Course Review Full 132 page explanation of Thucydides' work, The Peloponnesian War. This set of notes was compiled by the professor who is a leading scholar in the study of Thucydides. This is the most thorough set of notes on Thucydides you will find.
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WINTER SESSION 2010-11
SEPTEMBER 21, 2010
INTRODUCTORY SEMINAR, THUCYDIDES 1-11.
My apologies for a beginning both late and shaky. Man proposes but God disposes. My thanks for both the
condolences and the congratulations.
This is POL 430Y/2021Y, “Comparative Topics in Jewish and Non-Jewish Political Thought,” a rubric that
leaves the instructor plenty of latitude. Its existence expresses my intention, conceived too late in life, but
better late than never, to explore the Biblical tradition on an equal footing with the classical and modern
ones. But while there are clearly classical and modern traditions of political thought, it is by no means clear
that there is a Biblical one. The Biblical tradition might be better understood as prepolitical and even
antipolitical. For politics, like philosophy, is an Hellenic notion, not an Hebraic one. As for modern politics, it
arises out of a transformation of the classical one.
Now there are some people around – their epicenter is the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem – who hold that
something called political Hebraism exerted an influence on the origins of modern political thought
comparable to the classical and Christian ones. Yes, there are people who think that, but they’re wrong.
There were indeed various Christian antiquarians in the 16th and 17th Centuries who were poring over the
Biblical texts with an eye to extracting a politics from it. But Christian antiquarians is what they were, who as
such exerted little influence on the development of modern thought. One thing that they have in common is
that you will never have heard of them. If the thinkers of whom you have heard, such as Hobbes, Locke, and
Spinoza, busied themselves interpreting the ancient Hebrew commonwealth, it was with the intention of
demonstrating the ultimate irrelevance of its practices to the modern world, to a political project
constructed on the basis of rational principles. At best they offered an historical vindication of the laws of
the Hebrews as necessary for a people as slavish and barbarous as the Hebrews had been on leaving Egypt.
Only in Puritan New England had the attempt been made to introduce select Biblcial laws into a quasi-
modern polity. (Those of you enrolled in Prof. Balot’s seminar will encounter a discussion of this in
Tocqueville.) But this attempt foundered: within a very few generations, the Puritans had become
Congregationalists, and then the Congregationalists Unitarians. Burning witches was strictly passė.
This isn’t to deny a profound indebtedness of the modern tradition to the Biblical one. But it has nothing to
do with political Hebraism. I spoke earlier of the modern tradition having emerged from a transformation of
the classical one. It is here that certain elements of the Biblical tradition entered, themselves transformed to
serve as agents of this other transformation. In particular the notion of an omnipotent deity, as a model for
the will of man as newly conceived, and of the non-human world not a nature in the classical sense but as a
flux subject now to the will of man rather than of an omnipotent creator God.
In this year’s version of the course we will dwell primarily on the classical and Biblical traditions, with the
modern making only a cameo appearance. Certainly no-ne would deem the brief and mostly obscure Levite
of Ephraim as a representative of the modern tradition as weighty as Thucydides of judges. The work does
offer, however, a fascinating example of a great modern mind at work on a Biblical text, precisely the final
episode of the Book of Judges itself.
The glaring juxtapositions of one work that I used to know well with two others that like most of you I will
be learning for the first time. The second of these situations appears to me less problematic than the first.
Ignorance is readily sensed as such and just as easily discounted, but a lot of knowledge is a dangerous
thing. Of course, “a lot” may be an exaggeration because I’m not sure how much is still left after nearly 20
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years away from Thucydides. I could refer to my book, of course, to learn what I used to know, but that
would make for stale teaching, which is why I stopped teaching Thucydides upon completing the book. As
for my old teaching notes, they are stored in an obsolete electronic medium, so I would have to take them
to our Dept computer technician to decode them. But I’m not inclined to do that, either. My present
intention is to reprepare Thu from the ground up. In so doing I will inevitably be jogged from time to time to
remember what I used to think. In all likelihood, however, I’ll recall only a small percentage of it, so as far as
Thucydides is concerned you may do better just to read my book. [Note negotiations with Princeton editor.]
