Reflections on Thucydides

Reading Thucydides is familiar to modern audiences. His succinct style of political and military history is perhaps the most commonly mirrored practice for writing contemporary history. However, his project is still somewhat elusive. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not explicitly call his work a “history” (historia), and he calls his book a work for all time, a claim that modern historians cannot make because their many varying histories do not claim to be definitive. Additionally, he claims the focus of his work is of the “greatest” motion of the city, thus undermining the authority of all earlier texts on war, including Herodotus and Homer.

Unlike the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the objective of Thucydides is not to discover the best possible regime, or a “city in speech.” Instead, he stands among the clamor of the crowd as we experience the chaos of battle between two cities engaged in bloody struggle for dominance. Thucydides presents us with the speeches of great men, and unlike Plato, he sympathizes with leaders who look to expand the Athenian empire, like Pericles, though he notes the blame for the war lies primarily with Athens and its character. In another similarity to Plato, Thucydides presents a particular skepticism toward the poets with his opening lines praising the greatness of the Peloponnesian War over all previous wars, thus drawing swords with, and questioning the authority of, Homer.

Although, Thucydides and Plato may have differences, we can find common ground in Plato’s Timaeus, the sequel to the Republic, in which Socrates longs to see his mere “city in speech” put into “motion,” which implies a city at war. In this way, Thucydides provides what the Timaeus dialogue was unable to deliver: a real city in “motion.” The recollection of Critias in the Timaeus is dependent on a distant rumor, though the story, including Atlantis, mirrors the failed Sicilian Expedition in the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides makes several explicit judgments: first, that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest war, thus diminishing the splendor of the ancients. He devotes considerable time to this judgment in Book I. Because of the poverty of their soil, Athens was able to grow in relative peace much earlier than Sparta. Does Thucydides believe the power and success of a city comes from peace or from war? His statements about the growth of Athens would seem to indicate the former. Athens was the first city to relax ancient barbaric practices and engage in luxury -the seeds of empire. Meanwhile Sparta enjoyed an ordered life of republican simplicity, and consequently their regime remained the same for roughly 400 years. Here, Thucydides agrees with Plato in his praise of moderation.

The question of moderation forces us to ask: what did Thucydides think of moderation? He reveals to us his tastes when describing the general depravity that overcame the Greek world during the war: abandonment of custom, praise of recklessness, decay in speech and respect for law. Peace is preferable to war. War is a teacher; a teacher of violence. War is an intermediate stage between peace and civil war. Depravation destroys moderation in situations of war.

Pericles, and his popular funerary speech, is the example of Pericles being the superior leader of Athens, guiding the city safely peace and in war. His speech is fundamentally a praise of the Athenian way -a praise of daring and hope, as opposed to the caution and fear of the Spartans. The fact that Athens under Pericles became the most powerful does not mean Athens became the “best”. Thucydides is concerned primarily with cities and their character. The great men in each are subordinate to the cities and their laws, which are ultimately subordinate to divine laws.

Thucydides’s work points to the universals from the particulars. He shines a light on the character of the city at war. It is not merely a polemic, in favor of Athens or Sparta, but rather it is a book which brings to light the nature of political things.

As with many ancient writers, we know very little about the life of Thucydides other than what he subtly reveals to us in his sole surviving work.

Thucydides notes that he was an Athenian, old enough at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War to understand its significance and document its unfolding. He was elected by Athens to be a strategos, or a military leader. He was likely a generation younger than his predecessor-historian, Herodotus.

Thucydides was related in some way to Miltiades, the great Athenian general of the Persian Wars. His father was Olorus, a Thracian. As a result, Thucydides was a businessman of influence in Thrace, including the ownership of mining rights on the islands of Thasos. He lived in Athens during the plague of 430-429BC, as he notes in the text, and he even caught the disease himself. He later commanded an Athenian fleet in Thrace, where he was called upon by Athens to defend the city of Amphipolis, but he arrived too late and the city fell to Sparta. Thucydides was recalled to be tried and exiled. His exile to foreign lands allowed him to focus on his text, and gain exposure to the Spartan perspective on the war.

