Saturday, April 22, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War:
Thomas Hobbes, an extremely careful writer, was the first to translate into English Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. He noted what a careful writer Thucydides had been: The “narrative doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.” To show that this was not a novel, seventeenth century, interpretation of how careful writers wrote, Hobbes cited the fourth century Roman history of Ammianus Marcellinus: “Marcellinus saith, he was obscure on purpose; that the common people might not understand him. And not unlikely; for a wise man should so write (though in words understood by all men), that wise men only should be able to commend him.” The History of the Peloponnesian War may not be the straightforward account that, on first, or even a second, reading, it might seem to be.

In a line often quoted, if not always understood, Thucydides insists that, “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.” Thucydides knew from the beginning that the war between Athens and Sparta was the biggest war that had ever taken place, bigger by far than the Trojan War, the war made famous by what Homer wrote, that war that without Homer would have long since been forgotten. Those who claimed to see the future said the war would last three times nine years; it lasted even longer than that.

If the Trojan War began over a woman, the Peloponnesian War had a larger cause. Athens had become a naval power, and, through that power, an empire, which, left unchecked, threatened Sparta’s very existence. As always, Sparta was slow to move. Delegates who had come to Sparta from the city of Megara described the difference between the Athenians and the Spartans in language that left no doubt that what had happened was as much a failure of the Spartan character as it was the limitless ambition of the Athenians:
An Athenian is always an innovator, quick to form a resolution and quick at carrying it out. … If they aim at something and do not get it, they think they have been deprived of what belonged to them already; whereas, if their enterprise is successful, they regard that success as nothing compared to what they will do next. … Of them alone it may be said that they possess a thing as soon as they have begun to desire it, so quickly with them does action follow decision.
The Spartans, on the other hand, are the “only people in Hellas who wait calmly on events…. You alone do nothing in the early stages to prevent an enemy’s expansion; you wait until your enemy has doubled his strength.”

On hearing this, the Spartans were ready to declare war, but King Archidamus counseled delay. Thucydides describes Archidamus as “a man who had a reputation for both intelligence and moderation.” Remembering what Hobbes wrote, that Thucydides “doth secretly instruct the reader,” we notice that Thucydides does not say Archidamus was intelligent and moderate, only that he had that reputation. The Megarian speech about the Spartans and the Athenians is not a report of what was actually said, but what, according to Thucydides, they would have said under the circumstances. The speeches in the History of the Peloponnesian War are speeches Thucydides wrote himself. Thucydides does not provide a report of what was said, or what was said to have been said; he gives the reader a deeper, and therewith a truer, account of what was at issue. A history of the American Civil War which reported that Lincoln gave a very short speech paying tribute to the fallen at Gettysburg would be accurate, and would reveal absolutely nothing at all of how profound, how full of tragic meaning, the Gettysburg Address really was.

At the end of the first year of the war, Pericles gave a speech to honor those who were the first to fall in the war, a speech by which, more than anything else, Athens has been remembered through the centuries. Athens, insists Pericles, is not only “an education to Greece,” but so remarkable that, “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” Everything in Athens is exactly as it should be, moderate and well-balanced. “Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used; rather than as something to boast about.”

Pericles’ Funeral Oration was given in the winter; summer brought the plague. Thousands died a cruel, gruesome death; those who survived were often disfigured or disabled. For Thucydides, who had it but lived, the suffering “seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.” The rules of honor and decency were abandoned; pleasure in all its forms was the only thing most people cared about, “since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral.” Then, the second year of the war was upon them and the Spartans invaded Attica again. Forced to contend with war and plague at the same time, Pericles gave another speech, a speech in which he explained how Athens could still win the war.

The world, he reminded the Athenians, was divided into two parts, land and sea, and because Athens controlled the sea, she could go anywhere she wanted. Their sea power has given them an empire, and while it may have been wrong to take it, it would be “dangerous to let it go.” Athens might be hated by those over whom she ruled, but, “Hatred does not last for long; and in the brilliance of the present is the glory of the future stored up for ever in the memory of man.” Then he warned them that, if it would be dangerous to let its empire go, it would be fatal to try “to add to her empire during the course of the war.” It was a warning that would go unheeded.

Pericles lost his sons to the plague and then died of it himself. Under Pericles, Athens, according to Thucydides, “was at her greatest.” Because of “his position, his intelligence, and his known integrity,” Pericles “could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check.” In Athens, “nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.”

