Review of Mary Nichols’ Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom
Having thought for some time that many of the most interesting items of what is labeled “political philosophy” are concerned with the phenomenon of imperialism, and having known Dr. Nichols both personally and through her always intriguing work, I was quite glad to see her book, Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom because I knew it would deal with imperialism, Athenian and otherwise. I was not at all disappointed as the book is written in an accessible way, for the most part, and in a way that reflects what has made Professor Nichols an excellent teacher.
However, I do wonder at Nichols’ take on imperialism as she sees it presented in Thucydides’ history. Near the end of her book, the following summary appears: “Thucydides’ evaluation of imperialism is as complex as his evaluation of democracy. Athenian virtues, intelligence, and daring led to the city’s imperialism, and imperialism in turn encouraged the exercise of those virtues by providing opportunities for ruling others, for deliberation and planning, and for actions taken freely rather than out of necessity.” [p. 183]
So, it would seem that for Thucydides, imperialism is the result of, as well as leading to the cultivation of virtue, intelligence, and daring. Hence, those cities, like Athens, that do embrace imperialism should attribute that embrace, undertaken freely, to their virtue, intelligence, and daring, even while enjoying the “opportunities for ruling others,” no doubt with the approval and gratitude of those “others.”
But yet there is more and this more frees one to question whether imperialism, of any kind, is the result of or cultivates virtue or intelligence. Nichols continues:
“Thucydides nevertheless shows that Athens frequently failed to exercise those virtues, as in granting power to Cleon, and in its action against Melos. His reservations against Athenian imperialism appear in his portrayal of such failures [while his] description of the Sicilian expedition leads us to question the extent to which a moderate and balanced foreign policy such as he attributes to Pericles can be maintained over time. The excesses of Athens during the time of Alcibiades . . . suggest that even a city as resourceful as Athens could not maintain the freedom and restraint necessary to sustain its way of life for long.” [Ibid]
So, it would appear that Athens, at least once Pericles is gone, “failed” at its imperialistic endeavors, granting power to those apparently unfit to wield it, slaughtering those who refused to bow to its demands, and undertaking “expeditions” apparently doomed from the start. An imperialism well conducted is one thing, but an imperialism badly conducted is another thing altogether.
But what if it is imperialism itself that constitutes or accounts for “the excesses of Athens?” That is, what if those “failures” Nichols mentions were actually reflections of what the Athenian imperialism required? That is, imperialistic politics, Athenian or otherwise, requires actions like that against Melos, the invasion of Sicily, and the granting of power to those like Cleon or Alcibiades, to say nothing of the rather puffed up and delusional Pericles. In other words, given the multiple examples of inhuman, unjust, and tyrannical actions provided by Thucydides, it seems useful to wonder if imperialism, Athenian or otherwise, has anything to do with virtue, intellect, or justice. Imperialism could be just a perverse kind of politics. Seductive or appealing to the strongest of human passions, to be sure; but like other such phenomena, still perverse.
Perhaps Pericles’ imperialistic policies were, as Nichols says, “moderate or balanced,” but that does not mean that they were humane, just, or non-tyrannical. Moderate or balanced inhumanity, injustice, or tyranny is better than immoderate or unbalanced inhumanity, injustice, or tyranny. But even so, imperialism, even in its Periclean manifestation, is still inhuman, unjust, and tyrannical. For how else would one describe a politics that requires human beings, especially parents, to lose themselves in the love of their city to the extent that the death of their offspring in war was treated as something to be proud of, not something to be lamented? And it would seem that if imperialism appears this way in Athens, that city which was “the best of cities” according to Thucydides, characterized as it was by beauty, intelligence, and deliberation, then it is fair to say that imperialism is always, in all times and places, despicable.
None of this need be taken to mean that Nichols’ interpretation of Thucydides is wrong. But it should be taken to mean that if her interpretation of Thucydides is correct, then we may wonder about the worth of taking our bearings from Thucydides and his understanding of political life.