January 06, 2004

History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War

The Thirteen-Year-Old got Donald Kagan's (2003) Peloponnesian War (one volume) for Christmas. Now I find that the New Yorker's Daniel Mendelsohn doesn't think much of it:

Daniel Mendelsohn: Critic at Large: Kagan... informs us that... he wants his work to "meet the needs of readers in the 21st century"... "an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions." Uninterrupted, yes, but not unbiased... you tend to come away from his history with an entirely different view of the war than the one you take away from Thucydides....

The only way to do this, unfortunately, is [for Kagan] to flatten Thucydides's presentation of the Peloponnesian War, stripping away the many voices and points of view that [Thucydides] worked so hard to include.... Thucydides tends to be shy about overtly intruding.. not so Kagan. This is most apparent in [Kagan's] revisionist championing of Cleon and other Athenian hawks, whose policies he consistently presents as the only reasonable choice. "It is tempting to blame Cleon for the breaking off of the negotiations," goes a typical bit of rhetorical strong-arming. "But what, realistically, could have been achieved?" Anyone who hasn't read Thucydides will be inclined to agree. [Thucydides's own] explanation of the Athenians' distaste for peace was that "they were greedy for more."

The desire to rehabilitate Cleon inevitably results in a corresponding denigration of the [Athenian] peace party (with its "apparently limitless forbearance") and of the cautious policies recommended first by Pericles and then by Nicias, a figure for whom Kagan has particular disdain. Here Kagan's revisionism borders on being misleading. Nicias had tried to bluff the Athenian Assembly into abandoning the invasion of Sicily, declaring that it would require far greater expense than people realized; but they simply approved the additional ships and troops. This leads Kagan, bizarrely, to characterize the Sicilian Expedition as "the failed stratagem of Nicias." As for the Athenians' massacre of the Melians, Kagan dismisses it as "the outlet they needed for their energy and frustration."

Kagan's perspective on events and personalities at first suggests an admirable desire to see the war with fresh and unsentimental eyes. But after a while it becomes hard not to ascribe his revisionism to plain hawkishness, a distaste for compromise and negotiation when armed conflict is possible. His book represents the Ollie North take on the Peloponnesian War: "If we'd only gone in there with more triremes," he seems to be saying, "we would have won that sucker."

It is certainly the case that I have always found it very strange that Kagan is not much, much more hesitant than he is to dismiss and overturn Thucydides's analytical conclusions and moral judgments. Thucydides, after all, was there. We know next to nothing about the Peloponnesian War that he did not. He knew a great deal about the Peloponnesian War that did not make it into his book.

Actually, we do know one important, big thing about the Classical Greek world that Thucydides did not know (and that, strangely, Kagan appears not to know). There is a deep, powerful sense in which time was on the side of Athens and its empire. Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for metics and immigrants to the Geek world to think whether they wanted to live in Spartan-allied oligarchies dominated by a closed guild of landowners, or in Athenian-allied places where the (male, citizen) demos ruled and where there was much more growth, commerce, trade, and opportunity. Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for rich Spartiates to marry the daughters of other rich Spartiates, and for poor Spartiates to find that they could no longer afford the Spartan lifestyle and so drop out of the citizen body--and of the main line of battle. By 350 Sparta could--this is a guess--put only one-fifth as many professional hoplite soldiers into the line of battle as it could have two centuries before. A policy of postponing the showdown--even if one of "apparently limitless forbearance"--was a policy of greatly increasing the relative strength of the Athenian side.

But what is most disappointing to Mendelsohn (and most disappointing to me) is that he finds Kagan's Peloponnesian War to be a very different and much less interesting thing than Thucydides's Peloponnesian War (or, I would argue, than the Peloponnesian War as it really happened). The lessons from Kagan's Peloponnesian War appear to be that war against Bad Guys calls for Harsh Measures and Total Mobilization.

