“Words, too, had to change their meanings … “

[“War Stories” is taking a break this week. Here to hold down the fort till next Monday is my own favorite from a few months ago:]

The Peloponnesian War was the clash between Athens and Sparta that lasted, as the oracle had foretold, “thrice nine years,” and ended in the defeat of Athens and the destruction of the Golden Age of her democracy. Students today run screaming when they’re assigned to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. They shouldn’t. It’s a great book. It’d be one of five I’d take with me to a desert island.


Beautiful Corfu was once the site of blood-curdling massacres

Why was the Peloponnesian War the “first modern war?” Because in barbarity and the breakdown of civilized order, it prefigured the horrors of twentieth-century totalitarianism. The Peloponnesian War was not a war of state against state. Instead faction fought faction within states: the oligarchs versus the democrats.

Sparta was the champion of the Few, Athens of the Many.

In city-states like Corcyra (contemporary Corfu) when the people achieved power, they simply massacred the oligarchs. In other states, the opposite scenario prevailed. The aristocrats, come to power, took the franchise away from the people, arrested and tortured whomever they liked, confiscated property, and enacted reigns of terror that, in ferocity if not in scale, would have made Stalin and Hitler proud.

Here Thucydides, in one of his greatest passages [3:82; translation by Rex Warner from the Penguin Classics edition], describes the political and psychological consequences of this breakdown of civil society:

To fit with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against the enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching …

Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.

Polarization was the order of the day. Compromise ceased to exist. One was either “with us or against us.”

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith … And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. Leaders of the parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable—on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy—but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves … As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.

As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion … As a rule, those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manoeuvred in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, overconfident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.

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  1. Bruce H. Johnson on June 13, 2011 at 7:03 am

    One of the first thing a fanatic (or even less than that) will do is to re-define what words mean to fit their particular slant.

    Compassion becomes weakness. Courage becomes foolishness. You name the term, someone has redefined it in their arguments to mean pretty much the opposite.

  2. Tim of Angle on June 13, 2011 at 8:16 am

    This could also very well serve as a description of Renaissance Italy. We survived that; perhaps we’ll survive the modern dystopia as well.

  3. Walter Hawn on June 13, 2011 at 9:59 am

    There also seems to be a pretty strong correspondence to our own nation at this time. Although from my place, it seems as though the oligarchic party is the larger transgressor, both have indulged in all of the items on Thucydides’ to-do list.

  4. Bill Schroeder on June 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    There appears to be have been a moral collapse of Athens .What happened that the family had declined and the “state” and/or “party” was in control ?

    Thanks for that interesting introduction to the Profession .

  5. Jen Y on June 14, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Sigh. How little we’ve learned from history. It seems we humans are doomed to run around in the same cycles.

  6. Chas Shaw on June 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    On your desert island, what are the other 4 books in your kit?

  7. Jim on June 25, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I agree with Chas, Mr. Pressfield; what would be the other 4 books you would take? (The first one I would take would be Gates of Fire:)

  8. Andrew on July 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    If you have ever read the Roman writer Sallust, in “Catalines Conspiracy” he brings up many of the similar points that Thucydides does. He blames the homegrown terrorism of Cataline on the degradation of traditional Roman society.

  9. Ronald Sieber on October 3, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    It would certainly do the sparring parties in our nation’s capital some good if they would stop and read a little history such as this. Instead, they act up like a bunch of yahoos from Gulliver’s Travels and are doomed to repeat the past.

  10. RIP on October 7, 2011 at 4:17 am

    There is much wisdom in these observations.

  11. John on November 1, 2021 at 11:38 am

    Are there any specific, historical examples of Thucydides’ quote? Examples of society changing words’ usual meanings only to fit in with the change of events

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