Fans of George Orwell’s 1984 will recall Newspeak, the development of a new language that also involved the elimination of certain words and concepts. The method is clearly defined by the character of Syme in Orwell’s book:
“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”
Trumpspeak is America’s version of Newspeak. Whatever you choose to call it, the intent is clear: the control of thought through the elimination of certain words and concepts. Today at TomDispatch.com, Karen Greenberg documents the destruction of certain words and concepts within the Trump administration. These words and concepts include refugees, climate change, greenhouse gases, America as a nation of immigrants, and even the notion of science-based evidence.
The suppression or elimination of words and phrases is one big step toward thought control; so too is the parroting of certain pet phrases and concepts, such as “support our troops” or “make America great again” or “homeland security.” In an article about Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz that appeared in the Nation, Adam Kirsch writes of how Döblin recognized the “sinister” nature of “the colonization of the individual mind by parasitic discourses,” the way in which reality itself is “cloaked” by “predigested phrases.” Döblin wrote of how “The words come rolling toward you, you need to watch yourself, see that they don’t run you over.”
And I think something like this is happening in America today. We’re being run over by certain words and concepts, even as other words and concepts related to democracy and cherished freedoms are carefully elided or eliminated.
Of course, Orwell wrote about this as well. “Predigested phrases” is captured by Orwell’s concept of duck-speak, in which proles just quack like ducks when they speak, echoing the sounds fed to them by party operatives. Quacking like a duck requires no thought, which is precisely the intent.
Pay attention, America, to the words you’re losing before they’re gone forever; and also to the words you’re using before they run you over.
A curious feature of America’s wars is their lack of thematic coherence. Lacking a clear beginning (other than the 9/11 attacks), they also lack a clear end point. It’s all middle – repetition without meaning, action without progress, like a bad novel that introduces lots of characters but that never goes anywhere. Look at the rolling cast of characters in charge of America’s wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Other than generals who disgraced themselves in ways unrelated to combat performance (David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal), their names are unmemorable.
The American people have largely cast aside the “bad novel” of America’s wars. They find it boring, repetitive, inconsequential (at least to them). But that doesn’t mean people aren’t paying for it, each and every day.
In the absence of Congressional declarations, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people. Cowed by the Executive branch and coerced by money, a spineless Congress willingly sidelines itself. In turn the Executive branch keeps the American people isolated from war even as it misleads them with lies and half-truths.
And thus the American people refuse to take ownership of these wars. And who can blame them, since these wars aren’t being fought in their name or for their interests. America’s wars are the preserve of the commander-in-chief and his various “experts” in and out of uniform, men like retired general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief who now leads the State Department. Unconcerned with the will and concerns of the people, these men favor aggressive stances and support U.S. military interventions around the globe.
What’s the solution to America’s “bad novel”? Ignoring or disowning it only empowers its authors and their predilection for waging war, however falsely, in our name. Instead, we have to overcome America’s ethos of violence and its climate of fear. Campaign finance reform is vital if we want to suppress the influence of war profiteers. Cutting the Pentagon budget by at least 20% is essential as well. Finally, we need to educate ourselves about war, and to insist that wars are fought only when authorized by Congress, and only as a last resort instead of the first.
If we don’t take these steps, America will be forever stuck reading a bad novel with a one-word title: War.
A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem. Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.
At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”
Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.” Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”
Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”
While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.
Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty. He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.
Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing. His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.
M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.
The historian Jill Lepore has an interesting article at The New Yorker on dystopic novels and their popularity today. Dystopias are all the rage, which is not surprising given the politics of fear that rules us.
Consider the stark contrast between the Republican Party of today versus that of the 1980s. Remember the sunny optimism projected by Ronald Reagan? The idea it’s “morning again” in America? Now we have the dystopia of Trump. Mexicans are rapists! Muslims are terrorists! They’re coming to get us! Build a wall! Torture and kill them!
