Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Republic ~ Introduction

"Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess."

Well, I've finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I'm afraid I'm going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep.  But I am enjoying this history project ..... as we've meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can't be ignored.  And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it's valuable to learn something about that development.  I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating.  It doesn't seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates .....


Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live.  As Thucydides observed in his history that "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," and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.

Upon Pericles's death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state.  With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy.  "To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time."  (Cornford p. xxiv)  Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.

Plato (1560)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he'd studied under since his early twenties.  Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: "which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have." (5a95 E, p. 216).  With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.

The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato's utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative.  In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato's Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it's just as important to discover what you don't know, as what you do.

Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini
source ArtUK

                                                                                                                Book I ⇒

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VIII

Isle of Chios
Frederic Leighton
source ArtUK

History of the Peloponnesian War

Book VIII:  While Athens is paralyzed in disbelief about the catastrophic Sicilian expedition, Sparta takes advantage of their weakness and begins to foment strife among Athenian allies.  They instigate revolts in Chios and Miletus, as well as other areas that pay tribute to Athens.  The Athenians fight back with some success.  Various battles and political strategems abound, with Alcibiades coming to the forefront, inciting unrest and disagreement wherever he goes, a result of his selfish manipulations.  Finally the Peloponnesians suspect him of subterfuge as he is now tight with the Persian, Tissapherne, and the Athenians mistrust him as well.  It is unclear as to whether Alcibiades' urging is the main catalyst, but suddenly Athenian groups break from their beloved democracy and revolt against it, sending envoys back to Athens to overthrow the democracy and establish oligarchies along the way.  Their actions are so ill-planned that the areas they convert are so intoxicated with their new freedom that they begin self-government and the intended plan of the reform set to them by the Athenian envoys is completely ignored.  Sparta and Persia form an alliance and Alcibiades is up to his usual no-good, playing off Sparta and Athens against each other with the help of Tissapherne, the corrupt Persian governor.  

In Athens, mistrust and subterfuge is rampant as no one knows who to trust and any opponent of oligarchies is murdered.  A “party” named the Four Hundred overthrows the democracy in Athens and takes control, and another oligarchic party in Samos plans the same, but they are thwarted by a number of pro-democratic Athenians who vow to have nothing to do with the oligarchs in Athens, intending to restore democracy by fighting on their own.
Eretria, Euboea, Greece
Edward Lear
source Wikiart
Alcibiades begins to pander to the Athenians again and Sparta is concerned about desertion if they do not win a decisive battle.  Meanwhile, back in Athens there is discontent and people are now jockeying for position if the oligarchy falls.  The oligarchs send an envoy to Sparta asking for peace and indeed, these cowardly oligarchs would have rather lost their liberty and their country than see a return to democracy.  Murders and unrest abound and people are so panicked that some call for rule under the Five Thousand even though there is no proof that that body even exists.  A Spartan fleet reaches Eretria in Euboea and the Euboeans revolt from Athens which promotes panic in the city but the Spartans are too obtuse to sense this opportunity, or so our learned author claims.  Athens quickly disposes of the oligarchs, installs the Five Thousand, enacts new reforms and recalls Alcibiades.  A victory for the Athenian fleet at the Hellespont restores their confidence.

The Acropolis of Athens (1883)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Finally Thucydides' narrative breaks off in the middle of the 21st year of the war in 411 B.C., and we learn no more directly from the author.  The war ended in 404 B.C., so we miss seven more years of fighting, political posturing, strife and discontent.  Among the war incidents not disclosed, we miss two partial Athenian victories at Cyzicus and Arginouse and her final defeat by the famous Spartan commander Lysander at Aegopotami, where he captured almost the entire Athenian fleet in the Hellespont.  After this embarrassment, Athens had but no choice than to sue for peace.  Sparta decided to allow Athens to remain as a city, but demanded her fleet, the demolition of the Walls protecting her, and freedom for all states that were once part of the Athenian empire.  From a powerful, vibrant democracy to a broken, isolated dependent, the loss of freedom must have been heavy indeed to this once great city.

This final chapter though was quite riveting and exposed the perils and weaknesses of human nature like no other has done so far. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VII

A Dream of Ancient Athens
Sydney Herbert
source ArtUK

History of the Peloponnesian War

Athenian navy, Sicily
source Wikimedia Commons
Book VII:  Gylippus has great success in Syracuse, turning the tide of the war in favour of the Sicilians, capturing outposts and generally making a great nuisance of himself.  Nicias is ill with a kidney condition and writes to Athens to send more armaments, as Alcibiades has turned traitor, Lamachus is dead and he is the only general left.  They immediately send Eurymedon with ten ships which is hardly encouraging, and Demosthenes sets to gather more reinforcements to leave in the spring.  Meanwhile Gylippus prods the Syracusans to engage the Athenians in a sea battle and although they lose, he is able to capture three forts with loads of supplies and this feat is labeled “the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army”.  Athenians ships fail to stop other Spartan ships from leaving Peloponnese and an Athenian supply vessel is destroyed, further damaging the Athenian cause, and with a Spartan invasion at Decclea, a second war front springs up for the beleaguered Athenians.  Thucydides relates complete disbelief that, in spite of all they had suffered and the emerging war on the home front, they still stubbornly clung to their Sicilian expedition. 

Destruction of the Athenian army
at Syracuse
source Wikimedia Commons
Demosthenes and Eurymedon arrive and Demosthenes pushes for immediate attack, feeling that Nicias missed his chance for victory with procrastination at the outset.  His attack fails and he counsels for immediate withdrawal as the troops with have more use at Athens.  Nicias disagrees with his counterpart.  NOW, in spite of never being in favour of the expedition, he wants to remain, citing information that the Syracusans are running out of money and his confidence in his fleet.  The two argue but when Gylippus returns, they all agree to leave, however an eclipse of the moon stays their departure and Nicias “who was somewhat over-addicted to divination and practices of that kind,” refuses to depart.  It is an unwise decision as Eurymedon is killed in battle and the Syracusans surround the whole Athenian fleet in the Great Harbour.  The Athenians with their whole fleet attempt to fight their way out, but are routed.  They retire and both Demosthenes and Nicias wish to try again the next day but the soldiers are demoralized and refuse to man the ships so they plan their escape route overland.  Exhausted, the army encounters opposition wherever they go and eventually are killed or captured, with very few escaping.  Both Demosthenes and Nicias surrender and are chopped to bits; Thucydides stresses that Nicias did not deserve this fate.  The losses for Athens are the most catastrophic imaginable.

Destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily
source Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VI

Ruin of Greek Theatre, Taormina, Sicily
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller
source Wikiart

History of the Peloponnesian War

Book VI:  The Athenians decide to attack Sicily although ignorant of the island’s size and number of inhabitants.  Sounds like a bad idea.  Thucydides now gives a history of the people who settled the island which is very interesting, so don’t skip it if you read this book.  Lots of expelling from cities is included.  I’m amazed at how many people were often just kicked out from where they had lived for years and had to go elsewhere.  However, Thucydides relates it as an unsurprising regular occurrence, so obviously my reaction is very different than the people of that time. 

Planning not only to invade the island, but to help their Greek-Sicilian kinsman, the Athenians use pleas from Egestaean envoys as an excuse to help stop the domination of Syracuse, the kingdom on the island who is a possible supporter of Sparta.  When Athenian envoys return from Egesta, they report riches beyond their wildest imaginations and the Athenian people are wild to start the expedition.  Three generals are chosen to lead it, Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus, but of the three, Nicias is against its implementation.  He argues that Sicily is too far away to maintain control of, that affairs at home are still precarious; they should be using this time to recover from plague and war, and that Athens is respected by the Sicilians because they are unfamiliar with them, but by showing their hand, they risk later conflict.  A persuasive argument but Alcibiades counters, defending himself and his ostentatious and elaborate private life, claims that the Sicilians are politically weak, they will find assistance in other areas, and that they must strike now and expand their empire or risk losing their domination.  Nicias tries to counter his arguments but only succeeds in fuelling the people’s determination for the expedition.  

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates (1775)
Françoise André Vincent
source Wikimedia Commons
While the preparations for the expedition commence, the stone Hermae, figures in the doorways of private houses are mysteriously defaced and Alcibiades is accused of plotting to place himself in power.  When he demands a trial to clear his name, it is postponed, his enemies planning to use it as an excuse to recall him at a later date.  The occurrence, though, is seen as a bad portent for the expedition.

Meanwhile, the Syracusian, Hermocrates, tries to warn the people of the pending Athenian attack.  He wants the peoples to unite and meet the enemy in the Ionian sea but Athenagoras, a Syracusan general, pishaws the warning, saying that Athenians are too clever to make such foolish plans.  He implies Hermocrates’ warning is to destabilize the government, yet does suggest the city’s defences should be prepared.

Cape Zafferano, Sicily
source ArtUK
The Athenians and allied forces assemble at Corcyra.  The fleet consists of one hundred thirty-four triremes, the largest force seen since that of Pericles’ attack of Potidaea.  As the fleet sails down the coast of Italy, no city is happy to see them and even at the tip of Rhegium, the people who were supposed to be their allies, refuse to take sides.  The Athenian force also learns of Egesta’s trickery in appearing to have a massive treasury when, in fact, they have little.  Alcibiades and Lamachus are stunned and Nicias suggests engaging with the Selinuntines (which was their main objective to bring peace with Egesta).  They sail past other cities to show their force, and then return home and in that, prevent risking any resources of the Athenian state or their allies.  Alcibiades wants to send heralds to each city to gain alliances and then attack everyone who refuses, and Lamachus wants to attack Syracuse immediately, but he will defer to Alcibiades.  Attempts to solicit support mostly fail and then a delegation arrives to summon Alcibiades to answer for the Hermae affair as Athens is terrified of oligarchic and monarchical conspiracy stemming from their fear of the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons; however Thucydides claims that the Athenians do not know their own history and it was Hippias, not Hipparchus, who was the true dictator.  He proceeds to give an account of a love triangle including Hipparchus, and of Hippias’ tyranny, how he was sent into exile in Persia and returned twenty years later at the Battle of Marathon (see Herodotus Book V).  Alcibiades sets sail for Athens, but with prejudice against him and blame for other happenings; he escapes and eventually surfaces in the Peloponnese.  Athens condemns him to death in his absence.

Syracuse, Anapo River (1904)
Walter Crane
source Wikiart
Meanwhile the Sicilian expedition is still sailing and sailing without accomplishing much. They have not been paid by Egesta and by their inaction, are losing the respect of the Syracusans.  The Syracusans march to Catana to engage the Athenians, only to find they have left for Syracuse and have to hurry back.  The inexperienced Syracusan army is routed but manage to regroup, a truce is made and the expedition breaks off for the winter, while the Syracusans reform their army and send for aid from Corinth and Sparta.  While the Athenian, Euphemus, tries to convince the Camarinaean populace of Athenian goodwill, the Spartans, who at first refused to aid the Syracusans, are persuaded by the argument of crafty Alcibiades, who has an answer for everything, including his treachery to his own country.  The Athenians build a wall around Syracuse, whereupon the Syracusans build their own but are dissatisfied with their eighteen generals, replace them and begin to consider surrender.  The Spartan, Gylippus, leaves for Syracuse, ignored by Nicias because of his small force, and Sparta invades Argos.  Athens comes to their aid, giving Sparta a pretext for ignoring the treaty and recommencing hostility towards Athens.  

Mount Etna from Taormina
John Brett
source ArtUK

Saturday, 1 July 2017

History of the Peloponnesian War - Book V

History of the Peloponnesian War

Book V:  After the armistice is concluded, Cleon, emboldened by his success in Pylos, leads an expedition through Thrace to Torone where he takes Torone, destroying some of Brasidas' fortifications.  He makes Eion his base and Brasidas makes Amphipolis his, whereupon Cleon attacks, however in his delusions of grandeur he misjudges his ability, and tries to retreat too late.  In the fighting, Cleon is killed but his nemesis, Brasidas, is also fatally wounded.

Argos from Mycene (1884)
Edward Lear
source ArtUK

Both sides are eager for peace now, Athens suffering heavy losses, no longer certain of her strength in arms and worried about Sparta taking advantage of her weakness, and Sparta concerned about the devastation of their lands, deserting Helots, the return of the prisoners at Pylos to their important families, the possibility of civil war, their expiring thirty-year truce with Argos, and Peloponnesian cities intending to go over to the enemy.  Negotiations ensue with new leaders, Pleistoanax, son of Pausanias for Sparta and Nicias for Athens, each with their own agendas and with an idealistic view that peace would bring all things good with no repercussions from the war.  The peace treaty is then agreed upon.  Allies of Sparta refuse to accept the treaty, whereupon Sparta forms a fifty-year alliance with Athens, hoping this will dissuade aggression from Argos.  This happens in the winter of the tenth year of the war. Yet as time passes, the two powers begin to suspect each other, as both neglect to act on some of the conditions of the treaty, Sparta dragging her heels the most and being the whiniest.  Thucydides claims this was not a bonafide peace treaty but merely a ceasing of hostility in a war that continued.  

Near Athens (1863-65)
Harry John Johnson
source ArtUK

With the Corinthians once again causing trouble, they attempt to persuade Argos to go against Sparta.  Other states, uneasy with the treaty between the two major players, consider an alliance with the Argives.  More small invasions continue as does political plotting.  The Argives attempt to elicit a treaty with Sparta but changes its mind and makes one with Athens.  Alcibiades opposes Athens' treaty with Sparta and Nicias pushes for its fulfillment while attempting to delay their treaty with the Argives, however he fails and the treaty is made, yet even so, the Athens and Sparta alliance continues.  The Spartans surround Argive forces, yet a truce is called by their leaders, Agis king of Sparta (remember the Spartan dual-king thing) and the Argive, Thrasylus.  The people on each side are furious at the undemocratic decision, each thinking they could have won; Thrasylus is stoned and has to flee to an altar to save his life and Agis nearly loses his home and is fined.  Instead, they enact a law, giving Agis ten counsellors and he is unable to make a decision without them.  

More fighting between Sparta and her allies and the Argives and her allies, then the Argives make an alliance with Sparta.  With infighting in Argos, the Argives change their minds again and reforge ties with Athens.  Athens launches an expedition against Melos and after persuasive arguments, finally kills the men, sells the women and children as slaves, and settles Melos itself.

The bay of Milos
source Wikipedia