By contrast, Mendelsohn writes, the lessons from Thucydides's Peloponnesian War:

...are no different from the ones that the tragic playwrights teach: that the arrogant self can becom the abject Other; that failure to bend, to negotiate, inevitably results in terrible fracture; that, because we are only human, our knowledge is merely knowingness, our vision partial rather than whole, and we must tread carefully in the world...

But let's give Thucydides himself the last word:

[W]ar... proves a rough master that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes... the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning.... Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries.... The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions... not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation... only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it... thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since... success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence.... The leaders in the cities... on the one side with the cry of political equality... on the other of a moderate aristocracy... [recoiled] from no means in their struggles... in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard.... Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries...

Posted by DeLong at January 6, 2004 04:48 PM | TrackBack

Comments

That's what he was like in class. The Lesson of History was that the only smart path was to have more guns than they other guy, never appease, always fight -- and attacking first isn't such a bad idea if you are overwhelmingly superior. A great and entertaining speaker whose style failed to hide a one-dimensional, Velociraptor, vision of history.

It wasn't history as tragedy, it was history cunningly hiding PR for the Pentagon.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin on January 6, 2004 05:23 PM

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Oh, great gift. Did he or she get Grand Theft Auto? That is a sweet gift for a 13 year old.

Posted by: books on January 6, 2004 05:44 PM

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Well, Mendelsohn, like Thucydides and DeLong, thinks that the elite of Athens knew better than the masses (or the people, as we would call them today). But the masses were there, were better judges than we of what was right, and they voted for Cleon. Although Athens lost the war in the end, history by no means supports the proposition that elites have overall better judgment than the masses. Furthermore, it is utterly fantastic to suggest the foreseeable history of the fifth century BC was heading in the direction of democracy; it clearly was not.

Full disclosure: I too was a Donald Kagan student.

Posted by: Y'81 on January 6, 2004 05:52 PM

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The masses voted for Perikles... Kleon... Alkibiades... Nikias... Alkibiades again... for Themistokles... to exile Themistokles... to kill every adult male citizen of Mytilene... to spare every adult male citizen of Mytilene... to put Alkibiades in charge of the Sicilian expedition... to put Nikias in charge of the Sicilian expedition. The Athenian demos voted for *everybody* at different times.

That said, wouldn't a fourth and third century BC Eastern Mediterranean dominated by an Athenian Empire likely been better than one dominated by Sparta/Thebes/Persia/Macedon and then by the Diadochi? And wouldn't a second and first century BC Eastern Mediterranean dominated by an Athenian Empire have likely been better than one dominated by Rome?

Posted by: Brad DeLong on January 6, 2004 06:36 PM

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>>And wouldn't a second and first century BC >>Eastern Mediterranean dominated by an Athenian >>Empire have likely been better than one >>dominated by Rome?
No, just chaos and destruction.
Roma caput mundi tenet orbis frena rotundi.
SPQR

Posted by: Marcus Porcius Catus on January 6, 2004 07:40 PM

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"Uninterrupted, yes, but not unbiased... you tend to come away from his history with an entirely different view of the war than the one you take away from Thucydides.... "

Hardly surprising considering that Thucydides was an ancient Greek and not a modern American Ivy League professor...

And speaking professionally, I'd love to have someone say I wasn't quite as good a historian as Thucydides. It's somewhat akin to saying that an author has failed because his writing fell short of Shakespeare's.

Posted by: mark safranski on January 6, 2004 09:35 PM

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"...a decade for metics and immigrants to the Geek world... "

Freudian slip?

Posted by: bulent on January 6, 2004 11:37 PM

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Well ... the reason that Hannibal failed in the end was that the Greeks in the Latin world decided that they preferred Roman rule to their own democracies.

I think that they accurately reflect a world sea as it would have been if Athens had dominated (assuming that they had been able to stop Alexander when Sparta could not).

I know that "beaurocracy" is a trendy thing to attack, but the Ptomleys and the Romans had ones that were a comparative advantage vis a vis their neighbors and competitors and that made life for the masses better and stronger.

Anyway, this post was strong -- before I go back to bed I'm sending it to friends.

Thanks.