I’m not suggesting Reagan was a saint. Reagan was, however, a gifted communicator and an inspiring symbol for many. There was substance there as well. As a young man, he served as a lifeguard and helped to save lives. I find it intriguing that he was somewhat of an introvert, somewhat of a dreamer. He worked with the Soviets and Mikhail Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons, a dream that did not come to pass. For all his flaws, there was a fundamental decency about him.
Contrast Reagan to Trump. With Trump, it’s all about him. Trump’s favorite way of communicating is with insults, bluster, threats, and tweets. Reagan dreamt of eliminating nuclear weapons; Trump insists America will remain “at the top of the [nuclear] pack,” at a cost of a trillion dollars over the next generation.
Reagan and his wife Nancy were quirky as well (astrology, anyone?), but seeing how they looked at each other and treated one another, no one could doubt their love. Trump and Melania? In public, at least, they come across as ill at ease, uncomfortable with each other. Small potatoes, perhaps, but part of being the “First Family” is projecting harmony, or so it has been in the past. Nowadays, such symbolism seems unimportant as Trump himself dominates the scene, his wife seemingly a bit player in his life.
There’s a toxicity to Trump that’s consistent with the emergence of all these dystopic novels. The Victorian author Samuel Smiles once wrote that a man should be what he seems or purposes to be. By this Smiles meant that a man must demonstrate, by his behavior, uprightness of character. A quaint expression, that. When people think of Trump today, “uprightness of character” doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Rather the reverse.
Though I wrote early on that Donald Trump had a serious chance at the presidency, by early November of last year I thought the negativity of his message – his bundle of hate – would not prove compelling enough to carry him to victory. I was wrong, of course. Trump, with his dystopic rhetoric as well as his actions, captured as well as amplified a prevailing mood.
It’s not morning again in America. Under Trump, darkness and dystopia prevail.
George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom. Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons. You can limit how and what they think. You can, in a major way, control the future. Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.
Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com. They make no apologies and take no prisoners. They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth. The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).
Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House. They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.
The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.
I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.
Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place. Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.
In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):
I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.
One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.
In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.
What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
Editor’s Introduction: Today, the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has a reputation for being mindlessly devoted to warriors and war, yet this is a caricature of history. Sparta was neither mindless nor careless in its pursuit of war. Rather, as the classicist Steven Willett reminds us in this insightful article, appearing here first at Bracing Views, the Spartans deliberated with great care. They knew the perils of war, and entered on the same “very slowly,” as Willett shows by a close and sensitive analysis of the famous speech of Archidamus, a Spartan king, from Thucydides’ history. Would that the United States, which now fancies itself the inheritor of Spartan warrior excellence, deliberate about war with the same care as Archidamus exercised more than two millennia ago. W.J. Astore
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides lays out the events that precipitated a long, enormously destructive war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. The war ran from 431BCE to 404BCE with only a few years of intervening peace. Like many wars this one began in minor incidents far from the two states: Sparta was a land power with a league of allied cities in the Peloponnesus, while Athens was a sea power with a far-flung empire extending over the shores of the Aegean all the way to the Hellespont. The Athenian Empire embraced hundreds of cities and the Aegean islands, and at the start of the war was so wealthy it had begun a magnificent building program on the Acropolis.
I’ve summarized the history of events leading up to Sparta’s deliberations about going to war with Athens in Appendix One. The majority opinion of Sparta was that the Athenians were guilty of injustice and that war was justified. At this point Archidamus, one of Sparta’s two kings, “a man considered to be both intelligent and sensible” (Thucydides I.79.2), spoke before the Spartan war council. (On Thucydides’ accounts of speeches and the reliability thereof, see Appendix Two.) All translations are my own.
In the following section of the speech (I.84-85.1), Archidamus reviews the ethical principles that underlie Spartan reluctance to act precipitously. It provides an object lesson in the rational approach to making decisions about war, an approach that the United States would do well to emulate (but hasn’t).
