IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Revolution in Corcyra

In countless textbooks realism is described as an amoral doctrine, the rule of the strongest, and the Greek historian Thucydides is usually seen as the first of the great realists in this sense. The speeches of the Athenian generals to the Melians during the great war between Athens and Sparta are Exhibit A in this recounting, but the textbook sketch-artists of realism do not pause to consider that Thucydides presents a detached view of both sides of the argument at Melos and never declares himself in favor of either side. The Melians, of course, dispute every assertion by the Athenians. In fact, as Hobbes noted, Thucydides basically refrains from such open judgments; Hobbes says that in Thucydides “the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.” But there are exceptions to Thucydides’ characteristic reserve, exceptions that help us read his intention when in his mode of detachment. One such is his extended commentary on the revolutions in Corcyrea, as the conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, abetted by foreign intervention, turned to slaughter. This awful descent is deplored in the strongest terms by Thucydides, who sees an inversion of common laws of humanity—laws that he evidently deems worthy of respect and indeed necessary to civilized life.

Gaining the right understanding of Thucydides is crucial to understanding realism. Even sophisticated students—like Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars (1977)—argue that Mr. T’s message in the Melian Dialogue is sympathetic to the Athenians' declared intention to lay all the talk about justice aside. Thucydides “probably did not mean the harshness of the Athenian generals to be taken as a sign of depravity, but rather as a sign of impatience, toughmindedness, honesty—qualities of mind not inappropriate in military commanders. He is arguing, as Werner Jaeger has said, that ‘the principle of force forms a realm of its own, with laws of its own,’ distinct and separate from the laws of moral life.” [1] 

But the much more persuasive contrary view is that Thucydides’ History is constructed like a tragedy; the Melian Dialogue reflects that moment just before the ill-fated decision to invade Sicily when Athenian hubris knows no bounds. On this view—advanced, for example, by Richard Ned Lebow in The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests, and Orders (2003)—the Melian Dialogue serves to condemn rather than to justify realpolitik, that is, the doctrine that state interest justifies and dictates the aggrandizement of wealth and power, by means however foul. But as Duncan Bell observes (and I think this passage from Thucydides illustrates), "realpolitik does not exhaust ‘realism’; indeed, it has little in common with sophisticated understandings of it.” Perhaps, as Bell argues, realism is best understood negatively—“in terms of what realists fear, what they seek to avoid, and what they criticize as dangerous or misguided. Suspicious of utopianism, and of optimistic visions of self and society, realists of different stripes concentrate on power, violence, and irreducible conflicts over meaning, interests, and value.” [2] As it was elaborated by Thucydides’ successors, and indeed by Mr. T himself, this disposition seeks “ a politics of limits that recognizes the destructive and productive dimensions of politics, and that maximizes its positive possibilities while minimizing its destructive potential,” aiming to “tame and channel positively the inherent conflict that structures the human world." [3]
The revolution in Corcyrea takes place in the fifth year of the war, in 427 B.C.E.
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[T]he Corcyraeans continued slaughtering those of their fellow-citizens whom they deemed their enemies; they professed to punish them for their designs against the democracy, but in fact some were killed from motives of personal enmity, and some because money was owing to them, by the hands of their debtors. Every form of death was to be seen; and everything, and more than everything, that commonly happens in revolutions, happened then. The father slew the son, and the suppliants were torn from the temples and slain near them; some of them were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus, and there perished. To such extremes of cruelty did revolution go; and this seemed to be the worst of revolutions, because it was the first.
For not long afterwards nearly the whole Hellenic world was in commotion; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians. Now in time of peace, men would have had no excuse for introducing either, and no desire to do so; but, when they were at war, the introduction of a foreign alliance on one side or the other to the hurt of their enemies and the advantage of themselves was easily effected by the dissatisfied party. And revolution brought upon the cities of Hellas many terrible calamities, such as have been and always will be while human nature remains the same, but which are more or less aggravated and differ in character with every new combination of circumstances. In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions.
When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions. Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.
The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the party-spirit which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize. Striving in every way to overcome each other, they committed the most monstrous crimes; yet even these were surpassed by the magnitude of their revenges which they pursued to the very utmost, neither party observing any definite limits either of justice or public expediency, but both alike making the caprice of the moment their law. Either by the help of an unrighteous sentence, or grasping power with the strong hand, they were eager to satiate the impatience of party-spirit. Neither faction cared for religion; but any fair pretence which succeeded in effecting some odious purpose was greatly lauded. And the citizens who were of neither party fell a prey to both; either they were disliked because they held aloof, or men were jealous of their surviving.
Thus revolution gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of perfidious antagonism everywhere prevailed; for there was no word binding enough, nor oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure; he must look to his own safety, and could not afford to trust others. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies, and fearing the capacity of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech, and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly and at once. But the cleverer sort, presuming in their arrogance that they would be aware in time, and disdaining to act when they could think, were taken off their guard and easily destroyed.
Now in Corcyra most of these deeds were perpetrated, and for the first time. There was every crime which men could commit in revenge who had been governed not wisely, but tyrannically, and now had the oppressor at their mercy. There were the dishonest designs of others who were longing to be relieved from their habitual poverty, and were naturally animated by a passionate desire for their neighbour's goods; and there were crimes of another class which men commit, not from covetousness, but from the enmity which equals foster towards one another until they are carried away by their blind rage into the extremes of pitiless cruelty. At such a time the life of the city was all in disorder, and human nature, which is always ready to transgress the laws, having now trampled them underfoot, delighted to show that her passions were ungovernable, that she was stronger than justice, and the enemy of everything above her. If malignity had not exercised a fatal power, how could any one have preferred revenge to piety, and gain to innocence? But, when men are retaliating upon others, they are reckless of the future, and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity to which every individual trusts for his own hope of deliverance should he ever be overtaken by calamity; they forget that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain. [4]

1) Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York, 1977), 7.
2) Duncan Bell, “Under an Empty Sky—Realism and Political Theory,” in Bell ed., Political Thought and International Relations: Variations on a Realist Theme (Cambridge, 2009), 2-3
3) Michael Williams, The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations, as summarized in Bell, ibid, 3.
4) I have used the Jowett translation of Thucydides maintained by the University of Adelaide LibraryFor an accessible introduction to Thucydides and an interpretation in keeping with that offered by Lebow, see Daniel Mendelsohn, “Theatres of War: Why the Battles Over Ancient Athens Still Rage,” New Yorker, January 12, 2004.