It Usually Begins With Thucydides

The 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.)


Thucydides’ 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!

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

Our 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.”)

And 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.

The 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 people.

Pericles 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.)

If 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.

Like 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.

For 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.

It 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.

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

In 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.

That 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:

By 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:

Yet 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.)

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


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

Wherefore 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.

If 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.

August 16, 2003

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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