It Usually Begins With Thucydides

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favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to
professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale,
is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.

Irving Kristol

Dr. Kristol has done me a great favor in admitting in full public
view what I find easy to believe: the centrality to the neoconservatives
of Thucydides’ account of the disaster of disasters of classical
Greece, the Peloponnesian War (431—404 B.C.).

Because the indoctrination of American college students in my day
(not long after the Peloponnesian war) usually began with Thucydides’
history of the war, it might help to review that event for the benefit
of a younger generation that is not required to take a year-long
course in Western civilization, a course that was near and dear
to academic cheerleaders for the messianic State. I say this as
a man who was a teaching assistant in Western civ as a grad student.
(For an indication of my success in transmitting the ideals of Western
civilization to my students, click here for information regarding
my most famous student.)


book is most famous for his account of Pericles’ funeral oration
of 430 B.C.
This oration spelled out the basics of how Athenians
liked to think of themselves. Pericles delivered this oration at
a mass funeral of Athenian warriors who had died in the war with
Sparta. The war was about a year old. Pericles was more responsible
for that war than any other Athenian politician.

Pericles was using a highly emotional event, which had the character
of a religious rite, to defend Athenian ideals. This was necessary
in order to justify a war that was already going badly and would
soon go much worse. His speech is regarded as one of the classic
documents in the history of Western civilization. The textbooks
laud both Pericles and his speech. Rarely are students told what
followed. (Or should I say “were”? These days, they do not hear
of Pericles or his speech.)

A year later, a great plague struck maritime Athens, though hardly
at all in Sparta and the inland cities of the Peloponnesian alliance.
According to the historian of Greece, J. B. Bury, this plague led
to the destruction of Athenian civil religion and personal morality.
(Bury, History
of Greece
, p. 390.) Pericles’ two sons died in the plague.

Athens then sought peace with Sparta, which Sparta rejected. Pericles
was suspended from his post and put on trial for a minor offense.
He was subsequently re-elected to the post, having eloquently defended
the necessity of empire, especially since the other city-states
regarded it as immoral; it was too risky to quit now, he warned
them. They responded to his call, and Athens’ imperial war raged
on. He died a year later. The war continued for the next 25 years.
Sparta won. Some Periclean legacy!

what followed sheds light on his oration. So does knowing what came
before. For instance, consider this:

form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions
of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is
an example to them.

This was choice, coming as it did from a politician whose city-state
was an expansionist empire, and which had stolen money from Delian
League members. The Delian League had been a defensive alliance
against the Persians, a military threat that no longer existed.
But the tribute payments to Athens did.

Whenever it was regarded as necessary to extend Athenian control,
Athenians ruthlessly suppressed the liberties of the lesser cities
of the Athenian empire (the Delian League), which lasted from 478
B.C., the year after the second Persian invasion was repulsed by
the allied city-states, until 404 B.C., when Athens was defeated
by Sparta. For example, under Pericles’ political leadership in
454 B.C., Athens moved the League’s treasury from Delos to the Athenian
Acropolis. This was done in the name of a required religious payment
to Athena, Athens’ official goddess. The records indicate that one-sixtieth
of the funds collected were registered as payments to the goddess.
Some of these funds were then siphoned off to help finance Athens’
gigantic public works construction programs: the famous statues
and architectural glories of Periclean Athens. Bury, a great fan
of Athens, admitted that this was bad imperial politics for Athens
to extract these funds, however minimal, from the other cities in
the league.

When challenged by Thucydides regarding this policy, Athens voted
to ostracize him, thus ending any significant political opposition
to Pericles. The voters were swayed by Pericles’ argument that the
other cities had nothing to say about it, just so long as Athens
defended them. The League’s members supposedly had no right to interfere
with the allocation of these funds, however large or small. No accounting
to the cities was necessary. In effect, this was a form of forced
tribute to Athens.

Athens also forced the other cities to withdraw their coinage and
substitute Athenian coins.

Athens sent “inspectors,” garrisons, and small colonies of Athenians
to the subject cities.


