the Thucydidean revelation of reality that cannot be accepted by the Platonist because it is a reality without the underlying ideals.[4]

For Plato, there is another world…the wise man must transcend to a vision of the other world from the confused manifold of the mundane.  For Thucydides, in contrast, there is no world beyond that of the polis.  This is the heart of the contrast between Thucydides and Plato.[5]

The way in which Shanske’s argument follows Nietzsche’s is fairly clear, although Heidegger’s might require further explication, as it turns on the distinction drawn in his thought between das Sein (being in its existential sense) and das Seiende (a being, or beings.)  The point of Heidegger’s critique seems to be that metaphysics, by treating das Sein as a value, separates it from, and makes it merely a condition of, das Seiende; whereas, in Heidegger’s ontology, das Sein, like das Seiende, simply is. Thus we come back to the same essential fact/value distinction that is at the heart of Nietzsche’s critique, here posited in phenomenological terms.

A further important point to consider is that this general line of comparison, because it stems from Nietzsche, also takes as its point of departure Nietzsche’s own anti-Platonism. Thucydides is really taken as a cure for Platonism, rather than merely an alternative to it.  Neither Heidegger, whose chief criticism of Nietzsche, as we saw, is that Thucydides has not sufficiently cleansed him of his own Platonism, nor Shanske, who says that “Nietzsche’s analysis … parallels the argument of this book to this point”,[6] seems to differ with him fundamentally on this point. This raises the significant question of whether Nietzsche’s polemicism may have problematic impli­cations for his understanding of Thucydides, and accordingly also for the arguments of Heidegger and Shanske. Because of this, it would be opportune to begin with a careful consideration of Nietzsche’s claims.

Nietzsche’s claims may give us pause for several reasons.  One of these is the rather banal observation that Nietzsche also claimed to find, in Bizet’s Carmen, a cure for Wagnerism.  This could be taken to indicate a tendency on Nietzsche’s part toward discovering “cures” where they do not in fact exist. A second, more substantial criti­cism that might be leveled against Nietzsche’s comparison of Thucydides and Plato is that it reduces both thinkers to reified and ideological shadows of themselves.  No distinction is made between Plato himself and “Platonism” considered as an ideology; similarly, no distinction is made between Thucydides and the ideology of “realism” with which Nietzsche equates him.  Shanske tries to defend Nietzsche from this particular line of criticism, arguing that

Platonism for Nietzsche is far more and far less than the philosophy of Plato.  It is far more insofar as the central and radical ideas articulated in the most famous works of the Platonic corpus triumphed to become the fundamental metaphysical position of the West, particularly through Christianity: “Christianity is Platonism for the masses.”  Yet, as this famous line also demonstrates, Nietzsche is well aware of the greater complexity of Plato’s own thought.[7]

Yet if this is true, what do we make of Nietzsche’s comparison between Plato and Thucydides?  It is explicitly posited in personal terms: “Plato is a coward in the face of reality—consequently he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has himself under control—consequently he retains control over things.”  In this analysis, then, Nietzsche seems to make no distinction between “Platonism” as an ideology and Plato himself.  And as Grene argues, this conflation is highly problematic:

But the fact seems to be that Plato never taught anyone his own philosophy in any more explicit way than we can understand it from the dialogues.  He has assured us himself in the Seventh Letter that his philosophy has never been put in writing and never will be… Aristotle in his discussion of Platonic doctrine continually asks what Plato really meant, and the same difficulties are raised by his successors, who had known him well.  If these men did not understand what evidence they had—and that is apparently the body of the dialogues, for they cite virtually nothing else—they could have asked Plato himself.  Probably they did, and probably they got no answer.  Certainly they had no answer, and come before us as the first of a long series of students puzzled by the paradox of an abundance of philosophic material with no adequate clue to its interpretation as to the position and doctrine of its author.[8]

