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By Monday afternoon, here in San Antonio, most of us heard reports like the following from local Meteorologist Michael Osterhage:

“A winter storm warning has been issued for tonight through the day tomorrow.  Rain will begin to freeze on contact overnight and tomorrow morning.  Then change to sleet and some snow.  Temperatures will drop overnight and stay below freezing all day tomorrow.”

The entire city, as it seemed on Tuesday, shut down for this freezing event.

Now one thing I know about living in San Antonio over the years is that weather here is a moving target. But given that below freezing temperatures were projected for the whole day, with uncertain road conditions, we decided that the wisest course of action was to play it safe and cancel the event at the Museum this week, to avoid any deleterious travel issues for our group.

But! We had a Plan B, and it involved making use of our iSymposium protocol, “Zoom” videoconferencing.

It was a new adventure for many in the San Antonio group to hold the conversation by these means – and it was a delight to see that many were able to join the discussion. We were able to record the session (with strict privacy policy enforced) for those who were not able to make it, an added bonus.

Our reading for the evening was Book 1.10 through 1.24.

In this section Thucydides continues developing the two themes we observed in the opening pages of the work, that of the contrast between Athens and Sparta, and the theme of power.

After finishing the oral reading of the section, we kicked off the discussion with a general question: what do we think the most important points Thucydides is developing in this section?  A question like this is designed to allow the participants in the discussion, including the leader, to present and sort through impressions of the reading. It often take a few minutes to settle into the discussion, so this is away to help facilitate that settling process.

We saw technical growth take shape through this reading; we encountered thoughts about the way wealth determines the power of respective city states, and see how a certain desire for gain, or perhaps even greed motivates, much of the activity of the early Greek cities. We see in this section Thucydides continuing to strengthen his argument that the Peloponnesian War was a greater event than all that preceded it – including the Persian Wars and the Trojan War.  

But our initial reflections led us soon to take on the great contrast between the main actors in the Peloponnesian War, the city-states Sparta and Athens. Someone in the group described the contrast as ‘poles’, opposites, like north and south pole on a magnet.  Someone else drew analogies with modern day geopolitics – is it like North Korea and the United States, or the difference between North Korea and South Korea?

In our first reading, this contrast was presented, curiously, in terms of a small point of fashion of elder men in Athens and Sparta. It seemed this small point about hairstyles and dress revealed something of the characters of the Spartans and the Athenians.

In this reading, that contrast is developed more robustly. We considered Thucydides’ starting point, an extraordinary passage which seems to serve as a kind of warning to the reader not take take appearances as a measure of the city state’s power. He supposes that – if someday Sparta becomes desolate – there would be a tendency to overlook the power of Sparta, on account of the fact that Sparta lacks the the well-developed monuments, public buildings and temples of Athens. Athenian power, on the other hand, would be inflated or exaggerated beyond the truth, in the eyes of posterity, on account of that very same architecture.

A striking contrast was drawn between the way Sparta and Athens govern their colonies: Sparta  enjoins their colonies to form oligarchies, with nothing else imposed upon them. Athens takes away the capacity to form navies, and requires the payment of money.

A question was raised about the root of Sparta’s own power – which ruled two-fifths of the Hellenic world, according to Thucydides. There are many clear indications that wealth is the root of power for a city like Athens. Given Sparta’s relative poverty, at least in terms of Athenian standards (Sparta did have treasure houses of there own), where does its power come from, if not from wealth? Someone in the group offered that  Sparta’s power came from its the military organization of its domestic life and its military strength. Others thought that Thucydides himself would not disagree with this, but he says plainly that  Sparta’s ability to arrange the affairs of other states, to enjoin their colonies to for oligarchies, resides in the curious fact that the Spartans enjoyed good laws, a stable government that lasted for four hundred years, and  freedom from tyranny – unlike Athens.  The strength of the Spartan military might be seen to follow from this underlying strength of law and order.

At the end of 1.23, the two themes we saw in the last reading come together in Thucydides’ powerful statement that the “real cause”, the one that has been formally kept out of sight, is the growth in the power of Athens and the alarm it caused in Sparta and its allies. Up until this point, we have witnessed how, from the times of the early Greek communities, power was dispersed among tribes – but gradually we see that the forming of coalitions and the consolidation of power was the last development in the growth of power.  Athens growth in power implies that Athens was capable of extending its power more effectively to arrange the affairs of other states, perhaps to its own sole advantage.

The “real cause” of the war is set in contrast to the “immediate causes”. These immediate causes of the war are important to get right, Thucydides says, and he intends to present the clearest possible account of these causes. But the immediate causes of any war, we might imagine, are easier to identify, and therefore tend to be taken for the whole of what has truly caused the conflict. It seems not unimportant that Thucydides has presented this distinction between the two sets of causes, and wants the reader to keep this in mind as the inquiry proceeds.

We felt by the end of our session that Thucydides – who writes with a confidence in his own position that is perhaps foreign to us – does not expect the reader to be a passive listener, but rather to be actively engaged in the matter at hand. What is the difference between the two? As one person pointed out, Thucydides tells us that this work, while lacking the romanticism of the poets and chroniclers, would be most useful to the inquirer. (1.22) The reader is an inquirer, not like a spectator at a play.

This way of writing could be seen as quite different from what we might expect from a modern history, which is to say, a narrative recounting of events, of ‘facts and figures’ which we would accept on the simple authority of the historian. Far from presenting such a narrative, Thucydides, indeed in the manner of Plato, seems to to be assuming that the reader is not a passive spectator, but a co-inquirer in the fundamental matters that the War, in his opinion, presents to us with alarming urgency.

In the last portion of our discussion, we reflected on Thucydides’ account of his own method of presenting speeches, some of which he had heard himself, others he had from other sources. He tells us that, rather than relying on his own memory, he provides many details based on what must have been demanded on certain occasions.  What did we think about this?

On balance, though the speeches he presents are not as accurate as, say, a recording of the actual event of a speech – on the other hand, his commitment to disinterestedness leads us to think we’ve got the best, as far as humanly capable, presentation of the competing speeches.

Next reading we will be moving into the first immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War, the dispute that had arisen between Corinth and Corcyrea over a neighboring colony, Epidamnus.  In our session we will be concentrating on two speeches presented to the Athenians – the first one by the Corcyreans and then we will hear a response from the Corinthians (1.31-1.45).  Thucydides’ reflections on his speeches, and how we should be reading them, will certainly be on our minds as we engage them for the first time next week, on Tuesday January 23rd. The weather forecast looks good so far, so we hope to see everyone again at the Museum! 

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