Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom
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In Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, Mary P. Nichols argues for the centrality of the idea of freedom in Thucydides' thought. Through her close reading of his History of the Peloponnesian War, she explores the manifestations of this theme. Cities and individuals in Thucydides' history take freedom as their goal, whether they claim to possess it and want to maintain it or whether they desire to attain it for themselves or others. Freedom is the goal of both antagonists in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta and Athens, although in different ways. One of the fullest expressions of freedom can be seen in the rhetoric of Thucydides’ Pericles, especially in his famous funeral oration.
More than simply documenting the struggle for freedom, however, Thucydides himself is taking freedom as his cause. On the one hand, he demonstrates that freedom makes possible human excellence, including courage, self-restraint, deliberation, and judgment, which support freedom in turn. On the other hand, the pursuit of freedom, in one’s own regime and in the world at large, clashes with interests and material necessity, and indeed the very passions required for its support. Thucydides’ work, which he himself considered a possession for all time, therefore speaks very much to our time, encouraging the defense of freedom while warning of the limits and dangers in doing so. The powerful must defend freedom, Thucydides teaches, but beware that the cost not become freedom itself.
confusion, and each was buried in any way possible.” Even “the most shameful burial practices” are resorted to (2.52.4). When Pericles concludes his funeral oration, as we have seen, he asks the Athenians to depart inasmuch as their lamentations have been made. He himself, he says, offers not lamentation (olophuresthai), but comfort (paramuthesthai) (2.44.1). But no comforts stop the laments now. During the plague, the laments (olophureis) of the dying are so great that the relatives caring for
to declare their position openly. The majority is on his side in favor of war (1.87.1–3). Sthenelaidas’s is the last speech of a Spartan at Sparta in Thucydides’ work. Spartans do not typically reflect on themselves as part of their public discourse, as the Athenians do—not only Pericles, but also Cleon and Diodotus, Nicias and Alcibiades. Archidamus does so only when his city is criticized by its allies. His is a defensive speech, prompted by others, even though it aims at preserving Sparta’s
I O N O F H E L L A S 87 through” their ranks, enters the city, and saves it (2.25.2).11 For his “daring” at Methone, Brasidas is “the first” to be commended at Sparta during the war (2.25.1–2). Although Thucydides says that Brasidas is the “first” to be commended by the Spartans, he is the only one ever mentioned by Thucydides to be so commended. The military action, however, is only the first of Brasidas’s daring exploits that Thucydides goes on to describe. After serving as an adviser for
speech to the people, they say, when lengthy and seductive speeches are difficult to refute (anelengkta) (5.85). The Athenians thus express preference for a way of communicating for which Socrates was famous (see, e.g., Plato, Gorgias 448a, 461a, 462a, 473e; Symposium 194c; Protagoras 336b–d). The Melians object, however, that the Athenians are seeking not a dialogue but a way to impose their will. There can be no fairness when an armed force arrayed against them comes as judges of whatever is
very state of peace he negotiated for it with Sparta and that is still not secure (6.10). Thucydides’ reflections on their shortcomings indicate his preference for Pericles, or at least for the potential he represents. In my last chapter, I examine two digressions that Thucydides makes concerning Athens’s past, and how they shed light on his own freedom, on what he as a historian owes to this city. Conclusion Thucydides, an Athenian Why Thucydides calls himself an Athenian at the outset of his