He lived through the war, but some have suggested he met a violent demise because his notable text abruptly ends before the end of the war. He was later celebrated by the Athenians, as a monument and Athenian tomb to Thucydides were still seen in Athens in the 2nd century AD.

Three other writers picked up on Thucydides’s history where his text ends: Crattipus, a younger contemporary; Xenophon, the noted writer who lived a generation after Thucydides; and Theopompus, a late 4th century BC Greek writer.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Plato’s Laws: Notes on Books II-IV

Book II
In Book II, the Athenian Stranger wishes to explore the question of what is the greatest benefit of a correctly executed drinking party, or at least if there is a greater benefit than considering human nature. He explores the question of education.

What is education? First, we begin in childhood. A young child experiences pleasure and pain, and from these feelings a child learns virtue and vice in his soul. Prudence and true opinion only come later, if a human being is lucky, in old age. If he possesses both, then he is a perfect human. “Education is the virtue that comes into being in children” (653b). To reiterate, pleasure and pain come first, followed by correct reasoning. Together, when these work in consonance (in Greek: sumphonia), the entirety of this consonance in the soul is virtue.

The first education comes from the gods. All other creatures live only in the early childhood phase of pain and pleasure. Humans, instead, have been gifted rhythm and harmony from the gods – a dance in which we take pride in the order of things, hence why the Greek words “chorus” and “joy” share the same root: chara. The goal of the educator is to be knowledgeable of all things fine and noble, so the child may learn the proper dance and song. Music reconciles the philosophers and non-philosophers, providing for a more harmonious civic life. It is possible to enforce the correctness of the laws of antiquity, as in the playful case of Egypt.

When the regime is healthy, the poets look to educate and please the best of men, the most educated. When the regime deteriorates, the poets look to please the lowly and most base of men, and the judges educate the poets. The chorus of the laws follows three lines: the chorus of Apollo, the chorus of the Muses, and the chorus of Dionysus.

They conclude Book II in agreement, that Dionysian wine and drinking parties should be allowed for their educational merits, but should be regulated with an eye toward moderation.


Book III
Book III begins in consideration of the original source of the political regime. As the Athenian notes, it is difficult to gaze over time from the viewpoint of one considering the many thousands of different kinds of cities and where they originally came from. The Stranger devises an account based on a flood in which the noble shepherds, living remotely in the mountains, are the only people left to rebuild humans. They move into the valleys and are living in a kind of “naive simplicity” (679c). Note: the Athenian Stranger’s account of the original of the political regime is slightly different from the account given by Socrates of the origin of the city in the Republic. It is, perhaps, most consistent with the natural city – the “city of sows” which consists of a small group of people, with each man minding his own business in the service of the whole, devoid of private property and war. A city of necessity, without arts and history. Ancestral laws and custom is the only guiding force for this city. The Athenian cites Homer in his description of the Cyclops. The rule of law is paternal, a family monarchy, followed by bigger cities and larger cities with private property and luxuries and war.

Then, they stumble upon the origins of legislation. The leaders, or lawgivers, look at the customs of the different clans and present them to the kings, or monarchs, and they adopt the customs which are most fitting for their cities.

The Athenian Stranger surveys the different Greeks and Barbarian rulers, particularly the Persians. He praises the freedom of speech under Cyrus, as well as the friendship and openness of intelligence, and contrasts the culture with the empire under Cambyses, and the freedoms and friendship were then regained under Darius. Cyrus, for all his praise, failed to understand correct education. He allowed his sons to be solely raised by the women, while the men are away busy with war. Because the Medes are a shepherding people, they need to be raised to be tough herders. However, his son Cambyses was soft and idiotic, while Darius was tough, but then again Xerxes was foolish. The problem was the education.

Book III concludes with Kleinias suggesting that they proceed by constructing a “city in speech” as was done in Plato’s Republic.


Book IV
At the request of Kleinias, the Athenian Stranger begins to construct a city in speech. Curiously, unlike Socrates in the Republic, he begins in the geography of the city – coastal rather than inland, and resembling much of Crete, at Kleinias’s request. The Athenian Stranger is skeptical of cities by the sea, as the sea is a ‘briny and bitter enemy’, bringing trade and riches and foreign customs, all of which challenge the consistency and stability of the laws and virtues of the people.