Everyone now talks about threats to American democracy, but America was never intended to be a democracy. The American Founders constructed a government to protect liberty from what they called majority faction, by which they meant the unlimited power of pure democracy, the democracy of ancient Athens, in which every citizen had an equal voice, and an equal vote, on every matter of war and peace. Generals and admirals were chosen by vote of the assembly, an assembly quick to condemn to death any general or admiral who failed to achieve victory in a battle they thought he should have won. Pericles had been able to lead them, if sometimes only by following where they wanted to go, but no one after Pericles had that same ability. No one except his nephew, Alcibiades; but with Alcibiades the issue was not whether he could control Athens, but whether Athens could control him.

Thucydides never mentions Socrates, but Socrates often mentions Alcibiades whose life he saved in battle, as Alcibiades had once saved his. Alcibiades, as Plato tells us in the Symposium, found it astonishing that, unlike everyone else, Socrates refused to become his lover. Alcibiades loved Socrates, and hated him as well: he was the only man he knew was better than himself. When he first told Socrates that he was going to be the most persuasive speaker in Athens, Socrates told him he would do better to first know what he was talking about. He told him, or rather warned him, that his ambition was too great to stop at Athens, too great to stop before he had conquered not just all of Greece, but all the world. Alcibiades did not disagree. When he convinced the Athenians to launch an expedition against Sicily, he was already planning what, after Sicily, he would conquer next.

The Megarians were right about the Athenians: once they wanted a thing they thought it already theirs. Still at war with Sparta, they launched the largest naval expedition ever undertaken, the city delirious over all the glory, and all the wealth, victory in Sicily would bring. The Athenians loved Alcibiades, but feared the tyrant he could become. When the Hermae, the religious icons representing fertility, which were displayed in front of public buildings, and nearly every private home, were destroyed, Alcibiades was blamed. Recalled to Athens shortly after arriving in Sicily, which meant almost certain death, Alcibiades escaped. Taking refuge with Athen’s enemy, he convinced the Spartans not only to grant him safety, but to let him lead them to victory. The speech in which he did this tells more than the past and present; it tells the future:
“The Athens I love is not the one wronging me now, but that one in which I used to have secure enjoyment of my rights as a citizen. The country that I am attacking does not seem to be mine any longer; it is rather than I am trying to recover a country that has ceased to be mine. And the man who really loves his country is not the one who refuses to attack it when he has been unjustly driven from it, but the man whose desire for it is so strong that he will shrink from nothing in his effort to get back there again.”
And he does get back there again, but before that happens the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster. All the ships are lost and nearly every member of the expeditionary army is killed or dies in captivity. Pericles was right when he warned the Athenians not to attempt to add to their empire if they wanted to win the war. Or was he? Thucydides never says that Pericles’ advice was sound; he does say that the Sicilian expedition would have succeeded if the Athenians had trusted Alcibiades. The question after the Sicilian expedition was whether Alcibiades could somehow regain that trust.

It was perhaps inevitable that Alcibiades would make powerful enemies among the Spartans. No one was likely to feel overly fond of someone who, after sleeping with the king’s wife, said he did so because he thought that only with a child of his would the Spartans ever know what it was like to have as king someone born to rule. He had fled Athens to save his life; he fled Sparta for the same reason. He could not go back to Athens; he went to Persia instead, where, quite unbelievably, that most immoderate of human beings taught Tissaphernes moderation, a policy of keeping the balance between Sparta and Athens by refusing to give Sparta the help it needed for a final victory. By convincing the Persians to follow his advice, Alcibiades convinced the Athenians that he could persuade the Persians to help them overcome the Spartans. Alcibiades was called back to Athens, not to stand trial for any crime, but to form a new government. For the first time in Thucydides life, the Athenians had a “good regime.” Thucydides, that careful writer, lets us know, without saying so, that Alcibiades, and not Pericles, was the best ruler Athens ever had.

We visit ancient ruins and get some idea of what was there before what was there was left in ruins. We read Homer and have a sense of what Achilles and Odysseus thought worth living and dying for. We read Herodotus and learn how close, not just Athens, but all of Greece, came to being subjected, if not destroyed, by a Persian army under Xerxes so large it took the days of the week to count. But we read Thucydides and suddenly find revealed all the possibilities of war and peace, which are the limits of all the human things. We read the History of the Peloponnesian War and begin to understand, better than we had before, the human condition. Athens, ancient Athens, still lives, not because of what Pericles said or what Alcibiades did, but because of what Thucydides, that careful writer, wrote. Athens, ancient Athens, still lives because the History of the Peloponnesian War is what Thucydides wanted it to be, a possession for all time.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

--Marshal Zeringue