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.
already surrendered to Brasidas.30 Thucydides’ pace at sea is more reminiscent of the Athenian ship that carries the order to destroy Mytliene than of the ship sent to countermand that order (3.49.4). Thucydides’ exile from Athens after his command at Amphipolis allows him “to be present at the actions of both sides, especially of the Peloponnesians,” and thus “to perceive more” about the events of the war than he otherwise would have done (5.26.5). His exile thus facilitates his gathering of
politics, some propounding policy, others judging it. Participation takes different forms. And so, Pericles says, Athenians do not think that speech and action are at odds, but that it is beneficial to be taught about what should be done before they act (2.40.2–3). Rather than being forced to act by their circumstances, Athenians are guided by speech and therewith reasons for acting in one way rather than in another. Thucydides demonstrates his agreement with Pericles by recording in his history
Athens equality allows merit to rise in public life. Nor does poverty or obscurity of birth prevent one from serving the city (2.37.1–2). Prominence is therefore attached to individual accomplishment rather than to wealth or privilege. Equality in a free city makes possible such distinction, and the past—in this case, class or birth—does not determine human action. Athenians are unlike their antagonists, Pericles says, in opening their city to foreigners, rather than driving them away, even
Sparta’s “slowness and hesitation” are not shameful, he claims, for haste in fighting now will only delay the end of the war if Sparta is not prepared (1.84.1). Such care demonstrates the moderation, respect for the laws, and discipline that Spartans have inherited from their ancestors and that have made them a “free and famous city.” It is these qualities that distinguish Spartans from others, for they prevent them from becoming hubristic in success, and help them endure in misfortune
manifests an “irrational hope” of safety that will lead to their destruction (5.105.4, 5.111.2–3). Their reference to “irrational hope” recalls Diodotus’s warning to the Athenians themselves about the irrational sway of hope and ero¯s that leads to destruction (3.45.5; see also 4.62.4). But when the Athenians at Melos claim that hope brings ruin through its false comfort, they gratuitously exempt those overly endowed (perousia). When such individuals hope, even if they suffer harm, they will not