Archidamus’ Speech About the Perils of Precipitous War
(1) And the slowness and hesitation, for which we [the Spartans] are especially blamed, should not shame you (αἰσχύνεσθε): rushing headlong [into war] may end it more slowly because the attempt lacked preparation. (2) Besides, we have always lived in a city that is free (ἐλευθέραν) and held in the highest repute (εὐδοξοτάτην). This very slowness amounts to truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη): for because of it we do not become insolent (ἐξυβρίζομεν) in success and yield less than others in misfortune. Nor are we, when those incite us with praise to dangerous actions (τὰ δεινὰ) contrary to our own best judgment, excited by pleasure, and if anyone provokes us with accusations we are not the least persuaded by our vexation. (3) We are both warlike (πολεμικοί) and well advised (εὔβουλοι) due to our good order (εὔκοσμον): warlike because shame (αἰδὼς) is the greatest part of moderation (σωφροσύνης), and courage (εὐψυχία) the greatest part of a sense of shame (αἰσχύνης), while we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them, and we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument. (4) We always prepare in practice against enemies who [we assume also] plan well, and should not place our hopes on their possible mistakes but in the security of our own forethought. We do not need to believe that one man differs very much from another man, but the best is one who has trained in the most rigorous discipline. (85.1) These practices, then, which our fathers bequeathed us and we always maintain for their continuing benefits, should never be abandoned, nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.
Archidamus begins this passage by refuting the well-known Spartan tendency to dilatoriness by claiming it is nothing that should shame them. He uses the verb (occurring again as a noun below), αἰσχύνω, which means to be ashamed in the moral sense of having done something dishonorable, to feel shame for a dishonorable act. It can also be translated to dishonor, tarnish, or mar. Ancient Greece was in many ways a shame culture like that of my own home of Japan. To be charged with something shameful was one of the worst moral accusations. He then justifies that valuation of shame by stating that it has made Sparta a city that is free and most highly famed. The adjective he uses, ἐλεύθερος, means free in the sense of being unobstructed by any outside sources capable of restricting action. The noun form of the adjective is ἐλευθερία, freedom or liberty, and the word had very strong emotional connotations to the Greeks in their united opposition to Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. For the Greeks, Persia was the epitome of tyranny, and to maintain their freedom they were willing to risk everything in the period of greatest threat, 490-479, when the Greek mainland faced invasion twice by Persia, the greatest empire in the world.
Having restored honor to Spartan dilatoriness in a negative sense, Archidamus then gives their habitual slowness a positive moral content: it’s a “truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη).” The adjective ἔμφρων means literally in one’s mind or senses, but here rational or intelligent. The noun σωφροσύνη (sophrosune) is an almost untranslatable word with a variety of meanings clustered around moderation, prudence, temperance, self-control (against pleasure or pain) and many others. I have chosen to use a single word, moderation, in translating it, but the phrase soundness of mind perhaps comes closest. Heraclitus Fr. 112 gives a powerful definition of its meaning: σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαΐοντας (“Soundness of mind is the greatest virtue and practical wisdom is speaking the truth and acting in accordance with the natural constitution of things”). I’ve highlighted the two words whose roots lie in sophrosune: sophronein and sophie, “soundness of mind” and “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom includes the skill of a craftsman or the diagnostic analysis of a physician.
Because of moderation, he continues, the Spartans don’t become insolent in success. The verb ἐξυβρίζομεν is another word very difficult to render in English. It means to break out into insolence, to run riot, to commit violence. It referred to behavior that shamed or humiliated the victim for the gratification of the abuser and included both verbal and physical assaults. The English word hubris is derived from it, but has a much thinner emotional sense than violence: foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence. To commit hubris in Greece was a crime subject to severe punishments if convicted.
Lesson for America: A good example of hubris in the Greek sense is the behavior of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: we declared ourselves the ‘winners’ in the Cold War, the USSR the ‘losers,’ and rubbed the defeat constantly in their faces. Under President Clinton we began to push NATO into the old Warsaw Pact countries in violation of promises to Gorbachev, to impoverish the Russian people by sending economic advisors to mount a massive deregulation of state enterprises and finally to exploit and ultimately partition Russia during the Yeltsin regime. In short, we ran riot. I was a student in St. Petersburg during the 1990s and saw the misery we unleashed up front and close: the homeless sleeping in bundles beneath famous statues, impoverished Afghan veterans selling war relics and even their own clothing on Nevsky Prospect and proud, old naval captains quietly and politely asking for some rubles in their soft, broken English.
