Ancient & Modern: Thucydides ‘Historiae’ 3.82.2

Ancient & Modern

καὶ ἐπέπεσε πολλὰ καὶ χαλεπὰ κατὰ στάσιν ταῖς
πόλεσι, γιγνόμενα μὲν καὶ αἰεὶ ἐσόμενα, ἕως ἂν ἡ αὐτὴ
φύσις ἀνθρώπων ᾖ …

Numerous acts of savagery took place in the course of
the civil war in the city states, the kinds of things that do
happen and will always continue to happen as long as
the nature of human beings is the same …

Thucydides Historiae 3.82.2

Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) makes this observation in analyzing the unspeakable internecine barbarity that in 427 BCE befell Corcyra (modern Corfu), a small Greek island located just south of the coastline of what was only recently Yugoslavia.

Although I have personally been more fortunate than many others in matters of war, war is a salient presence in my own view of reality.  My government did not invite me to share in the glory of its more recent defining moments, such as the 1983 liberation of that despotically oppressed island, Grenada, and the invasion in 1989 of that mighty belligerent state, Panama, and various post-nine-eleven adventures in Iraq (the WMD-proscribing war) and Afghanistan (the forever-war).  I was too old to be drafted for Vietnam, too young to be sent to Korea.  After escaping from Norway to Sweden some seventy-odd years ago, I made good friends with a young Finnish boy in temporary refuge from Russia’s attempts in the Winter War of 1939-1940 to free Finland.  And I still vividly remember the civilian chaos and terror inspired by Luftwaffe bombers over Oslo, and then the German troops locust-like in the city’s streets during April of 1940.  I was born in North Africa because my parents, living in Málaga in southern Spain, deemed it wise to escape (in the only direction possible: further south!) Franco’s fascism and the imminent Civil War in 1936 Spain while escape was still possible, and a short generation before my birth there was the Great War.  A few generations before that there was our own Civil War and the Crimean War, and still a couple generations earlier we had something called the Napoleonic Wars.  And so on and on back through more than a misty score of martial centuries to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), whose cruelties, stupidities, amorality and Realpolitik Thucydides analyzed so trenchantly in his magisterial Histories.  And uncounted wars beyond that great debacle lay the Trojan War in the 12th century BCE, and so forth and so on.

Here I have touched on selective and brief highlights from Western history only!

Within the memory of most of us was the madness in the former Yugoslavia, where Nazi-like operations of “ethnic cleansing” were being carried out against civilians – young and old, men and women, Christians and Muslims alike.  Meanwhile European leaders, dithering and wringing their hands, clung to an ahistorical fantasy of union into some 320 million coöperating inhabitants of a single monetary and economic house.  And now, as we learn daily, still ever helpless merely to weed their own front yard, they are saddled with a large run-down property gone to utter seed that nobody wants to clean up.

What we yesterday saw on television and read in the magazines and newspapers about Yugoslavia and today see on television and read in the magazines and newspapers about Bashar al-Assad’s Syria are chillingly evocative of the Corcyran Revolution that Thucydides dissected: there normative language not only loses but perverts all meaning, citizen turns on citizen from the basest of vengeful and petty motives, and human cruelty is given full play to exercise its unnerving ingenuity.  It is not that human history is entirely about war.  Yet, if Thucydides, already 2.500 years ago, could make the kind of statement about human nature that he does above, it may perhaps be deemed a piece of venial speculation to wonder in contemporary hindsight if there is some grotesque biological determinism at work here.

No matter how much we study history we still seem doomed to act out a kind of tribal repetition-compulsion to war, our human nature being what it in fact seems to be.  It is a deeply pessimistic refrain variously reiterated throughout ancient Greek (and Roman) literature and modern society, perhaps tediously so  but not it seems without some factual justification.

I wish desperately that I could aver that I am sanguine for the future about the withering away of our own sanguinary bent for war and cruelty.

But I really can’t.

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