Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War I (What is War?)

Reading “The Melian Dialog” seems bleak to many readers. Thucydides doesn’t waste time trying to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. In Thucydides’ world there are no good guys and bad buys. There are only the strong and the weak. The strong take what they can, the weak suffer what they must. Socrates may care about finding out what justice is like. But politicians and military commanders only care about finding out what victory is like. In the Great Books tradition Machiavelli falls firmly into this camp. He basically says that if you want to talk about justice and such things, go to church or take a class in philosophy. But if you want to know how to get power and keep it, then here’s how you do it. And then he wrote his book called “The Prince” to show how to get and keep political power.

Clausewitz does the same thing for military power in his book “On War.” He doesn’t waste time talking about the morality of nation-states fielding large armies and navies. He takes it as a given that in this world the strong powers rule and the weak powers are ruled by the stronger ones. How do nation-states get sorted out as being strong or being weak? By war. Clausewitz gets right to the point and defines war for the reader: “War is nothing but a duel on a large scale.” This is somewhat helpful. It puts fighting into perspective but doesn’t really cover the whole scope of what war is. Individual people duel. Countries go to war. So Clausewitz puts it a different way: “War is an act of violence intended to force our enemy to do our will.” This definition is better. It helps us to know that war is “an act of violence” and not a debating club. That’s why the Melians don’t stand a chance against the Athenians in Thucydides’ history. Because, as Clausewitz says: “Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the MEANS; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate END.” The Athenians want the Melians to submit to their demands. They would rather have the Melians do it peacefully. But if they need to, the Athenians are perfectly willing to use violence to subdue the Melians. So this is the main object of war: to disarm your enemies.

Of course we might make the argument that the Melian incident took place 2500 years ago. People (and nations) have made a lot of progress since then. War is no longer the best way to resolve conflicts. Clausewitz believes this is a dangerous way to think. He says that “philanthropists imagine that there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without great bloodshed...” It’s to the strong nation’s advantage not to have to use violence to subdue weaker nations. The Athenians would have preferred to do it that way themselves. It seems like a good idea; victory without bloodshed. But Clausewitz goes on to say that “However plausible this may seem it is a mistake which must be discarded; for in such dangerous things as War, the mistakes which proceed from a spirit of kindness are the worst.” There are times when we should be kind and gentle people. But war is not one of those times. Kindness and gentleness can get us killed if we have a ruthless enemy who’s willing to be cruel and brutal. Because Clausewitz points out that “the side which uses force unsparingly, without worrying about the bloodshed involved, will win the war if his enemy uses less military force. The side which uses the most military force can then dictate the law...” Modern readers may disagree with Clausewitz on the nature of war. But however unpopular it may be, Clausewitz states his own position clearly: “This is the way war must be viewed and it serves no purpose, it is even against one's own interest, to turn away from considering the real nature of war because the horror of war is so repugnant.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THUCYDIDES: Hope and History (The Melian Dialog)

When Jesus is on trial in the Gospel of Mark we read about a large crowd yelling for Pilate to execute him. When the crowd calls out for the death penalty Pilate asks them: why? What has he done to deserve it? The crowd starts getting out of control and he doesn’t want a riot to break out. So he orders Jesus to be executed by crucifixion. This offends his Roman sense of justice. But from Pilate’s point of view sometimes it’s necessary to temporarily suspend justice in order to achieve the higher good of maintaining peace and civil order. As far as most Romans were concerned Jerusalem was just another unruly provincial town. But for Roman rulers it was crucial to keep this province within the empire. If we have to temporarily suspend justice to do that, then so be it. It’s a tough policy but Jerusalem is a tough neighborhood. In modern terms this is called Realpolitik.

Thucydides deals with some of the greatest themes in the Great Books: history, justice, God, and patriotism. But The Melian Dialog is particularly focused on an idea not often dealt with by the Great Books: hope. The Melians were optimistic and hopeful that their tiny island could survive the war between the two superpowers of Athens and Sparta. They had been independent for seven hundred years, much longer than the United States has been around. But now the winds of war were closing in on them. The Mytilenians on the island of Lesbos tried to rebel against Athens and join up with Sparta. But the Athenians smashed the rebellion and punished the Mytilenian rebels. The Melians were in a different situation. They didn’t want to join up with either side. They just wanted to stay neutral and not take part in the war at all. Athens said no. We can’t let you stay neutral. You either join our empire or we take over your island. Take your choice.

As they begin negotiations the Athenians come right out and tell the Melians to hold their speeches. They don’t want to hear any lectures about history, justice, God or patriotism. This isn’t a college seminar on ethics. This is Realpolitik. We have the power, you don’t. There’s no court of appeals so logical arguments won’t make any difference. When all is said and done we’re going to take over your island. Don’t waste your breath telling us that we’re wrong to take it and you’re right to defend it. Justice is no concern of ours.