When Archidamus follows this with the statement that Sparta cannot be incited to dangerous actions, τὰ δεινὰ, he means really serious dangers. The plural noun is very strong: fearful, dread, terrible, dire, the outcome of actions and of powerful natural events. He is directing his comments to the Corinthians and the other Peloponnesians who clamored for immediate war.
Lesson for America:Now that the (expired) Obama administration has initiated Cold War II, we have Members of Congress calling for wars with Iran, continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and even advocating policies that could lead to war with Russia. There doesn’t seem to be the slightest sense of the terrible consequences of such clamorous policies.
Section 3 of chapter 84 consists of one long sentence, which I’ve translated without a full stop, but will break into clauses for discussion. It is the most important section in the speech since it articulates the Spartan sense of their own ethical standards as a warrior society.
The first clause emphasizes two key Spartan qualities: they are “warlike (πολεμικοί)” and “well advised (εὔβουλοι)” because of their “good order.” The plural adjective πολεμικοί is derived from the Greek word for war and means warlike, valiant or courageous in war. They are “well advised” in the sense of exercising prudent, effective planning. The prefix εὔ~ in εὔβουλοι means good or well. The source of these two qualities is their “good order (εὔκοσμον).” The meanings of εὔκοσμος are variously behaving well, orderly, decorous, in good order. The word has a wide usage from Homer to the Roman period in many different semantic domains, but here Archidamus means that Spartans maintain the decorous, well-organized and graceful bearing of habitual discipline. From this disciplined, orderly bearing comes their qualities of being warlike and well advised. One thinks, for example, of a Spartan army marching in good order to the rhythm of auloi (pipes), their indifference to weather wrapped only in their scarlet cloak, their strict formation in the phalanx. Effective planning and valor, Archidamus means, are impossible without rigorous good order.
Then in the second clause he surprisingly deepens the meaning of “good order” by saying, in effect, “We are warlike because shame is the major part of moderation just as courage is the major part of shame.” He uses two words for shame: the nouns αἰδώς and αἰσχύνη. They mean very much the same thing, but the use of the second word αἰσχύνη in context means something more like honor: “courage is the major part of a sense of honor” because in battle the most shameful thing is a failure of courage or a failure to stand by your comrades. He follows that with an expansion of what it means to be well advised: “we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.” He uses two comparative adjectives here, where the first means “not so highly learned” as to despise the laws, and the second is a form of that crucial word σωφροσύνη, but here it carries the sense of “more prudent” than to hold the laws in contempt. The Spartans were severe in their respect for the laws, and I’m sure everyone knows Simonides’ great epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae:
Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that
we lie here, obedient to their commands.
The third clause picks up the idea that Spartans are not so intelligent as to believe they can individually make public policy on their own and submit it to the assembly (a real failing of the Athenians): “we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument.” The Greek adjective διαιρέτης means divided, separated, distinguishable. The idea here is that chance events cannot be determined by rational argument: just as we denigrate our enemy’s intelligence, so we don’t pretend to know the future.
The final sentence in chapter I.85.1 should be engraved on the architrave of every department of war in the world: “nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.” That is to say, hasten slowly, very slowly to make war.
Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence.
In the course of the speech prior to my direct quotation, Archidamus makes other invaluable points about the dangers of war with Athens. He begins by emphasizing the sheer difficulty of making war against a city like Athens that possesses a distant empire, is the most experienced at sea and has the best resources in public and private wealth, ships, horses, hoplites and “a population such as does not exist in any other single place in Greece” (I.80.3). On top of that, they have tribute-paying allies, which enhances Athenian endurance. Then in turn he emphasizes Sparta’s weaknesses (I.80.4-81.5): we are inferior in ships, which take time to prepare and train, and in money because we do not have a common treasury or sufficient private sources. We surpass them in hoplites, so we could overrun and ravage their land, but they have extensive lands under their control and can import what they need by sea. If we try to make their allies defect, we will need a fleet since for the most part they are islanders. If we can’t defeat them with our ships or deny them the revenues they need to maintain their fleet, we shall be harmed even more. He ends this line of argument with a counsel that the Spartans not break the treaty or transgress their oaths, but resolve the disputes with arbitration. (Athens had in fact offered arbitration in I.78.4).
