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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.

The Goldenburg Iron Rules of Canadian Politics


The Goldenberg Iron Rules of Canadian Politics

1) Opposition MPs will obsess about the loss in the last election until a new leader forces them to look to the future. Decision-making is an art not a science

2) Opposition Parties will make irresponsible but popular promises that will get them elected in which case they will likely break those promises damaging their credibility.

3) Every MP wants to become a cabinet minister. They will resent up-starts and begin to cause problems for the Prime Minister no matter what.

4) Academics and MPs fear the dictatorial power of the PMO. Members of the PMO should use their discretion in discussing policy because it may be seen as official.

5) Political staffers will continue to be criticized for being too political when they focus only on politics, and they will continue to be criticized for being too involved in policy issues when they work closely with public servants on the government’s policy agenda.

6) Cabinet ministers – egged on by their deputy ministers – will insist that their department is uniquely deserving of unlimited generosity of the finance minister. The Prime minister must ensure that the PIMBY syndrome (Please In My Backyard) of Cabinet is controlled.

7) The Prime Minister will always be seen as either: a dictator or weakling. There is no in-between.

8) New Prime Ministers will continue to denounce corrupt patronage practices but then appoint highly qualified Canadians, who are of their political stripes.

9) Public servants and politicians will continue to proclaim their heartfelt belief in the benefits of consolation and access to information; but will argue that in ‘just this one special case’ consolation is not necessary.

10) The PMO will continue to explain the inexplicable while MPs will say the darndest things.

11) Ministers will continue to deny that they are running for the next leadership race while the PM will continue to fear the creeping footsteps of Brutus.

12) Quebec’s place in Confederation will continue to preoccupy all federal government. It will never be ‘resolved’.

13) Premiers will put their own re-election interest ahead of the PM’s re-election interests every single time.

14) Quebeckers will support Clarity while the Separatists will continue to use the language of Sovereigntists.

15) The West will continue to want in, even when it is in.

16) The Council of the Federation is about allocating federal money. That’s the only thing that the Premiers want. The Federal government wants to attach strings to everything.

17) Canadian government’s must walk a tightrope with the Americans.

18) The United Sates will continue to be the whipping boy for the left and the support for the right.

19) The Canadian media will continue to attribute all sorts of motive that Washington never thought of to whatever Washington does that affects Canada directly or indirectly; and Canada will continue to have to work hard even to be noticed in Washington.

20) The resolution of Canada-U.S. trade disputes will continue to depend far less on relations between PM and president and far more on local U.S. politics.

21) Government agendas will continue to be torn apart by unanticipated events, such as terrorism, war, assassinations, natural disasters, and economic spillovers from financial crises around the world.

In 2003, Chrétien had a one-on-one meeting with Bush in which the link between Al-Quada and Hussein was made. Bush wanted Chrétien to support the scheme adding that weapons of mass destruction were another motivation for invasion. Chrétien did not find the WMD argument compelling given the lack of evidence. When the UN rejected Bush’s assertions, which were rationally dislodged, Bush continued preparations. Canada was in a difficult position given our long-standing ties with the US. Chrétien turned to the old story about Pearson, in addressing support for the UK during the Suez Crisis or remaining neutral in that circumstance. Chrétien’s Chicago speech was an Anti-war in Iraq speech. Goldenberg compared the speech to the Temple University address by Pearson over the Vietname War.

Chrétien attempted to broker talks with France, UK, Germany and the US. The UN inspectors should have been given more time to complete their job according to Chretien. Goldenberg is not critical of the Bush administration and its agenda(s). Bush would be a vindictive providing an ultimatum of “either for us or against us”: black and white politics. However, Canada’s national unity would be exacerbated if we had joined the war. Harper was critical of the Chrétien position. Some Liberal MPs were angry at the situation but as the war went poorly, they returned to their original principles.