If Pericles’ oration had one underlying theme, it was this: “Don’t
mess with Athens.” (Texans may recognize the origin of their own
anti-litter bumper sticker, “Don’t mess with Texas.”)

in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are
always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave,
we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils
which they face. And here is the proof: The Lacedaemonians [Spartans]
come into Athenian territory not by themselves, but with their
whole confederacy following; we go alone into a neighbor’s country;
and although our opponents are fighting for their homes and we
on a foreign soil, we have seldom any difficulty in overcoming
them. Our enemies have never yet felt our united strength, the
care of a navy divides our attention, and on land we are obliged
to send our own citizens everywhere.

ideals of Dale Carnegie did not penetrate Athens, or any other Greek
city-state, for that matter. They all preferred to win wars to influence

insisted that warfare was not all that much of a strain on Athens.
(There is little doubt that certain neoconservatives, who are not
serving in the military, and who avoided such service in their college
days, resonate with this suggestion.)

then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious
training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not
enforced by law, are we not greatly the better for it? Since we
do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we
can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; thus
our city is equally admirable in peace and in war.

neoconservatives who have been utterly confident about our adventures
in Afghanistan and Iraq, so was Pericles confident about the outcome
of the war with Sparta. That was because he was confident in the
effects of careful planning. The Athenians planned things very carefully,
he said.

we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength
lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but
that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action.
For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of
acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but
hesitate upon reflection.

no doubt came as a shock to Athens when they lost the war. They
had been so careful in thinking things through. They had been clever,
plus 50 percent.

said Pericles, there were the Athenians’ programs of foreign aid.
These surely had gained them friendship around the civilized world.

doing good, again, we are unlike others; we make our friends by
conferring, not by receiving favors. Now he who confers a favor
is the firmer friend, because he would rather by kindness keep
alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder
in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s
generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a
debt. We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation
of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and
fearless spirit.

Sparta and her allies were so unappreciative no doubt came as a
shock to Pericles, just as the escalating ingratitude in Iraq has
come as a shock to Dr. Wolfowitz.


It was the growing Athenian empire that led Sparta into its own
confederation. The city-states of Greece deeply resented Athens’
violations of their religious and legal autonomy. Historian David
Greene summarizes the fundamental issue raised by Athenian tyranny:

what right had Athens virtually obliterated the external autonomy
of the various states which had originally joined her League of
Delos against the menace of a recurrent Persian invasion? This
was the outspoken question or indignant charge put by every state
outside the Athenian sphere of influence. . . . There is no doubt
that, in exercising control over the external affairs of her confederate
allies, Athens was outraging the accepted code of international
Greek morality as it had existed from before the Persian wars.
(David Greene, Greek Political Theory: The Image of Man in
Thucydides and Plato [University of Chicago Phoenix Book,
[1950] 1965], p. 43. Originally published as Man in His Pride:
A Study in the Political Philosophy of Thucydides and Plato.

Thucydides explained the growth of the Athenian empire as a kind
of natural or inevitable force rather than as one city’s blatant
grab for centralized power, but his words did not make it so. His
explanation does, however, closely fit the presuppositions of modern
historians and political theorists, who see the march of democracy
and the rise of a secular one-world State as intertwined events.
They love Thucydides. He seems so much like one of them, despite
the fact (or possibly because of it) that he was a defender of oligarchy.

They also love Thucydides’ version of Pericles, who has become a
kind of precursor to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the
eyes of modern American scholars. Greene’s description of Pericles
deserves wider circulation:

the democracy whose dynamic was greed and fear and whose might
was the offspring of that greed and fear was held in check by
a single autocrat whose rule it accepted because he was not as
other men were. In this voluntary acquiescence of the vulgar,
in this submission to the statesman who neither flattered nor
feared them but who put heart into them or made them tremble with
the witchcraft of his own aloof certainty. Thucydides may have
seen the transcendence of the materialism in which he believed.
Here was power as it truthfully was, based on fear, pride, and
greed, yet it touched something too magical for measurement. (Ibid.,
p. 92.)

that I think of it, perhaps Pericles really was a kind of precursor
to Franklin D. Roosevelt.


offered condolences to the families of the dead warriors. Think
of your formerly brave, presently dead sons as being fortunate,
he assured them.

I do not now pity the parents of the dead who stand here; I would
rather comfort them. You know that your dead have passed away
amid manifold vicissitudes; and that they may be deemed fortunate
who have gained their utmost honor, whether an honorable death
like theirs, or an honorable sorrow like yours, and whose share
of happiness has been so ordered that the term of their happiness
is likewise the term of their life.

these sentiments sound familiar, think of the neoconservatives’
fondness of this oration. From this day forth, the President of
the United States will have many opportunities to send his condolences.

16, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
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