Thucydides and Democracy

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Thucydides and Democracy

Unread postby Liu Yuante » Thu Jul 29, 2004 3:39 am

One of the most compelling aspects of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is his attitude toward democracy. Thucydides has great things to say about Pericles because Pericles was able to control the excessive urges of the democracy, in either direction, and steer the city's government with stability. Nicias, the man who helped to arbitrate the second peace treaty during the war, eventually, through bad management and placing his personal desires above the army helped to doom the Sicilian Expedition (a bad proposition in its own right); yet Thucydides refrains from passing harsh judgement on him, and it is argued, and I agree, that this is because Thucydides places the real onus for Athens' loss in the war on the fact that the democracy became out of control after Pericles succumbed to the plague and demogogues ran rampant.

I also find in the History a compelling example of a democracy gone careening horribly out of control, leading to its ultimate submission to a state that, though more than a match on land, needed the help of the Persians at sea and which was, to be honest, very poor. Despite all of her setbacks, Athens had grown so wealthy that it was not until the very end of the war that things turned very bad (disregarding the Great Plague, which was horrific in other ways.) When you read Thucydides, and the contemporary work by Donald Kagan of Yale University, you can see where there were multiple oppurtunities for Athens to win the war or at least come out of it reasonably unscathed. Even as late as a few years before the very end, and after the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition, they had the oppurunity to achieve peace and retain much of their prior achievments. In arrogance and boldness, consumed with being right, they pressed on and turned back the second of two Spartan peace missions (the first was probably not sincere and was correctly refused; the second should have been taken, and would have been taken by any sane state) and paid the price. This resonates with me especially as the U.S., my own country, the most powerful democracy of its day, continues to go to war amid controversy and problems at home, with what some would claim is our own demogogue in the White House.

And yet, the Peloponnesian War unintentionally also illustrates the resilience of democracy; Athens was utterly humiliated by the loss and had to tear down the 'long walls' that extended to the Piraeus; yet not 50 years later she had regained much stature and even had a mini-empire going again; tellingly, it was Thebes and Athens who opposed Phillip of Macedon, not the Athenian/Spartan force that punished the Persian Invasion of 150 years earlier. Despite her loss, Athens rebounded, while Sparta's power waned, her hegemony over the Peloponnese was shattered by Thebes, and the helots were finally freed. Today Sparta is a backwater podunk-ville; Athens is the capital of Greece.

Thoughts, anyone?

Adrian
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Unread postby Harimau » Thu Jul 29, 2004 9:21 am

It has been quite a while since i have read Thucydides, Xenophon, Kagan, Mirriam and all those other books i had to read for history, but here goes.

Pericles may have been moderate in comparison to the later demogogues and leaders of Athens, but it would be my personal opinion that he too was no small cause of the downfall of Athens. From the descriptions of Thucydides, it was my impression that he was fiercely against the Lacaedomonians and their League, and their or should i say his policy was skewed towards a war against Sparta.

Although Athens had gained much prestige from such battles as Salamis and Platea, she was still not then the recognised hegemon of Greece. Sparta, with her league was still the hegemon. There were also other occassions before the Second Pelopennesian War that Sparta actually had the occassion to destroy Athens, such as when a League force was in Boetia ans was about to return to Laconia by way of Athens and Megara.

Instead of saying that Pericles was that one that moderated democracy, i would say that he was the primal cause. After all, it was he that instituted the practice of paying people in the public service, and denying citizenship to those that did not participate in the politics. If we compare this to America right now, its not all that different.

I would instead venture to say that Pericles was not the best man for the job. Instead, if Aristides, the old and widely respected Athenian had lived longer, Athens would not have been damaged by Sparta so. He was respected by all of Greece, for his role in Platea and also in the peace settlements.

And yeah... i so have no idea what i am talking about, going from one thought pattern to another and back again. Eh, just ignore it.
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Unread postby Liu Yuante » Fri Jul 30, 2004 12:07 am

No, that's fine. I disagree, though; Pericles' policy for the war was one of moderation - I, too, agree that Pericles' policy would not have won the war, but the specific strategy he urged the Athenians take was one of small expeditions and minor attacks, and not overreaching themselves. One of his policies was that they not meet the Spartans for battle when they came to harass their land and destroy their crops. While the crowding in the city made the plague even worse, Sparta never caused any real damage to Athens, her power, or her wealth with their seasonal expeditions. I don't think that they would have won anything this way - nominally, in fact, they might have 'lost' - but not in the humiliating, treasury-emptying, starvation, oligarch-installing defeat they ultimately suffered.

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Re: Thucydides and Democracy

Unread postby Tigger of Kai » Sun Dec 05, 2010 9:21 pm

Great old discussion on a fascinating topic! Thucydides' point that the Athenian people deserve the blame for putting their trust in inferior leaders is well taken. They did themselves further harm in this regard by foolishly banishing some of the most talented among them, such as Alcibiades, and Thucydides himself. That Alcibiades' life was once saved on the battlefield by a young, philosophically-minded fellow named Socrates almost defies belief. And it makes for a particularly sad contrast with the increasingly preening and useless ruling class of America today (to return to Adrian's original comparison).
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Re: Thucydides and Democracy

Unread postby Kayzr » Tue Dec 07, 2010 7:05 pm

It was two entirely different sets of political worldviews in the rivalry between Athens (democracy and tyrannies) and Sparta (monarchies and oligarchies). That alone should suggest why, ultimately, the Spartans were the victors in the conflict with the Athenian hegemony, i.e. the inherent itability of the Athenian democracy was predicated on effective leaders like Pericles, and when they didn't have any effective political and military leadership, all sorts of mischief took place (such as the Spartan-supported Thirty Tyrants).
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