Goldenberg talked about softwood lumber and Canada’s position which was never resolved under Chretien. Pakistani support of the “Great Satan” Bush being reversed is an example where domestic politics trumps foreign rationalism. Anti-war feelings were strong in Canada in May 2003 and Goldenberg was happy to not have Bush come visit Ottawa. Chrétien made comments about the American budget deficit and added that he admired Clinton. The consequence of Chretien’s criticism of Bush’s tax cuts was that (as Condoleezza Rice told Goldenberg) the relationship between Bush and Chrétien was irrevocably broken. The situation was patched-up when it was revealed that the newspapers were not accurate regarding Chrétien’s comments.

The Canadian Pension Plan is a prime example of the struggle between Federal and Provincial governments over matters of public interest. The 1996 concern was over how the CPP would still function for baby-boomers in the next 30 years. Martin wanted to make a deal with Alberta finance minister Jim Dinning prior to that mans retirement so an entire schedule had to be reorganized to make the deal before Stockwell Day came in to ruin everything.

Goldenberg explains the crisis of Team Canada over expanding funds for health care reforms with premiers who were weary of having strings attached to the funding. It was during a Team Canada international trip. Bouchard could not agree over any deal that would enhance federal intervention in Quebec affairs. Harris and Bouchard banded together to make compromise with Chrétien. Goldenberg explains his central role in the discussions. Romanow pushed for a Royal Commission on Healthcare forwarded by himself. Calling a snap election is a craft. Peterson in 1990 was tufted for not explaining why he might want an election. Alternatively, King in 1940 swept to power after calling an election following the throne speech.

Chrétien was going to retire after two terms as Prime Minister, according to Goldenberg, but the events of the 2000 Bienniel Convention meant he had to change course. Chrétien regrets letting the party apparatuses weaken during his third term. Martin’s people had secret plans to defeat Chrétien at the convention confidence vote, the media received a leak about this plot and Martin was caught running away from reporters, literally. Goldenberg is trying to make Martin look stupid again. David Herle botched the coup. Chrétien stayed on for a third term because of the chanting of the crowds at the 2000 convention, according to Goldenberg. Chrétien wanted to shuffle Martin out of the Finance portfolio after this debacle but Goldenberg was against “lancing the boil” which turned out to be wrong.

In May of 2002, the heat was on as Chrétien publicly exposed Martin as having made plans to oust Chrétien. Various plots had been emerging at the time. Martin refused to be dictated to by the PM during public speeches. He was becoming a rogue and overly ambitious leader. Martin refused to play on the team and then attempted to upstage the PM. Martin refused to introduce his party leader and then orchestrated a scrum where he declared he was hesitant to remain in the Cabinet. No minister can publicly question the confidence of his leader without violating Cabinet solidarity. Goldenberg fails to outline what Chrétien had done to harm Martin’s political reputation. Goldenberg’s roll as a bridge-builder ended when Martin resigned from the Cabinet. According to Goldenberg, Chrétien planned to appoint Martin if their 11th hour conversation went over properly. Paul Martin crossed the Rubicon into Rome and the PMO swears in Manley at a ceremony at the end of that business day. Paul Martin expressed surprise that he had been fired. Chrétien ratified the Kyoto Accord. He was great Prime Minister dealing with crisis after crisis.

Synopsis of The Assault on Reason

The following is a précis of:



