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The Human Impulse for Tyranny

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“Reading Pericles’ Funeral Oration as a standalone speech—independent of the whole work to which it belongs—makes us prone to falling for the seduction of tyranny which Thucydides so subtly investigates and rebukes in his work.”

The Funeral Oration of Pericles makes for the most famous speech in Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, and, arguably, one of the most famous speeches in Western history. It is easy to be seduced by the eloquence of the speech. First and foremost, it hits all modern liberal sensibilities with its distinction between the private and public, promotion of tolerance, and seeming political and societal transparency. But reading Pericles’ Funeral Oration as a standalone speech—independent of the whole work to which it belongs—makes us prone to falling for the seduction of tyranny which Thucydides so subtly investigates and rebukes in his work.

Thucydides’ book is meant to be a “possession for all time.” While it has become commonplace to interpret Thucydides as the first objective historian, such dry readings of Thucydides miss his larger, deeper, purpose in writing his work. While Plato is the most famous of the Greek philosophers, Thucydides should be regarded as a philosopher (and a political philosopher), alongside the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians covers at least three major identifiable themes. First is Thucydides’ investigation into the “law of nature” (which I have treated in greater detail in this article) from which all else flows. Second is the investigation into the greatness, fall, and tyranny of Athens. Third is justice and how justice becomes a victim of nature and stands apart from nature.

The investigation into the law of nature (and human nature most especially) reveals to us that Thucydides’ work is not scientific history but an investigation into the innermost sanctuary of the human soul. It is true that Thucydides appears modern insofar that he does not appeal to gods or omens to explain the events he covers, but that doesn’t make him a dry scientific events-based historian. Rather, it shows the extent and depth of Thucydides as a thinker of the human condition. He doesn’t maneuver to the supernatural but digs deeper into human nature and psychology to seek his answers.

It is we moderns who have been conned into thinking democracy is synonymous with benignity.

Thucydides was not a proponent of Athenian democracy. While it may be taboo for moderns to hear this, or read this, and therefore toss Thucydides into the trash bin of intellectual authoritarians, the very opposite is true when reading Thucydides. It is we moderns who have been conned into thinking democracy is synonymous with benignity. The War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians lays bare the blasphemous reality that Athens was a tyrannical state, however democratic it was. In fact, tyranny and democracy go together in Thucydides’ reading not so much because democracy is intrinsically tyrannical but because the character and nature of democratic Athens was tyrannical. The heart of Thucydides’ history is an investigation of the political and its relationship to the darkest depths of human nature.

During the Allied debates with the Corinthians and Spartans, the Corinthians are the first to explicitly say that Athens is a tyrannical state, a “polis turannos.” (In the most widely available English translation, by Rex Warner, he translates this passage as “dictator city” and repeats it everywhere Thucydides uses this term.) This is the first statement of a city as tyrannical in the work, and it is associated with the very city that Thucydides served during the war and the city which continues to haunt and mesmerize us to this very day. During the speech, the Corinthians also link the tyranny of Athens with her impetuous and daring character, the very same daringness that the Athenians praise in their debate over war against the Spartans, “Brave men,” the representatives say, “when an attack is made on them, will reject peace and will go to war.” And the Athenians, all acknowledge, are brave men. The Corinthians close their appeal to the Spartans by saying that together they can liberate Greece from Athenian tyranny.

The bravery and daringness of the Athenians are the traits they extol during the declaration of war when the Athenian and Spartan delegations meet before the unleashing of the sword, famine, and fire. The Athenians have no shame in stating the obvious, “This is our record. At Marathon we stood out against the Persians and faced them single-handed. In the later invasion, when we were unable to meet the enemy on land, we and all our people took to our ships, and joined in the battle at Salamis. It was this battle that prevented the Persians from sailing against the Peloponnese and destroying the cities one by one; for no system of mutual defense could have been organized in face of the Persian superiority. The best proof of this is in the conduct of the Persians themselves. Once they had lost the battle at sea they realized that their force was crippled and they immediately withdrew most of their army. That, then was the result, and it proved that the fate of Hellas depended on her navy. Now, we contributed to this result in three important ways: we produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of the generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage. Out of the 400 ships, nearly two-thirds were ours: the commander was Themistocles, who was mainly responsible for the battle being fought in the straights, and this, obviously, was what saved us. You yourselves in fact, because of this, treated him with more distinction than you have treated any visitor from abroad.” The Athenians go on to explain that Greece “begged” them to lead and that they treat their allies with equality and justness. (This claim of an imperial, just, democracy is what Thucydides reveals to be a farce by the end of his work.)

