April 20, 2014

Review Corner

Things at Thasos thus turned out just the contrary to what the oligarchical conspirators at Athens expected; and the same in my opinion was the case in many of the other dependencies; as the cities no sooner got a moderate government and liberty of action, than they went on to absolute freedom without being at all seduced by the show of reform offered by the Athenians.
Thus spake Thucydides in the nineteenth year of the war in which Thucydides was the historian. The first person acknowledgment is unusual from the Athenian General and author of The Peloponnesian War.

Much scholarship has been devoted to Thucydides; while I rarely lack self-esteem, it is not my intention to add to it. I will tell instead of what happens when a regular Joe--er John lands in its pages and how it speaks to politics today, for it is a deeply political book.

"This we cannot have unless we have a more moderate form of government, and put the offices into fewer hands, and so gain the King's confidence, and forthwith restore Alcibiades, who is the only man living that can bring this about. The safety of the state, not the form of its government, is for the moment the most pressing question, as we can always change afterwards whatever we do not like."

The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears , and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way. They accordingly voted that Pisander should sail with ten others and make the best arrangement that they could with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades.


It seems Democracies struggled long before ObamaCare, but the primary takeaway for me is the brutality of life. As Hemmingway would offer two thousand years later "Que Puta es la Guerra" but to your basic Fifth Century BC hoplite, Thomas Hobbes's subjects' life would seen neither nasty, brutish nor short.

This underscores to your humble reviewer the impracticality of anarcho-capitalism. Pass around the Deepak Lal books, lads; your plunder-free libertarian utopia will be invaded by a neighboring power or undermined by your grandchildren's love of bread and circuses. The Founders were well versed in the Classics, and that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men" must have been obvious. Scores of independent city states are less than pawns in the struggle between Sparta and Athens.

But enough of that -- let's talk about me. I applaud blog friend tg for his suggestion of The Landmark Edition. True to Professor Adler, I eschewed its explanations, maps, and the perspicuity of its commentary for a naked run through the Richard Crawley translation completed in 1874. Then, less true to Adler, I turned immediately to the Landmark Edition to fill the substantial lacunae in my comprehension.

I was not cut out for a scholar. I think we can say it aloud. But a few weeks were very enjoyable. The text is eminently readable. Even if you lose track of where you are, when it is, and who is whom, it is full of keen insights. And the plot moves along by way of 141 orations. (Real) scholars question his sources of these exact quoted orations in pre-Google Greece, but they are a masterful literary device to relate the beliefs and goals of different factions.

The great blunder of Athens was the invasion of Sicily. They pulled defeat from the jaws of victory by overextending into a different theatre. Young commanders desiring glory speak to an easy campaign where they will be greeted as liberators. Nicias thinks this foolhardy. But to avoid sounding cowardly or unpatriotic delivers a speech instead reciting the great requirements for success. Instead of dissuading the assembled, they become enraptured in glory. Yes, you're right Nicias -- we should raise a huge army and navy and fill ships with food and supplies. This is going to be awesome!

[Spoiler Alert] The entrenched Syracusians dismantle the navy which has outdistanced supply lines and no Sicilian towns are keen on joining an outside alliance and providing harbor. When news reaches home that this massive force has been crushed, culpability is assessed, democracy-style:

When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily.

For 20+ years of strategy, bravado, tactics, skullduggery and politics. It is finally settled (post Thucydides) more by Persian capital -- after they enjoyed their two largest rivals beating the crap out of each other. There might be a lesson in there as well, if you're looking.

No sir, I am no scholar, but both Virgil's Works and The Peloponnesian War were enjoyable and add to inner pedantry (the word "laconic" comes from the inhabitants of Laconia who were spartan in speech and Spartan in politics. The names of the musical modes "Ionian," "Dorian," "Phrygian," &c. all come from areas in the book. "Eponymous" refers to the one archon after whom the assembly was named (think "The Roberts Court.")

It seems untoward to award stars. It is a treasure.