Since the Melians can't talk about justice the only thing left for them is hope. In the Greek myth of Pandora's Box “hope” was the last thing left at the bottom of the box after all the other plagues and worries had been set loose upon the world. The idea was that when all else is lost hope still remains as a comforter. The Athenians turn that idea upside down. They tell the Melians that hope is "danger's comforter" and warn them not to rely on hope if they want to save their country. So it seems strange when the Gospel of Mark brings a message based on hope. In fact, faith, hope and love are primary virtues for the Christian. It's small wonder that the idea of hope as a virtue was mere foolishness to the Greeks. They were hard-headed realists. The death of Jesus is proof enough for them that hope is foolish. The Athenians warn the Melians (and readers of this history) “don’t be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and when every clear hope has left them in adversity, they turn to prophecies and oracles and things which give hope but lead them to ruin.” Don’t pin your hopes on other-worldly dreams. Deal with this world as it is now. The Athenian attitude reminds us of Dante when he wrote about hell: "Abandon every hope, all you who enter."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

THUCYDIDES: Patriotism and History (The Mytilenian Debate)

In the Persian Wars the Athenians were portrayed as heroes fighting for Greek freedom. In the Peloponnesian Wars it’s the Athenians themselves who are trying to bring other Greeks under subjection. How could this happen, and only one or two generations apart? Times change. Does patriotism change too? Someone once asked why the Romans took world dominance away from the Greeks. The answer: Romans were willing to die for their country. Greeks weren’t. Does that mean that the Romans were patriotic and the Greeks weren’t? Or does it mean that the Greeks were smart and the Romans were stupid? Does patriotism mean that it is noble to die for one’s country? Or is “patriotism” really just the last refuge of scoundrels? In this section two opposing Greek views are expressed in speeches by Cleon and Diodotus. Which one of these speakers best shows the virtue of patriotism?

The Athenians captured Mytilene after Mytilene revolted and tried to join the Spartans. In the assembly the Athenians first decided to execute the Mytilenians. The next day many Athenians were having second thoughts. So they called for a second debate to determine what they should do. Cleon begins the debate this way: “Personally I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians…” Cleon says what many philosophers have said before; democratic governments are notoriously unstable. “The people” will think one thing one day, then something else the next. Cleon’s strategy is to try to get the Athenians to stick with their original plan. Athens will be much better off if they have stability in government instead of wishy-washy policies. He believes “a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are being constantly altered.” Changing our minds every day is a bad idea for following a plan for our own lives, much less that of a whole country. So Cleon concludes the Athenians need to stay the course.

Diodotus follows up with a counter-argument. He thinks Athens should be lenient with the Mytilenians. He won’t try to argue that the Mytilenians were not guilty of revolting in the first place. He thinks “The question is not so much whether they are guilty as whether we are making the right decision for ourselves.” Diodotus doesn’t want to appear soft on traitors. And that’s exactly what many Athenians thought the Mytilenians were; traitors. So he tells the Athenians that “This is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” Diodotus ends up telling the Athenians that it’s better to be lenient with the Mytilenians because that’s what’s really in the best interest of Athens.

With that background we’re prepared to consider the question: who’s more patriotic, Cleon or Diodotus? Both men claim to be true patriots. What criteria should we use to define patriotism? Cleon is the hard patriot. He thinks we need to be tough and stay the course. Retreat is not an option for him. We need to finish what we started. Our enemies and our allies are watching every move we make. Diodotus is the soft patriot. He thinks we can be smart and still be tough; sometimes the smart thing to do is to back off and negotiate. That doesn’t mean we’re cowards. It means we think first before using brute force. It’s hard to say whether Cleon or Diodotus is the more patriotic Athenian. To every thing there is a season. And history, like nature, has its seasons too. Patriotism is love of one’s country in every season.  But the winds of war force patriots to re-evaluate what it really means to love one’s country.  Thucydides helps us to do that. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

THUCYDIDES: God and History

God is one of the great themes in the Great Books. Someone once said that history is a glove moved by the hand of God. Reading Thucydides is a good time to stop and consider what the Great Books have to say about God and history. The Gospel of Mark establishes a clear dividing point in history. It distinguishes the line between the old (B.C.) and the new (A.D.). Was it a coincidence that Jesus was born during the period of Roman power instead of Greek or Persian power? Was there some sort of divine plan behind it all? The book of Exodus also shows God intervening in history. He chose a certain group of people to establish his presence among mankind. His choice was not necessarily the greatest people, such as the Egyptians, but a race of slaves. Much like a farmer, God took great care of the Hebrews and planted them at a specific time so they could grow in a specific place. Was this a coincidence? Or was there some sort of divine plan behind it all? Under this theory of history God is ultimately in control. Politics and war are just activities carried out by imperfect people pursuing imperfect plans. But these people unknowingly carry out the will of God in a larger story than any mere local context. It all fits into a larger plan. Pilate, for example, was just trying to do his best to keep the Jews in his province from rioting. So he had Jesus crucified. His main goal was merely to pacify the Jews. These were the same Hebrews that God brought out of Egypt. Pilate was totally unaware that he was at a crucial turning point in history. And once again God didn’t choose the powerful people, the Romans, for this mission. He chose someone the Romans had never heard of. Jesus. Was this coincidence or a divine plan?

