Here is your regular Thucydides Twitter Quotes update, brought to you by @Thucydiocy and its tireless, if erratic, monitoring of quotes and references on Twitter! There’s been a minor upsurge in references recently, to a fair degree in relation to the delightful Trump, and in particular this line:
Someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.
It’s a perfectly genuine quotation, from 8.89, in Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics version. It gets tweeted without comment – too many characters for anything else? – and it would be very interesting to check exactly how different people understand it. In the context of the Donald, it seems reasonably certain that it’s intended as a critical commentary on his pre-emptive questioning of the legitimacy of the election (though it’s not so much that he’s “consoling” himself about the result as preparing the ground for anger and insurrection). Previous to that, I’m less sure; is there a possibility that the emphasis is on “it wasn’t fair” as an actual property of democratic elections, rather than as the sort of thing that losers claim? That this is being offered as further grounds for cynicism about the whole system?
In either case, there is a certain reworking or repurposing of Thucydides’ idea. The original quote begins with “In a democracy”; arguably this is redundant when the discussion is focused solely on democracies – but omitting it does obscure the fact that Thucydides is offering an explicit contrast with oligarchy, in the specific context of the overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 411 and the moves of some members of the elite to promote an extension of the franchise. The focus is not on the election system itself but on the psychology of the would-be aristocrat, especially when things are in a state of flux.
They thought they should dispense with the excessively narrow oligarchy they had [the 400], and should instead demonstrate that the Five Thousand existed in reality and not only in name, and should establish the constitution on a more equal basis. But this form of words was just their political pretence. Most of them were drawn through personal ambition into a mode of behaviour that is sure to end uo destroying any oligarchy that emerges from a democracy. Right from the first day they not only fail to consider themselves equals, but each thinks he deserves the very first place himself. Whereas under democracy an election is held and a person can bear the result more easily, telling himself he was not defeated by his peers.
[This is Jeremy Mynott’s 2013 translation, incidentally, whereas the quote that’s commonly used comes from Warner. The differences in the way that they translate the final line highlights that this is another of those Thucydidean sentences that defy straightforward reading. Crawley, the most common source for Thucydides quotations on Twitter, took the same line as Mynott: “while under a democracy a disappointed candidate accepts his defeat more easily, because he has not the humiliation of being beaten by his equals.” This preference does seem to support my suggestion above that the quote is being deployed at least some of the time as a critique of democracy rather than as a criticism of sore losers.]
Democracy (or at any rate the Athenian version) is founded on the idea of equality among all the citizens; inevitably there are those who regard themselves as superior, but there is less of an issue for them when that superiority fails to be recognised in an election result – the decision was left in the hands of people who can’t be expected to show the same level of good judgement, who were swayed by the lying arguments of one’s opponents and the crooked MainStream Media, and so forth. Within an oligarchy, however, the abandonment of the idea of complete equality in favour of the idea that certain people are born to rule leads every such man to think of himself as superior to all (and not just superior to the ignorant masses) – and so the experience of seeing others being recognised or even preferred causes pain, in itself but also because this is now a system based on the idea that status is an objective recognition of actual personal qualities, rather than bestowed by the preferences of the multitude.
This feels like it might be a more useful way of interpreting aspects of the Donald’s behaviour. He is, manifestly, driven by his own sense of superiority, and deeply sensitive to any perceived slight (cf. the whole “tiny hands” thing, and his persistent use of superlatives about himself and his actions). It’s not just that he draws no consolation from the fact that voters are sometimes unpredictable, but that this doesn’t appear to be his primary concern; it is simply assumed that all decent people [sic.] would naturally vote for him if only they weren’t being lied to and/or that they will vote for him but the result will be manipulated.The real point at issue for him, however, is one of oligarchic amour propre. He objects vociferously to the fact that attention, respect and status are being accorded to someone he regards as an inferior – and the more he thinks about it, the more obvious the disparity seems to him, and so the more enraging the fact that others are refusing to acknowledge this. He is the ranting Id-monster of the “don’t you know who I am?” mentality that permeates the upper layers of business and celebrity (and academia…), all the would-be aristocrats trapped in a world that doesn’t yet fully accept their claims to superiority…
Another quote – which has only recently appeared, and doesn’t show up much on a Google search although when it does it’s presented as a “famous” quote, is this:
“The security of the city depends less on the strength of its fortifications than on the state of mind of its inhabitants”.(Thucydides)
My best guess is that this is a commentary upon Nicias’ line in 7.77: “Men make the city, not walls or ships with no men inside them”. No comment from Thucydides about their state of mind – but obviously it’s in the context of Nicias desperately trying to raise morale in the face of ignominious defeat, so easy to imagine someone offering such an exegesis. If anyone knows where it originates, please let me know…
Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, you are strongly urged to head over to http://zenpundit.com/ for the Thucydides Round Table; some great posts already, and I dearly wish I had the spare time to get properly involved in the discussion.
Update: Jake Nabel on Twitter – I haven’t the foggiest how to link to Twitter, so you’ll just have to search for @JakeNabel – has identified the obvious reason for the upsurge in references to the first quote, namely the fact that it’s cited at the beginning of a Fox News piece on Trump: see http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/10/20/trumps-election-comment-puts-republicans-on-defensive.html, and Jake’s comments on the translation.