Tag Archives: Analysis

Contemporary Analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War REVISED EDITION

The Value of Conventions: An Analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

By evaluating the theoretical implications of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, this essay will accomplish three objectives. First, it will describe human nature and human convention in the polis and their binary relationships with power and justice, respectively. Second, it will show that without conventions such as justice; human nature and unchecked power drive civilization into anarchy. Finally, the essay will demonstrate that without concertedly applying the convention of justice in the international sphere, civilization will continue to lapse into chaos throughout human history.

Thucydides states that his History is meant to last for all time given that “(human nature being what it is) [history] will, at some time or other in much the same way, be repeated in the future” (Thucydides, 1:22). He therefore believes that human nature is forever cruel and unjust. Explained similarly to the Hobbesian approach, without restraints, human nature will pursue whatever means necessary for self-interest and greed. Coinciding with human nature, power is based on self-interest and the need to control reality at any cost. Power, along with human nature, cannot be properly managed without the presence of a State and they both tend to undermine convention wherever possible. In the conflict with convention, human nature and power are together capable of great achievements when restrained. However, together they are also capable of depraved criminal action when the constructs of society decline into anarchy.

In order to escape such destructive human nature, civilization is engineered with restraints to secure an ordered and thriving polis. This is the case in Athens and other Hellenic states detailed in Thucydides’ work. Within the domestic sphere (polis) of Athens, convention is defined as the collectively shared and agreed upon understandings of how individuals must interact. Examples of conventions are ubiquitous and subsequently shape human nature since even language by definition is a convention. For Pericles, for example, the traditional funeral is sacrosanct to the maintenance of respect and honour in civilized Athens (Thucydides, 2:35). Even while conventions are artificially constructed out of the need for collective-preservation, its principles are of paramount importance for functionality against the constant tension caused by primary human nature and the lust for power.

The most prominent convention for state safeguarding is justice. It operates in the Athenian polis to ensure stability as Pericles explains, “when it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law” (Thucydides, 2:37) adding that when negotiating the distribution of individual power “what counts is…the actual ability which the [person] possesses” (Thucydides, 2:37). As a convention, law is arrived at by mutual consent of the polis allowing power distribution to be peacefully negotiated within the domestic sphere. The moderation of the natural human desire for power requires the institutionalization of this artificial rule of law that protects individuals from each other. However, human nature can regress into anarchy if the polis undergoes institutional failure. This is demonstrated in the cases of the Athenian Plague and the Civil War in Corcyra.

The devastation of the Athenian Plague was not anticipated as part of the war effort. Under the plague, society entered a state of depolarization creating a vacuum for unregulated power-starved human nature to emerge. The consequence of the plague was that citizens “not knowing what would next happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law” (Thucydides, 2:52). Thucydides observes that even the convention of the funeral procedure crumbles when it is found to be more expedient to pile up bodies anonymously (Thucydides, 2:52). In the chaos of the plague, human nature is exposed as self-interested and desirous of public self-indulgence since the restraints that have made civilization possible disintegrate.

In the case of Corcyra, the violent civil war is caused by the hyper-polarization of political actors allowing natural aggression to rein supreme. In the midst of polarization between the ideologies of Athens and Sparta even the convention of language is under siege. Thucydides notes that “to fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meaning” (Thucydides, 3:82) adding for example “any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character” (Thucydides, 3:82). This stasis has changed collectively accepted discourse making lawlessness synonymous with just action.

Instead of defending and sternly maintaining the conventions that had built up society, the Corcyrians allow their state to fragment because they failed to value the supremacy of justice over the natural human drive for political control.

In both domestic tragedies, Thucydides seems to assert that there is no moral universe that determines the fate of individuals’ lives. He furthers this argument when Nicias dies during the Sicilian Expedition, despite his posturing as a voice for moderation and prudence (Thucydides, 7:86). However, while there is no moral universe beyond human existence, it is argued that a moral universe should be constructed to stifle the human tendency towards self-interest and ‘inevitably’ self-destruction. What the plague and the civil war demonstrate is that unrestrained human nature destroys civilization if citizens collectively reject the necessity of restraint under the rule of law in the domestic sphere.

In the international sphere, Thucydides’ History deals with the war between Sparta and Athens. It is evident that the plague and the civil war serve as a foil to the Peloponnesian War itself since, similarly, anarchy thrives where there is no adherence to convention. Such is the reality in international relations. The realist theory that the balance of power is supreme is especially consistent with the Athenian perspective by the later stages of the conflict. While Thucydides details the downfall of the hegemon, a solution to repeated human error in history is to use the constructivist argument as this essay has come to suggest. Justice must be transplanted from the domestic sphere to the international and be made sacred above all else. This will ensure prosperity for all competing powers in an international system.

