Tuesday, March 25, 2014

AN EVOCATIVE ECHO FROM THE PAST

Everyone should take the time to read and enjoy the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Whenever the major world powers embark on a course described 2500 years ago by Thucydides it is interesting to see the parallels between the politics and morality of the Ancient World and the Modern World. Current affairs seem almost to come alive as one reads the following paragraphs taken from Missouri State.



Civil War in Corcyra (427 BC) 

The democrats were afraid that the [Peloponnesian] fleet would attack them, so they entered into negotiations with the other party in order to save their divided town. They prevailed upon some of their enemies to go on board the ships, of which they still had thirty, to defend against the expected attack. But the Peloponnesians, after ravaging the country until midday, sailed away, and towards nightfall were informed by beacon signals of the approach of sixty Athenian ships under the command of Eurymedon, which had been sent off by the Athenians upon learning of the revolution [on Corcyra] and that the Peloponnesian fleet with Alcidas was about to intervene.

The Peloponnesians [to avoid encountering the Athenians] at once sailed with all speed by night for home, coasted along shore, and hauled their ships across from the Isthmus of Leucas, in order not to be caught at the cape, and so got away. The Corcyraeans, seeing the approach of (their allies) the Athenians and the departure of the enemy, brought the Messenians from outside the walls into the town, and ordered the fleet which they had manned to sail round into the harbor; and while it was so doing, slew as many of their enemies as they laid their hands on; those whom they had persuaded to go on board the ships they later put to death as well. Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to stand trial; all were condemned to death. The mass of the refugees who had refused to leave their sanctuary, on seeing what was taking place, put each other to death, right there in the consecrated ground [rather than face certain death at the hands of their enemies]: some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves by any means they could find. During the seven days that Eurymedon stayed with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime they were charged with was 'attempting to overthrow the democracy,' some victims were slain for purely private grudges, others were put to death by their debtors to avoid ever having to pay back their debts.

Death thus raged in every shape, and, as usually happens at such times, there was no extreme to which violence did not go: sons were killed by their fathers and those who had taken refuge at the altar were dragged from it or slain upon it; while some were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there. So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; since everywhere they had the chance the popular leaders would bring in the Athenians, and the oligarchs would call in the Lacedaemonians. In peacetime there would have been neither the pretext nor the desire to bring in an outsider; but in wartime, with allies always ready to assist either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own advantage, the insurrectionist made the most of the opportunity for foreign intervention.

The sufferings which revolution brought upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better feelings, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with dire necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places where it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

[In this chaotic world] words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take on new signification. Reckless audacity came to be considered the 'courage of a loyal ally'; prudent hesitation, 'an excuse for cowardice'; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question was inability to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of virility; paranoid plotting (was seen as) justifiable self-defense. The more extreme a man's schemes, the more valuable an ally he seemed; anyone who opposed extremism was suspected of treachery. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. To prevent an intended crime, or to plot a crime when it seemed likely to succeed, was equally valued, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, because those united by party loyalty were bound to dare everything without reserve. For such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction (of oath) than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more value than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this treacherous vengeance sweeter than an open reprisal, since success by treachery indicated superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. 

The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. The leaders in the cities, each with the most righteous of claims on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy sought prizes for personal gain in those public interests which they pretended to cherish; in their struggles for dominance [the ends justified the means]; in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict from a trumped up lawsuit or the authority of brute force, in order to glut the hatred that roused them at the time. Thus religion was respected by neither party; but the use of fair-sounding phrases to arrive at vicious ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderates perished at the hands of extremists on both sides, either for not taking sides or simply because those caught up in the troubles could not bear to see anyone unscathed. 
 
Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity which sense of honor had inspired was ridiculed and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted any other. And there was no way to end the cycle: there was no promise that could be believed, nor oath that could command respect; but all parties dwelling rather in their calculation upon the hopelessness of the status quo, were more intent upon self-defense than capable of confidence. In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents and so at once boldly had recourse to action, while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they would foresee any serious threat and that it was unnecessary to make their plan a fait accompli, often fell victim to their want of precaution.

Meanwhile Corcyra gave the first example of most of these crimes: of the reprisals exacted by the governed who had never experienced equitable treatment or anything but arrogance from their rulers; of the iniquitous resolves of those who desired to get rid of their accustomed poverty, and ardently coveted their neighbours' goods; and lastly, of the savage and pitiless excesses into which men who had begun the struggle not in a class but in a party spirit, were hurried by their ungovernable passions. In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all priorities; since revenge would not have been set above religion, and gain above justice, had it not been for the fatal power of envy. Indeed men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required.

5 comments:

  1. Plus ça change...

    Nice post.

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    1. I could no longer bear to listen to the voices on radio and tv who enthused about "discovering" a thing for the very first time anybody ever thought of ... There are a lot of translations of this work. The one I read at the War College was the best but it is not online and I left the printed words behind long ago.

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  2. Your web camera interpretation of the Weapon Shop of Isher is interesting.
    This post needs more pictures.

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    1. I sometimes think I overdo the pictures so I am glad to be corrected. I agree though.
      I posted the picture, I think from Dr. Who that I found in the library some years ago here in MetroParkCentralis. It was talking about libraries but I think it applies even more so to book stores, "filled with dangerous knowledge and dangerous weapons enough to delight the eye and leave a clear trail about what path informed knowledge takes in the pursuit of tyranny."

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  3. Also, I liked the Weapon Shops of Isher. It was an interesting and refreshing dystopia.

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