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15 December 2020


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Posts like these are why SST is on my daily reading list.


I found this utterly fascinating. Especially the careful and deeply kenned unpacking of the Greek concepts and words. It made me understand the fast-talking chalk-dusted passion of my Western Civ professor! Wasted on me at 17 ;-(.

Would you be so kind as to recommend a good translation of Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War? Or a book about it that brings context and wisdom as you have done here? Thank you for your consideration.


"Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence."

Well said, I wondered about this yesterday:

"It doesn't matter if the foreigners were representatives of sovereign states. Neither was Al Qaeda. It matters that they attacked us." ...
Posted by: Horace | 14 December 2020 at 06:35 PM


On the wisdom and knowledge of the ancients theme, here's a link to a project to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism. It was a mechanical celestial clock from ~70BC.


Just some guy

The section which struck me the most in Thucydides’ history was about 1000 words of text surrounding this passage in chapter 9 (book 3):

".. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. .."

It is difficult to write a clearer statement to explain why human affairs go wrong.

Translator: Richard Crawley, found at Project Gutenberg's website.

Barbara Ann

A fascinating post. I find it interesting that Professor Willett draws comparisons between the cultures of Ancient Greece and Japan. He refers to the similarity as "shame culture", though I expect this is synonymous with "honor culture".

Archidamus' observation that the Spartans' martial courage is derived from their sense or honor was, I think, echoed well by FDR: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear". How many people today allow their actions to be governed by the Spartan's (or Samurai's) externalized code of honor - seeing the greater fear as that of shaming one's self in front of one's comrades, or one's ancestors? A correct sense of priorities.

We may not be the men and women our ancestors were, but I still remain hopeful. Martial courage is but one form and in peacetime the courageous are less easily distinguished. I see courageous and highly resilient people battling steep odds in their daily civilian lives. Many would make/have made fine soldiers, I expect.

Also, the Trump era resurgence of conservatism, especially among the young, leads me to conclude that a large part of the populous retains a correct sense of priorities. Young conservatives, like Jenna Ellis on Trump's legal team, exemplify another form of courage for me. Jenna may well be risking her career in this fight, as she would surely be blacklisted by a vindictive incoming swamp-infested Biden regime. She doubtless knows this and yet she voluntarily remains at the front.

I expect the truly courageous will reveal themselves when this generation is tested. Right now fear of a corrupt leftist government in league with Big Brother Tech and the Resetists of the Davos crowd is real, justified and a great motivator.

Steven Willett

For a good balance between literalness, accuracy and readability I'd recommend OUP's edition with translation by Martin Hammond and notes by P. J. Rhodes. The Landmark version is popular for its maps and illustration with a revised translation of the old Richard Crawley. Not all the attached essays are worth reading. The Steven Lattimore version is a modern Hobbesian translation that is sentence-for-sentence. That can make it difficult reading, and the annotations are insufficient. It is still a magnificent version for the effort.


What's the deal with the helots? What did the other Greeks think of the Spartan relationship with helotry?


Speaking from a pedestrian level; there may be more hubris in some wars than in others.

Look, for example, at the Gulf War in 1990, where the coalition went in, dished out the punishment, got back out and reestablished the border. Look also at the Chinese invasion of Viet Nam in 1979. The Chinese went in, dished out the punishment, and then got out and reestablished the border.

Now compare the above two examples with the later invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These later two wars and occupations were done with plans to help remake the countries in our image.

Ishmael Zechariah

Thanks for this post. Quite timely since members and supporters of the incoming regime might soon ban reading/writing about or discussing Thucydides as he might have owned slaves (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-54138247).

Another important part of the "History of the Peloponnesian War" is the "Melian Dialogue" (Book 5, Chapters 84–116). It is a must-read for all members of the honorable tribe of knuckle draggers. There is a decent treatment at https://www.nku.edu/~weirk/ir/melian.html. Here is a section very germane to the current gambits in the M.E.:
"The commissioners of Melos agreed to meet the envoys in private. They were afraid the Athenians, known for their rhetorical skills, might sway the people if allowed a public forum. The envoys came with an offer that, if the Melians submitted and became part of the Athenian empire, their people and their possessions would not be harmed. The Melians argued that by the law of nations they had the right to remain neutral, and no nation had the right to attack without provocation. Having been a free state for seven hundred years, they were not ready to give up that freedom. Thucydides, an Athenian historian, captures the exchange between the Melian commissioners and the Athenian envoys:

Melians: "...all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery."

Athenians: "...we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses---either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of the wrong that you have done us---and make a long speech that would not be believed; and in return, we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although they are colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, ...since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."2

The Melians pointed out that it was to the interest of all states to respect the laws of nations: "you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right...."3 They reminded the Athenians that a day might come when the Athenians themselves would need such protection.

But the Athenians were not persuaded. To them, Melos' submission was in the interest of their empire, and Melos.

Melians: "And how pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?"

Athenians: "Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you."

Melians: "So [that] you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?"

Athenians: "No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness and your enmity of our power."

Those who think Russia (or Iran) are akin to Melos might be in for a surprise.

blue peacock

Steven Willet

Thanks for posting this. So important for contemporary leaders to read and ruminate on Thucydides words.

I've read this work many times. It is an excellent treatise on human nature. While we have tamed nature, our nature has not changed.


a fascinating and timely read... thank you... hopefully someone in a position of power is reading and taking it in... it can't be any of us helots who continue to slave away in this financial pyramid scheme the world is beholden to... these wars continue on indefinitely based on the money they generate for wall st and this financial hydra that continues to squeeze the planet in countless ways...


Ecclesiastes 1:2

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

English Outsider

"In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?"

And by extension are we not witnessing the slow suicide of the West? I do not believe we are.

We are listening to the deliberations of the elites in Thucydides and those deliberations do hold meaning for our times. They hold meaning in particular for this present moment. We see the President elect assembling his neocon picks and, with the defeat of Trump, the ancien regime more comfortable in the saddle all over Europe and the West. For them, the apparatchiks of the ancien regime, this fascinating and ominous study of yours should hold meaning. Do not over-reach! Step off this treadmill of predestined self-destruction!

But though it should hold meaning for them there is no meaning they will take from it. The Bidens and the Pelosis, the Merkels and Johnsons and the like, are merely ward heelers on the grand scale, incapable of looking beyond their current narrow imperatives. Cogs in a machine of graft, a machine that must turn because that machine is the product of the multiplicity of interests that drive it, it seems, so inexorably.

As it drove those ancient warring states to their destruction. It need not drive ours. We ourselves are rooted in what is in truth the greatest achievement of that world. Out of the ferment of dispute and enquiry that characterised the later times of that disintegration you explore above, and in the insignificant corner of that world that some still call the Holy Land, emerged a body of doctrine and precept, that, subjected to two millennia of examination and adaptation and for most now stripped of obsolete terminology, yet shapes all our thinking.

So I believe that what we are now living through is not primarily a battle of states, squalid and murderous though that battle is. It is a battle of values. It is an internal battle. We know so little of the internal battles of those ancient states. We know something of ours. That battle is now joined as it was not in the past decades of our decline. I do not believe it will result in that slow suicide you examine above.


"“we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.”"

That should be adequate warning to the well credential elites on the left, but they all seem to have taken Karl Rove (as wel as that other Karl) to heart:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The left's war against America's middle class seems to be going swimmingly, yet I think all they are doing is enraging a sleeping giant.


" Look also at the Chinese invasion of Viet Nam in 1979. The Chinese went in, dished out the punishment, and then got out and reestablished the border."

They went in all of 20 km, engaged local militia units and left before the battle hardened regulars of the NVA were deployed. The poorly written Wiki doesn't do justice to the failure of the PLA, which hadn't egaged in combat with regulars since the Korean war.

Barbara Ann

Steven Willett

As author of this excellent and instructive piece (and translator of the Tibullus poem a few posts back) I hope we can look forward to reading more of your work here in the future.

Your treatment of σωφροσύνη and your reference to the distinct lack of "moderation" and gross insolence in victory exhibited by the US in the aftermath of the Cold War are spot on. I'd venture "Fukuyamist" may be an appropriate word for that particular hubristic context. I can't help feeling that if the English language contained a single word to convey the proper meaning of σωφροσύνη and that if that word were in common usage, a great many of the problems of our current civilization may not have arisen.


Yes, I'd rather liken Russia (particularly her war ethic) to Sparta than Melos. The Melian Dialogue is a timeless classic also, though we must not forget the actual outcome and the Melians' fate in 416 - one so appalling it moved Euripides to shame the Athenians the very next year with The Trojan Women. The fact that this play was written and performed, I would guess to some of the very people who perpetrated the massacre, speaks volumes for the Athenian polity's tolerance of criticism during that halcyon age. Among other things this very tolerance was a casualty of the war, as Socrates was of course to find out in 399. This I think is a most valuable lesson in itself; that domestic freedoms are frequently casualties of far away wars, particularly if you choose to "wage war long". The War on Terror exemplifies this IMO. How much more time are we willing to spend trying to defeat that abstract noun?


"with the defeat of Trump" - last I checked he still hasn't conceded and the widespread total absence of σωφροσύνη among his supposedly victorious opponents should be a warning sign.

Diana L Croissant

I must add my expression of gratitude for this post. Reading it started a chain of thoughts about many of my past studies in high school, college, and graduate school---and in my entire life as a voracious reader and studier.

Those of us who have had the privilege to study over the span of our lives before having to spend our daily lives in mundane and often mind numbing employment, or in my case, a long period of raising children also, could count ourselves as lucky that we had all that reading and study to keep ourselves from going mad from the need to do much of the mundane labor of keeping a house and a yard and children under control.

After reading this post last night I spent some time first remembering the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when George H. S. Bush, coming off the Iran-Contra mess, then sent our young people into Iraq. I still haven't been able to understand that war in such a way as to make me feel good about it.

Before that I had to constantly feel guilty about being able to attend college while my male high school classmates, mostly farm boys, were fighting in Vietnam.

I also spent time last night thinking of The Odyssey and the Iliad and of Sophocles' explanation of "hubris" in regard to the Oedipus cycle of plays.

there is a theme that runs through some literature, mostly poetry, called the "ubi sunt" theme. (Where are?) Where are those young men who went off to war and did not return?

"when will they ever learn?"

My younger son had a Navajo young man as a roommate for a while. He was the son of a shaman on a reservation in Arizona, though he had been raised on the reservation of his maternal grandmother in New Mexiso. He told a joke once at our Thanksgiving meal:

NASA asked a Native American to write the greeting message our astronaut would give to the first alien to greet him on Mars. The Native American wrote it in the Navajo language. Later, when he was asked to give the translation, he said the massage was this: "Don't trust these people. They will steal your land."

It often does seem that all the turmoil in the world is a fight over what Hitler wanted: "Lebensraum."

Mark K Logan

Shame he didn't mention Sparta's attempt at regime change in Athens. The "30 Tyrants" fiasco did not end well. Yet another example worth pondering.

I wonder if contemplating Athens and Sparta being sucked into war over a couple bickering small-fry cities factored into George Washington's farewell address admonition against making permanent alliances. He was very well read so I like to think it did.

English Outsider

Barbara Ann - "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Attempts to obtain remedy continue but I had assumed, when talking of your President's "defeat", that the same would apply to election fraud.

I wrote in because though this shabby affair may prosper I believe the current status quo is reaching the end of its run. Too many no longer buy into it.


Steven Willett,
I join in chorus of appreciation for this article. The idea of honor and truth are so alien in todays "rational" world. Too bad. On almost every step in my personal life, here and in Europe, I was faced with lack of these qualities, not to mention the politicians ( as EO alludes to!)
I was wondering, if USA would be loose equivalent to Sparta? What would be Athens today?

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