His warning about the uncertainly of war proved in the end to be all too true: “We should certainly not be borne up by the hope that the war will end quickly if we ravage their land. I fear that we shall bequeath it rather to our children, so likely it is that the Athenians in their spirited resolution will neither be enslaved by their land nor like novices terrified by war” (I.81.6). It was in fact the grandchildren who received the bequeath of war.
Lesson for America: Your enemies are not novices who are terrified by war. With the Afghan war in its 16th year and the Iraq war in its 14th year, America’s interventions in the Greater Middle East are becoming generational wars, soon to be fought by the children and grandchildren of soldiers who fought in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. You wage war long, you wage war wrong; the Greeks discovered this as they weakened themselves in generational internecine warfare.
The next stage of Archidamus’ speech (I.82.1-6) is a call to take matters slowly, warn Athens it will not permit what they are doing and begin equipping themselves with Greek and barbarian allies (meaning primarily Persian). If Athens sees us preparing, they may give way. He recommends that they think of Athens’ land as a hostage and spare it if possible in order not to drive them into despair and thus make them that much harder to handle. We shall get ourselves into a more difficult situation if we allow our allies to incite us to war when we are unprepared. Let no one think we are cowards if our confederacy does not immediately attack a single city, “For they have as many allies as we do, who pay tribute too, and war is not so much a matter of arms but of finance, which provides the efficacy of arms, especially between continental and maritime powers” (I.83 2). So we should, he concludes, first provide for expenditures and not be stirred to premature action by our allies.
Ultimately, the Spartans rejected Athens’ offer of arbitration, blaming them for breach of the treaty, as Archidamus feared they might (I.81.5), and the terrible war commenced in 431. By the late 420s both sides had suffered major defeats and they agreed to the 50-year Peace of Nicias in 421. Athens blatantly violated the peace in 414 acting arrogantly (with hubris aforethought) in the belief they could finally win the war. Thucydides follows the last phase of the war in Books VI and VII to the catastrophe of the Syracuse Expedition.
Thus ended the 27-year conflict that constituted the slow suicide of Greece. In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?
The first incident that ultimately triggered war was a political dispute between the island of Corcyra, on the western shore of the Adriatic, and the colony of Epidamnus that it had founded some distance north on the mainland. This dispute drew Corinth into the fray when Epidamnus asked her for help against Corcyra, which was besieging the colony. War then broke out between Corcyra and Corinth, with the island winning a naval engagement (435) and Corinth using the rest of 435 and 434 to prepare a large naval armada assisted by ground support for a decisive onslaught.
Both disputants then sent delegations to Athens in 433 and spoke before the Assembly appealing for help. Corcyra asked for an alliance with Athens against Corinth, emphasizing the fact that of the three major Greek navies at the time, Athens, Corcyra and Corinth, an alliance would give two fleets to Athens. Corinth in turn argued that as repayment for past support in an earlier incident involving the Peloponnesian League, Athens should remain neutral. The Assembly decided on a strictly defensive alliance with Corcyra, meaning that neither side adopted all the friends and enemies of the other.
In the second naval battle between Corcyra and Corinth, Athens sent a small contingent of 10 ships to help Corcyra, hoping to avoid a direct conflict so it wouldn’t violate the Thirty Years’ Peace that ended the First Peloponnesian War (446/5). Thucydides describes that battle in a vivid narrative, stating that it was the largest naval engagement ever fought up to that time. It ended with a clear victory for Corinth. Unfortunately, the Athenian ships had engaged Corinthian forces, thus giving Corinth grounds to charge her with violation of the peace treaty. This was the first incident that contributed to war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.