In the pages leading up to Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides has subtly revealed part of the Athenian character for us. The Athenians are an intense people, an erotic people, a people liberated from constraint and given over to the impulse of the erotic. This dwelling in the daringness of the erotic is what Pericles draws on in his famous Funeral Oration asking his fellow Athenians to become “lovers” (erastai) of the city which still captures the imagination of the West.

This is the fundamental difference between the Athenian character and the Spartan character; the Athenians have liberated themselves from constraint over that most innate, deep, and dark, human impulse: eros. Liberated from constraint, the Athenians move with perpetuous energy, “daring and cunning,” which sees them tame seas, open trade lanes, and create an empire. Although the Athenians claimed their empire came in the defense of Hellas from the Persians, which is partly true, the question must be asked why Athens achieved an empire out of the Persian Wars while the other Greek city-states who also aided in the fight did not? 

The contrast is seen most explicitly with Sparta. Where the Athenian character is dominated by eros, the Spartan character is governed by constraint and caution. The Spartans may have been the best trained soldiers in Greece but they were not daring like the Athenians but exceedingly conservative in disposition and character. The Spartans were constrained, like the future stoics, suppressing the passions as something dangerous. (The negative view of the erotic which the post-Socratic philosophers held partially explains their philolaconic attitudes.) In short, the Athenians had the desire for empire.

Ironically, the Corinthians inform the Spartans during their allied congress that the erotic character of the Athenians would be their undoing. The Corinthians assert that Athenian daringness would lead them to overextend and engage in rash enterprises with possibly disastrous consequences for their overconfidence. The Corinthians simultaneously expose the greatness and cruelty of the Athenians as laying in their erotic, passionate, impulse.

Unlike in English, eros does not singularly mean sexual desire. Eros, in Greek, is about the devotedness, and intensity, of the passions. It is the governing pathos of the human being—but it can manifest itself in sexual and non-sexual ways. This is also important for the English reader to understand; when Thucydides, for instance, uses the term eros, erastai, and erastes in his work, these words do not necessarily entail sexual imagery or metaphors, instead they convey the excitement of the passions as moved by memory and visual sight or imagination (as is the use of eros sometimes in Homer).

The facticity of Pericles’ speech is a moot debate that only fickle ivory tower professors have. The facticity of Pericles’ speech is irrelevant for us (though most scholars tend to agree that it is mostly authentic). The speech, as recounted by Thucydides, is part of Thucydides’ investigation into political psychology, human nature, and the impulse for masochistic tyranny. We must tackle the speech that Thucydides has given us instead of endlessly debating what was authentic and what was fabricated. 

Pericles’ speech is meant to excite the passions and, in a word, to liberate the eros deep in the Athenians and direct it outward in a grand and daring martial experience that will win an empire from the Ionian Coast, down to Libya, and westward to Italy, Sicily, and even Carthage (as Thucydides sporadically reveals to us as being the driving Athenian consideration for war and as Alcibiades reveals to the Spartans during his exile). At the defining moment in the Funeral Oration, Pericles awakens the erotic impulse in the Athenians to carry on the war after eulogizing the dead and grandeur of Athens: τὴν τῆς πόλεως δύναμιν καθ’ ἡμέραν ἔργῳ θεωμένους καὶ ἐραστὰς γιγνομένους αὐτῆς (set your sights on the great power of the city day after day and become her lovers). After beholding the sublime power and beauty of Athens, Pericles goes on to say, “When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.” 

Pericles also employs shame to mobilize the eros of the citizenry; he sets the dead on a glorious pedestal that the present generation does not possess, then compares the two and gauds their masculinity by implying that if the present generation is worthy of being Athenian, they must match or exceed the daring and intelligence of the past generation. Pericles humiliates the Athenians but humiliates them in a way to energize them for the war to come. The humiliation that Pericles thrusts upon the current generation is a humiliation that excites the erotic impulse to seize what they do not have: the same greatness of the past generation. Since Periclean Athens was a timocratic society, the humiliation which Pericles inflicts onto the current generation is in line with the timocratic values of Athens; their humiliation is paradoxically a call to seize the greatness of honor they lack.

Thucydides, upon close examination, is not presenting Pericles in a humane and grandiose light as we moderns tend to read. Thucydides is exposing Pericles as a demagogic tyrant—a Robespierre, Hitler, or Lenin before Robespierre, Hitler, or Lenin. The tyrannical power of Pericles, and Periclean Athens more generally, is in Pericles’ ability to weaponize the eros of the masses and direct that intense passion for outward ends. Eros, after all, knows no boundaries. Eros, as Thucydides repeatedly shows throughout his work, is a passion that at once subjugates and is subjugated; it is the all-consuming passion that overwhelms its subject to the point of self-annihilation in its desire to possess that which it does not have and allows itself to be annihilated by the beloved which aroused it. 

When eros is unleashed in war, as the daring energy of Athenian military exploits have shown, it conquers its more reserved, restrained, conservative opponents who cannot stand up against it. When eros is unleashed in politics, as Pericles and the other Athenians leaders do during the course of the war, it leads to the subjugation of the masses by the rulers who marshal the energy of the erestes (loving citizens) to other ends, effectively annihilating their autonomy. The erotic impulse dominates the object of its desire, but also permits the subject whom eros is in to be controlled by that which arouses the erotic impulse. Thus the beloved, Athens, led by Pericles, is that which aroused the eros of the masses and subjugated them while the eros aroused in the masses aims at conquest. The erastai surrender all to the city in one passionate and frenzied movement to collective self-immolation where all restraint and all things private are overwhelmed by the boundless impetuousness of eros.

Spectacle is also essential to unleashing the erotic. Hence why Pericles speaks of faraway battlefields, Athenian monuments, and littered carcasses to excite the sensual imagination of the masses. Spectacle is also what that other great demagogue, Alcibiades, employs—from his funding seven chariots during festival games on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition to his actual language in advocating the Sicilian Expedition. Spectacle unleashes the eros of the masses but also subordinates it to the primary master.

The daringness of the Athenians comes to a head with the Sicilian Expedition. When debating the Sicilian Expedition, the war party led by Alcibiades evokes the same erotic imagery of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Alcibiades speaks of great battles, heroic deaths, the Trojan War and more, to stir the passion of the assembled to launch this most Athenian, erotic, of adventures worthy of any Athenian man worth his salt. Alcibiades even suggests that the love, the passion, of the Athenians will overwhelm and subjugate the less passionate, inferior loving, Sicilians, “Do not change your minds about the expedition to Sicily on the grounds that we shall have a great power to deal with there. The Sicilian cities have swollen populations made out of all sorts of mixtures, and there are constant changes and rearrangements in the citizen bodies. This result is that they lack the feeling that they are fighting for their own fatherland.”

The speech between the anti-expedition and pro-expedition parties are led by two radically contrasting men. The anti-expedition party is led by Nicias, an honorable man, but a restrained and conservative figure. Nicias is a tragic figure, a sort of withering fence in the maelstrom of a storm trying to hold his ground as the strongest part of the storm approaches. Poetically fitting, Nicias is also the longstanding figure who has attempted to maintain the peace and has long been an opponent of the erotic democratic tyranny that Pericles had unleashed—first losing to Cleon and, later, to Alcibiades. 

Alcibiades, Nicias’ contrast and foil, is an erotic man through and through. He is notorious, regularly transgresses boundaries, and knows of no limits to his desires. Alcibiades is the model Athenian, the erotic Athenian, the leader of the erastai who will conquer Sicily and win even greater renown than Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax (or so he hopes). The two men are, therefore, depictions of the two natures Thucydides has been investigating in his work: the restrained, moral, and conservative man who is a tragic figure and overwhelmed by the passion of change and war; the unbounded, energetic, and impetuous man who is a heroic figure governed by eros which manifests itself in boldness, cunning, and daring. 

Alcibiades is, above all, the youthful and handsome man of the present generation whom Pericles called upon to be great lovers of Athens and her power. He is the man who has answered that call and wants the chance to prove himself a lover of Athens by possessing the jewel that has eluded her and has been the enticing object of Athenian desire. So powerful and moving was the eros unleashed by Alcibiades that Thucydides says the opponents of the expedition fell silent because they “were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it.” (Yet tragically for Nicias, he is the one selected to lead the expedition precisely because he is honorable where Alcibiades is known to be a deceiver and untrustworthy.)

By the end of the speeches Thucydides informs us that the Athenians were so frenzied by Alcibiades and the prospect of conquering Sicily they fell upon each other, young man and old man alike in marching to the ships: καὶ ἔρως ἐνέπεσε τοῖς πᾶσιν ὁμοίως ἐκπλεῦσαι (an urgent passion to set sail fell upon all alike). Thucydides then describes the psychological effects over the listeners and prospective conquerors, “The older men thought that they would either conquer the places against which they were sailing or, in any case, with such a large force, could come to no harm; the young had a longing for the sights and experiences of distant places, and were confident that they would return safely.”

Concerning impetuous young men joining the voyage, Thucydides says that they were overcome by the image of glory conjured up by Alcibiades in their minds: τῆς τε ἀπούσης πόθῳ ὄψεως καὶ θεωρίας (the youth longed for distant sights of grandeur). Theoria, here, is not about bland or dry contemplation but about spectacular imagery and ecstasy. Theoria, in its traditional Greek understanding, is about wonder, awe, and amazement—incidentally the same characteristics which Burke says defines the sublime. Sublime spectacle is at the heart of theoria and is what compelled the young men to abandon hearth and home and take up the shield and spear and die on the beaches and plains of Sicily. It is interesting to note how, with Pericles and Alcibiades, Thucydides links the erotic with the ecstatic—the arousal of eros is accompanied by an ecstasy energized by an image to dominate. (Consider, also, how all the great totalitarian regimes rely on spectacular imagery and erotic aesthetics as part of their public ideology.)

We know how the expedition ended. Athens was defeated. Her daringness, in poetic closure as originally suggested by the Corinthians, led to her own destruction. In fact, all throughout Thucydides’ work whenever we encounter the hubris of the erotic unveiled disaster strikes. 

The eros which Pericles awakens in the Funeral Oration is met by a plague that ended in lawlessness which invites contemplation whether the plague was punishment for Athenian hubris. The eros which Alcibiades calls forth is met by the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition. Worse yet, the defeated Athenians even abandon their wounded comrades in tearful shame and humiliation as they try to save themselves. Even the eros of the Corcyraeans, who helped bring Athens into conflict with Corinth which sparked the larger war, descends into passionate madness during the civil war which tore that city apart. When Thucydides describes the Corcyraean descent into civil war he notes that the most passionate, zealous, and energetic men were the best men, “Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man…Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.” 

The endurance of Thucydides is in his probing of the psychological darkness and depth of the human soul which eros touches and dwells in. Unlike the post-Socratic philosophers and Christian theologians, Thucydides concludes that humans are erotic, rather than rational, animals. The demagogues and the democrats of Athens were men who exploited the deep and dark erotic well in the belly of men. Having unleashed it, they then weaponized it. After all, it was the radical democrats who constantly refused peace offerings by the Spartans and opposed the peace party led by Nicias. The democrats were erotic and wanted total victory. It led to their total defeat.

Moreover, Thucydides links the erotic impulse with tyranny. The great tyrants and demagogues of Athens are all men who mobilize eros and control the masses through the use of their erotic impulse with sublime imagery, rhetoric, and spectacle. The power of tyranny is not in institutions and structures but the erotic impulse waiting to be awakened in us which can be weaponized to the point of collective self-annihilation for the beloved and the object to be possessed. 

Far from eulogizing Pericles in the Funeral Oration, Pericles is subtly depicted as a tyrant, a demagogue, a despot who became a despot by his exploitation of the erotic character of humans—an erotic character which the Athenians unleashed in the Persian Wars and then unleashed over the Mediterranean in a vain and tyrannical bid for an empire.

Law, which Thucydides dialectically contrasts with eros throughout his work, is the victim of the erotic impulses. With the decapitation of law by the erotic fervor of the masses, chaos, death, and destruction ensues. Tyranny arises in the winds of the erotic and the order of law is always its victim.

Unlike so many wishful thinkers today, Thucydides does not blame empty laws, institutions, and structures for tyranny. He locates it deep in the dark underbelly of humanity which can suddenly explode in a maelstrom of sadism and masochism at any moment. This impulse for energetic rapture and passion, self-humiliation and annihilation, but also daring, greatness, and cunning, is in every one of us. We would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with Thucydides’ discovery that the origins of tyranny lay in human nature.

Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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