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Possession for All Time

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Thucydides tells us that he wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War for the objective of providing "an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretations of the future" (I.22). By trying to provide us with as accurate and as objective a history as possible, we can see a deliberate restraint on his part to not tell us what he thinks (Welch, 2003). While we see the occasional injection of his own commentary, there is no recognizable immediate theoretical claim that he makes. Yet, I believe that we should not take Thucydides' work as a mere recounting of 27 years of history, for he also intends for his work to be a "possession for all time" (I.22). As such, I think that he wishes us to see certain themes in his work that are universal, i.e. they transcend the passage of time and we can see these themes at work even in the political activity of the modern times.

Indeed, Thucydides clearly expressed the view that history will repeat itself, asserting that the future, "which in the course of human things, must resemble if not reflect [the past]" (1.22). Why? I think we find that he gives us the answer later in Book III, where he writes, with fervor, of the sufferings "such as have occurred and will always occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases" (3.82). I personally believe that when we compare the events of ancient Greece as recounted in Thucydides' work with the events that have happened in the modern world, we can see a stark resemblance between them. This is because I agree with Thucydides that human nature is fundamentally unchanging. As such we who live in the modern world can identify with the characters in Thucydides' work that lived in ancient Greece; we understand the reasons they take certain courses of action, and we understand the arguments they make. This essay will focus on the theme of human nature in Thucydides' work - what shapes human behavior, and the implications of human motivations on political activity. For me, Thucydides' exploration of human nature in all its complexity justifies his work as one of enduring relevance.

In Thucydides' work, interplay between the themes of human nature (phusis) and convention (nomoi) can be seen to be extremely important in determining the construction of social order. According to a Sophist named Antiphon, phusis, referring to humans' natural impulse to gratify immediate private desires, works in opposition to nomoi, referring to man-made laws, or edicts of laws that are arrived by consent (Freeman, 1971). Antiphon goes on to encourage people to break free from traditional conventions and to pursue their private desires (Freeman, 1971). However, as Saxonhouse notes, the Greek polis was based on "the belief in the validity, divinity and permanence of conventions" and that if the Sophist's view was accepted by society, it would likely have led to the destruction of the polis (1978, pp.463). As Thucydides wrote his work during the intellectual crisis sparked by the Sophists, this conflict between nomoi and phusis appears often within the speeches in his work, showing his sensitivity to this issue (Saxonhouse, 1978). Despite Thucydides having been called a "pupil of the Sophists" (Jaeger, 1965, pp.402) by some scholars, I believe that he took the stance that accepting nomoi was necessary for social order and civilization to exist. We can see this especially clearly in Pericles', who represents the height of Athens' greatness, funeral oration. The first sentence of Pericles' speech makes reference to tradition. While he questions the ancestors' belief that words could adequately honor those who died for the city, he obeys tradition and proceeds with the speech (2.35). Here, we see that while Pericles finds fault with tradition, he does not disobey it and instead tells the people that "it is just and proper on such an occasion to give [the ancestors] such honor of remembrance". Saxonhouse claims that the stability of society is based on the pursuit of conventions which have been followed by tradition (1978, pp.468).

The realists, especially the classical realists, however, would disagree and instead argue that Thucydides was translating the individual's pursuit of self-interests and power into the interaction of political communities with each other, and that for him, phusis would prevail over nomoi (Crane, 1998; Romily, 1990). They are likely to cite specific speeches in the text that make reference to universal laws of human nature or behavior displayed by characters that seem to lend justification to the dominance of phusis. Examples could include the description of the moral disintegration in Athens during the onset of the plague, which left many in Athens dead or dying, in Book II, where men, not knowing when they would die, "became utterly careless of everything whether sacred or profane" (2.52).



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