Reflecting on Thucydides and Prince

I was a great fan of Prince’s, as I suppose most of us who grew up in the 1980s were. There was the delightful raunchiness of Purple Rain, magnificently enhanced by Sheila E’s ferocious drumming. His sudden loss came at the end of a week when I had begun seriously re-reading Thucydides in Greek, after hitting a solid brick of wall of “we hate him” in my justice class. Thucydides is tough, and most students never get anything from him other than the Melian Debate, and always in translation.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think Thucydides is much diminished by translation, and diminished in ways that Plato and Aristotle are not. I think you can lead a good life just reading Plato in English. But Thucydides…no. I remember wading through him one summer in English and thinking “well, that sucked; why is he such a big deal to classical scholars?”

Much aided by Robert Connor’s excellent Thucydides, I came later to appreciate the importance of the book as a commentary on war and society. Connor helps illustrate the structure of the narrative, so that you can see, ultimately, what Thucydides is trying to get us to see:

1) Empire is profitable, so that imperialism leads inevitably to over-reach

2) People are fearful and seek advantage/domination as a result

3) and again as a result, suffering ensues

4) people naturally resist domination as much as people seek it; and

5) again, as a result, suffering ensues.

There is no just war (jus bellum); there is merely war.

This week reading through in Greek, the author’s subtle commentaries on leadership became more apparent to me: Pericles, as a leader capable of cooling passions at the same time acknowledging the necessities of aggression as a cornerstone to maintaining the profits of empire–and also a visionary of the Athens as people desire it to be (the Funeral Oration). But mostly, Pericles is capable of sacrificing for the common good. When he is gone, the story is diminished, as is Athenian capacity.

Then Cleon and Brasidas, both clever politicians and military leaders, but both duplicitous and motivated mostly by their own self-interests. Diodotus wins some clemency for the Mytilenes vis-a-vis Cleon not by appealing to Athenians’ sense of right and wrong, but by pointing out the advantage for Athens in showing clemency. Nicias appears to be good-hearted and noble–he seems a remnant of old Athens– but allows himself to get played by Cleon and Demosthenes, and is completely incapable of formulating a pragmatic argument that can really move Athenians when they are as focussed on advantage as they are. Nonetheless, he dies a noble death, proving himself capable of self-sacrifice in an attempt to stop the Syracusans’ senseless slaughter of his men as they tried to retreat. Even that noble sacrifice proved misguided, as the survivors were sent as slaves to the quarries–a long, tortuous death instead of a quick death from arrows on the battlefield. And then Alcibiades with tyrannical focus on himself and what he wants, which leads him to exile and treason.

All these are ways in which leadership can go completely, utterly wrong, even when, as with Nicias, one has good intentions and motivations.

These themes hit me very hard as I as am, as usual, reflecting on my place in the world, and realizing, not for the first time, that I really don’t belong in my department. I spent some time blaming the department for that, and then I started blaming myself, but it’s not anybody’s fault. People have their preferences and proclivities; they are as they are. And as Popeye says, I am what I am. The only transformations really possible through leadership occur, I suspect, when the right leader meets the right context at the right time. That’s a high-wire act if there ever was one.

I may simply belong nowhere, and ambitions–even those that exist as a desire to help or to envision–are best laid aside. It’s hard telling what might have happened for Athens if Cleon or Nicias had had such an insight and the humility to accept it.

Prince led simply by being who he wanted to be–fiercely original, his innate creatively wielded like sword. That strikes me as a very wise way to be in the world for those of us who never fit.