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Disease to Human Nature in Thucydides

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Metaphorical DiseaseEdit

Article Summary

In The Diseased Body Politic, Athenian Public Finance, and the Massacre at Mykalessos, Lisa Kallet examines Thucydides’ use of medical terminology in a non-medical context in book six and seven. Kallet brings to our attention the use of these terms to demonstrate how Thucydides explains the connection between wealth and mortality. Kallet explains that the use of such terms shows that Thucydides believes greed and ambition associated with wealth to be a disease of human nature, which was caught by the Athenians. This disease, similar to the plague, would eventually lead to the destruction of the Athenians. Kallet uses this to argue that Thucydides believed that in times of crisis, people fall victim to the disease of greed and ambition which leads to unsound judgment and destruction. Thucydides developed a metaphorical disease to show what happens to people and their judgment during these times of crisis and war.


Author Method

Kallet mainly focuses on the passage in book seven (7.27-29), but also pulls examples from book six, where Thucydides uses these medical terms in a non-medical context. During this account of the Athenian invasion of Sicily and attempted fortification of Dekeleia, Kallet draws on Thucydides rare use of these out of context medical references. Early in his writing, in book two, Thucydides uses similar words to describe the plague that has struck Athens. Kallet believes the use of similar words in different contexts is no mistake by Thucydides. He does so to show that he believes that greed and ambition that accompanies people during times of war and crisis is a disease similar to that of the plague. Kallet examines how Thucydides shows that both these diseases led to the destruction of the Athenians. The disease of greed and ambition led to over extension of the Athenians and their eventual fall of power.

Kallet examines this disease of human nature through the use of medical terms outside a medical context. She pulls three examples from Thucydides before and during his explanation of the Athenian campaign in both Sicily and Dekeleia. The first key usage of these terms that Kallet examines is before the expedition takes place. Kallet points to the use of “afflicted” in 6.24 where Thucydides writes, “And a passion for the expedition afflicted everyone alike,”(6.24) This clearly shows that Thucydides believes that everyone became victim to this disease of greed and ambition in search of wealth. Kallet argues that Thucydides explicitly used this to show that the Athenian people had been infected by the disease of greed and ambition. Once they had become victim to this disease destruction was highly likely, similar to that of the plague that Thucydides describes in depth earlier. Kallet then again focuses on other account where Thucydides uses “afflicted” in a similar context, this time in book seven. “And it afflicted them most that they had two wars at the same time and had developed such a passion for victory…” (7.28) This, similar to Thucydides prior use of “afflicted” shows that this disease had taken control of them and led to unsound judgment of the Athenians. The final use of this medical terminology that Kallets pulls from Thucydides comes shortly after the second appearance of afflicted. “While on the other hand, their revenues were perishing.” (7.28.4) This use of perishing, a term usually associated with death, shows another medical reference by Thucydides in a context not pertaining to death or an individual. Kallet analyzes Thucydides direct attempt to show the reader that in times of war and crisis human nature can become victim to this metaphorical disease of greed and ambition.


Applying the Method

To find other examples of Thucydides references to this disease of human nature one must first examine his digression about the plague. The reasoning behind Thucydides in depth explanation of the plague and its effects has been a highly debated upon topic. One reason may be that Thucydides wanted to show the similarities between the effects of the plague and the effects that war and crisis had on people. Thucydides, through careful selection of words and phrases, develops an idea that during times of crisis and war, a disease infects human nature, and greed and ambition take over in the pursuit of power and money. The similarities between the effects of this disease of human nature and the plague are evident in Thucydides writing. Thucydides creates this metaphorical disease that ultimately shares the same effects of the plague, destruction and chaos.


During the explanation of the Corcyrean Civil War in book three Thucydides also refers to this disease. Although, the references to this disease were made quite obvious by Thucydides in book six and seven by using out of context medical terminology, in book three Thucydides portrays the effects of the disease on human nature. Thucydides refers to human nature, greed and ambition during the Corcyrean Civil War and how the disease that comes with war and crisis infected those involved and led to chaos and destruction in Corcyra.

“And during the civil wars the cities suffered many cruelties that occur and will always occur as long as men have the same nature, sometimes more terrible and sometimes less, varying in theirs forms as each change of fortune dictates. For in peace and good circumstances, both states and individuals have better inclinations through not falling into voluntary necessities; but war, stripping away the easy access to daily needs, is a violent teacher and brings men’s passions into live with present situations.”(3.82)

Through this passage Thucydides states that this destruction and chaos that took place during the Corcyrean Civil War and will continue to happen due to this metaphorical disease of greed and ambition in search of power and money. This is due to the fact that this disease infects or afflicts people in times of crisis and war. Thucydides contrast this by stating that in times of peace people are not infected by the disease and act rationally, avoiding the chaos and destruction that comes with diseases, metaphorical or real. Thucydides continuously brings mention to this metaphorical disease during his account of the Corcyrean Civil War. “All this caused by leadership based on greed and ambition and led in turn to fanaticism once men were committed to the power struggle.” (3.82) Thucydides is again implying that this disease to human nature, causing greed and ambition inevitably leads to destruction. Although Thucydides does not directly refer to this disease, he continually is making reference to the state of mind people and actions people take part in during these crises, which is essentially this metaphorical disease. Another reference to this metaphorical disease during the Corcyrean Civil War is made by Thucydides. This time Thucydides uses the word “passion” to show ambition.

“With public life confused to the critical point, human nature, always ready to act unjustly even in violation of laws themselves and gladly showed itself powerless over passion but stronger than justice and hostile to any kind of superiority. For men would not have revenge above pity, gain above justice if not the for destructive power of envy.” (3.84)

This passage shows how Thucydides usage of synonyms to portray the same message. Thucydides shows in this passage that people will fall victim to this passion, or ambition. In essence Thucydides is implying that people in become infected by this disease.

Through Thucydides digression about the plague, giving a detailed account of its effect on the population of Athens, and Thucydides description on the events during the Corcyrean Civil War, it is clear that Thucydides is using a metaphorical disease to explain the corruption of human nature due to crisis and war, leading to chaos and destruction. The effects of this metaphorical disease parallel that of the actual plague that struck Athens, destruction. Thucydides message is clear through this development of the metaphorical disease; in times of crisis and war, people become victim to greed and ambition in search of wealth and power. This shows Thucydides belief in the connection between wealth and mortality. In the pursuit of wealth the disease of greed and ambition will infect you and eventually lead to destruction of mortality.

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