Thucydides never worried about those kinds of things. He doesn’t subscribe to a theory of history that places whole civilizations and peoples in the hand of God. He just wants to describe what happened when Athens and Sparta went to war. It’s interesting to speculate if God cared as much for the Mytilenian’s plight as he did for the Hebrews. The Mytelinians were chafing under Athenian bondage. They viewed themselves as much in bondage to the Athenians as the Hebrews had been in bondage to the Egyptians. But God delivered the Hebrews out of bondage. Why didn’t he do the same for the Mytilenians? Thucydides doesn’t speculate on any of that. God is out of the picture. Thucydides just sticks to the facts before him. All he knows is that the Mytilenians lost. Thucydides believes they lost because Athens had a stronger army, not because it was God’s will. Let’s compare a little Bible history and Thucydides history.

For starters, the Mytilenians appealed to the Spartans; the Hebrews had no one to appeal to except God. Spartans challenged Athenian dominance of the Mytilenians. But no similar earthly power could challenge Egypt’s dominance of the Hebrews. Spartans sent men and ships to aid the Mytilenians. God sent plagues on the Egyptians to aid the Hebrews. Spartans were slow in sending ships to help the Mytilenians, so they surrendered to the Athenians. The Egyptians were closing in on the Hebrews and the Hebrews seemed to be on the verge of surrendering too. But God parted the sea so the Hebrews could walk safely through. The Egyptian chariots following after them were destroyed. Thucydides and Moses both asked the same question but they didn’t give the same answer. Why do some people survive and others don’t? Thucydides saw raw military power as the answer. Moses saw the hand of God. We may not be able to answer the riddle of history but we have Great Books to guide us; if we read them well.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

THUCYDIDES: The Peloponnesian War (Mytilene Revolts)

There’s an old saying that all’s fair in love and war. It’s every man for himself and anything that helps get the girl or win the battle is fair game. There’s a scene in the Peloponnesian War which clearly drives home this point: “Paches (the Athenian leader) invited Hippias, the general of the Arcadian mercenaries inside the fortification, to meet him for a discussion, promising that if no agreement was reached he would see that he got back again safe and sound to the fortification. Hippias therefore came out to meet Paches, who put him under arrest, though not in chains. Paches then made a sudden attack and took the fortification by surprise. Paches put to death all the Arcadian and foreign troops who were inside and later, as he had promised, brought Hippias back there. As soon as Hippias was inside, Paches had him seized and shot down with arrows.”

Obviously Hippias wasn’t paying attention when they told him that all’s fair in love and war. But Paches was. In love we can lose and live to love another day. Maybe even find someone better. But in war everyone plays for keeps. There are no second chances. Make a bad decision and it’s game over. Not just for Hippias but for those under his command too. It’s this kind of reality check that causes the thoughtful reader to pause and ponder: were the Athenians being cruel or do harsh circumstances of war force them to act harshly? And it’s not just the Athenians. All Greek city-states are playing the same harsh game. This chapter, for example, deals with only one small incident in the long war between Athens and Sparta: the Mytilenian revolt. In this war nobody stays neutral. You’re either for us or against us. The Mytilenians were supposedly on Athens’ side. But they decided to break away from Athens. Thucydides tells us that Mytilene and many of the other Greek city-states weren’t voluntary allies of Athens; they were more like tributaries. Athens wanted money from them. At first it seemed like a reasonable request. The smaller city-states would pay Athens and Athens would protect them from another Persian attack. As time went on the Persian threat faded. Mytilenians started thinking: the Persians aren’t coming back. Why are we still paying Athens so much money to protect us from a non-existent threat? The way the Mytilenians figured it, “the object of the alliance (for the Persian War) was the liberation of the Greeks from Persia, not the subjugation of Greeks to Athens…” This was no longer an alliance. It was outright extortion.

The Mytilenians wanted a way out of this “alliance” with Athens. The Athenians say no way. Pay up. All over the Greek world the same thing was happening. Athens could keep the smaller cities in line easily enough. But Mytilene was one of the big fish. And if Athens let them get away then all the smaller fish would be tempted to make their get-away too. So Athens made it a point to force Mytilene to stay in the alliance. That’s how “the Mytilenians were suddenly forced into a war for which they were unprepared…” Another question for the thoughtful reader: should a country EVER find itself unprepared for war? An old Roman general once said: if you want peace, prepare for war. On the other hand, why spend money for the military now when we can wait until we really need it? Wouldn’t that be cheaper? But what if we lose? Then we lose everything. These are high stakes. Thucydides knows exactly what the stakes are. He lays out the best arguments but he never preaches. He just tells what happened. One thing Thucydides makes clear from the start is that war is serious business. History should be serious business too.