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The Humanity of Thucydides.

Clifford Orwin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and author of a series of articles on Thucydides, now offers a challenging study of the issues of justice, piety, and necessity in the thought of Thucydides. Orwin's outspoken admiration for the work of Leo Strauss, especially The City and Man, will endear him to some readers and deter others. Orwin treats Thucydides as a philosopher with a "teaching" to impart, but largely in isolation from his contemporaries.

In his first book Thucydides has unidentified Athenian envoys at Sparta in 432 B.C. deliver a speech justifying Athens' possession of an empire and warning Sparta against lightly starting a war. The envoys explain that Athens is forced to maintain her empire by three great motives -- fear, honour, and profit (1.75.3). The Athenians had done nothing remarkable or contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to them, for it is always the rule that the weaker are kept down by the stronger (1.76.2). This speech is central to what Orwin calls the "Athenian thesis." This "Athenian thesis" is not that "might makes right" or a denial that right exists, but "rather that right, which is distinct from compulsion, prevails only within the limits established by it" (p. 64). This compulsion forces not only Athens, but every city, to pursue its own safety, honour, and profit.

The most naked formulation of Athenian imperialism comes from the Athenian speakers in the Melian dialogue. Because the Athenians hold to the primacy of advantage over justice, they are expounding the "Athenian thesis," but Orwin denies that they are saying that "might makes right," inasmuch as they acknowledge the existence of justice -- when the parties are equal. The Athenian claim that both gods and men rule wherever they can "by a necessity of nature" shows that the Athenians as well as the Melians are under the burden of necessity.

Orwin finds other proponents of the "Athenian thesis," such as Hermocrates of Syracuse, in his 424 speech at Gela, and Diodotus, the opponent of Cleon in the Mytilenian debate in 427. Alcibiades, in his speech at Athens before the Sicilian expedition, not only encourages Athens to rule wherever she can but in effect applies the same principle to domestic politics on his own behalf.

Orwin shares Thucydides' admiration for Phrynichus, the enemy of Alcibiades in 411, but reduces Thucydides' praise of the Five Thousand to a disapproval of the excesses of democracy and oligarchy. Orwin's understanding of the dynamic of events in 411 may be questioned: because of the hostility of the fleet, the Four Hundred never really had the option of pursuing the war, and the "renegade oligarchs" within the Four Hundred were not merely inspired by "childish rivalry" but had justifiable worries of a possible betrayal of their city to Sparta.

The "humanity" of Thucydides with which Orwin is concerned is not his humaneness, his empathy with human suffering, but his sense of the human predicament, his combination of "an unflinching presentation of the harshness of political life with an element that transcends this presentation" (p. 9). The greatest insight Thucydides can offer, it seems, comes in the speech of Diodotus: "a more terrible truth than that human beings are evil; namely, that they are not" (p. 203).

Orwin's prose, polished and aphoristic, demands much of the reader. He never presents his argument in a clear and accessible form but forces the reader to tease it out labouriously. Orwin has read Thucydides with care, and the result is something of a tour de force. A believer in the essential unity of Thucydides' work, Orwin treats Thucydidean speeches as closely resembling what the speakers actually said. His reconstruction of Thucydides' "teaching" draws largely from gnomic observations in the speeches, about which we must constantly ask, "How did Thucydides intend us to take them?" If one speech in Thucydides echoes another and can be used to help elucidate Thucydides's meaning, what about the missing narrative? How would Thucydides's interpretation of the last seven years of the war have changed our perspective on his earlier narrative? There must always be a provisional quality to our understanding of Thucydides.

This is not a book for the newcomer to Thucydides, who will gain more from Gomme, Romilly, Parry, Macleod, Connor, Pouncey, Proctor, Hornblower, and Ostwald. The advanced student of Thucydides may find a heuristic value in Orwin's work, finding associations and implications he may have overlooked, but he will need to read Orwin cautiously, with the text of Thucydides near at hand. Orwin's challenge to historians is to read Thucydides more closely, while taking care not to find meanings which Thucydides never intended.
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Author:Pesely, George E.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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