Greek to me Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at April 20, 2014 10:41 AM

The idea that jk, "was not cut out for a scholar," is laughable. If jk's review corners don't qualify as scholarly, then you better send me back to kindergarten for Green Eggs and Ham.

Posted by: dagny at April 21, 2014 11:54 AM

I thank my blog sister for her kind words. And though I am by no means above posting a self-deprecating comment in an attempt to fish for compliments, that was not my intent this time.

I enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and do take pride in the reading I have done since Nassim Taleb challenged me, in "The Black Swan," to read more books and consume less news and political magazines.

I thought Mortimer Adler's call might be the same; he calls me out almost by name: the-guy-who-thinks-he's-so-smart-because-he-reads-a-lot-but-it's-neitehr-deep-not-important-enough...

But the scholar enjoys digging a little deeper into the data -- let's look up that word in the original Greek and see if he meant to say "sad" or "forlorn..."

Fuhgettaboutit! I'd rather read something else. I appreciate rigor and mastery and salute the scholarship of VDH and the other Hosses who contribute commentary to the Landmark Edition. Folks who look up the Greek so I don't have to.

I don't play guitar as well as Joe Pass but I feel I am attempting the same things. My six weeks' fumbling through classics is not similarly comparable to VDH's life work.

We are privileged to have some real scholars around here. I think of two to whom I'd be very uncomfortable comparing myself. One is too aw shucks to be named, but for another, I invite you to compare a typical "Review Corner" to a random one by blog friend tgreer who claims -- far less convincingly -- that "He is not a scholar."

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 1:01 PM

And now back to the subject at hand - human political economy.

I was never much impressed by anarcho-capitalism as the optimum of human social order. It's analogous to a middle-school without a paddle-wielding assistant principal. Even if I get to have whatever weapons I want and nobody gets to make a claim on my property, it still promises to be nasty, brutish and, for some, short.

A constitutional republic enshrining individual liberty and properly restraining democratic impulses remains the ideal. But a prerequisite will always be, in addition to ever growing prosperity with each generation, ever growing education.

Today's generation is taught a fraction of what my public school curriculum entailed in the seventies, and I was awestruck to learn that my father's coursework included Latin, once again, in public school. Heck, he may even have studied Virgil and Thucydides. I'll leave aside whether the dumbing down is intentional or an unintended consequence of do-gooderism. Either way, American citizens are learning less and being told they know more. Unless things change, this can't end well.

Posted by: johngalt at April 21, 2014 2:22 PM

Well, I'll turn the Internet Segue Machine™ up to 11 and suggest this is a substantive portion of income inequality.

I don't think the dumbing down is more nefarious than the Unions wanting to protect inferior teachers and the warm-hearted if soft-headed desire to eschew rigor so that everybody gets a trophy.

But it is unmistakable -- my elder brothers attended the same schools I did but received far more rigorous education. (I call mine "post-deconstruction Catholic schooling.") My favorite education anecdote is from David McCullough's biography of John Adams. John Quincy Adams (#6) at 15 knew his Thucydides quite well as he had read it in Greek and Vigil in Latin. In addition, he spoke French and Russian fluently. He wrote Dad (#2), presumably in his native English, to tell of his disappointment at his not being accepted into Harvard. How many are graduated from Harvard today with that level of erudition?

As scholarship of any sort becomes more optional, that sets up a chasm between those who graduate today with good grades and those who force themselves to acquire those skills their contemporaries don't know they're missing.

All of which places into next Sunday's Review Corner: Charles Murray's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Now you have something to look forward to.

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 3:39 PM

I hear via email that I have just sold a copy of Mr. Murray's latest.

I didn't say it was going to be a good review...

Posted by: jk at April 21, 2014 6:14 PM

Incidentally, Hobbes was the first guy to ever translate Thucydides into English. His dim political views reflected this, I am sure.


I do try and go for that scholarly thing every once and a while. But I insist on using the Landmark edition regardless of how smart I think I am. It is too helpful to do without.

Good review.

Posted by: T. Greer at April 22, 2014 5:48 AM | What do you think? [6]