When it comes to Judges and The Levite of Ephraim, there’s an entirely different reason for you not to take
the course, namely that, as already mentioned, I don’t yet know squat about either.
Our theme: piety and strife, both foreign and domestic. It is an unfortunate fact about strife that even if the
existence of a foreign threat may begin by bolstering domestic unity, the strain of coping with it, especially
at length and at a steep cost, works to subvert such unity. Harsh times make for harsh politics. So civil strife,
if not the inevitable consequence of foreign strife, is a highly likely one. Civil strife in its turn invites foreign
intervention, just as the threat of foreign intervention is bound to aggravate civil strife. So there’s a circle
that’s vicious indeed. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that where you find one you will find the other: that
there is no major foreign war unaccompanied by civil strife, and no major civil war free of rival foreign
interventions. Both in Thucydides and in Judges we’ll view the interactions of different levels of conflict,
which is a very neutral way of stating that we’ll learn that war is one hell piled on top of another.
But war is also a pious hell, or at any rate a hell in which the issue of piety figures largely. Here I want to
begin with a piece of American folk wisdom: “there are no atheists in foxholes.” This statement seems to
imply that during war piety enjoys a field day, and that all concerned with fostering piety should therefore
wish for it. War makes people more pious; what’s not to like about that? Response? The truth of the adage:
that war intensifies men’s natural concern with their own fates and those of their loved ones, friends, and
fellow countrymen, and with it a longing for some indication of divine protection, a longing to find a
meaning or pattern in life and even in its most insignificant details. (Superstitions of all kinds multiply among
soldiers, much as they do among athletes. So and so caught a bullet because he wasn’t wearing his charmed
socks that day.) As human beings become more needy and imperiled, so they become more prayerful (i.e.,
hopeful) and thankful. War increases attendance at church and synagogues; this was observed after 9/11.
The divine becomes more visible in wartime; in the sense that there are more sightings of it in wartime (cf.
But is this the whole story? For war, for the same reason that it subverts domestic tranquility, places piety
under great strain. The most terrible atrocities, including the grossest profanations of the sacred, are also
characteristic of wartime. Moreover, war doesn’t simply strengthen faith; it also challenges it, sowing doubt
where there was none before. There turns out then to be a complex interplay between strife and piety, and
this interplay will furnish our general theme.
I want to stress, however, that I have no conclusions that I’m planning to purvey in this course. These brief
and inadequate remarks have been intended as only the most provisional guidelines to reflections. The
books will speak for themselves, and we will listen. If I were confident of my understanding even of
Thucydides, I wouldn’t teach him. It would be a waste of my time to do so.
How we will proceed. My distribution of my notes, to relieve you of the burden of excessive note taking.
Going around the room.
TURNING TO THUCYDIDES
By most traditional accounts of the divine, at what stage of human time is the divine and its works most
visible? In the beginning. The gods as the αρχαι (beginnings, first principles), as the αρχοντεσ (rulers). The
gods as the first lawgivers; and as the teachers of the arts, and thereby the sources of human progress. Yet
that progress is ambiguous (hence Zeus’ prohibition against giving fire to man, flouted by Prometheus),
because in possessing these divine gifts men become less dependent on the gods and in departing from
their original simplicity become vicious (cf. here the agreement between the classical and the Biblical
The ancestors, in their turn, as the human beings closest to the divine, and as superior in virtue as a result.
(Here too there is agreement, mutatis mutandis, between the classical and the Biblical traditions.) According
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to the classical view the ancestors were even the children of the divine (i.e. “heroes” in the original sense or
demigods) whose prowess approached that of the divine (Herakles, Achilles, Ajax).
With these considerations in mind, we turn to Thucydides’ account of the earliest times. This is traditionally
known as the αρχαιολογια (“account of the origins” or of the “original things” or “of the first principles”: the
phrase is ambiguous).
