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Thucydides on Justice

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  • Article Summary:

In Efraim Podoksik’s article, “Justice, Power and Athenian Imperialism: The Ideological Moment in Thucydides’ History”, Podoksik discusses an interesting take on Thucydides’ writing methods. Most consider Thucydides to be a relatively objective writer, detaching himself from bias and abandoning the supernatural. Although he is generally known for focusing more on the reasoning behind certain actions, Podoksik makes the claim that Thucydides might also have actually been very interested in discussing the moral values that motivated said actions and what was “right” and “wrong”.

  • Analytical techniques:

Podoksik examines several aspects of Thucydides’ writing that lead him to his conclusion that Thucydides is not as detached as one might think. Podoksik focuses on the fact that Thucydides follows the progress (or rather, the demise) of the city of Athens throughout the war. Podoksik examines Thucydides’ tone and apparent attitude towards Athens and its actions throughout the book. At first, it appears as though Thucydides seems to be very pro-Athens. This can be seen in his account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. The first thing that comes to mind about the Funeral Oration is how the style of the episode is so different from the typical style of Thucydides. This could be considered to be the first clue that Thucydides was trying to show something deeper than just a basic account of events. Podoksik points out that many people believe that Thucydides only uses this speech as a justification for the Athenian policy of imperialism. However, Podoksik believes that Thucydides uses this speech to also hint at the good moral values of the Athenians and he uses this to show the “good” version of Athens before the decline begins.

As Thucydides continues to discuss the various events of the war, there is still a focus on the city of Athens. More specifically, he focuses on their moral code and the decisions that they make throughout the rest of the war. Podoksik continues to bring up several instances in Thucydides’ writing that proves that Thucydides actually cared about the moral codes of the Athenians. According the Thucydides, the Athenians continued to make more and more decisions that deviated from their original set of morals. They began asserting their power unjustly. A good example of this is how the Athenians dealt with the Melians. Having ruthlessly beaten the neutral territory of Melos, the Athenians also deemed it fit to further punish the Melians by putting all of the Melian males to death. Podoksik goes on to explain how this act was not an act of expediency, but rather, a blatant personal attack on the Melians. There is nothing for the Athenians to gain. This is one of the lowest points in the deterioration of Athenian values. “The Melian episode marks a new lower stage in the deterioration of Athenian character…They begin to think only in terms of power and flatter themselves with being realistic, while this self-proclaimed realism actually distorts their sense of reality” (Podoksik, pg 18). Because the Athenians think that they are being “realists”, they can't see that what they are doing is totally against their original code of ethics and is actually the exact opposite of what they wanted to teach to the rest of the world. Podoksik does a very good job of reading Thucydides without being blinded by the bias that Thucydides is too objective to have underlying themes in his work.

  • Using the Author’s Techniques to My Advantage:

After reading Podoksik’s article, one can start to analyze Thucydides’ writing in a whole new light. It quickly becomes apparent that Thucydides was quite successful at writing about the dangers of abandoning morals while remaining relatively objective. His accounts of the events that occurred during the war are still reliable. His work just requires a more open minded reading to fully understand what he is trying to say. There are several other instances in his work that can be used as further evidence of his underlying message. Other examples of his message include his account of the Mytilenean Debate and the Corcyrean Civil War. When taken at face value, the Mytilenean Debate seems like a success for the Athenian moral values, however, when examined a little closer, it is apparent that Thucydides is attempting to convey a much darker message. It is true that in the end, the Athenians were convinced that slaughtering the Mytileneans was unnecessary and an overreaction. However, this was not due to the once great Athenian morals, but rather it was an act of expediency. Athens decided not to punish the Mytileneans more than they needed to because they didn’t want to appear to be a ruthless and brutal empire. They wanted to keep their popularity as high as possible to maintain their empire. That was essentially the only reason they stopped punishing the Mytileneans. Thucydides is trying to show that this is not the best way to go about deciding whether to have mercy or not. Podoksik briefly mentions this in his article. The Athenians had made the just decision, but it was not based on what was actually just, but rather what was more advantageous. Thucydides believes that this is a very dangerous way of running an empire because it can quickly lead to making unjust decisions.

Another good episode to examine in this fashion is the Corcyrean Civil War. A civil war had broke out in Corcyra during the war and the most significant aspect of the civil war that Thucydides discusses is the utter loss of ethics and morals. “Fathers killed sons, men were dragged from the sanctuaries and killed beside them, and some were even walled up in the sanctuary of Dionysos and died there” (Thucydides, 3.81). These savage acts were important to Thucydides as he later mentions that this is what happens when human nature is allowed to dominate decision making. Thucydides believes that without laws, humans are naturally greedy and unjust. He uses this as an example of what happens when there is a total breakdown of ethics and laws. One can compare this to the behavior of the Athenians towards the end of the war. The Athenians begin to totally abandon their honorable values and begin to commit similar atrocities but on a much larger scale, such as the one in Melos.

In conclusion, Thucydides’ underlying message is that it is incredibly dangerous to abandon one’s morals. Almost every episode in his works tells a different story that depicts this message. In the end, human nature causes humans to be incredibly dangerous and selfish. The only way to keep peace and to continue progress is to not only consider what is advantageous but also what is ethically correct.

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