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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Political Science Review: Thucydides

Monday night marked the end of my required social science credit. I had my final exam for POL200Y1 - Political Theory. I actually quite enjoyed the course, though I discovered that I hold some of the most famous thinkers in history in contempt. Perhaps that is a mark of extreme arrogance on my part, but I suppose I'll have to live with it. I have been meaning to write some thoughts about the course for a while, and so I decided that over the next little while I will try to give a brief review of the works that I read from each of the authors we looked at: Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke (in chronological order).

Thucydides was a slightly odd first choice of author, as he is the only author whose text we looked at was not specifically a political text, but was rather historical. However, his text had many political overtones, as he directly states early on that the point of his history is to look at the nature of man, for men cannot know their nature without understanding their history. The specific history explored by Thucydides is the Peloponnesian War. A more complete history of the details of the war can be found on Wikipedia. Though containing political points, Thucydides is primarily a critic. He offers no concept of how things should be fixed, he simply points out some of the failures of political systems at the time.

The war itself was mainly between Sparta and Athens, though it involved virtually all of Greece as the other city-states became drawn in on one side or the other. I think one of the most interesting parts of Thucydides is also at the very beginning just after he outlines his motivations for writing the history based on the unchanging nature of man. He states that, though it was largely unspoken, he thinks the main cause of the war was fear of Athenian power. Sparta at the time had the most powerful land army, with their infantry being legendary for their martial prowess (this was is only a few decades after the war against Xerxes and his Persians). Athens, however, is the primary naval power as well as one of the richest Greek cities. It also has the largest population and one of the first true democracies.

The text mostly consists of speeches and dialogues. This at first seems fairly strange in a historical text, but once you get used to the style it is pretty interesting. One of the most striking characteristics of the text was the strong parallel I saw between the Athenians and the United States of America. Athens, like the United States now, was a powerful imperial state with a distinct economic advantage over its rivals. Like the United States in the second world war, Athens served as an instrumental force in a war that was largely seen as noble and necessary for defeating a decidedly evil foe (the Persian invasion of Greece). Their success in stopping the Persians earned them a great deal of good will and respect, but also forced them into the political affairs of the whole region. The memory of the great war was now fading away, leaving those who now found themselves wronged by the imperial aspirations of Athens feeling embittered and resentful. Athens justified themselves by claiming that they had the right to elevate their standards of living through unequal treatment of subordinate city states because they were better. Theirs was a blessed way of life, more free and noble than that of their neighbours. They also made the argument that someone had to be on top, and they were better than any of the alternatives.

Anyway, I don't really have a lot to say about Thucydides other than he was interesting. If you find ancient history engaging, I would say he might be worth reading. Also, if you enjoy historical parallels to contemporary politics, he can be read in that manner quite easily. Perhaps my lack of things to say, though, might also rest in that I read him at the beginning of the summer, so many of the details are starting to fade. My discussion of the next six writers should be a little more engaging.


Kim said...

Which translation did you read?

*fingers crossed for Richard Crawley's via Project Gutenberg*

Mozglubov said...

No, we used Paul Woodruff's via Hackett Publishing. Sorry to disappoint...