Similarly, Thucydides, whom Nietzsche sees as “the grand summation, the last mani­festation of that stern, hard matter-of-factness instinctive to the older Hellenes,” does not seem to be meaningfully differentiated from the “realist culture” of the Sophists that Nietzsche praises.  Rather, in positing Thucydides as the culmination of that culture, Nietzsche shows no sign of thinking that Thucydides’ work—and with it the discipline of history, which, as Shanske has argued, largely follows Thucydides’ lead rather than that of Herodotus—is particularly unique or new.[9] In this respect his understanding of Thucydides directly contradicts Shanske’s own claim that Thucy­dides’ work “founds a world.”[10] Thucydides’ significance is thus, for Nietzsche, understood entirely in terms of his freedom from the Platonic preoccupation with value, and his “stern, hard matter-of-fact” concern with the world as it really is, free of the temptation to see “reason in reality.”  The upshot of this is that we are thrown back on our original opposition, that between facts and values, and that Thucydides becomes, malgre lui, the spokesman for Nietzsche’s own conception of “realism.”

Nietzsche’s use of the word “realism,” which Shanske adopts, generates considerable conceptual confusion, in part because Nietzsche uses it in a manner that is almost exactly the opposite of its traditional philosophical usage.  Philosophers tend to say that Plato himself was a “realist,” in that he believed in the reality of ideas and values.  Nietzsche, by contrast, uses the word “realism” to indicate an unflinching attention to the empirical world, and a conviction that this world is all there is—and thus an absolute rejection of the notion of value.  In terms of the Sophistic tradition with which Nietzsche equates Thucydides, this would be exemplified by Protagoras’ maxim that “man is the measure of all things; of those that are, that they are; and of those that are not, that they are not.”

On the other hand, there is a fairly common usage of the word “realism” that corre­sponds much more closely to Nietzsche’s, and this is the “political realism” of real­politik. Shanske seeks to draw a line between the two senses of the word, arguing that

Nietzsche’s claim here is that Thucydides is a metaphysical realist, not a political one.  Those who believe that Thucydides the political realist is delving beneath events to uncover causal connections that must recur, say that the strong must rule what they can, are actually attributing to Thucydides a form of what Nietzsche would call Platonism.[11]

There are several indications that Nietzsche did not in fact draw such a distinction, including his evocation of Thucydides in the same breath as Machiavelli.  There is in fact no necessary connection, of the kind that Shanske posits, between “political realism” and a Platonistic belief in historical laws or necessity.  A political realist need not interpret Thucydides as positing “causal connections that must recur, say that the strong must rule what they can.” [Emphasis mine.]  Rather, he may simply interpret Thucydides as saying that, human nature being what it is, these events will recur, and the strong will rule what they can.  Such a “realism” would be both political and “metaphysical” (in the Nietzschean sense.)

Contra Shanske, it is quite likely that there is a direct connection between Nietzsche’s brand of “metaphysical realism” (i.e. the absence of values), and realpolitik, and that this connection runs both ways; that is, we may argue both that a “political realism” necessarily presupposes the absence of values, and that the absence of values necessarily entails a “political realism.” The former thesis is demonstrated by Thucy­dides himself — or by the Athenian and Melian statesmen whose words he records, depending on our interpretation of the speeches in the History:

Athenians: …[Y]ou know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Melians: “As we think, at any rate, it is expedient—we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest—that you should not destroy what is our common protection, namely, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if they can be persuasive.”[12]

And later:

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

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

Melians: “But do you consider that there is no security in the policy that we indicate?  For here again if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours[.]”[13]

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Thucydides himself endorses the arguments of either the Melians or the Athenian spokesmen, let us examine the expressed opinions of both parties as to the compatibility of value with political realism.  The Athenians, claiming that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power,” assert that “right” is a merely contingent and relative concept, which may have no universal validity.  Only when this restriction is granted may they frame the debate purely in terms of expediency, as any concept of a universal or transcendent value is would contravene the right (though not the ability) of the strong to behave as they choose.  Thus, according to the Athenian standpoint, a “metaphysical realism,” in the Nietzschean sense, would appear to be a necessary precondition of political realism.

