The Role of the Reader in Thucydides

Article Summary

Reading Thucydides by James V. Morrison includes in-depth insight on Thucydides’ with regards to meaning and reason although he is known for his lack of exactitude. His writing allows the reader to make of history of what they want given the information he has spewed out as a starting point. Most importantly, he calls his recordings in The Peloponnesian War “a possession for all time, not a competition to be heard for the moment, that has been composed.”(1.22) Through this, modern audiences are asked to make parallels with regards to the world today with the events that have been explained to the best of Thucydides’ ability. Morrison states “we too must engage in comparison and extrapolation (eikazein).”(183) Yes, Thucydides did write in order to capture all of what he had known to be true, but the recurring themes pose the reality that Thucydides did not only write for the initial audience of the late fifth century, he had actually written for the audiences of centuries to come.

Author’s Techniques

Morrison brought up a very interesting topic that deserved much attention. First, he used the recurring theme of dominance in Thucydides with regards to a larger state taking advantage of a smaller state. However, he was more concerned with the events leading up to conflict such as the dialogue between both states. Examples of this were the negotiations between Athens and Melos during the same spring as Alcabiades’ sailed to Argos and the discussions between Peloponnesian allies and the city of Plataea, both ending in the weaker power not submitting to the stronger power and eventually being attacked. In both cases, the stronger power attempts to talk to the weaker power in order to avoid war and more unwanted casualties. However, Thucydides makes it clear through his take on the closeness of the dialogue that if the weaker power does not submit to them by the end, regardless of what was said, it would eventually end it war. The Melian commissioners say, “this will presumably have the outcome of war if we make the better case and accordingly do not give in, or of servitude if we are won over” (5.86) following the Athenians opening statement of which tried to ease the Melians by allowing them to respond “immediately to whatever is said that sounds unfavorable.”(5.85) Morrison suggests that as readers, we should be surprised that a city so weak in comparison to the great Athens would not submit to every demand in fear of being destroyed at first. Morrison points out goals identified by Chuter needed for a successful political negotiation:

First, the identity of the decisive authority has to be established. Second, exactly the right amount and kind of pressure has to be applied to achieve the desired political effect. Thirdly, there has to be a transmission mechanism to convey this pressure to the authority. Finally, the desired concession must be within the power of the authority to grant without encompassing its own destruction. Any plan which is deficient in any of these respects will fail. (Reading Thucydides 193)

Notice how relatively simple and elementary the goals are for success; however, one can also see how relatively simple it would be to have a political negotiation end in failure. Coincidentally, events like these have happened throughout history where either side is inflexible to anything the other proposes partly due to excessive pride that they both become too frustrated to work together. Since Thucydides was one of the fathers of history and did not have to cite his work as ideas from another historian, it shows his emphasis on dominance and power and control throughout his writings was a theme he knew would proliferate forever. From this, modern audiences are asked to relate these ideas and themes from Thucydides to the parts of history that were not directly being mentioned. (Reading Thucydides 184-85 and 192-93)

Applying the Author’s Method

The insights proposed by Morrison in Reading Thucydides regarding potential modern parallels to events expressed in Thucydides through his methods and certain emphasis may be to most, a gamble. However, after reading his analysis on the specific similarities between political negotiations in Thucydides compared to the U.S. - Iraq negotiations pre-war, I have come to believe that Thucydides was really up to something greater than previously thought. For example, there are several aspects of the talks between the U.S. and Iraq that eventually led to the war inevitably just like the events of the Peloponnesian War expressed above. First Morrison adds in parts of former President Bush’s Speech to the United Nations that coincides with some of the things Athens asked for from Melos. Bush disregarded anything that had happened in the past in attempt to put emphasis only on future security but demanded that Iraq “stop developments of all weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles… [and allow] UN inspectors immediate and unrestricted access to verify Iraq’s commitment to rid itself of W.M.D.”(Reading Thucydides 187-88). Obviously, these were things that Bush would have wanted done immediately, but in terms of Iraq, in case of an unexpected invasion, they would need ways to defend themselves also. Saddam Hussein said:

It is our duty, it is our responsibility to defend our country, to defend our children, to defend our people, and we are not going to succumb, neither to the United States nor to any other power. (192)

Following this, Saddam, just like the Melian commissioners, showed extreme pride in his country by making clear the long and prosperous history of his land extending the idea that he will not back down to a world superpower such as the United States for anything.

Bush was not willing to negotiate anything other than what he proposed and eventually said the Iraqi regime must:

Immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all W.M.D. long range missiles, and all related material… [and] immediately end all support for terrorism. (188)

If terms were not met Bush stated “action will be unavoidable.” The action and conclusion of these negotiations almost directly parallels events of the Peloponnesian War. Most countries would rather fight for their freedom before they agree to be changed and run by a greater power. Referring back to Chuter’s goals, “An offer that entails self-annihilation precludes any chance for success.”(193) This has been supported in many other times in history and one can expect that it will continue. One could also say that domination of whites over blacks for hundreds of years could be used as a parallel with the blacks eventually winning over their freedom and not giving up. In conclusion, Thucydides provided a solid format of themes and morals that would continue to affect the behavior and circular path of history forever.(Reading Thucydides 186-193)Cpao03 14:43, April 25, 2011 (UTC)