Thucydides, Teenagers, and Politics

Show notes from Karl Schudt’s discussion: #31 – Moments II: Thucydides & The Thin Veneer of Civility

There’s a temptation to think that everything starts with us, here and now. Our memories don’t go back very far. If we haven’t experienced something in the last five years, our thought is that it’s never happened, ever. We’re like teenagers, saying to all of history, “You don’t know how I feel!” Or, “You’ve never been in my situation!”

Concerning our present bifurcated political climate, we may think that it’s worse than ever. “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” History, you just don’t understand us!

Then we slam the door.

Thucydides, who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War, is like the wise grandfather, who begs to differ.

Revolution is a fearsome thing. Thucydides tells us some things about revolution and partisanship in Book III.

In such time, he says,

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter, prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness, ability to see all sides of a question, incapacity to act on any. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy. his opponent, a man to be suspected.”

Consider these words the next time you see the headlong rush of a twitter mob, where any sort of moderation is no good, and cowardly.

In such a fight, honor is forgotten and oaths don’t matter, Thucydides says. They only hold good so long as no other weapon is at hand. Everything gets turned into partisan advantage. It doesn’t matter what the facts are. All that matters is whose team is going to win.

Thucydides also says,

“In their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not limiting them to what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict of the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour.”

In fact, if things get worse, the entire veneer of civilization can vanish.

Thucydides thinks that human nature itself is violent. Custom law and honor and religion keep it in check. But now, he says,

“Human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority.”

I could read for you the atrocities he lists in the book of the things that humans do to each other once civilization vanishes, but you can look that up yourself.

Well, if he’s right, then two things are true:

The first thing, none of our partisan rancor is new. We’ve been here before.

Secondly, we should be worried. It doesn’t take much for humans to revert to nature and kill each other.


This reflection is presented for edumacational and infotainment purposes only. Taking this to be an authoritative interpretation will likely lead you to make many bad choices, corrupt your virtues, multiply your vices, and lead into the life of a tyrant. The writer was probably using a triple Platonic-Socratic-Kierkegaardian irony, and may not mean a word that he or she wrote. If, that is, the writer actually exists. This essay is probably just an emanation of the weltgeist or a bit of a spark of the eternal Heraclitean flux. Don’t take it too seriously. Join the discussion at Online Great Books


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