The Melians, in turn, make it clear that they speak of expediency only under duress.  Furthermore, they do so—and this is the key point—not because they are required to speak in terms of expediency, but because they are prohibited from speaking in terms of value.  In other words, when prohibited from speaking in terms of value, the Melians find the Athenian jargon of expediency to be the only meaningful language they have left in which to approach the debate.

Thus it would seem that—at least in the intellectual world of the Athenians and Melians themselves—the existence of values, at least insofar as they are moral values, is held to contravene the practice of a politics based purely on expediency.  It would also seem that both parties believe that the exclusion of the sphere of values from the realm of political debate necessarily entails a resort to the language of realpolitik. The first of these theses—that value precludes the practice of realpolitik—is simpler, and may be seen as a matter of logical consistency, insofar as no individual may consistently believe both in the existence of moral value, and in the ideology of realpolitik. It is true that the Melian dialogue does not conclusively demonstrate, although it strongly suggests, the second thesis—namely, that a Nietzschean “metaphysical realism,” while being a precondition of political realism, will also necessarily lead to it.  It might be, we could argue, that a third rubric exists, and that the Melians have simply been unable to find it.

One possible alternative might be for the Melians to concern themselves not with value as such, but with purely contingent social or political norms.  Shanske posits epiekeia, or “equity,” as such a norm, and contrasts it with justice, which he takes to exist instead in the realm of value.[14] According to this interpretation, it is thus not the abandonment of value as such, but the abandonment of the contingent cultural norms exemplified by epiekeia, that is most responsible for the increasingly self-destructive behavior of the Athenians:

Democritus writes of epiekeia as marking the limit when competitiveness, otherwise a good, harms the community.  Strikingly, both Cleon and Diodotus disavow epiekeia as a norm to be appealed to in the context of the Mytilenian debate.[15]

If this interpretation holds, certain statements of the Melian spokesmen may indeed be interpreted to endorse only the contingent norm of epiekeia, rather than any values as such:

“Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?”[16]

We might read this passage as implying a conception of epiekeia as something other than a value, particularly in conjunction with the Melians’ claim, a few paragraphs later, that “you debar us from talking about justice.”[17] If we interpret these two passages together, they might be taken to imply that the language of norms, including epiekeia, is an area of discussion still left to the Melians even when they are debarred from speaking of values in the strict sense.

However, what immediately follows this passage seems to indicate otherwise, as the Athenians effectively brush off the Melians’ question by saying, “as far as right goes, they think one has as much as the other.”[18] The “they” which is spoken of here is clearly still the Athenians’ subjects, and so the Athenians seem to be deliberately substituting the word right for the word equity. It seems to me that this passage may be interpreted in two ways.  Either both sides of the debate are using epiekeia and “right” interchangeably, and thus treating epiekeia as a value; or—and this seems to me more likely—the Melians are trying to combat the Athenians’ prohibition on speaking of value by invoking the “norm” of epiekeia, only to have the Athenians respond by equating “equity” with the question of what is “right.”  Thus the crucial conceptual slide from “equity” to “right” is made by the Athenians, who refuse to adopt the Melians’ language of norms because they believe it to be nothing more than another face of the language of values.  They therefore endorse an opinion equivalent to Cleon’s and Diodotus’ disavowal of epiekeia. Their own disavowal of epiekeia, in turn, may shed some light on the reasoning behind the arguments of Cleon and Diodotus on the matter: for the Athenian spokesmen disavow the language of norms because they believe it to be inherently fictive or unstable, as it must ultimately refer back to the language of value; and it is reasonable to assume that Cleon and Diodotus disavow it for a similar reason.  Thus the norm of equity comes after, and must ultimately refer back to, the value of justice, and the Athenians’ refusal to speak in terms of values logically entails that they abjure the language of norms as well.

