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On the evening of Tuesday January 9th, 2018, a group of 17 lovers of learning met at the Hops House behind the San Antonio Museum of Art for the first weekly seminar in a series of six. Several new participants joined for this series, and a feeling of conviviality and good cheer was in the air.  Many in the group were familiar with each other and had participated in the Fall series on Plato, and had also joined us for the Holiday Party at the Sternswerth Bar at the Hotel Emma in early December.

The reading for the evening was Book I, section 1.1 to 1.10. The evening commenced at 6:30 pm with a reading of this section. After the reading was finished, the leader asked a basic opening question:  what are we seeing emerging in the opening pages of the text? A question like this is intended to elicit reflection on our immediate first impressions of the reading. These first impressions – though not always accurate after further reading, discussion and reflection – can nevertheless teach us a great deal about the work, if only we are willing to listen to them.

Conversations are rich and varied affairs; no summary can do justice to them. But through the many questions, observations and reflections offered by the group, the conversation proceeded to unpack very carefully two main themes, already beginning to come to sight in the opening pages of Book I. Thucydides in the first paragraph claims that there had been no war – or any other affair – greater in scale than that of the war between the Spartans and Athenians. The group thought that the opening pages show proofs of the relative weakness of the ancients in terms of the consolidation of power and wealth.

The first theme that emerges is the contrast, tension or conflict between Athenian and Spartan character. Thucydides raises this contrast first in an understated and comical way at section 1.6, observing the change in Athenian styles, as a consequence of laying down their arms in favor of an easier and more luxurious mode of life. For the longest time, rich old men would tie their hair with a golden grasshopper, an extravagency the Spartans would never allow: the Spartan elite conformed their looks as much as possible to that of the common man.  Why should Thucydides choose this particular way - for the first time in the work - to present the contrast the Spartans and the Athenian? Such a tiny detail of their mode of dressing is in some way telling of the underlying character.

The second theme emerging in the opening pages of the Peloponnesian War concerns the power of the strong over the weak (Sections 1.8 and 1.9). We spent some time reflecting on the passage at 1.9 where Thucydides opines that Agamemnon’s ability to form his great expedition was as much due to fear as to love or loyalty. This would seem to suggest that the common belief about Agamemnon’s power – a belief derived in no small part from the Homeric tradition – is either incorrect or one-sided or incomplete.  Thucydides here seems to be pointing a fundamental lesson in the art of ruling and problem of consolidating power.

A constant feeling throughout the conversation, expressed at various times, is how relevant the reading seems to us today. It seems to speak to the world we live in, to some of the great conflicts we are undergoing. For example, someone in the group referred us to Thucydides’ careful observations about the accumulation of wealth and poverty, and its affect on human character.

We encourage our readers to be alive to this desire to find out the truth, or what insights a writer like Thucydides might offer us, as we try to make sense of our own troubled times. Thucydides’ work is typically regarded as a ‘history’ – but already the group had the sense that there may be a sort of political teaching contained in the pages of this book – not an ideology, but a kind of pathway toward a mature political wisdom that only arrives at conclusions after long reflections on experience.

The seminar concluded at 7:45, but the conversation continued in the Ancient Mediterranean galleries, where we looked at two pieces. This part of the evening was led by Geoff Leech, one of the Museum’s leading docents. The intention is to focus on fewer pieces, to engage in ‘slow seeing’, like our ‘slow reading’ seminar.

As we were cleaning up, one person commented eagerly after the seminar that they were ready to read the section all over again. So much content is packed into just a few pages, and we managed to tease out only some of the important questions.  This is the advantage of our ‘slow reading’ approach: we take on shorter chunks of text, and really unpack them, enabling participants after the seminar to reread the section as many times as they wish, or to read the next section several time in preparation, if they should so desire. It’s time worth spent: nothing can tell us better what Thucydides is really saying than this sort of sustained, direct encounter with the text, in the context of dialectical inquiry.

Next week, the seminar will pick up at 1.10 of the Peloponnesian War.

(Please note: We welcome your thoughtful comments on this or any other post. Please drop us a line at symposiumsa@gmail.com, and it will be posted. -Ed.)

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