The Athenian Stranger sets himself down as the legislator, and beckons the other two to guard against his legislating so that it doesn’t challenge their virtue. He gives a notable clue into his project:
“For I assert that the only law correctly laid down is this: one which, just like an archer, aims each time at what alone is constantly accompanied by something noble, one which leaves all the rest aside, even if there is a chance of producing some wealth and some other such things by ignoring the things just mentioned” (705e).

The Athenian does not proceed to set down laws for the city, as there need to be a series of preludes in order for laws to be effective. In order for students to learn they must first have the desire to learn. The people can be molded best through the arousing of the passions by the poet and the theologian. At the conclusion of Book IV, the day has approached midday and they are resting in a shady spot.

The theologico-politico problem has already been explored at points in Books III and IV. To whom do the citizens serve? The gods or the leaders? First, there are pre-requisities for the laws to exist – the people must be molded to want to be virtuous. If not, the city becomes lawless and the lawgiver will fail. How shall we make the people desirous of virtue? Through the messages of the poets and the theologians. The stories of the gods are what humans look to and strive towards. However, they must learn to give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God’, to paraphrase the New Testament. The people must be made to honor the gods, fear their leaders, respect the laws of their cities, and be virtuous citizens. In conclusion, we recall the opening lines of the dialogue, and the words of Avicenna, which note the importance of divine law.


For this reading I used Thomas Pangle’s excellent translation of Plato’s Laws and Leo Strauss writings on Plato’s Laws.

“All The World’s A Stage” Considered

In Act II scene 7 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we encounter one of the more fatalistic and artful monologues in all of Shakespearean literature, Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy. Drawing on Ovid, Shakespeare uses the character, Jaques, to compare the totality of human life to the charade of a play, and he enumerates the seven stages of a man’s life -it is sometimes called the ‘Seven Stages of Man’ monologue. However, unlike Ovid there is something nihilistic about Jacques’s speech -perhaps an idea he gets from the clownish “philosopher” Touchstone.

To set the scene, the tyrants have overtaken the good and noble men. Orlando, a willing and capable man with natural talents (“Fortune”) is denied his due inheritance and rightful place by his conniving and jealous older brother, Oliver. According to their family servant, Adam (thought to have been played by Shakespeare), Oliver plans to kill his younger brother Orlando, so Adam and Orlando take flight into the Forest of Arden. Meanwhile, Duke Senior has been overthrown by his usurping brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled with a band of loyal noblemen into the Forest of Arden to live like Robin Hood and his merry men in the wild, pastoral, wilderness. One of these men is Jacques who has been led to question the nature of things and the meaning of life by a fool -a philosopher who laments the passing of time. According to Jacques, all of life becomes a tragedy when considering the passing of time as nothing more than another step closer to death. Are we growing or merely rotting? Is all of life vanity? Jacques, who has been influenced by the poison of the fool, is led to a life of woe -he is disillusioned and depressed. However, Duke Senior is not persuaded by his lugubriousness. Instead, when Orlando bursts onto the scene and demands food from the strangers for himself and his dying compatriot, Adam, Duke Senior provides an example of civility by inviting Orlando to the table. It is a moment of justification for civilization’s conventions to the brooding Jacques. Like the famous anecdote of Diogenes contra Alexander the Great, Jaques tells Duke Senior to stand out of his light. He plays the part of a cynic and Epicurean. He would rather live ‘like a dog’ (the meaning of the Greek word “cynic”) and entertain his mind with minstrels and distractions, preferring not to eat or care for the needs of his body.

Returning to the passage in question, Duke Senior has just tried to convince Jaques that “we are not all alone and unhappy. This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play” (136-139). With the grace and respect shown among civilized men, Duke Senior and Orlando, there are many worse and more woeful places wherein Jaques could dwell. The debate is between cynicism and convention, Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Duke Senior defends the superior of the latter, while Jaques seems tempted by the former.