Different poleis have divergent traditions and conventions (such as language and religion), however, all political groups in Thucydides’ History universally accept the primacy of justice as a convention. All competing powers must have an understanding of the moral world where there are justified ends and means to every action. Unfortunately for the Athenians, they ignore morality and justify their empire by arguing it is in their nature to conquer the weak. Corinthians state that Athenians “are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so” (Thucydides 1:70). Throughout the History, the Athenians progressively come to believe that justice has no instrumental value in foreign affairs as they turn instead to a rationalized understanding of sheer power in dealing specifically with the autonomous island of Melos.

In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians have completely ignored the convention of justice when addressing the expansion of their empire. For the purpose of self-interest, honour and security, the Athenians prescribe to the logic of ‘might is right’. In response to the Melian plea for fair play, the Athenian representative famously states that “the standard of justice depend on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (Thucydides, 5:89). While Pericles had once stated that justice must be made among equals, the Athenians have subsequently distorted justice so that, in the measure of power, the Melians should not be treated as equals. The Athenians thus rationally imply that the convention of justice is an ineffectual construct and consequently disregard any argument against their illegal action. It seems hypocritical that the Athenians argue for the ‘safe rule’ that one should “behave with deference towards one’s superiors, and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation” (Thucydides, 5:111) given their subsequent action. Their legitimacy, then, is undermined by power and human nature and their failure as moral agents, who do have a choice, thanks to their preponderance, but squandered it with realist logic. By not applying the same principle of fair play that readily functions in the domestic sphere, the Athenians engineer their own destruction.

In this History, it is evident that the common survival of all polis requires the supremacy of international law. Anyone breaking the sacred justice that is universal among all polis will be destroyed eventually by the perpetuation of the same transgression they have committed. Exploring the relationship between nature and convention and then relating it to power and justice, this essay finds it patently evident that the international community can only be made stable if there is an adherence to the conventions that have been applied properly on the domestic level. This argument is less pessimistic, believing that there is room for agency. Taking for example the modern United States, they seem on a similar path to that of Athens but they can reject the precedent of illegal war or risk the fate that Thucydides deems inevitable. Such is the nature of empires.

Plato & Feminism: An Analysis of Allan Bloom’s Interpretive Essay on Plato’s Republic, Book V (449a-473c)

The Republic of Plato Allan Bloom’s Perspective

Allan Bloom’s Interpretive Essay extrapolates, from the controversial women guardian argument in Book V of Plato’s Republic, dubious claims that are not persuasive and bypasses more obvious reasons why Socrates cannot be deemed a feminist. By evaluating these two works, this essay will accomplish four objectives. First, it will explain the controversy of Book V and illustrate that Socrates’ equality of the sexes and communal women and children are necessary in the just city. Second, this essay will establish Socrates’ provision for the weaker sex and refute this claim. Thirdly, it will demonstrate Bloom’s contention of Socrates’ insincerity in Book V as unconvincing. Finally, this essay will conclude that Socrates’ sincerity in women guardians is directed towards ensuring the logical continuation of the just city and not for any other reason. Plato was a douche-bag.

platos-republic-citySocrates stumbles through Book V as a digression from the overall trajectory of his pursuit of justice. In it, he is goaded into discussing a presumably minor assertion, made in Book IV, that has such radical implications that the interlocutors must intervene in the discussion. The controversy in question is the natural equality of the sexes, communal women and children and the implications these claims have in the just city. Socrates, however, is reticent to expand on these claims given the values of his contemporaries and his anticipation of a pejorative response (449c). Also, there is no doubt that Socrates is skeptical of what he is about to say (451a) after having scarcely mentioned women in previous books of the Republic. It is because of the compulsion to defend his previous assertions that Socrates must take equality seriously; it is no laughing matter, as his city relies on it.

The argument that Socrates is not a feminist can be supported by the countless examples within the Republic where he is inconsistent in his respect for female equality. As a section of his Interpretive Essay, Allan Bloom asks the pertinent question; why discuss women’s place in the just city at all? Aside from being goaded into the discussion, as previously maintained, Bloom gives the reader persuasive reasons for the equality of the sexes that overlook the broader problem of Socrates’ assertion. First, Bloom states that guardian men need guardian women to be properly trained or risk being corrupted upon their interaction with each other (Bloom, 383). Therefore, Socrates must argue for the equality of men and women guardians in order to cultivate his rational class.

socrates-women-in-bath-housesThrough this argument, Socrates also facilitates the abolition of the traditional realm of the private sphere. Bloom has overlooked the fact that while the private sphere and the nuclear family are in opposition to loyalty with the city, the destruction of the private sphere disregards the body of women. Ironically, Socrates calls for equality of the sexes by ignoring the physical differences between men and women when it benefits his just city. While he detaches the body of women from their private realm as the bearers of children, Socrates has constructed seasonal reproduction festivals to emasculate men and women of natural family duties. On the nursing of the children, Socrates has stripped the guardian women of their nature, to which Glaucon callously states “it’s an easy-going kind of child-bearing for the women guardian” (460d). Clearly, Socrates does not permit women to be different and equal. Instead, he forces her into the just city through the eradication of her private domain.

women-in-bath-houses-socratesOf course, in 4th century Athens, women were relegated to the private sphere and were not given the intellectual or physical training that was privy to men. As a consequence of such social conventions, women were perceived as inferior in every way. Socrates does not escape this convention but, for the sake of his just city, he must navigate the dilemma of women in his Republic. As the solution, Socrates establishes that the same practices for both sexes is natural and their souls are equal. He proves this with the comparison of a bald man and long-haired man’s capacity to be shoemakers (454c). While both men and women are able to perform the tasks of the guardian class, in the just city (454e), this claim is notwithstanding the provision that there is no faculty of life that “the class of men doesn’t excel that of women” (455c). Except for weaving and cooking, Socrates concludes that women are subordinate in all practices (455d). Curiously, Socrates fails to mention that women are indisputably superior in childbirth and child rearing both features of human life that he has subsequently rearranged. Socrates has a masculine perspective and as a consequence, women are expected to conform to male paradigms as opposed their own measures.

women-physical-strengthSocrates claims that women are subordinate in everyway but particularly in the sense of the physical. For example, he states that in the gymnasium, guardian women will be given lighter weights (457a). In principle, it would be difficult to disagree with Socrates that, for instance, segregation of athletic competitions by sex does not have to do with strength differences. However, he states erroneously that the same somehow applies for the soul and the intellect. This conflicts with Book IV where Socrates claims that a proper body does not make the soul good “but the opposite: a good soul by its own virtue makes the body as good as it can be” (403d). The soul is the measure of strength and yet, Socrates and Bloom concur that women are weaker than men beyond physical aspects.

women-kick-ass-plato-was-wrongDespite the intellectual status of the sexes established in our contemporary discourse, Allan Bloom agrees with Socrates’ conviction that women are inferior to men in his essay. However, Bloom exploits the error in logic within Socrates’ inferiority provision stating, “the whole consideration of [women’s] education as guardians is unnecessary” (Bloom, 383). This is because it is unlikely that women would be able to compete for the guardian class in such a meritocracy. This only follows if Socrates’ inferiority argument is correct, which it is not. Therefore, they are both patently wrong.

guardian-class-in-socrates-republicBloom’s contention that there could be no women guardians shapes his hypothesis that Book V’s gender equality and communal relationships are not meant to be taken seriously by the reader. Instead, while showered with laughter, Socrates is purposively engaging in a rebuttal against Aristophanes who had attacked him in the previous dialogues Clouds and more specifically regarding women in Ecclesiazusae (Bloom, 381). According to Bloom, Aristophanes had discredited philosophy thus the Socrates’ only sincere objective is to prove “the total superiority of Socrates and his way of life” (Bloom, 381) over that of the comic poet. This is demonstrated in the philosopher’s ability to bypass conventions (such as male and female nudity in the gymnasium) where comic poets “are dependent on an audience of Greek men to whom they must appeal” (381). Bloom views this as an exhibit of Socrates’ ability to produce a preposterous joke and not a sincere argument to defend the just city flowing from the proof of natural equality of the sexes.

To refute Bloom, it is arguable that Socrates would be jeopardizing his just city by logically constructing an elaborate satire to ‘teach the impossible’ (Bloom, 381). Clearly, the previous four books and subsequent sections are not designed for the ulterior purpose of spitefulness against a contemporary thinker and vain amusement. In Gorgias, Socrates actually states the contrary should prevail by emphasizing the importance of arguing not to defeat an opponent (called eristic) but to work co-operatively for common enlightenment (Gorgias, 454ci ff). Therefore, it is doubtful that Socrates would make these assertions to prove the superiority of the philosopher for the sake of petty retribution. If this were true, as Bloom suggests, Socrates is constructing a rational argument he would otherwise denounce. This implies that Socrates is being untrue, outside the noble lie, and as a seeker of truth and justice this would place the great philosopher in disrepute. Socrates is more concerned with maintaining the logical progression of his just city.

Allan Bloom’s Interpretation Essay evades the sincerity of Socrates’ rational claim of female equality and instead trivializes what Socrates was persuaded to discuss through the intervention of the interlocutors. In reality, Socrates must rationally and whole-heartedly defend the just city. Consequently, as a result of the abolition of the private sphere, he must pursue the equality of men and women. The notion that Socrates has an ulterior motive to following the logical extent of his argument of a just city is absurd. It seems suspect that Bloom conveniently finds comedy in the improbability of women guardians while ignoring the implausibility of the just city in other sections and perhaps in its entirety.

Work Cited

Plato. The Republic of Plato. trans Allan Bloom, 2nd Edition. Toronto: Basic Books, 2003.
Plato. Gorgias. trans Walter Hamilton, Chris Emlyn-Jones, Revised Edition. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2004.