Posted by: Steve on January 7, 2004 01:36 AM

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Thucydides' Athens is a haunting analogy with the modern USA, isn't it? The first use of it I know of came in a sad, strange book called "Victory in Vietnam" by my friend Richard West: he saw the Communists as Spartans, which was understandable in the Sixties, especially as he had been a student in Tito's Yugoslavia.

But it was a noble idea, productive of good journalism, to take Thucydides and Conrad as his guides to the contemporary world.

Posted by: Andrew Brown on January 7, 2004 01:51 AM

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Mark Safranski, the criticism of Kagan is not that he's not quite as good as Thucydides, but that he took Thucydides great work and degraded it, sort of like the bowdlerizers of Shakespeare.

Thucydides had his own axes to grind, and I have read that there are significant doubts about his accuracy, beyond the fact that most of the speeches he reports are reconstructions of what the speaker "must have said". But I can't remember the details.


There must be something about classicists. I can't criticize him on technical detail, but Victor Davis Hansen's writings about military history are also extremely tendentious. Hansen denigrates cavalry and archers and claims that the Greek infantry phalanx was the foundation of democracy and Western civilization. Elsewhere he seems to promote the present US military as the successor to the Greek phalanx. But our military is more like the Mongol military, relying on mobility and intelligence vastly superior to the enemy's, and destroying them with deadly long-distance weaponry discharged from remote locations.

Posted by: Zizka on January 7, 2004 06:01 AM

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An earlier reference to the Peloponnesian War and possible analogies to the post-1945 period was made by George Marshall when he was Secretary of State. I have never seen the full text of the address, so I am unsure of his exact analogy. One could be the simple democracy vs. dictatorship conflict. Another could be the difficulties is defining acceptable end-states for hostilities and a Clauswitzian sense that war in itself is a process that defies control and predictable outcomes.

"I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding some of the basic international issues of today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens."

George C. Marshall
Washington Birthday Remarks
Princeton University
February 22, 1947

Posted by: tcs on January 7, 2004 07:40 AM

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There is good stuff on this and related topics in Carl J. Richards, "The Founders and the Classics," Harvard UP 1994. Richards says "The founders particularly detested Cleon ... whose vices Thucydides vividly portrayed" (with a quote from John Dickinson's "Lertters from a Pennsylvania Farmer"). On a similar theme, see the Penguin paperback "Plutarch on Sparta."

Posted by: jda on January 7, 2004 09:13 AM

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There is good stuff on this and related topics in Carl J. Richards, "The Founders and the Classics," Harvard UP 1994. Richards says "The founders particularly detested Cleon ... whose vices Thucydides vividly portrayed" (with a quote from John Dickinson's "Lertters from a Pennsylvania Farmer"). On a similar theme, see the Penguin paperback "Plutarch on Sparta."

Posted by: jda on January 7, 2004 09:13 AM

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Compare and contrast Thuycidides on the moral decay brought about by war with George Kennan's seminal "X" piece on containment. Kennan thought the chilly Fabian prudence called for by confrontation with the Soviet USSR was going to run counter to deep-rooted American habits of instant action and mood swings. Thuycidides points to a different set of dangers; the corrosion of democratic civility in a war of choice not necessity. Vietnam apart, America handled the first set of dangers better than it is dealing with the second.

Posted by: James on January 7, 2004 09:28 AM

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Wasn't the gist of Perikles funeral oration a warning about the danger that awaited as the war would drag on? He predicted that their gentlemanly and courteous conflict would degenerate into barbarism and butchery as injury piled upon injury.

That sounds like a danger for us, just as much as the ancient Athenians. No way we would have firebombed Dresden in 1941. By 1944, it seemed like a necessary and reasonable thing to do. You can say the same warning applies to Israel with respect to the Palestinians and the United States with respect to the Iraqi occupation.

Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

Posted by: Eric in Detriot on January 7, 2004 10:35 AM

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Re: Marcius Porcius Catus

I'm not sure.... a little later, the more common line was Radix Omnia Malorum Avaritia, wasn't it. And one can hardly deny that the Romans...or at least their political class...were greedy!

Posted by: PQuincy on January 7, 2004 10:58 AM

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There's a kind of meta-point to be made here, too.

Donald Kagan's a Straussian, right? (He's the father of neo-con Robert Kagan and signed the 1997 Project for a New American Century statement of principles). Isn't the motivation for Leo Strauss' scholarly methodology the idea that the authors of these ancient works (Thucydides specifically discussed in _The_City_and_Man_) were obliged by the temper of their times to keep their real meaning obscure. Strauss wrote that by selecting evidence and editing speeches, Thuycidides presents a picture in his History that differs from what the participants experienced. His is a picture that makes sense only to an elite, removed from events either by time or their inherent intellectual and moral superiority.

Now Kagan has ground and rendered the historical evidence to produce an alternative reading; one closer to his own world view, or rather, to the world view of his (apparently) preferred elite.

All of which begs the question: which elite? Kagan's or the Athenian general's? And if we have to choose, what does that say about the existance of an elite uniquely qualified to access 'the truth'?

I mean, you can't just declare, "I'm in the elite and you're not.". Or is that the *real* neo-conservative movement standing up?


Posted by: Paul G. Brown on January 7, 2004 12:24 PM

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There's a kind of meta-point to be made here, too.

Donald Kagan's a Straussian, right? (He's the father of neo-con Robert Kagan and signed the 1997 Project for a New American Century statement of principles). Isn't the motivation for Leo Strauss' scholarly methodology the idea that the authors of these ancient works (Thucydides specifically discussed in _The_City_and_Man_) were obliged by the temper of their times to keep their real meaning obscure. Strauss wrote that by selecting evidence and editing speeches, Thuycidides presents a picture in his History that differs from what the participants experienced. His is a picture that makes sense only to an elite, removed from events either by time or their inherent intellectual and moral superiority.

Now Kagan has ground and rendered the historical evidence to produce an alternative reading; one closer to his own world view, or rather, to the world view of his (apparently) preferred elite.

All of which begs the question: which elite? Kagan's or the Athenian general's? And if we have to choose, what does that say about the existance of an elite uniquely qualified to access 'the truth'?

I mean, you can't just declare, "I'm in the elite and you're not.". Or is that the *real* neo-conservative movement standing up?


Posted by: Paul G. Brown on January 7, 2004 12:29 PM

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sorry for the dupe

Posted by: Paul G. Brown on January 7, 2004 12:31 PM

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Thuycidides:
"Words had to change their ordinary meaning...."

News report today in the Financial Times :

“The [Carnegie think tank] report says administration officials misrepresented the [Iraqi] threat in three ways.

They presented nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as a single WMD threat, lumping together the high likelihood that Iraq had chemical weapons with the possibility that it had nuclear weapons, a claim for which there was no serious evidence.”
http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1073280860558&p=1012571727092

Posted by: James on January 8, 2004 12:31 AM

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Well, I have to say that in places it sounds as if Mendelsohn and I read different books. I've not read Thucydides myself, and so cannot make that comparison, but I did not draw the same conclusions he did from Kagan's description of Nicias and the invasion of Sicily.

It's worth nothing that the NYT Book Review had considerable praise of the book, and its clear that Kagan's prior work has come in for praise as well. The man wrote a 4-volume scholarly history of the Peloponnesian War, for goodness sake.

Does Mendelsohn have the credentials to make the sort of criticisms he's making? This is an honest and sincere question.

Posted by: Jim Roberts-Miller on January 8, 2004 06:21 AM

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"There must be something about classicists"
-Zizka

There is - barring the rare rediscovery of lost texts, they've been working with the same primary sources since the Renaissance. It's not easy to say something new. Modern historians are drowning in documentation by comparison ( I read somewhere that Reagan signed or initialled close to a million pieces of paper in his two terms. I'm not certain if that's accurate but in any event the pile of paper generated by modern governments is truly staggering )

Posted by: mark safranski on January 8, 2004 08:53 PM

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