There are thus strong reasons to reject Shanske’s distinction between Nietzsche’s  version of “metaphysical realism” and the political realism of realpolitik. There are also other reasons, which are nearly conclusive, to believe that Nietzsche himself did not maintain such a distinction. The causal connection between the two kinds of “realism” is aptly expressed by Dostoevsky, both in Ivan Karamazov’s dictum that “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible,” and in Shigalyov’s claim that, “starting with absolute freedom, I arrive at absolute despotism.”  Lest these instances seem remote from the discussion at hand, we might remember that Nietzsche called Dostoevsky one of the greatest discoveries of his life, and “the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn.”[19] This would seem to militate against the distinction between “metaphysical” and “political” realism that Shanske posits.  And it certainly undermines his contention that Nietzsche himself draws this distinction. Rather, it seems likely that Nietzsche believes that a metaphysical realism does necessarily entail a corresponding political realism, and that the naked, self-justifying behavior of power is precisely the only norm that we might still be able to find in a world free from the constraint of values.

The validity of the Thucydides/Plato dichotomy as it is generally presented, and of a strictly “realist” interpretation of Thucydides—either metaphysical (in the Nietzschean sense) or political—thus hinges on a fairly simple question: does Thucydides indeed abjure the language of value as rigorously as Nietzsche would suggest? It is my con­ten­tion that he does not. In support of this, I would first like to consider several indi­vidual instances in which Thucydides seems to speak expressly in terms of value; then I will examine some ways in which the structure of the History, in itself, may be said to point beyond the world it describes and toward the question of value.

For the first of these instances, we turn to one of the most striking evaluative pas­sages in the History, which is Thucydides’ epitaph for Nicias:

This or the like was the cause of the death of a man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved such a fate, seeing that the whole course of his life had been regulated with strict attention to virtue.[20]

Many historians seem to have been perplexed by this passage.  After all, by what measure can we say that the man who, more than any other, was personally re­sponsible for the disastrous consequences of the expedition to Sicily, was the least deserving of the fate that met him there?  Some have therefore attempted to write this passage off as a rare instance of personal bias on Thucydides’ part.  Grene offers a somewhat more convincing explanation, which is that Thucydides’ words about Nicias are related to the peculiar contingency of Nicias’ fate—the fact that the “luckiest general of his time,” who had tried with all his abilities to avert the expedition to Sicily, would end in such a fashion.[21]

It seems to me that this explanation, too, is not entirely satisfactory, and for much the same reason that an explanation couched in terms of personal bias is unsatis­factory. This is that it fails to take seriously Thucydides’ stated reasons for making such a claim—that Nicias was least deserving of such a fate because he had lived his whole life with “strict attention to virtue.” In other words, we should not be expen­ding much time and ingenuity seeking Thucydides’ unspoken reasons for saying that Nicias was undeserving of his fate, when he has already given us his reasons for saying so. Instead, we should try to decipher why he believes these reasons to be valid, and this involves coming to an understanding of the “virtue” to which Nicias is said to have attended, and trying to see why Thucydides takes it seriously.

To do this, we must return to the Melian dialogue and attempt to understand its struc­tural place in the History. It has been remarked that the Melian dialogue is a kind of “tragic prelude” to the Sicilian expedition.  This is true, but not specific enough, in that the real significance of the Melian dialogue is not how it relates to the Sicilian expedition as a whole, but how it relates to the debate at its outset, of which it is the mirror image.  Let us consider two key passages from this debate. The first is spoken by Nicias:

And if there be any man here, overjoyed at being chosen to command, who urges you to make the expedition merely for ends of his own…do not allow such a one to maintain his private splendor at his country’s risk, but remember that such persons injure the public fortune while they squander their own…and you, Prytanis, if you think it your duty to care for the commonwealth, and if you wish to show yourself a good citizen, put the question to the vote…[consider that] you will be the physician of your misguided city, and that the 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.[22]