We now turn to Jaques’s monologue. “All the world’s a stage” is stated by Jaques in response to the Duke claiming that there are “woeful pageants” elsewhere that are far worse than the present situation. Jaques undermines Duke Senior’s claim not by denying that there are worse situations elsewhere, but rather that all situations are mere fantasy. The word “All” is used twice to encompass both ‘all the world’ and also ‘all the men and women’. The most significant word in the opening sentence is “merely” used to describe players. The reason for this significance is that it serves to deny praise of theatre, claimed by some, and rather to highlight Jaques’s pessimism about the nature of things. In other words, a “mere” player is directly connected to the stage, and one could make the claim that all the world’s a stage is a Platonic or perhaps Nietzschean notion that high art is what forms the basis of culture, however Jaques is not a creator, in the way that Prospero is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Recall Prospero’s “our revels now are ended” monologue during the fabled marriage ceremony of his daughter, Miranda. He laments the transience of all things man-made, but perhaps not to bring them all down and see things from a jaded, disillusioned perspective. Jaques, being a young man and well-traveled like Odysseus, is quickly and easily reoriented by the fool to be a woeful Epicurean moral philosopher. His opening statement is an ontological claim -all the world is a stage. He does not use poetic similes, such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ imagery to highlight his claim to knowledge of the meagerness of the world and all the men and women who dwell in it.

“They” (or all the men and women) have their “exits and their entrances” and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Jaques has moved from denying the authenticity of the stage, to affirming the falsity of all busy men and women, to examining the life of one man in his seven ages, limiting human beings to a short and easily defined life. Under the weight of this new perspective gained from the fool, Jaques proceeds to identify the seven ages of man. For guidance through each age, we turn to the help of Robert Smirke’s painting series in 1798-1801.

seven ages 11) Infant: this stage is defined only by one sentence, of an infant “mewling and puking” in his nurse’s arms. Here Jaques employs the grotesque, rather than the charming, to describe an infant that is typically the subject of adoration.

seven ages 2

2) The “whining schoolboy” who goes to school by “creeping like a snail” in order to avoid the cane. He also has a “shining face” and a satchel. He has gone from mewling to whining.

seven ages 3

3) The “lover”: in this stage he ‘sighs like a furnace’ with a woeful ballad (we recall Orlando and Rosalind’s great sighing in fits of love) with the ballads being written for his mistresses’s “brow” (taken from Petrarch). We note that in the first three ages, there is great suffering.

seven ages 4

4) A “soldier”: here he is full of “strange oaths” and also “bearded like the pard”or a leopard. He is jealous in honor, sudden and quick (recall “swift footed Achilles”) and he is seeking a reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. The cannon destroys both life and fame, the cannon’s mouth does not echo the deeds of great man, only ends them without glory, we recall the moment Don Quixote encounters a gun for the first time.

seven ages 5

5) The “Justice”: his belly is now fair and round, like a rooster or a capon. His eyes are severe now and his beard has a “formal cut”. He is also full of “wise saws” and “modern instances”, or arguments and justifications. Note that the “Justice could be replaced with a sophistry.

seven ages 6

6) Jaques bookends the last 5 stages with “and so he plays his part” and a period. In the sixth age he is older with “pantaloons” and “spectacles”. Suddenly the world is too wide for him. His voice turning to “whistles” and “pipes” again. This age is also bookended with a period, whereas the first four were with a semicolon.

seven ages 7

7) The last scene “ends this strange and eventful  history” and is called “second childishness” that is sans teeth, sans eyes, and sans everything. Along with childishness it is called “mere oblivion”. This fatalism concludes Jaques’s monologue and, shortly following, concludes Act II.


For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd edition of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

As You Like It, Act II

Scene 1

In Act II, the longest of the five Acts in the play, we are redirected to (presumably) the Forest of Arden where Duke Senior praises the innocence of the noblemen’s new idyllic life. He calls it “sweet”, “free from peril”, and without the “penalty of Adam”. He hearkens a golden age, but not in a suffering for a long-gone antiquated world. Instead, he praises the harshness of the natural world -“Sweet are the uses of adversity” (Scene 1, 12).