The second incident involved the city of Potidaea on the isthmus of Pallene, the western arm of Chalcidice in the northwest Aegean. It was a colony of Corinth, but a tribute-paying member of the Athenian Empire. The city revolted from Athens, incited by Corinth as it believed, and led to ground battles in which Athens defeated the Corinthian force, besieged Potidaea and trapped many Corinthian soldiers inside the city.
I have emphasized this chain of incidents, starting in small far-off Epidamnus and Potidaea, to illustrate a fact we should always remember: many wars begin with a precipitating event that arises far from the centers of power but whose real origin is obscure. The “truest reason” of the war, Thucydides says, though most concealed in discussion, was the Spartan fear of the growing power of Athens. He touches on the true cause earlier in Book I (I.23.6) and elaborates it later.
When Corinth called its allies to Sparta for a conference to condemn Athens, each harbored local grievances: the Corinthians complained that Athens was besieging a colony of theirs with men of Corinth and the Peloponnesus trapped inside; the Athenians complained that the Peloponnesian had caused the defection of Potidaea, which was a tribute-paying ally, and were fighting together with the Potidaeans (I.66).
This conference marks the beginning of a direct confrontation between its two greatest military forces in Greece. The Spartans additionally invited anybody else who claimed to have been unjustly treated by Athens. Several other cities spoke against her, but Corinth came last to let them provoke the Spartans first.
The Corinthian defense emphasized the tyranny of the Athenian Empire, Athens’ seduction of Corcyra and its radical difference from Sparta: one instinct with a spirit of innovative, daring, mercurial, impulsive action and one inclined to slow, sluggish commitment to action only when necessary. The Corinthians attribute this hesitancy to a preference for fair dealing that does not distress other states and for a defense that scrupulously avoids any harm to itself. They cap this line of argument with a superb aphorism against Athens: “If someone were to summarize them as born neither to enjoy any rest themselves nor to let other men enjoy it, he would speak the truth” (I.70.9). The whole description of Athens’ relentless thirst for innovation and its resilience in setbacks (I.70.2-9) is to my mind a far better account of the city’s creative effervescence than Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is essentially a rhetorical defense of and a call to war.
Athens had some ambassadors in Sparta at the time, but on different business. They asked to speak and mounted a Realpolitik defense of their empire, which they claimed to have acquired voluntarily and not by force, and their sometimes harsh maintenance of it as normal practice for those who wield power. The tribute-paying members should in fact be happy they’ve not experience far worse treatment. The ambassadors were rather direct, however, in warning Sparta against going to war with such a powerful, wealthy state supported by a vast empire.
Sparta then closed the conference to outsiders so they could debate candidly among themselves.
The first to speak was one of the city’s two kings, Archidamus, who gave his name to the first 10 years of the war from 431 to the Peace of Nicias in 421.
Note on the Speeches in Thucydides
Thucydides includes many speeches that are long and very difficult to interpret from their contorted, often opaque syntax and their complex semantic usage. Unlike his narrative passages, the ancient world found his speeches very tough going indeed. Some speeches he certainly heard in Athens before his exile in 424/3, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and could well have made aides-mémoire of them. Others he might have heard outside Athens in exile, but there is not one certain case, though the possibility cannot be discounted. Others finally are imaginative reconstructions based, as he says in I.22, on his judgement of what would have been the most important or appropriate for the speakers to say regarding the current circumstances while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of the content. My opinion is that Archidamus’ speech accurately reflects his views: Athens had engaged in close relations with Sparta since well before the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449), giving her more than enough time to accurately assess the Spartan decision-making process and its civic ethics. Thucydides very likely had his own sources of information. He certainly would not have written the speech as he did if it contained obvious distortions. Here is what he writes about his exile in V.26.5: “I lived through the whole of it [the war], being of an age to understand events and apply my judgement to learn the exact truth. It happened that I was banished from my own country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis, and by my association with both parties, as much with the Peloponnesian as the Athenians due to my exile, I could at leisure better learn the course of events.”