And the second by Alcibiades:

Athenians, I have a better right to command than others—I must begin with this as Nicias has attacked me—and at the same time I believe myself to be worth of it.  The things for which I am abused bring fame to my ancestors and myself, and also profit my country…nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest.  He who is badly off has his misfortunes all to himself, and as we do not see men courted in adversity, on the like principle a man ought to accept the insolence of prosperity; or else, let him first mete out equal measure to all, and then demand to have it meted out to him.[23]

It would be possible, if we were considering Nicias’ words in isolation, to see in them merely an attempt to discredit Alcibiades, coupled with a pragmatic appeal to his countrymen’s prudence. However, when we consider them in conjunction with Alcibi­ades’ retort, we realize that they go deeper than that.  Alcibiades’ claim that it is fair that “he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest,” and that “as we do not see men courted in adversity, on the like principle a man ought to accept the insolence of prosperity,” parallel the claims of the Athenian statesmen that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Seen in this light, Nicias’ arguments that the Athenians should not listen to “one who urges [them] to make the expedition merely for ends of his own,” and his injunction to the Prytanis, reveal themselves to be more than pragmatic arguments.  Rather, when he speaks of the “virtue of men in office,” “virtue” has an evaluative as well as a practical meaning.  Consider this in comparison with the claim of the Melians that “you should not destroy what is our common protection, namely, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right.”  Both arguments are pre­dicated upon the belief that the practically beneficial—“the public fortune … our common protection”—rests upon the question of value—“the virtue of men in office” or “what is fair and right.”  Thus the dispute between Nicias and Alcibiades is a mirror image, at the level of the individual, of the ideological disputes that occur at the level of the polis in the Melian dialogue.

In this context, observe another of Thucydides’ rare statements of opinion — when he says of Alcibiades that

Alarmed at the greatness of the license in his own life and habits, and at the ambition which he showed in all things whatsoever that he undertook, the mass of the people marked him as an aspirant to the tyranny and became his enemies; and although in his public life his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, in his private life his habits gave offense to everyone, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.[24]

What this passage seems to demonstrate, when considered in conjunction with the Melian dialogue and the debate between Nicias and Alcibiades, is that Thucydides believed Alcibiades’ personal brand of “realism” to be the principal cause of Athens’ downfall.  First, because it justifies the numerous political decisions he makes on egoistic grounds, which include not only initiating the Sicilian expedition but also sabotaging the negotiations between Athens and Sparta.  And second, because his espousal of it leads his own countrymen to suspect him, and thus remove their most capable general from power.

And yet the “morality of power” to which Alcibiades subscribes is merely a logical consequence of the political realism expressed by the Athenian spokesmen in the Melian dialogues, which is itself merely a logical consequence of a Nietzschean “metaphysical realism” and the attendant abjuration of evaluative language.  In this sense, Alcibiades is Athens writ small.  Shanske argues that, therefore, the principal failure of the Athenians is their failure to recognize themselves as personified in Alcibiades.[25] But this is not quite right.  There is, after all, much in Alcibiades’ behavior that makes the people’s mistrust of him seem reasonable.  Consider his speech to the Spartans:

love of country is what I do not feel when I am wronged, but what I felt when secure in my rights as a citizen.  Indeed, I do not consider that I am now attacking a country that is still mine; I am rather trying to recover one that is mine no longer; and the true lover of his country is not he who consents to lose it unjustly rather than attack it, but he who longs for it so much that he will go to all lengths to recover it.[26]

Alcibiades’ loyalty to the state, as he explains it, is a purely contingent matter, which stands in overwhelming contrast to the fixed conception of civic virtue espoused by Nicias.  The people, then, are right in fearing that he might become a tyrant. But the “morality of power” to which Alcibiades subscribes is merely a logical extension of Athenian political realism.  The principles of this realism, when applied on the individual level, lead to a thoroughgoing moral solipsism.  The great failure of the Athenians is thus not merely their failure to recognize themselves in Alcibiades, as Shanske argues.  It is, rather, their failure to understand that the metaphysical and political ideology to which they subscribe—and which they believe to justify the supremacy of the Athenian statewill lead ultimately to the radical solipsism of individuals such as Alcibiades, and thus to the disappearance of civic virtue and the disintegration of the Athenian state.

