Category: Persons

Thucydides and Plato

Plato never mentions Thucydides and his History in his works. Plato was, however, quite familiar with it, and in some cases he seems to presuppose knowledge of it, while he is strongly opposed to Thucydides' political philosophy.

Thucydides’ History

Thucydides, son of Olorus, was an Athenian historian and statesman who lived in the second half of the 5th century BC (possibly between 460 and 398 BC). He composed a history of the Peloponnesian War, in which he participated, but he only managed to complete the narrative of the first 20 years of the war (431-411 BC) before he died. His influence on later historians is paramount, and he is rightly considered the father of the science of history.

Thucydides belongs to the current of 5th cent. Greek enlightenment, along with the Sophists and the tragedians. The influence of tragedy and Sophistic is clearly discernible in Thucydides’ famous orations, i.e. in the sections of his work where the narrative of wartime events is interjected with speeches, whereby the historian attempts to summarize the complex facets of an important historical situation through opposing orations. It is evident that Thucydides’ orations also influenced Plato’s dialogical style of composition. Thucydides is an ardent supporter of political realism – a precursor to Machiavelli and Hobbs.

Thucydides' History makes one of the most fascinating readings of world literature. The reader is at first amazed by the sheer savagery of the events recounted. Compared with the Peloponnesian War, which in fact was a large civil war, subdivided into a plethora of smaller internecine conflicts, later civil war appear mere war games. The destruction visited on Greece during that war far exceeded any previous conflict.

What is even more enthralling than the events themselves is the way in which Thucydides chooses to narrate them. The number of casualties is scrupulously quoted, but this not accompanied by some expression of sorrow. He is interested in the causes behind a catastrophe, not its extent; he is interested in the dittoi logoi, i.e. the equipotent arguments developed by the protagonists in each event, not their disastrous consequences. Catastrophe appears to be a natural concomitant of human nature. It is impressive that nowhere is his work does he allude to the fact that the two decades he is narrating were not simply a troubled period filled with disasters, but also an era of unparalleled intellectual achievements for his homeland, Athens.

Readers seeking a way out of Thucydides’ cold universe will be frustrated. If one asks which of the protagonists in the Peloponnesian War are favorably depicted by Thucydides, there can be only one answer: only the victor is good. There is no good and bad side in Thucydides; only winners and losers. Nor is one polity described as superior to another. Thucydides’ text does not provide any clues as to his political leanings; he could have been a democrat or an oligarch. He does show a certain sympathy for the oligarchic coup of 411 BC, but when this fails, he praises the mixture of oligarchy and democracy that was attempted immediately afterwards (VIII. 97). According to Thucydides, if democracy has one advantage, it is the fact that it is much more aggressive and effective in war, precisely because it is supremely detached – this is the complete opposite of what people nowadays believe about modern democracies! One of the reasons behind the victory of Syracuse over Athens was that, although they were Dorians, their polity was democratic.

Plato and Thucydides

Plato never mentions Thucydides. It is certain, however, that he knew him well. Historical persons appear in Plato’s dialogues just as Thucydides had described them, and this information is essential if the reader is to understand what is happening in the dialogues (e.g. in the Laches, Nicias and his namesake general). Plato composed his own funeral oration (the Menexenus), which is full of blatant anachronisms, in an attempt to paraphrase and disparage Pericles’ epitaph. The Melian Dialogue can be seen as a model for Thrasymachus and Callicle’s memorable dialogues (in the Republic and the Gorgias respectively) with Socrates, cornerstones of later political philosophy. Finally, Plato was bold enough, again inspired by Thucydides, to have Hermocrates feature in his Timaeus as a respectable individual – he was deeply loathed by the Athenians because, according to Thucydides, he “slaughtered” the captive generals Nicias and Demosthenes, and brutally annihilated 7,000 Athenians in Syracuse’s quarries (VII. 86-87).

Perhaps Plato himself, antiquity’s most able and agile intellectual and author, was mortified when he read Thucydides. It is said that Plato suggested the Theory of Forms, i.e. the existence of immutable moral values, as a response to the moral relativism of the Sophists. Yet the Sophists were little more than Plato’s own construct. Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all” constitutes a great concession, or even progress vis-à-vis Thucydides’ lack of any measure. In a beautiful passage Plato has the leader of the Sophists, Protagoras, claim that all people without exception possess inherent qualities such as shame and justice, Zeus’ salutary gifts to all humanity (Protagoras 320c-322d). Thucydides would probably laugh at the naivety of the Protagoras myth, because for him "nature = strife"; it is a battle for dominance pure and simple. Thus, Plato’s Ideas could very well be understood as Plato’s response to Thucydides, not the Sophists.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Hornblower, S. Θουκυδίδου ιστορίαι, τόμοι 3. Θεσσαλονίκη, 2006.
  • Nightingale, A.W. Genres in Dialogue, Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge, 1995.
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