• 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
    . Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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