Seen this way, Thucydides’ consideration of realpolitik and the absence of values mir­rors that of Plato, as expounded in the Republic. Alcibiades’ claims, and those of the Athenian spokesmen in the Melian dialogues, correspond to those of Thrasymachus:

when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.[27]

The calamity of the Sicilian expedition, contrary to these words, shows the natural dialectic by which the realpolitik of the Athenian state leads to the destruction of that state.  And this dialectic, enacted at the historical level, mirrors the dialectic that is enacted at the logical level in Socrates’ questioning of Thrasymachus, which demonstrates how Thrasymachus’ argument ultimately inverts itself, finally leading to Socrates’ conclusion: “Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus, can injustice be more profitable than justice.”[28]

This parallel with the Republic best illustrates the aspect of the History mentioned earlier–the way in which its very structure may be said to point beyond the world that it represents and toward the problem of values.

In a footnote to Pericles’ first speech in the Landmark Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler notes that

Here and in the points below concerning moneys from Delphi and Olympia, the suborning of Athens’ foreign sailors with high pay, and the training of a Peloponnesian fleet to match Athens, Thucydides seems to have Pericles respond directly to points made by the Corinthians in their speech to the Spartans and their allies.[29]

The contrasting of these speeches thus demonstrates that Peloponnesian hopes for an easy victory are an illusion, bred of false and easy rhetoric.  Yet this is only one example of a device that recurs throughout the History, in which confident speeches of both parties to a conflict are set against, and shown to negate, each other.

The structural juxtaposition of the Melian dialogues with the debate between Nicias and Alcibiades is an instance of the same pattern broadcast onto the largest level of the History’s structure.  Let us consider the opening words of the Athenians in the dialogue:

the negotiations are not to go on before the people, in order that we may not be able to speak straight on without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before the few.)[30]

The implication of this is that the Athenian spokesmen, like Cleon[31], must believe that the real­politik which they advocate throughout the dialogue is the truest repre­sentation of human affairs, a reality that lies concealed beneath the hollow certainties of rhetoric and “seductive arguments.” Much of the “realist” interpretation of Thucy­dides ulti­mately comes down to the thesis that he himself endorses this belief.

Yet this juxtaposition — of the Melian dialogues and the debate between Alcibiades and Nicias — appears to indicate that this is not the case. The reflections that the Melian dialogues cast, not only upon this debate, but also upon the catastrophic expe­dition to which it leads, shows that the confident “realism” of the Athenians negates itself. By subjecting Athenian realpolitik to the same dialectic to which he subjects many of the false assertions and rhetorical sophisms of the war, and by pointing up its contradictions in the same way, Thucydides shows this “realism” to have the same ontological status as these false assertions. It is, in other words, yet another hollow rhetorical trope, conceived in pride and leading to ruin.  In this sense, his approach again parallels that of Plato, for whom Thrasymachus is simply another sophist, out of whose self-contradictions Socrates may draw the truth.

In the beginning of Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History, Shanske introduces Wittgenstein’s image of the fly-bottle as a metaphor for the way in which Thucydides’ text works.  Following his lead, I would like to bring to bear two other themes from Wittgenstein that I believe may be pertinent to Thucydides.  One is Wittgenstein’s exclamation, in the Philosophical Investigations, that “a picture held us captive.”[32] I will return to this later on, as I believe it is relevant to the enduring fascination that the opposition between Plato and Thucydides has held for us.  The other theme is the distinction between saying and showing, and the attendant prohibition against saying what can be only shown.  I believe that this latter may serve as an appropriate analogy for the structure of the History, and for the way in which Thucydides approaches the question of value.

In Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin quote Paul Engelmann on the distinction between Wittgenstein’s thought and the radical empiricism of the logical positivists who were influenced by him:

Positivism holds—and this is its essence—that what we can speak about is all that matters in life.  Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about. When he nevertheless takes immense pains to delimit the unimportant [i.e. the scope and limits of ordinary language], it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean.[33]

It is in some such sense, I believe, that, we may understand Thucydides’ text, in particular the mysterious paucity of evaluative judgments in it.  Thucydides, we might say, is concerned not with saying things about values, but with showing us the way in which they delineate the boundaries of the empirical world.  One of the principal ways in which we come to be aware of these boundaries is through witnessing the self-immolation of a great empire that has abandoned the category of value, and embraced the maxim that man is the measure of all things.

This is also the key to one of the more cryptic passages of the History, the discussion of stasis in Corcyra.  The destruction wrought in Corcyra, pitting the people against the aristocracy, is a formal anticipation of the struggles which will convulse Athens in the wake of the Sicilian expedition, and it is attended—or perhaps caused—by the same disfiguration of evaluative language that we later encounter in Athenian realpolitik and in the arguments of Thrasymachus:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any.[34]

This disfiguration relates to Shanske’s discussion of the deinon, or “dreadable,” which is, roughly speaking, the category at the root of the tragic.[35] I agree with Shanske that Athens is the “empire of logos,” but I do not agree with his assertion that what is deinon in Corcyra’s civil strife is the “self-exceeding” character of logos.[36] This assertion is predicated upon an interpretation of the History that reads into it a kind of linguistic solipsism. What Thucydides actually says is different from what Shanske has interpreted him as saying: he says not merely that words changed their meaning, but that they had to change their meaning. This would seem to imply that the dis­figure­ment of evaluative language comes not from forces contained within language itself, but from forces outside of language—in this case, from the tragic passions of greed and the desire to dominate. The entire tragic fate of the Athenian state is de­termined in the same way: its downfall begins at the deinon moment in which Athens, the empire of logos, brushes up against that which lies outside of logos, and which is insusceptible to its power. And what lies outside the sphere of logos is that “ocean” of which Paul Engelmann spoke, the world of value.

Athens’ self-destruction also provides us with the context in which we can decipher Thucydides’ epitaph on Nicias.  The “virtue” that Nicias represents throughout the History—in dialectical opposition to Alcibiades—is, pre-eminently, that virtue of citizenship without which the state cannot survive.  But “virtue” means also Nicias’ other conventional virtues, including even his mediocre brand of piety, without which his citizenly virtue would be impossible.  Part of the tragedy of Nicias is that in this new world, which has changed around him into something almost unrecognizable, his very virtues render him a liability both to himself and to his nation.  In this sense, Thucydides’ epitaph for Nicias is also an epitaph for the world that both made possible, and was made possible by, men like him.

Let us return now to Wittgenstein and to his words in the Philosophical Investigations: “a picture held us captive”. Here he was referring to the picture of language, elab­orated both in the works of Bertrand Russell and in his own Tractatus, as some kind of superstructure beneath which lay the “real” structure of propositional logic.  But it seems that there were also other pictures that Wittgenstein felt could hold us captive, including, notably, overarching binary oppositions.

