By far the most frustrating aspect of our recent two-day conference Thucydides our Comtemporary? (I’ll come back to that question mark at some point…) was the fact that I was chairing every session. Often, of course, such duties entail desperately thinking up more-or-less intelligible questions and comments on topics one knows little about in the hope that the speaker won’t actually notice that no one has anything much to say and would far rather call it a day and head down to the pub. Not this time; I spent my whole time arbitrating on split-second finishes between three different people raising their hands at once, juggling the wish to keep the thread of debate going with the need to avoid neglecting people who had other things to say, and trying to keep vaguely to the scheduled programme. Despite the fact that every speaker stuck pretty well to time, and we’d scheduled lots of space for discussion, I had to cut things short time and again. Bringing people back at the end of refreshment breaks was even worse, as clearly these were taken as opportunities to engage in more depth, free from the interfering headmaster type threatening to withhold everyone’s dinner if they didn’t stop talking. And the problem was that actually I could happily have taken up the whole discussion time with my own questions and comments, if I hadn’t had to be all selfless and disciplined. Still, at least I have this blog to play with, and over the next few weeks (probably) I aim to give a sketch of the different papers, for everyone who couldn’t or didn’t make it to the conference, and to give me a chance to develop my own thoughts. Obviously the authors of the different papers bear no responsibility for what I’ve made of them…To begin at the beginning: Arlene Saxonhouse from Michigan on ‘Choosing to go to war: Thucydides on who’s responsible’. Rather than seeking to enlist Thuc in support of a particular cause, on the basis of a one-sided reading that claims to identify ‘the’ Thucydidean view, Arlene echoed other recent commentators in arguing that Thuc poses rather than resolves questions, forcing us to address moral and political puzzles – including, in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, the question of collective or individual responsibility within a political community. Writers in the former tradition, most obviously variants of Realism, tend to ignore such questions; war is seen to be the inevitable result of the universal state of human relations and/or the drives of a universal human nature (fear, honour, profit…). If, however, we focus on the decision to go to war, and the process whereby that decision was reached, then we face important questions of responsibility and culpability. Indeed, claims that war is unavoidable because of the way things are can be seen precisely as an attempt at avoiding blame, and taking responsibility only insofar as this will be regarded positively.
The Mytilene debate poses this problem in two ways simultaneously: there is the question of whether the entire Mytilenian population can be held responsibly for the city’s revolt against Athens (hence the proposed punishment, to kill the entire male population and enslave the women and children, is reasonable), or whether it is their leaders who must bear responsibility; but at the same time this also raises the question of how the Athenians themselves make decisions and apportion responsibility, as Cleon (in a famously clever rhetorical move) berates them for treating the whole business of deliberation and decision-making as an entertaining spectacle of speech-making, and Diodotus points to the fact that they themselves in practice distinguish between the responsibiliy of the leaders and the lead. Diodotus of course wins (barely), and the Mytilenians are not massacred; we greet the decision with relief, while feeling very uncomfortable about some of the arguments Diodotus has employed – isn’t his case just as morally bankrupt as Cleon’s, and just as problematic a model for any democracy? We don’t actually want to identify with either of them – and perhaps we’re not supposed to, as Thuc stages these two equally problematic positions as a means of thinking through, and forcing us to confront, different aspects of aition in its two meanings of ’cause’ and ‘blame’.
As I’ve said, this is very much my take on Arlene’s argument, on the basis of my notes, shaped by my interests, and so some of my questions may actually have been answered in her paper. My main one was about the distribution of responsibility. In her presentation of Thuc’s account, responsibility seemed to be very much a binary state: either the demos as a whole is responsible for its decisions, however poor, or its leaders can be blamed for misleading it, and it’s off the hook. It’s easy to think of intermediate cases where the blame is shared (not necessarily evenly); most obviously, in a representative democracy where the people are responsible insofar as they elected the representatives who then made the decision to go to war, but are not responsible insofar as they are not directly involved in that specific decision (think Iraq invasion decision in face of substantial popular protests). Athens, of course, was a direct democracy; Mytilene was an oligarchy, so the culpability of the mass of the people might seem to be that they didn’t rise up against their leaders, rather than that they were actively involved in the decision to revolt. That does not imply that the people bear no responsibility, but it is significantly less than those who actively participated and decided. Athens is different, so the exoneration of the mass of the Mytilenians from blame for the decisions of their leaders does not automatically exonerate the Athenians from responsibility for the war against the Spartans (or from the decision to massacre the Mytilenians). Is the difference that, in Aristotelian terms, the Athenians were full citizens, both ruling and being ruled, whereas the Mytilenians (and us) have reduced citizen rights? Or does that affect our respective levels of power to affect decisions, but not our responsibility for them?
I even found myself wondering whether the people most culpable for the decision to go to war are not the leaders who argued sincerely for that course of action but those who opposed it inadequately. In Athens, there was opposition to Pericles’ policy, but it was clearly ineffectual (and presented as such by Thuc, who doesn’t even bother to record its arguments); Diodotus did succeed in convincing a majority of the demos to vote against Cleon, but Nicias entirely failed to counter Alcibiades. Diodotus stooped to devious rhetoric and even more dubious arguments from advantage rather than principle, whereas Nicias retained his personal integrity – but the former achieved his end, and the latter came to an ignominious one. In terms of Iraq (UK version), are the most culpable not Blair and his immediate supporters but those in Parliament who had doubts about the wisdom and/or justice of invasion but kept quiet or pulled their punches because of party or personal loyalty, fear for their own position, concern about image and so forth? As someone said at some point in the conference – it may or may not have been in this session – you can read Thuc as implying that Athens has too much deliberation that doesn’t result in good decisions, hence a indictment of democracy; but you can make an equally good case that Thuc wants to depict the potential for successful deliberation, and that the problem is all too often that there isn’t enough discussion or engagement – that the Athenians are willing to ignore their responsibilities as citizens, which makes them all the more culpable for the decisions that are then taken.