Chapter One. The first sentence, which in ancient books (i.e. scrolls) identified the author and stated his
subject (in lieu of a title). Thucydides identifies himself as an Athenian writing about a war in which the
Athenians were one of the two principal combatants, thus raising the question of what we would call his
objectivity. Yet the plea that he begins by entering is not on behalf not of the Athenians but of the war: that
it was great and and the most noteworthy of all wars up to that time. This plea on behalf of the war is also
on behalf of his book: a war supremely worth knowing about suggests a book supremely worth reading.
The argument for the greatness of the war, i.e. for its bigness. (Greek μεγασ, unlike English great, is without
moral connotation: no Hellenic Tom Brokaw could have coined the term “greatest generation.”) More
precisely, the author offers his reasons for expecting at the time of the outbreak of the war that it would
prove great, for it was then that he had to commit himself to the project of recording it. The grounds that he
offers seem reasonable, but wait: wasn’t there an earlier one (or two) that might claim to have exceeded it
on these grounds or similar ones? The Trojan, or the Persian. Hence the necessity of the exercise in
debunking that will occupy him through the end of Chapter 23.
In support of the claim that his war was greatest, Thucydides purports to show that in earlier times there
was nothing great with regard to war or anything else. What a sweeping deflating claim. His war wins by
default in a contest not of titans but minnows: it isn’t that it is even greater than the Trojan and Persian
wars, but that Thucydides alleges that these were entirely lacking in greatness.
The problem of evidence, which Thucydides readily concedes. The obvious question is “methodological”:
what are his criteria for distinguishing trustworthy evidence from the rest? On this question cf. Jacqueline
de Romilly, Histoire et raison chez Thucydide. One can hardly praise Romilly’s work too highly. One great
rationalist parsing another.
Chapter Two. If the war that Thucydides recorded was the greatest motion, then how are we to understand
the earliest times? As beset by constant motion, and therefore incapable of any great one. A great motion
requires preparation, and so a surplus, it requires prior stability or a lengthy stretch of [relative rest]. Great
enterprises require strong actors. In the earliest times there were only weak actors, even if some were
stronger than others. Much brilliant analysis here. In a situation of “underdevelopment,” the natural fertility
of the soil was determining; by an unpredictable historical quirk, barren Attica, undisturbed by invasions and
receiving floods or refugees, reveals necessity as the mother of invention, and slowly but surely develops
into the city of the future.
From the beginning of the Archeology and throughout, the emphasis is on strife as the engine of human
progress, foreshadowing Hegel’s “cunning of reason.” As yet there is no Hellenic people and none of these
petty actors aims at one, yet it’s onward and upward by small steps through incessant competition.
Chapter Three. Another proof of weakness: weakness is clearly the theme. No distinction in name between
Hellenes and barbarians because…no distinction in fact between them. “Greekness” (my term, not his) did
not exist and therefore neither did the Greeks (as opposed to the petty tribes that would later become
them). For a long time, as Homer’s usage attests (i.e. until even long after the Trojan war, at the time of
Homer’s writing), the term Hellene denoted not the whole Hellenic people-to-be but only a tiny part, a
single clan of it: the clan that produced Achilles. What is Thucydides’ suggestion here? That so great was the
prestige of Achilles thanks to Homer that it conjured the Hellenic identity into being? That Homer was the
educator of the Hellenes in the most comprehensive sense, that they owed him their national identity?
Enter Homer, Thucydides’ great rival as the self-proclaimed singer of the greatest war. Homer as “historical
source”: raises again the question of Thucydides’ criteria for trustworthiness. How does Homer figure as an
authority here? Is he deemed a reliable source for the earliest times, i.e., the times much earlier than his
own of which he wrote? Only by extension from his serving as an (unwitting) source for his own times: what
was still true of his own times was a fortiori true of even earlier ones. This is like taking Sir Thomas Malory,
who wrote about King Arthur in the 15th Century, as a reliable source for…the way people spoke in the 15th
C., and what can be inferred from that. An early example of source criticism, i.e., the impeccably critical use
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