It is possible that there is precisely such a picture at work, prior to analysis or verbal formulation, at the root of many of the comparisons that have been made between Plato and Thucydides.  I think that we might also be able to specify, more or less generally, what it is that this picture consists of. It is a picture of two thinkers, near-contemporaries, each of whom founded a world-changing discipline.  The two thinkers are in turn distinguished from each other by a fundamental polarity in their way of seeing—between the ideal and the real, between this world and the other—which has been reflected in the ensuing history of the disciplines that they founded.  From a belief in forms or essences springs the western Philosophical tradition, and from the principled abjuration of that belief springs the discipline of history, the world that Thucydides founded.  Each discipline corresponds to a single individual, and to a single overriding epistemological principle.

What is striking about this picture is its remarkable elegance, symmetry, and simplicity.  It pares the formidable complexity of Greek thought, and of its legacy to us, down to a clearly defined duality.  In doing so, it may also remind us of Heidegger’s claim that Thucydides was incapable of overcoming the Platonism at the root of Nietzsche’s thought.  This is because the picture of the opposition between Plato and Thucydides is itself Platonistic, for it imputes to intellectual history all of the features that Nietzsche believed to be absent from history proper: order, balance, symmetry, and even—in Nietzsche’s admiring picture of the stern old matter-of-factness that characterized the Greeks before they had been corrupted by the decadence of Socratic rationalism—a kind of morality.

By contrast, Grene, though far more sympathetic to Plato, is far less Platonistic in the terms in which he frames this duality:

Not only our respect for the living totality of each man, moreover, forces us to look at each in his own right—and prevents a glib and easy unification or comparison of the two—but the material we have to deal with is in the two cases of an irreducible disparity.[37]

This may seem an unsatisfying and inconclusive analysis of the differences between the two thinkers, but perhaps it is also the truest one.  The Nietzschean interpretation of Thucydides, on the other hand, reminds us of Wittgenstein once more, for it recalls the ways in which Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was misinterpreted by the logical positivists.  With Thucydides, as with Wittgenstein, we have taken the marvelous, cryptic work that he left to us, and imputed to it an empiricism entirely at odds with its original intent.  And so it is that, while Thucydides’ eyes were bent toward that great and fathomless ocean, we have contented ourselves with tracing the contours of the island.  But we will only truly see him when he appears to us as himself, rather than serving as a mirror for our own doubt.


  1. The “polarity of their intellectual configuration defined the range within which, in my judgment, all political speculation in the West can be seen to move…the completeness of the view of man, historically and politically, attained in these two different ways, is a kind of alpha and omega.” David Grene, Greek Political Theory: The Image of Man in Thucydides and Plato.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), vii-viii. []
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), cited in Darien Shanske, Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 130. []
  3. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche IV (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), ed. David Krell, 165, cited in Shanske, 132. []
  4. Shanske, 132. []
  5. Shanske, 138. []
  6. Shanske, 130. []
  7. Shanske, 131. []
  8. Grene, 103. []
  9. Shanske, 6. []
  10. Shanske, 5. []
  11. Shanske, 131. []
  12. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, in Strassler, Crawler, Hanson, eds., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), §5.89-5.90. []
  13. Thucydides, §5.96-5.98. []
  14. Shanske, 110-111. []
  15. Shanske, 110. []
  16. Thucydides, §5.89. Emphasis mine. []
  17. Thucydides, §5.98. []
  18. Thucydides, §5.90. []
  19. Nietzsche, §45. []
  20. Thucydides §7.87. []
  21. Grene, 76. []
  22. Thucydides, §6.12-6.14. []
  23. Thucydides §6.16. []
  24. Thucydides, §6.15. []
  25. Shanske, 57. []
  26. Thucydides §6.92. []
  27. Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett, (Mineola: Dover, 2000), I/343. []
  28. Plato, I/354. []
  29. Thucydides, note 1.142.2a. []
  30. Thucydides §5.85. []
  31. see Thucydides §3.37. []
  32. “ein Bild hielt uns gefangen.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1953), §115. []
  33. Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1973), 191. []
  34. Thucydides, §3.82. []
  35. Shanske, 71. []
  36. Shanske, 27, 117 []
  37. Grene, vii []

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