Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom
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In Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, Mary P. Nichols argues for the centrality of the idea of freedom in Thucydides' thought. Through her close reading of his History of the Peloponnesian War, she explores the manifestations of this theme. Cities and individuals in Thucydides' history take freedom as their goal, whether they claim to possess it and want to maintain it or whether they desire to attain it for themselves or others. Freedom is the goal of both antagonists in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta and Athens, although in different ways. One of the fullest expressions of freedom can be seen in the rhetoric of Thucydides’ Pericles, especially in his famous funeral oration.
More than simply documenting the struggle for freedom, however, Thucydides himself is taking freedom as his cause. On the one hand, he demonstrates that freedom makes possible human excellence, including courage, self-restraint, deliberation, and judgment, which support freedom in turn. On the other hand, the pursuit of freedom, in one’s own regime and in the world at large, clashes with interests and material necessity, and indeed the very passions required for its support. Thucydides’ work, which he himself considered a possession for all time, therefore speaks very much to our time, encouraging the defense of freedom while warning of the limits and dangers in doing so. The powerful must defend freedom, Thucydides teaches, but beware that the cost not become freedom itself.
the Athenians that precede the war. Thucydides’ story of Themistocles’ exile stands out as a digression from his account of the events leading up to the war. Once Themistocles discovers the charges brewing against him in Athens, he proceeds to Persia. His route requires him to traverse Molossia, where he requests aid from its king, Admetus. The king’s wife “instructs” (didaskein) Themistocles how to supplicate her husband—by sitting on their hearth (hestia) while holding their child. By following
that freedom makes possible human excellence, including courage, self-restraint, deliberation, and judgment, which support freedom in turn. On the other, the pursuit of freedom, in one’s own regime and in the world at large, clashes with interests and material necessity, and indeed the very passions required for its support. Athens’s free way of life gives rise to the desire to conquer and rule Sicily and the suffering that follows, for example, while the expectation that Sparta will liberate the
Spartans, they will condemn themselves; if they say that they have, 31. Connor states that the Greeks did not accept killing prisoners who surrendered, and refers to P. Ducrey, Le traitement des prisonniers de guerre (Paris, 1968), chap. 9. 32. Scholars point out the similarity between the situations of the two weaker cities, who are at the mercy of larger, more powerful ones. C. W. Macleod, “Thucydides’ Plataean Debate,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 18, no. 3 (1977): 243. Connor argues
Alcibiades and his fellow exiles arrive in Sparta, they find Syracusan envoys and their Corinthian supporters there as well, in the process of requesting that the Spartans send aid to Sicily against Athens. As at the beginning of Thucydides’ account of the war, Corinth comes to Sparta to advocate war against Athens. The representatives of the only city in Thucydides’ work who have given speeches at both Athens and Sparta are now aided by the only man who does this. Whereas the Corinthians appear
Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 31–32; Forde, Ambition to Rule, 209–10; Michael Palmer, Love of Glory and the Common Good (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), 116; Thomas L. Pangle and Peter J. Ahrensdorf, “Classical Realism,” in Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Peace and Power (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 13–32, esp. 31–32; and Timothy Burns, “The Virtue of Thucydides’ Brasidas,” Journal of Politics 73, no. 2