There’s a new Thucydides quotation out on the streets, or rather the internet, bringing him into debates about the candidacy of Donald Trump, and it seems like a good, if probably pointless, idea to try to nip this in the bud.
To get the really pedantic bits out of the way first, it’s 3.37 rather than 3.36 (3.37.3, to be exact), and it’s usually referred to as the Mytilene or Mytilenean Debate. What most strikes me, however, is the tendentiousness of the translation; it’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s very definitely pushing one specific reading, accentuating the rhetorical contrasts and putting them into distinctively modern terms. For example, I’d be more inclined to read cherosi nomois as ‘imperfect laws’ rather than ‘bad laws’ – clearly not the same thing – and the contrast is more between a state with imperfect laws that are steadfast (not necessarily wholly unchanging) and a state with great laws that are ineffective. Likewise, Thucydides’ Greek sets up a contrast between the ‘more ordinary people’ or ‘simpler folk’ (phauloteroi) and the ‘more intelligent’ (xenetoterous) – yes, one could translate the latter as “intellectuals”, but that has some very specific modern connotations that don’t wholly fit the Athenian context.
Generally, when I find myself complaining about tendentious translations of Thucydides, the culprit is Richard Crawley; in this case, however, it’s Rex Warner’s 1954 Penguin version. That dpes offer a fairly obvious explanation of the choices made in his translation, if we keep in mind – as is so often forgotten – that this is not Thucydides speaking, but one of his characters: specifically, the populist politician Cleon. Less than a decade after the Second World War, in the opening stages of the Cold War and the aftermath of the Red Scare associated with the name of McCarthy, it’s actually unsurprising that Thucydides’ depiction of the deceptive, rabble-rousing rhetoric of a clever but unscrupulous politician should have struck a chord.
Indeed, it’s worth recalling Warner’s 1941 novel The Aerodrome, hailed as a predecessor to (if not indeed, according to various Amazon reviewers, far superior to) George Orwell’s 1984 as a depiction of the temptations of fascism and totalitarianism and their manipulative rhetoric. Critics of Thucydides, and especially of his anti-democratic tendencies, invariably point to his portrait of Cleon as their primary evidence for inherent bias in his account (see George Grote, for example); Warner, however, seems to take the line that Thucydides was entirely fair in this, if not in fact rather restrained, and so presents Cleon’s words in a way that makes their contemporary demagogic resonance unmistakeable, attacks on pinko intellectuals and all.
In these terms, Thucydides’ account of the Mytilenean Debate – and it’s worth keeping in mind that the second speaker, Diodotus, offers equally dubious and disturbing arguments, but often gets a free pass because he’s arguing for the more humane case of not massacring the entire population of Mytilene – offers a subtle and provocative study of the power of rhetoric and the susceptibility of democracy to populism. However, that works only if we read the whole thing, and keep in mind that Thucydides is presenting the debate between two equally problematic sock puppets.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the aim, here as elsewhere in his history, is not so much to make us immediate spectators of the action (as Hobbes for example argued) but actually to transform us into vicarious participants, pulled backwards and forwards by the clever arguments of manipulative speakers just as the Athenians were, but in the hope that we can learn from the experience before we make their mistakes. That all falls apart if we quote lines out of context and start attributing them to Thucydides himself – though I suppose there’s a case to be made that this is a reasonable enactment of how politics now works in the age of social media…
[Update: incidentally, it seems pretty certain that this speech of Cleon is also the distant progenitor of another populist ‘Thucydides’ quote that crops up every so often: “It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men.” I still cannot find a specific sentence for which this is even a remotely reasonable translation, but the sentiment bears a certain resemblance to 3.37.4 – the “intellectuals” always think themselves as better than the laws, they want to get their own way and show off their intelligence, whereas the ordinary chaps mistrust their own abilities and don’t question the arguments of brilliant speakers. Could be a gloss on the thought behind the first part of that argument? Still no sign of the original – the earliest version I’ve found so far is the 1999 Ultimate Book of Investor Quotations…]