Scene 2

However, being far from the “painted pomp” of court, the noblemen, including Duke Senior, lament the need to murder deer for venison. This is especially true of the lugubrious Jacques, who equates deer in the forest with citizens of a city. He calls Duke Senior a worse usurper than his own for his upsetting of the natural ‘political’ order of the Forest by murdering the deer. Jacques’s brooding begins with his failure to distinguish between  politics and nature. Meanwhile, the usurping Duke Frederick decides to follow after his daughter who is sure to be among the company of the youth who foiled Charles, the wrestler. In Scene 2, we are first exposed to the juxtaposition between the city and the country as Duke Senior and his Lords live a pastoral life, hearkening to the “golden age” alluded to in Ovid. However, the humans are still confused about their place. They know the country only insofar as it is in reaction and contradistinction to the “pomp of court”. Trees become like books and brooks like poetry, the stuff of the city, and the denizens of the forest can only best be compared to the city’s citizenry.

Scene 3

Orlando and his family servant, Adam, flee into the Forest of Arden as Adam laments: “O what a world is this, when what is comely envenoms him that bears it” exposing the tyrannical nature of Orlando’s older brother, Oliver, who is expected to come and burn down the swelling of Orlando. Adam persuades Orlando to leave with his meager retirement savings, also justifying his robustness, despite his age. Orlando tells him: “Thou art not for the fashion of these times, where non will sweat but for promotion, and having that, do choke their service up even with the having” (Scene 3, 59-62). Both Adam and Orlando demonstrate their virtue – Adam says,”Yet fortune cannot recompense me better than to die well and not my master’s debtor” (75-76). Adam is praised for his “duty” not his sweat for “meed”.

Scene 4

Exhausted, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) and Celia (disguised as Aliena) tramp through the Forest with Touchstone. They come upon Corin (perhaps borrowed from the name of a shepherd in Virgil’s 2nd Ecologue) and Silvius (meaning “of the woods” in Latin -a lover, as are most in the woods), two shepherds, Corin is scolding Silvius for his affliction of love. quietly Touchstone says: “as all is mortal in nature, so all is nature in love mortal in folly” (51-52). Rosalind is drawn to Silvius’s “passion”. With the shepherds, they use their gold to buy a remote cottage.

Scene 5

The Lords, including Amiens and Jacques, are singing about the merriness of the Forest, though it makes Jacques melancholy. Jacques decides to remain alone while Amiens goes to the banquet of the Duke.

Scene 6

Adam lies down saying he cannot go on any longer. He asks Orlando to leave him to die, but Orlando rushes to find food in the forest.

Scene 7

The Duke comes upon Jacques in the woods and asks him about why he has become so brooding and melancholy in their pastoral Eden. Jacques responds that he came upon a “motley fool” who lamented the time, as each hour passes we “ripe and ripe” meaning we also “rot and rot”. Jacques is recognizing the aimlessness of the pastoral life, from the fool he recognizes the closing imminence of death. The impressionable Jacques, like Ivan from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, longs to be the somber, reflective, saddened fool he met earlier. Self righteously, he long to be a disillusioned Diogenis of the Forest’s noblemen, in order to “cleanse the foul body of th’infected world, if they will patiently receive my medicine” (60-61). To this, the Duke rebukes him and his foul illness he seems to have caught. To try to justify himself, Jacques defends the need for one to attack pride and vices that are ever-present in the city. He lives his life in praise of reason, thanks to his exposure from the motley fool he met at an unknown earlier time.

Suddenly, Orlando storms the scene and demands that no man eat until necessity has been served (devoid of food, justice is served ‘each according to his needs’ as the Marxist saying goes’). The Duke instructs him to be gentle and civilized, his gentleness can force more, than force itself. He then invites Orlando to the table to eat, embarrassing Orlando who apologizes for disgracefulness, puts away his sword, and ‘blushes’.

The Duke Senior uses this scene in an attempt to educate Jacques, showing that in this “wide and universal theatre” not all people are alone and unhappy. The Duke makes the case for the goodness of traditional conventions, while Jacques, the reasonable pessimist, remains disillusioned with any kind of custom. Orlando then returns with Adam where they feast together, enjoy music, and the Duke pleasantly learns that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys.