Period 4 History
The Fault of All Humanity
Many people hold pride for their nation, and can name several reasons why their nation is the greatest in existence, and the people of Athens are no exception. Pericles, an important Athenian politician in Classical Greece, was a very outspoken advocate for Athenian greatness, however his fellow Athenian Thucydides disproves many of Pericles’ beliefs in his book The History of The Peloponnesian War by showing that the Athenian people are still subject to one of the most selfish aspects of humans, human nature. Most of Thucydides’ claims stem from the chapters of “The Plague”, focusing on the Plague of Athens, and “The Civil War of Corcyra”, both of which show perfect examples of the extent human nature can drive an individual. Pericles often states that many of the greatest aspects of Athens derive from the strong and open Athenian government, often citing that the equality of citizens and limited democracy lead to a greater and more successful city. Thucydides refutes this by showing the Athenian government is actually quite fragile due human nature’s effects on any man and woman’s mind. Pericles also supports his belief in the greatness of Athens by praising its military structure and strength, stating its voluntary nature leads to each soldier being more brave and loyal to the Athenian cause. Thucydides’ findings on human nature disprove the greatness of the Athenian army by showing that when each soldier’s nature took control, they abandoned the military, and so Athens was unable to remain stable during times of true crisis. Pericles’ final, and to him the most important, aspect which makes Athens great is the greatness of its people. He states that the people of Athens are more kind than others, not concerning themselves with what they should receive in turn, they are more open-minded than others in both political and private matters, as well as being inherently more courageous and brave. He also believes that the Athenian focus on balance between intellect and strength leads to a stronger people. Thucydides refutes the greatness of the Athenians by showing that they are still subject to human nature, stating that the kindness of the Athenians can easily turn into greed as men and women are driven to more dire action. He also states that human nature causes men to dislike those of different ideological beliefs, rather than accept and discuss political matters, because anyone who disagrees is considered a foe. He states that the bravery of the Athenians will easily dissipate, like any other people, should their situation become to dire and they revert to using backstabbing a deceit to achieve their goals. He also shows that when anyone who disagrees is an enemy due to distrust, having public opinions can lead to civil unrest through political adversaries openly plotting against their obvious opponents. Thucydides also shows that during times of strife cunning and guile will override the balance of intellect and strength, as people fear open conflict and their nature leads them to achieve victory through any means. Thucydides’ commentary and analyzation of human nature shows that the greatness of Athens which Pericles attests to is simply an easily removed veil, and the people of Athens are just as savage and primitive as any other city state during times of strife.
Thucydides first disproves Pericles’ claim about Athenian greatness by showing that the law and government of Athens is an unstable institution which can easily devolve into anarchy, as it does not have enough power over its people to stop their human nature, and is not any better and possibly worst than other governments. Thucydides records Pericles sating that the government is a stable institution capable of withstanding any crisis, stating that the Athenians “have organized our State in such a way that it is perfectly well able to look after itself both in peace and in war,” (Thucydides, page 145, section 36, lines 12-13). Pericles is stating that the Athenian government is so well organized, and that its state is so well managed and designed, that it is stable at any time, whether in peace or war. He is congratulating himself and the other Athenians for being a part of and maintaining a well balanced and organized government which he believes will survive in any climate, be there strife or prosperity. He is insulting the Spartans, who must maintain an eternal cycle of war in order to keep their people and nation from falling apart. Pericles considers this to be one of the shining qualities of Athenian government, stating that it is an adaptable form of government which can survive the test of time. Pericles also mentions that the Athenian government held every as equal in front of the law, and states that they would peacefully settle disputes so that both parties would feel represented: ”When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law…” (Thucydides, page 145, section 37, lines 5-6). Here Pericles is making note of both the judicial system of Athens, as well as the class system, or lack there of, and egalitarianism of the Athenian society. He states that when Athens must settle disputes between anyone, it brings them to the court of law in order to have them testify against their peers, instead of attempting to see if might makes right or any other system that the Athenians would consider lower than themselves. He says that everyone who lives in Athens is equal, and that this is a right which they would always uphold as one of the most important aspects of Athenian law and government. He is stating that they like to settle disputes in a fair and equal way, without bloodshed or strife. Pericles also comments on the equality of Athens being focused around skill and ability, not class or social status stating, “what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses,”(Thucydides, page 145, section 37, lines 7-9). Pericles is stating that in the Athenian government, it is the ability and intellect of an individual that decides their worth to the government and their people, and it is not a hereditary system which is decided simply by one’s birth and station in the country. He is stating that unlike other nations, such as Sparta, which must rely on a random genetic draw each time a new king is born, in the hopes that this king will be competent and successful. Pericles has stated that this makes Athens great, because they are ensured competent and valuable leaders who are capable of performing in the post which they are given. Pericles also says this makes Athens great because to him there is no wasted potential, as even the poorest civilians can contribute their intellect to the nation. To Pericles this means that the nation of Athens simply has a more qualified and intelligent government than the other nations of Greece, which have monarchies and oligarchies in place. Thucydides counters Pericles’s belief that the Athenian government was very stable by stating that during times of crisis humans from inside the city will attempt to replace their current government, and it is possible that the same event which took place in Corcyra, splitting between two distinct factions, could happen to Athens as well: “it became a natural thing for anyone who wanted a change of government to call in help from outside.” (Thucydides, page 242, section 82, lines 10-11). Thucydides counters part of the idea that Athens is strong because during times of chaos human nature dictates that individuals will attempt to call in any help they possibly can in order to counteract the opposing party and ideology. He is stating that should a politician whose views do not match other civilians of Athens be elected, those civilians, especially in a time of strife and desperation, will call in and support Athens’ enemies in an attempt to overthrow personal, ideological, or political foes that have taken power. This occurred in Corcyra in an extreme measure, and this caused Corcyra to become a battleground for the oligarchy of Sparta and the limited democracy of Athens. Thucydides also is stating that this attempt to make a call to the outside world could be made by anyone, and this could be especially harmful to Athens which, as it considered itself an egalitarian society, had very little limits to both the information that went in and out of the city, as well as who rose to power and who gained wealth. This means that the Athenian state was not nearly as stable as Pericles said because its open government allowed for opposing factions to be elected and for the embittered rivals to seek help outside of Athens, possibly causing Athens to devolve into a battleground and the government to collapse. Thucydides also refutes the stability of Athens by stating human nature will cause Athenian grip on its people to wane and crumble, and Athens is not strong enough to keep hold of its people should a bad enough crisis occur: “For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law,”(Thucydides, page 155, section 52, lines 10-12). Thucydides is disproving Pericles’ belief that Athens is a stable nation in both war and peace, prosperity and strife by showing how much human nature can cause men to devolve to levels which cause them to disregard previously created and accepted institutions. Thucydides is stating that should the strife and misfortune of any people, even the Athenians, be too great it is possible for them and their wills to break. Especially if the danger is life threatening, as if a person’s life is in danger they do not fear the repercussions for disregarding rules, laws, and culturally accepted norms as there is a real possibility that the trial and punishment shall not occur, and should they not act upon the danger, they will certainly die anyways. This part of human nature’s design, which states that should the danger be too high, and should the reward for the sacrifice be too low, human nature will cause a person to become more selfish and attempt to save themselves physically, rather than remain honorable and act upon laws set forth by others, making it much harder for any nation to remain in control of its population. The great nation of Athens which Pericles admired so much easily devolved into a lawless land of a hopeless citizenry who held no regard for the gods or the government. Human nature meant that the Athenian government was too weak to maintain itself during a time of strife which it had not prepared for, as the Athenians had been lulled into a false sense of security by only looking to past strife and believing that the Athenians had overcome their primitive nature and beliefs. Thucydides also shows that human nature can and will cause any human being to abandon their morals and credibility in favor of making their own life better and more successful by showing how this occurred in Corcyra as well: “Peithias, however, who happened to be a member of the Council, persuaded his colleagues to enforce the legal penalty,”(Thucydides, page 237, section 70, lines 25-26). Through the acts of the governing body in Corcyra, and through the documentation of the events that followed, Thucydides clearly shows that human nature will cause desperate and scared individuals to manipulate and blackmail others into doing what they want, and not perform under the fair code which the government had set forth. Peithias coerced his peers into sentencing a harsh penalty on several wealthy oligarchs simply because he felt threatened by their growing power which directly opposed his party, the democrats. Thucydides shows how humans will always break rules, even those that they have sworn to uphold, if they believe that their lives are in true danger. This is because human nature’s first goal is self-preservation at all costs, and the ideal codes of law are irrelevant to a cornered animal. Human nature is the primitive part of a person, and will cause them to fight with all their might if they believe that their is no other way out. This means that any man, even men who Pericles believes will uphold the egalitarian and class free court of law in Athens, would gladly commit heinous crimes against the code of Athenian courts rather than suffer possibly fatal consequences. Human nature dictates that the Athenian court of law will only be upheld when the individuals who run it and participate in it believe it to be a useful system which can contribute to their well-being. Thucydides also shows that the elected officials of Athens could easily be led to become corrupt and deceitful if driven so by human nature and desperation, stating that officials would, “in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves,”(Thucydides, page 243, section 82, lines 72-73). Here Thucydides states that people will gladly lie to the general public if they believe it can give them personal power and prosperity. This is another part of human nature, and this part causes humanity to be greedy when it comes to wealth and personal success. This is only amplified during times of strife when wealth is even less abundant, and when people are desperate for more of it. Pericles believes that the elections of Athens are part of what makes it great, and that the candidates put into office are only elected based off of their true skill and ideology. This, however, is false. Human nature causes candidates to gladly lie about both their intentions and their ability in order to obtain higher offices and in turn more power. What Pericles believes to be one of the best characteristics of Athens is also a factor which could cause the city to tear itself apart, should an incompetent and deceitful party member gain power and cause both the plebeians and the opposing parties to rise in arms against the ill-ruler. This is part of what makes humans human, it is in their nature and pre-coded in their mind to act this way, and not even the great Athenians can avoid this. Thucydides proved that human nature is the inevitable downfall of the Athenian government, and this is also related to the fallibility of its military.
The military of Athens and its voluntary nature, which is based on people joining simply through patriotism, causes the military to be weaker, especially in times of strife and disorder when the pride of Athens is shattered as well as the spirit of its people, and when human nature takes control of even the most loyal of soldiers. Pericles claims that one of the most important aspects of the Athenian army is its voluntary service, stating that “in our way of meeting danger voluntarily, with an easy mind, instead of with a laborious training with natural rather than with state-induced courage,”(Thucydides, page 146, section 39, lines 23-25). Pericles is taking note on the fact that the Athenian military is a completely voluntary, unlike Athens’ sister nation of Sparta. Pericles considers this to be a major virtue of Athenian society, and states that this is one of the greatest aspects of the Athenian army and certainly one of the most important. He considers this very important because this shows how the Athenian army is truly superior to the objectively stronger and more well-trained Spartan army. Pericles goes on to state that the rigorous and laborious, which is peculiar word choice because it has a negative connotation, of other city-states are simply to cover up and attempt to erase the fact that their soldiers do not have enough natural courage, however this only instills a fake loyalty as well as an agitated mind for being forced into war. Pericles thinks that this agitated mind weakens the enemy and makes them more likely to flee from the face of battle. Pericles also states that the voluntary nature of the military leads to those who join to be more loyal and dedicated to the Athenian cause, and this is because “he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come,” (Thucydides, page 147, section 40, lines 19-21). Pericles is stating that because the Athenian army is voluntary, the soldiers they have are more loyal to Athens and their army. He states that this is because the soldiers in the army know what it is that they are missing, and they know how much good and happiness they are missing, yet they willingly join the army and give all of this up, and possibly even miss the opportunity to feel these pleasures ever again if they fall in battle. He states that because of this knowledge, the soldiers that end up in the army are more loyal because they chose to give up this pleasure, and were not forced into it. Pericles considers this form of loyalty to be greater and truer than that of other nations, especially Sparta. He believes this natural loyalty is better and should be held in higher regard than that of the loyalty which he believes is beaten into the soldiers of Sparta. Thucydides refutes the claim that the Athenian army is extremely loyal and brave, and cites the lawlessness of Athens during the Plague as a perfect example of human nature being stronger than the bonds of state: ”In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness,”(Thucydides, page 155, section 53, lines 1-2). Thucydides, however, proves that the military of Athens was not nearly as strong and loyal as Pericles says. Thucydides records that during the plague of Athens all legal structures and institutions collapse as the men and women of Athens gain a sense of hopelessness and give in to their most basic and primitive desires. The Athenian army was unable to keep order in Athens, even though that would have been one of their most important jobs. The soldiers and officers of the Athenian army were not loyal enough to do their duty during their greatest time of need, because they fell victim to the same fate which all the other residents of Athens did at that time, they reverted to their instinctive nature. Human nature dictates that one’s first loyalty shall always be to themselves, not to their state or even their family. This is what caused the great and true loyalty which Pericles described to fall apart, and inevitably it is what caused all of Athens to descend into lawless chaos, which was one of the main priorities of the government and by extent the military to prevent. The inherent need for self-preservation which human nature caused meant that it was simply impossible to keep the Athenian army from disbanding, as the men were not ready to lay down their lives trying to keep order if they knew it was possible for them to get the plague and die either way. Instead they went out and performed anything that they wanted to because they were now only looking out for themselves. Thucydides then goes on to show that the loyalty of Athenian troops was not greater than one’s loyalty to one’s own desires and needs as “Revenge was more important than self-preservation,”(Thucydides, page 243, section 82, line 54). Here, Thucydides records how during a time of strife and desperation human nature will cause people to care only about personal desires, such as lust and revenge, and not their own self. It is important to note that the self-preservation in this context does not necessarily mean protecting and preserving one’s physical health, but it can also mean protecting one’s image, piety, and honor. Thucydides is saying that during times of strife, the rules of honor and loyalty are disregarded entirely, as people only care about themselves and their own desire. While revenge is often seen as cruel and destructive, and not something which people should do in common society, it becomes a main aspect of life during times when one’s own survival is in question. When one does not know how long they have left to live, human nature causes them to do whatever they see fit and whatever they want, and this usually means they do actions that would otherwise be atrocious. This is another reason why the Athenian army is not nearly as loyal as Pericles assumes, because it can, and as shown before did, easily fall apart if the soldiers of the army see no hope or reason to serve anymore, or believe that serving will only cause more strife than they are already experiencing. This problem is only amplified by the fact that these men are now carrying and trained to use weaponry. Human nature’s effect, and how it can drive humans to do whatever they please to whomever they please, especially if they are already in a dire situation, is what caused Pericles’ unwavering Athenian army to be an impossibility. Human nature also causes the loyalties of each person alive during times of strife to change, as Thucydides states even “Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership,” (Thucydides, page 243, Section 82, lines 44-45). During times of strife people’s loyalties will often shift. While their true loyalty shall always remain towards themselves, Thucydides shows that their other loyalties can shift as well. He states that even familial loyalties, which are often considered to the most important and the strongest, can be weaker than that of someone’s loyalty to their faction. This is also the cause of human nature and self-preservation, because it is often in one’s best interest to be a part of a strong faction or group. This means that during strife one’s loyalties could easily shift to the opposite side. This disproves Pericles’ idea of an utterly loyal army because human nature shows that if pushed to the brink of desperation enough, a soldier could easily switch sides to that of the enemy and defect. During times of strife and civil war, as seen in Corcyra, the army will often split between the factions which each soldier supports, and the old army will disband entirely as soldier’s loyalties shift from their original posts to that of their ideological beliefs. While the Athenian soldiers may seem loyal to Athens now, should Athens fall apart, they would easily choose to side with internal factions or outside forces as their nature dictates that they should side with whomever could protect them and make them stronger.
Many people of Athens, especially Pericles, attest to the honor and greatness of the people of Athens, however these people are the same as any other, or even worse for attesting to their greatness which does not truly exist. Pericles is proud to mention that the people of Athens were the kindest people in Greece, and possibly the world, stating, “When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality,”(Thucydides, page 147, section 40, lines 23-24). Pericles is making note of the fact that the Athenians are some of the truly kindest and caring people in the world. He states that unlike other peoples and cultures, the people of Athens are kind to others for the sake of their own kindness and caring. They do not consider the effects or the outcome of their efforts, but rather give no second thought to being kind to others. They do not consider their act of kindness a binding of debt, and expect a reward for doing an action for another human being. Instead they consider the kindness itself to be more important than the reward, at least according to Pericles. He also states that Athenians do not dwell on their act and of how caring they were, instead they move on, possibly to do more kind actions to others. Along the same matter of being kind, Pericles states that the people of Athens are open minded and free to speak about their own beliefs as well as find happiness their own way: “And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way,” (Thucydides, page 145, section 37, lines 10-13). According to Pericles, one of the most important characteristics of Athens and Athenian life is the freedom which each individual has and can use to express themselves in both their political and private lives. In politics, each Athenian is free to share their own opinions and views on all topics, allowing for parties of similar minded individuals to form and represent others. This freedom allows for the leaders of Athens to know what it is their people want, and this allows for them to guide their city in the way their people desire with greater ease. It also allows for troubled people to speak up on current issues, so that the entire citizenry can understand the rest of the people’s desires and needs. The people of Athens are also less judgmental of each other’s views, and relish the chance to debate and discuss politics in an attempt to understand each others views. All of this culminates into Athens being run the way the Athenians want it to. The Athenians are also free in their private lives as well, and this is due to several reasons. Each person is able to find pleasure and happiness in any way they see fit, be it religion, philosophy, any of the arts, or any other manner of recreation or occupation. This causes the people of Athens to be happier and more willing to accept new ideas. The people of Athens are happier because unlike other places, they are free to further their happiness in whatever way they see fit, without the judgement of their peers or the intervention of the law, to a certain extent of course. The freedom the Athenians possess allows for both Athens to function better, as well as its people to live happier and fuller lives. Pericles also states that this freedom is derived from the inherent bravery and courage which can be found in every Athenian citizen, saying,“Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous,”(Thucydides, page 149-150, section 43, lines 24-25). Pericles states that this happiness, and this freedom, are only aspects of Athenian life because of the courage which each and every Athenian possesses. Pericles believes that the happiness of the Athenians, which as previously stated stems from the freedom each and every individual possesses in both their private and political lives, is derived directly from the bravery and courage which each Athenian inherently has within them. The reason that freedom requires courage is because to Pericles one must have courage to speak up in one’s society and city, as well as to willingly show and practice the things that make one truly happy in life. The people must also be courageous because they willingly allow opposition in the political aspect of Athens, and in a way even desire it so that they may disprove or sway the opposition to see the way they do. People must also be brave to allow the people to select its own leaders, as many would see it as a safer route to have a strong government like the Spartans who have nearly complete control over their people. Instead of this totalitarian oligarchy, the people of Athens are courageous enough to allow the people to select whomever they believe shall lead Athens the best, and trust that the Athenians will pick well. This is the bravery and courage of which Pericles describes as the building block of freedom and happiness as well a common trait among Athenians. Pericles also notes that the Athenians have found a balance between intellect and strength, unlike their adversaries and peers the Spartans, and states that “Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft,” (Thucydides, page 147, section 40, lines 1-2). Here Pericles is debating the criticism that Athens often receives for its focus on intellectual skill and ability, the belief that this focus weakens the strength of the Athenian army and the people in general. Pericles however is stating that Athenians are a blend of both qualities, producing civilians who are both strong in intellect, arts, and philosophy, while at the same time being able to hold their own against the other pinnacle of military might, namely, Sparta. According to Pericles Athens is a great nation, and certainly one greater than their adversary Sparta, because it is able to take the military might of Sparta with an intellect which Pericles believes is above many other nations. Pericles is also stating that the Athenians are just as moderate as the Spartans, and are intelligent enough to conserve their resources as well as having no desire to overindulge in the finer things in life. They do this while still being able to admire and create truly beautiful works of art and craftsmanship. According to Pericles the Athenian people are a perfect blend of all qualities, being intelligent and strong, having an eye and ability for the arts and finer things in life while still remaining vigilant and not over indulging, and all of this makes Athens a truly great nation. Thucydides counters the belief that Athenians are truly kind by showing how if driven far enough each man will revert to their human nature, which is inherently greedy, and Thucydides states that the “Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils,”(Thucydides, page 243, section 82, lines 66-67). Thucydides shows, however, that the kindness which the Athenians show during peace and prosperity is merely a mask which is easily shed during times of desperation. A man’s true colors, his true nature, is that of greed and selfishness, not unrewarded integrity and kindness. While Pericles believes that the Athenians are truly kind people at heart, possibly some of the few, Thucydides’ depiction of human nature shows how the Athenians are merely kind when it suits them, and that their nature would easily cause them to find ways to accomplish their own goals and pursuit of power instead of giving out needless charity to others. Should an event arise during times of war or strife where and Athenian needed a favor from another person whom they had helped and considered friend, their nature would cause them to easily use their past kindness as leverage against that person, as their nature of greed and selfishness would drive them to this action. It is only in a person’s nature to feign kindness, honor, and valor during times when they can afford to do so, and still consider the thoughts of others to be relevant, however should strife arise they would easily discard the nobility and would willingly cause unspeakable evils due to their inherent need for self-preservation as well as power. This is why human nature causes Athenians to not be nearly as kind as they appear, for they have not yet been pushed to the point where their integrity could be tested. Thucydides also states that during times of crisis the open-mindedness of the Athenians could easily crumble in the face of human nature and its natural distrust for others, by stating that “any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character,” (Thucydides, page 242, section 82, lines 31-32). Thucydides also makes comments on human nature’s view on opposing sides as well as political adversaries. He states that during times of desperation, when human nature takes control of people as they are degraded to their real status and situation, people will become very opposed to anyone who is not with them. He states that anyone attempting to be on both sides, and possibly act as a peacekeeper or a person who could broker deals between opposing factions, was an untrustworthy coward who was only a moderate because of his inability to lay his life down for the cause. This meant that human nature caused people to see the world in black and white, a one was on their side or they were not. This is due to human nature’s main goal being self-preservation, and if the other members of the party were unable or unready to lay dow their lives then they were untrustworthy and could get their comrades killed. Thucydides disproves Pericles’ belief that all Athenians were open-minded individuals ready for debate and political opposition because they only act this way when there is no true threat which the opposition poses, and when it is not a question of life or death. When it is, however, the opposing ideology is the main threat as neither side will agree on how to run the nation or use the resources, as well as which party should be in charge. The opposing ideology is the enemy in this situation, and this is why Pericles is incorrect in his assumption that all Athenians are always open-minded, because they are only this way when they do not believe the opposing side is a threat to their prosperity and well-being. Thucydides also refutes the claim that Athenians are always brave by mentioning how during a crisis bravery will be replaced by deceit and guile, he writes, “and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense,” (Thucydides, page 242, section 82, lines 34-36). During times of crisis, human nature will cause people to change their opinions on how things should be done and especially how enemies should be dealt with. Because it becomes each man’s personal goal to maintain their well-being more than anything else, the idea of honor and valor have little consequence on their actions. Human nature will drive desperate people to do anything that can get the job done. Others views on these actions become favorable as well, because a good schemer is also a good ally during troubled times. The actions people perform during these times would be seen by others as dishonorable and cowardly, and certainly not an aspect of Athenian culture that Pericles was trying to praise. The courage of which Pericles praises only exists in the Athenians when their courage is not possibly rewarded with death or extreme punishment, in this way they have very little real courage, as they are not willing to put their life on the line for their beliefs and ideology. They would easily switch to cunning rather than courage if it would be more beneficial to do so, and in this way the courage of which Pericles speaks is not true courage, as it cannot drive the Athenian people to put their life on the line to defend their views and remain honorable. Thucydides also refutes Pericles’ claim that freedom is a major component of what makes Athens great, by showing that when human nature makes others paranoid having free and open opinions often leads to more conflict as well as leading to more violent opposition between both parties: “Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became suspect,” (Thucydides, page 242, section 82, lines 36-37). One main reason people sided with the oligarchs was that they could ensure a stronger and more politically unified nation. This is because when a single government has absolute control over the law and military, the nation is less likely to revolt due to internal issues. It is also more likely to get things done, as the government is not split between separate parties and ideologies. Another reason an oligarchy was stronger than a democracy is because having the ability of free speech and having the ability to openly oppose existing institutions can be very dangerous and can cause much more civil unrest. As Thucydides states, when human nature takes control, and each person is forced to trust other members of their party just in order to have strength in numbers, they are more likely to trust those whose opinions are very outspoken and radical, because they are more likely to not falter in the face of danger. At the same time these radicals are more likely to go to extremes in order to succeed, and during these times of strife when all laws and the code of honor have been pushed aside, this can lead them to be very dangerous. At the same time being able to openly express one’s opinions often leads the moderates to be suspect, and anyone who was suspect at this time had a good chance to be disposed of by either party. This is why the freedom to openly express one’s belief and ideology of which Pericles speaks can lead to many political murders and much more chaos during a crisis. Pericles’ final claim about the greatness of the Athenian character, that they are well balanced characters, was disproven by Thucydides as he showed human nature can easily cause both intellect and strength to be replaced by guile: “To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching,” (Thucydides, pages 242 - 243, section 82, lines 37-39). During chaotic times Thucydides shows that the most praised characteristic of a man shifts from both his intellect and strength and focuses primarily on one’s cunning and guile. People are driven to do whatever can achieve their goals, with the least danger to themselves. This is why political debates and open combat become much less important, as they can both be very dangerous to that individual, as one solidifies opponents while the other is violent and possibly fatal. To act from the shadows, however, had great potential to rid one of their enemies and still leaving the enactor safe. As self-preservation is the main goal of a human’s nature, cunning and guile become a desperate man’s best friend. This is what caused many places of strife to evolve into areas during which plots were being hatched constantly, with both sides attempting to accomplish their goals while still remaining safe in their homes. When Pericles speaks of Athens he praises it for its balance of both intellect and strength, however this balance could easily dissipate should the people of Athens be driven far enough. They would be driven to actions which others would consider cowardly and weak, as it is simply the safest way to get the job done. This is why the Athenian people will lose one of their greatest characteristics during times of strife, because they are willing to lose the integrity and greatness of their character in order to achieve their goals.
Thucydides’ commentary and analyzation of human nature shows that the greatness of Athens which Pericles attests to is simply an easily removed veil, and the people of Athens are just as savage and primitive as any other city state during times of strife. Pericles praises the strength and stability of the Athenian government, while Thucydides disproves this by showing how human nature causes no government, especially in the form of a limited democracy, to be perfect and stable. Pericles then states that the Athenian army is great for the voluntary nature, which leads to braver and more loyal troops. Thucydides shows that this loyalty is, however, not unbreakable and can easily change in times of strife. Pericles then goes on to state that the Athenians have greater character than most other peoples, being able to balance strength and intellect, as well as being kind, freethinking, and open-minded. Thucydides refutes this by showing that if driven into dire circumstances the Athenians are just as cowardly, vicious, and greedy as any other people. The falsehood of Athenian greatness could represent a valuable message for the modern world as well, by showing that human nature can and will drive citizens and nations which were once considered stable and strong can easily dissolve into chaos and corruption. Ukraine, a nation of relative stability after its recreation in 1991 by the dissolving Soviet Union, fell into increasing civil unrest and eventually all out civil war in February, 2014. The people of Ukraine were driven to do acts which would have been considered ghastly before, such as turning on each other’s neighbors and taking part in riots. One such act was when the pro-Russian side created a band of mercenaries, the Titushky, who could wield concealed pistols as well as kidnap and carjack civilian vehicles during riots and protests. Human nature lead civilians to do actions which would be considered poor before, and each side praised these actions as righteous as well as actively supported more. The once stable government split between two major factions, and the people did as well. Focus on events and activities such as sports, education, and other entertainment became unimportant, as the revolution and crisis took center stage above all else. Thucydides shows how human nature can cause people under pressure to quickly lower their morals and standards to levels otherwise thought barbaric or brutal, with little afterthought, as well as cause people’s allegiances and friendships to quickly come into question.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Rex Warner - translator, Penguin Books, 1972, New York.
The Plague of Athens: