November 6, 2016

Thucydidies Book Three: The Price of Human Life

"People who read Thucydides and Caesar on war, and Seneca and Ovid on love, are less inclined to construe passing fads as durable outlooks, to fall into the maelstrom of celebrity culture, to presume that the circumstances of their own life are worth a Web page." -- Mark Bauerlein quoted by Walter Williams
Why read Thucydides? The search results looking for the above quote are instructive. There is much on military strategy and "The Thucydides Trap" which is the subject of blog friend tg's superb Book II essay. I am riveted by what is timeless and what is modern. Pace Bauerlein, the good Athenian General/Historian will frequently lay down a riff that speaks clearly to today's events.
Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.
Then in the next section, he will describe an impoverished and pre-Hobbesian world which I cannot recognize. Form 3.67:
The number of Plataeans thus massacred was not less than two hundred, with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves. [3] The city the Thebans gave for about a year to some political emigrants from Megara, and to the surviving Plataeans of their own party to inhabit, and afterwards razed it to the ground from the very foundations, and built on to the precinct of Hera an inn two hundred feet square, with rooms all round above and below, making use for this purpose of the roofs and doors of the Plataeans : of the rest of the materials in the wall, the brass and the iron, they made couches which they dedicated to Hera, for whom they also built a stone chapel of a hundred feet square. The land they confiscated and let out on a ten-years' lease to Theban occupiers. [4] The adverse attitude of the Spartans in the whole Plataean affair was mainly adopted to please the Thebans, who were thought to be useful in the war at that moment raging. Such was the end of Plataea in the ninety-third year after she became the ally of Athens.
"Bloody Spartans!" This massacre is not attributable to the heat of battle or fog of war; it is preceded by speeches both for mercy and for retribution (well chronicled in Pauline Kaurin's Book III essay. In the end, the Spartans decide to ask each resident what they have done to help Sparta. Without a good answer, it is death. The Plateans' speech points out that this is not actually a fair question for residents of an Athenian controlled and long blockaded city. But justice is swift, harsh, and generally not very just in the Peloponnesian War.

The politics and military strategy are still of interest today. One must search for recognizable economic ideas, such as Pericles (2.37) some 2100 years before Adam Smith:

while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

The lack of enlightenment economics and values differentiate the tale from modern times. Hemmingway reminds that "Que puta es la Guerra" and there is no paucity of butchery today. But in a Steven Pinker, Better Angels world it is an aberration. "And the women were sold as slaves." closes many a section. The victors set up a trophy, the losers recover their dead under truce, and, oh yeah, the women were sold as slaves.

Much is timeless. The lack of value for life is not. This value does not come from our being so much nobler or better than those of Fifth Century BCE Hellas, but without productivity gains, people are truly interchangeable. And interchangeable is expendable. A great leader like Pericles has leverage and cannot be easily replaced. The same for a great General like the Spartan Brasidas. But the rower, the hoplite, the olive farmer were each just another warm body.

The nobility of the Enlightenment proceeds from the economic value of productive people under specialization and comparative advantage. Seeing its absence underscores the connection.

SIDE NOTE: Some interesting 2450-tear-old crowdsourcing: Plateans, planning escape, average multiple counts to assess the height of the wall to scale (3.19).

Ladders were made to match the height of the enemy's wall, which they measured by the layers of bricks, the side turned toward them not being thoroughly whitewashed. These were counted by many persons at once; and though some might miss the right calculation, most would hit upon it, particularly as they counted over and over again, and were no great way from the wall, but could see it easily enough for their purpose. [4] The length required for the ladders was thus obtained, being calculated from the breadth of the brick.

Greek to me Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at November 6, 2016 11:35 AM

Donald Trump may be right -- the system is rigged!

Your hometown pedant has submitted a few comments on the official roundtable site. It is moderated and zero have been accepted for publication. There is a Facebook group I follow but to which I cannot post.

I am starting to know how the Plateans felt...

Posted by: Jk at November 6, 2016 10:42 PM | What do you think? [1]