Mar 27 2019

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Today I’m reading some things I haven’t quite got around to:

And in reading those things above, it reminded me of a passage toward the end of the manuscript to Thucydides‘ (460-400 BC) unfinished History, where he observes:

The Assembly and the Council of the Bean* still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers, and reviewed in advance what they were to say.

Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues.

An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralised the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were.

For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust.

Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.

Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Everyman Library (New York: J. M. Dent, 1910) (8.66).

*The Council of the Bean was so-called because voted were indicated and tallied by a jar of differently colored beans.