Statesmanship

Colin MacLeod

  • The Experience of Thucydides by Dennis Proctor
    Aris and Phillips, 264 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 85668 153 9

Readers of literary weeklies and reviews need no reminding that writers’ lives seem often to be considered more palatable or more piquant than their writings; and there are those for whom a biography is a fitting end. The great authors of ancient Greece will never find biographers, simply because the material is not there: luckily perhaps, since they are thus freer to flit, alive, through the minds of posterity. But modern historians have persistently tried – if not to compose the life – to re-create the experience of Thucydides. We can understand them. The History of the Peloponnesian War is not only, in the author’s own words, ‘something to keep for ever’, but a lifetime’s work, and an unfinished one; and he himself lived through the period which was his theme. There are apparent strains and tensions and unevennesses in it, which may be partly because different passages were composed in different phases of the author’s thinking and existence. But after many decades of scholarly activity, there is still no agreement about the genesis of Thucydides’s history. No wonder. The work does not tell the tale of its own formation; and what may be explained by hypotheses about the author’s experience may often be explained no less well, or better, by other means.

Sir Dennis Proctor knows and loves Thucydides well – that emerges clearly from this book. He is also well-read in Thucydidean scholarship. And there’s the rub. For though Sir Dennis is not a professional scholar, and though his work, as the Preface announces, ‘was meant for the general reader’, I doubt if any but hard-bitten Thukydidesforscher will want to tackle it. It contains yet another story of how Thucydides composed his work, bit by bit, in response to the great events of his life, one which has much in common with that of Eduard Schwartz, the initiator of this line of inquiry. Like all its predecessors, it lacks a firm basis. Phrases like ‘one cannot but feel’ abound; and they have to, for want of solid information or cogent reasoning. The book is also hard to follow – Sir Dennis himself cheerfully speaks of his ‘ramblings’ – and its style is relaxed but hardly pleasing. Sometimes, too – a fault all too familiar in Classical scholarship – the story rests on a casual reading or an arbitrary judgment of the text.

A good example is his handling of the last speech of Pericles in Book Two. For Sir Dennis this is Thucydides’s hymn of praise to Athens, ‘a last, resounding expression of his own romantic conception of her power and glory’; it is also an impassioned defence of Pericles himself – in Thucydides’s view, the last truly intelligent and public-spirited leader of the city before it fell a prey to private interests and factious squabbles. Given what Thucydides says in propria persona straight after this speech, he clearly regards Pericles as vindicated: but the historian cannot be identified with the statesman, any more than with any other speaker in his work. Pericles defends his probity and his policies and he extols Athens’s imperial power – Thucydides invites us to reflect on the orator’s words.

Two things give these reflections their thread: the argument of the speech in itself and its place in the whole work. What Pericles says shows, for all his insistence on Athens’s power, that such power must come to an end and will survive as no more than a report. The same sentence which attaches six superlatives to the city, its renown and its achievements – ‘most’, ‘biggest’, ‘richest’ etc – contains in parenthesis one sobering comparative: ‘all things must in the course of nature be lessened.’ In part, this testifies to Pericles’s statesmanship. For Polybius, what showed Scipio most statesmanlike was his thinking forward, at the final destruction of Carthage, to a time when Rome herself would be destroyed: likewise, Pericles can contemplate the ‘lessening’ of Athens’s might, and even use that thought to steady the spirits and stiffen the resolve of the Athenians while he also inspires them with pride in their city’s power. But the speech has another, and tragic, dimension. What rises must fall. One reason Thucydides makes Pericles extol the city and its empire is that if we did not feel what and how much was collapsing when the time comes, the Athenian disaster in Sicily would lose its meaning; and the historian would have failed to convey what it meant to the Athenians at the time when it happened. Further, one of the main undertakings of Thucydides’s whole work is to show how the same qualities and impulses which led Athens to build up her power lead to her undoing, and how the possession of empire causes the loss of empire. This is, in effect, why the speech in which Alcibiades champions the Sicilian expedition can echo Pericles.

There is no need to believe the colourful story Sir Dennis spins around this fact, which depends on the assumption that Thucydides saw Alcibiades as ‘the true successor of Pericles ... and, almost insensibly ... wove some Periclean themes into the words which he put in his mouth’. The truth, I believe, is simpler and allows the historian to know what he was doing. If Alcibiades (like Cleon) echoes Pericles, that is, for him, to make his proposals more persuasive; for the historian, it shows how easily the Periclean rhetoric could be used to support un-Periclean policies and how naturally the Athenian Empire moves to disaster. That in its turn reminds us that Pericles’s great achievement, as the historian presents it, was to restrain the natural drives of the imperial democracy even as he gave it an inspiring image of itself. This is the reverse of what Alcibiades is doing; and Thucydides also makes quite clear that his motives, again in contrast to Pericles, were trivial and selfish. So if the historian says, as he seems to, that the recall of Alcibiades damaged the Sicilian expedition, that is because it threw him into the Spartans’ arms and thus helped to cause their momentous return to war, not because he thought Alcibiades would have made the campaign succeed. The judgments of the man in the earlier and the later phases of his career are different, and have every right to be.

In short, if we read Thucydides’s text carefully, some at least of the alleged inconsistencies which are the basis for stories about the composition of his work will disappear; and Sir Dennis himself, to his credit, manages to give a satisfactory account of Book One without recourse to such tales. It also helps if one remembers that Thucydides is the follower and rival of Herodotus and Homer, not just a political commentator on his own times. What will remain is a man of whose life and opinions we know little, and a writer who examines the horrors of war, the tangle of human motives, the glory and degradation of his own country, unflinching, detached, but far from unmoved. There is a time to rend and a time to sew. Students of Thucydides have rent too long: but there have been signs that some are now trying harder to see the work as a profound and coherent, if not altogether seamless web. The general reader, I suspect, never thought otherwise.