In his article “Thucydides on Human Nature,” C.D.C Reeve interprets Thucydides’ view on human nature not non-Thucydidean as they appear to be/ are claimed to be by other scholars, but instead dependent on the mercurial relationship between judgment and emotions. The imbalance between these two important terms leads to the disruption of peace and prosperity throughout The Peloponnesian Wars by causing men to behave negatively. Words such as ambition, envy, courage, and passion only have negative connotations under specific circumstances, and Thucydides stresses this point along with the connections these emotions have with an individual’s reasoning, displaying a more profound understanding of the complexity of human nature.
Reeve supports his claim by closely analyzing his selected passages by word choice expressed by Thucydides and clarifying the appropriate usage of that word with the context of the passage. He does this by first giving a general translation of the passage and following up by incorporating the Greek words for certain terms into a much more complex and profound translation. He follows this translation with an explanation for the rationale behind the words. For example, when discussing a section about the civil war in Corcyra that outlines several reasons why the civil war broke out (3.84), Reeve gives the general translation of the section, replaces the words “passion for more than fair share” with its Greek equivalent pleonexia, rewrites the general translation with new additions, and discusses the hypocrisy that “the distribution [of wealth and power] was unfair or unjust by the very standards of equality, fairness, and justice that recommend themselves to good sense and to piety” (Reeve 438). He then continues and relates the motives behind the various emotions to each other and how they collectively overpower one’s judgment completely. For pleonexia, Reeve writes, “For what is an enemy to any superior is revenged sparked by the arrogant exercise of power, what is stronger than justice is pleonexia or zeal for equality coupled with passion sparked by unjust of wealth and power…So our nature as a whole is not characterized as bad, just certain things in it, and then only under certain circumstances” (Reeve 438-439). By laying blame of envy on this urge and stating how such an urge ultimately leads to revenge to display pleonexia’s dominance over justice, Reeve makes a case for his claim. By repeating such steps for each of his examples, Reeve provides a step-by-step analysis for the reader to fully comprehend his methodology in approaching Thucydides’ text, the assertion he is making about Thucydides’ view on human nature, and his claim that the style which Thucydides presents in these sections is not one that changes from the rest of The Peloponnesian Wars.
Applying the MethodEdit
Reeve’s approach to Thucydidean text can certainly be applied to other sections of The Peloponnesian Wars. That being said, not all the passages seem to contain the inherent unbiased, view of Thucydides’ style which Reeve seems to reiterate to the reader. One example of such a section concerns the disaster at Mykalessos. Generally, Thucydides writes:
Rushing into Mykalessos, the Thracians plundered the houses and shrines and butchered the people, sparing neither the eldest nor the youngest, but all in their turn, anyone they encountered, killing children and women and, for good measure, the pack animals and anything else they saw with life in it. For the Thracians, in keeping with barbarians of that particular stripe, are most murderous in times of confidence. (7.29.4)
The confidence that the Thracians feel is a result of how open the innocent city was to the attack, an exploitation of the inherently good Mykalessians who didn’t even close their city gates due to lack of. By succumbing to passion of fighting and the greed of spoils of war, the Thracians cannot witness the injustice of their own actions, therefore relying on emotions while lacking in judgment. If one were to replace the word “killing” with its Greek equivalent in the text, φονεύω (murder), the tone of the passage becomes much more severe, inflicting the bitter resentment in Thucydides. The juxtaposition of φονεύω with φειδόμενοι (spare) emphasizes the loss of life that took place in the atrocity. The absence of justice and the imbalance between judgment and emotions on the Thracian’s part ends with their demise as Reeve claims it should, but by using such strong words such as “murder”, “butchering” and “killing” in such a small passage, Thucydides emphasizes his own bias to a text supposedly free from said bias, therefore contradicting the style he has established. By approaching the text in such a manner, one can see that the text does at least contain a basis for the relationship between judgment and emotions on human nature. Other examples of the ramifications on Reeve’s claim do not extend just into matters of war but also the effect of natural disasters on human nature. Perhaps the most significant natural disaster in The Peloponnesian Wars is the plague which strikes Athens, resulting in the loss of many lives. The plague changes the attitude of the Athenians in the city completely:
Whatever was pleasant immediately and whatever was conducive to that were deemed both noble and useful. Neither fear of the gods nor law of man was a deterrent, since it was judged all the same whether they were pious or not because seeing everyone dying with no difference, and since no one anticipated that he would live till trial and pay the penalty for his crimes, but that the much greater penalty which had already been pronounced was hanging before them, and it was reasonable to get some satisfaction from life before that descended. (2.53.3-4)
Already we can see the effect of passion obscuring any sense of justice or judgment. Such wanton behavior due to lack of fear of both gods and men alike (φόβος) leads to lawlessness without regard for the consequences. However, this passage serves as an excellent example that Thucydides is not blaming humans for their actions rather than the human feeling of desire, lack of φόβος, and other emotions. Rational thinking has no place in a situation such as a plague, where the cause of the pandemonium is due to forces beyond the extent of human capacity. Therefore, the relationship between judgment and emotions is completely different from that in the face of civil war and war crimes. While judgment is necessary in order to balance emotions and desires, emotions and desires play such a large role in the hopelessness of humans that they have no choice but to no longer consider rational thinking and eventually surrender to their passions. Human nature sometimes changes due to circumstances beyond our control, not merely because of the judgment of individuals. Finally, the imbalance of judgment and emotions can be seen as one cause for the Peloponnesian War. In Book One during a meeting with the Lacedaemonians, the Athenians assert their claim to authority:
‘On the same reasoning, we have done nothing remarkable, nor contrary to ordinary human behavior, if we not only accepted an empire when it was offered but also did not let it go, submitting to the great forces of prestige, fear, and self-interest – not as the originators of such conduct, moreover, since the rule has always existed that the weaker is held down by the stronger…it is an argument that never yet, when there was any opportunity to gain something by might, deterred anyone who propounded it from taking advantage.’ (1.76.2)
Here Thucydides outwardly acknowledges the power of notions like fame, fear , and self-preservation (τιμῆς καὶ δέους καὶ ὠφελίας)on their politics. The Athenians in this passage bring forth an interesting point: they consider themselves subject to the same desires that even their subjects are susceptible to, yet they use these notions as their justification of surpassing everyone. This arrogance reflects poor judgment on the Athenian’s part, since the Lacedaemonians submit to the same forces in order to rebel against the Athenians and eventually defeat them. In a sense, the Lacedaemonians and Athenians serve as foils of one another. Reeve mentions this in his article, but he calls the Lacedaemonians the rational-thinking ones while the Athenians rely on strong passions. I view this claim differently if 1.76.2 is considered. The Athenians with their prerogative to power no longer seem to rely on strong passions except when motivating soldiers in warfare, making calculated judgment calls about all other aspects of their sovereignty. The Lacedaemonians, however, aren’t rebelling against Athens merely because it’s rational, but also because they have a desire for freedom and feel the need to be liberated from Athens. If we consider the speeches of Pericles as defining Athenian rationale, as Reeve does, we must take into consideration that Pericles is also acting like a good leader by motivating others to fight for their polis with a romanticized view of their own nature as Athenians. As a result, τιμῆς καὶ δέους καὶ ὠφελίας can be seen as vital concepts in helping to initiate the Peloponnesian War by reflecting in the judgment of both parties via their actions both on and off the battlefield. Through an in-depth analysis of Thucydides, one can truly appreciate the complex commentary on human nature and the forces its governed by.