Al Gore’s introduction is designed to layout his central arguments and the ultimate solutions to an alarming crisis of reason that is emerging in the United States of America. Gore begins by noting that the representative democracy intended by the Founders is in a state of crisis where rational thought is being usurped by the way ideas are communicated. The media is obsessed with the triviality of Paris Hilton or O.J. Simpson motivated by sensationalism that leads to record profits for television conglomerates. Gore argues that cycle of image over substance began with the Simpson trial and has not been abated but rather has advanced – during the Bush administration – to new heights of mass manipulation. America rushed into the Iraq war because of the subservient willingness of media to co-modify ideas in an irrational and fear driven manner. Basically, substance is constantly being defeated by image in American political culture. Television is watched, on average, 4.5 hours per day by the American public. Reading is on a massive decline and political engagement occurs through visual representations in the television medium. Senator’s are too busy planning a 30 second campaign spot over actually discussing policy in a constructive forum…um…like the Senate. Meanwhile politicians are disproportionably from the most affluent class in America society leaving meritocracy in jeopardy against elite patronage. Gore turns to the emergence of the Age of Reason which begat the Founder’s intended democracy. Gutenberg’s 1450 invention of the printing press allowed a vast expansion in human knowledge. Literacy was once the foundation for democratic discourse in the marketplace of ideas. Today, Jurgen Habermas argues that the marketplace of ideas (public forum) is narrowing in scope; the electorate can no longer discern the difference between Democrat and Republican despite glaring ideological differences, according to Gore. The root of this emerging democratic crisis is, most centrally, the change in communication that has led to a feudalistic media sharing society. The media is sensationalist: “if it bleeds, it leads”. The line between entertainment and news is being skewed in American culture: citing Jon Stewart. Gore explains the philosophical underpinnings of his solution by explaining Marshall McLuhan’s thinking on media. McLuhan recognized that the medium is the message: the form of communication such as television/reading is more important than the content. McLuhan recognized that reading is an intensely cognitive process while television is counter-intellectual and stimulates the emotion centres of the brain excessively. Al Gore wants to return to a reasoned approach to democracy, which means that the citizens brain patterns themselves should to be reorganized in order for America to return to the democracy the Founders intended.

Chapter One: The Politics of Fear
The opening line of this chapter is also its central argument: fear is “the most powerful enemy of reason.” At equilibrium, fear and reason are both instrumental in survival. When fear dominates reason, however, irrational hatred and division lead to de-stabilization of the democratic institutions and there is a collapse of meaningful dialogue. The exploitation of fear is demagoguery while leadership harnesses some fear for constructive political change. Suppression and fear-mongering should be alien to the American way of life. He mentions that the assault through fear is destructive: McCathyism and the fact that the conflation of 9/11 and Hussein is still widely believed by over 50% of the American public. Bush’s yellow cake evidence has been revealed as forged. Clearly, when the ‘immune system’ of nation does not exploit these massive errors there is something deeply wrong. So what is happening to the human mind? Gore examines the human brain itself to suggest that emotional fear is processed in a unique manner that influences action. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is organized differently than other memories. PTSD memory is not organized in a time sequence but rather can emerge at any given moment to re-assert itself. The reasonable weighing of policy and action can be overwhelmed by these PTSD memories that are emotionally process in the amygdala. Even the historical memory of the Turkish invasion of Greece from 800 years ago still has staying power. Gore wonders how we reconcile these grievances in a democratic manner. Those who watched television on 9/11 were emotional scarred in the same level as someone who was in New York at the time. Television is able to invoke PTSD and orienting response . Television drives our brain receptors that are being excessively activated, thus triggering a susceptible to hypnotic fear. Professor Barry Glassner notices that fear-mongering requires repetition, irregularity and misdirecting. The horrifying picture of Abu Ghraib prisons, Vietnam and Iraq have fuelled the visual responses. 9/11 led the imagination to visualize other conceivably devastating events. Fear can be both legitimate or imagined fear but both are equally powerful forces. Invading Iraq was both tragic and absurd. Gore admits he trusted Bush like everyone else. Iraq was a new product for the 2002 midterms after Bin Laden was no longer a viable target. Curiously, DeLay abused the new Department of Homeland Security to track Democratic legislators and bring them to Congress for important votes . The politicization of the Iraq war, for partisan support, gives the Republican Party the national governing status that has marginalized Democrats. Bush and Nixon both disregarded their party policies to advance their re-election. Nixon explained that “people react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” A fearful society is what has emerged and it is jeopardizing America’s democratic foundation.