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Dr. Larry Arnn Concludes In Thucydides

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HH: Once a week, I join with Dr. Arnn or one of his colleagues from the Hillsdale College community to talk about one of the great classics of Western Civilization. It’s our way of leading you into the weekend on a good plane, thinking great thoughts. And we have spent four weeks, three with Dr. Arnn, one with his colleague, Dr. Paul Rahe, on the History Of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. And this week, we conclude that conversation, which has been wonderful. But we have to go from the destruction of Melos to the end of the war, Dr. Larry Arnn. And after the Melian dialogue, the Athenians go on a rampage, and they go off to Syracuse. Can you begin our conversation by charting what happens in the second half of the Peloponnesian War?

LA: Well, there are three subjects to talk about, to talk about the end of the war and how it came out, and they are a man, Alcibiades, and Athens and Sparta. And under the category Athens and its failings, you have to mention Syracuse. It might be good…and so what happened was the early part of the war, the Athenians did very well. And all of the advantages that Pericles mentions in his funeral oration and other places prove to be theirs. And they can go where they want to and strike when they want to, and all Sparta can do is go ravage the farms of Athens upon which Athens doesn’t really depend. And you know, the plague broke out soon, but that didn’t bring Athens down, either. So it goes very well, and they have a peace. And Athens, it has several problems, one of them I’ll mention now. Athens is both ambitious and inconstant. And that’s a deadly combination. They decide to send the largest navy they assembled, ever assembled by the Athenians in the ancient world, which means one of the largest ever until the Romans, and sorry, and Carthage, but before those two, and they took it to attack Syracuse with an idea that they would then go on to Italy. And at the time they made that decision in the public assembly, they didn’t actually know how large this place was where they were going. And off they sailed. And then those who opposed it did what is often done, was often done in Athens, and that is they’re brought charges against Alcibiades, who is one of the most vivid and vibrant figures in all of human history.

HH: Now pause for a moment. Steven Pressfield, who is a wonderful friend of this program, and comes down whenever he puts out another wonderful book and we talk about it, wrote a book, a novel about Alcibiades called The Tides Of War. Have you ever read that?

LA: I have.

HH: Isn’t it wonderful?

LA: It’s just great.

HH: (laughing)

LA: He’s great. And you know, when you read that book, you find yourself writing down things that are superb practices for any human being, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: Because Alcibiades is this guy, you have to remember first of all that Alcibiades occurs and is a figure in five of the Socratic dialogues, and two of them, maybe one apocryphal, is named after him. And Socrates, in his trial, which we’ll get to in these dialogues, is actually accused of being responsible for Alcibiades’ crimes. He is one of the great figures of history. And he is one of the people who persuades the Athenians to go and attack Syracuse. And he’s a very, beautiful, one of his admirers says of him, of his appearance, that if Achilles did not look like him, then Achilles was not handsome.

HH: Wow.

LA: Awesome guy, right?

HH: Yup.

LA: Beautifully spoken, courageous, brilliant general and admiral, won almost all the time. Well, a lot of people in Athens don’t like this thing, and so they bring charges against Alcibiades, but they decide not to press the charges until the fleet, this magnificent fleet, irreplaceable in its size and competence, has sailed. Now he’s gone. Then, they can prosecute him for malfeasance. And sure enough, they get there, and then ships go from Athens following to call him back to face the charges. So they send this mighty force, and immediately deprive it of its most able admiral and general and advocate. So that’s Athens. They do things like that all the time.

HH: But why, is this the, boy, it sounds very much like Bush and Iraq and many other things are ringing in my ears. But why did they hate him in Athens, those who had been left behind?

LA: Well, they didn’t all, but his enemies did. And why did they hate him? Because people hate people, and especially very powerful and vivid people, and this guy’s about to prove that he’s to be both hated and feared, because he doesn’t go back to Athens. He defects to Sparta. And he begins to give them huge advice about how to attack Athens, which eventually they take.

HH: Now what about that, Larry Arnn? You would have nothing but contempt for an American who turns sides, or for Alger Hiss, who was himself a wonderfully talented creature of privilege at the top of the American spectrum who immediately went over to the Soviets and sold us down the road. And then, we’ve got many. Benedict Arnold is not known as Benedict Arnold for no reason at all. What did you think of Alcibiades doing this?

LA: I thought it was very bad.

HH: Okay, thank God.

LA: You know, in The Tides Of War, that novel you mentioned, I think it’s more than we actually know. But Pressfield has got a wonderful imagination, and you know, has a serious knowledge of these things he recreated in fiction. He describes Alcibiades in Sparta, and he’s not the brilliantly dressed…

HH: No.

LA: …arrogant, handsome young man. He’s wearing simple clothes, and walks around with his head down all the time.

HH: You know, I remember that so well.

LA: He’s trying to…

HH: How interesting that you would call that up.

LA: Yeah, very much, because you know, he is like the people he’s attempting to lead. And he persuades the Spartans to send the relief force, which is one guy. That’s what they would send, an extremely able man whose name was, I always get it wrong. It’s not Glycipus, it’s Gly-something.

HH: I’m not going to come up with the name. You’ve come to the wrong place.

LA: I always have a mental block. I’ll just look and see. Spartan, I’m going to look on my…it’s a terrible, terrible mental block. I’ve known the name of this guy for 30 years.

HH: I could have known it for 40, and I’d still mispronounce it.

LA: Yeah, no, it’s not a very hard name, actually. And Alcibiades is coming, persuades them to send this fellow, and with many ups and downs, he gets them organized. And the effect of this, and you know, the Athenians are now commanded by Nicias, a great gentlemen, not much of a commander. And they sail around from place to place, and they try to persuade cities to come to their aid, and they besiege Syracuse itself, the main city, and almost take it. But it’s the story of too little, too late. And they end up, I mean, the devastation of it, you can’t believe it, it’s one of the worst things that ever happened. They’re trapped in a harbor, and the Syracusans and everybody in the neighborhood have assemble a naval force and a land force, and the Athenians launch a major assault to try to break out of this bay that they’re trapped in.

HH: And when we come back from break, we’re going to tell you what happens when the Syracuse expedition, it’s 413BC, as this comes to its climax with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, as we continue in the Hillsdale Dialogues here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – –

HH: And we went to break just as the Athenians were rallying for their final assault on the city.

LA: And the Spartan relief force is named Gylippus. And he’s really great, right? And they break themselves trying to get out of the harbor. They can’t get out. They abandon their ships, and they go inland. And they run out of water, and they hasten as best as they can, and they’re now dying of thirst, and disorganized and demoralized. And they get to a river, and the Syracusans are waiting for them, and they surround them, and they kill very many of them. And they’re by now split into two forces. They capture them both, and they put them all in the bottom of a rock quarry, and they make them live down there, surrounded by stone with archers on the top. And they lower down baskets to let people up to torture them. And if you don’t get in the basket, they kill a bunch of people with archery. And it’s terrible. They knock their teeth out, they do awful stuff. And this whole Athenian force, all of the ships are broken up and destroyed, and only rare stragglers ever make it back to Athens. And meanwhile, their leading general and leading spirit, Alcibiades, a protégé, by the way, of Pericles, and seen to be his successor in brilliance, is advising the Spartans. And so that’s Syracuse. And that comes, the Syracuse expedition comes at a time when Athens has more or less won the first round, and there’s a peace, hostile, nervous peace, in place. And they weaken themselves drastically by overreaching. Then breaks out trouble in the empire, because, and it’s worth it to talk, oh by the way, I should mention the Alcibiades story. The Spartans eventually turn on him, and so he defects to the Persians.

HH: To the Persians, yeah. Off he goes.

LA: And he has counseled the Spartans not only to release Syracuse, but to open negotiations with Persia. So you see, the two main Greek cities are fighting each other, and the Persians that they had defeated a generation earlier, now becomes stronger. And they become the makeweight, or the balance, in this war for the rest of the war. And it’s Alcibiades who persuades the Spartans to open negotiations with them, and also hastens and urges the Spartans on their course of building a navy. And that changes Sparta very much. So as Athens is busy by changing policy destroying itself, the Spartans are changing their nature in ways that will alter them vitally. And they’re building a navy, and they’re making a deal with Persia. And then darned if Alcibiades doesn’t get in trouble in Sparta and defect to the Persians. But that’s not the end of it, because he gets in trouble with the Persians, and he finds a way to rejoin his native Athens.

HH: Athens.

LA: So it’s not like what, you know, like Benedict Arnold.

HH: No.

LA: It’s like Benedict Arnold went to the British and came back to us.

HH: Why do you, you know, A) I hope, has Pressfield been to Hillsdale?

LA: No.

HH: Boy, I would pay cash money to watch you and Pressfield talk about Alcibiades for a long time, and I know he listens, so I hope he’s listening tonight. We’ll figure out how to make that happen.

LA: He’s a great guy, by the way. I say that to him.

HH: He is a terrific fellow. But why don’t most Americans and most moderns know about this most incredible individual?

LA: Well, Pressfield has helped us with that, but it’s partly because we don’t, you know, it’s because we live in an age, a little bit of a philosophic point, but because we live in an age where we think that everything is trends and large forces and technology, we forget what Churchill called the sublime responsibility of men, and the profound significance of human choice. Once you start thinking it’s what people do that makes a big difference, and we are responsible for things, then you start looking to great and vivid people. And you also think that across the ages, you have to look to find such people, because they’re rare. And so there was a day, you know, Plutarch’s day, the height of Rome, the height of Britain, much of American history, where everybody learned about these heroes.

HH: And when, that is actually what we’re doing on the Hillsdale Dialogues. And when we fall into Plutarch, it will be a long time until we climb out, and a good climb it will be. It won’t be like the quarry pit at Syracuse, which by the way, for the Steelers’ fans’ benefit, is Sicily, right?

— – –

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, this is our last segment talking about the Peloponnesian War, and it’s eight minutes, so I want to sort of turn the floor over to you to wrap it up as best you can. It really requires months, but you have eight minutes.

LA: Athens – in its throes, as it begins to make these terrible mistakes, and the war turns against it, Athens abandons its century-long political system of popular rule, and becomes an oligarchy – the rule of the 400. Thucydides regards that as a devastating step, and a sign of fundamental mis-arrangement in the body politick. The 400 eventually give way to 5,000. And nobody really ever knows who the 400 or the 5,000 are, but the point is, oligarchs are brought into place now. And Athens’ fundamental mistake should be named. You read the Melian dialogue last week. And you have to understand that one of the claims that the Athenian diplomats make to the Melians, or the soldiers, is that justice is the interest of the stronger, that might makes right. And this is the doctrine, the question that Socrates refutes to give rise to the republic. It’s the first major controversy in The Republic. And there’s a sophist there teaching ambitious young men that strength is the cause of right. And Socrates is able to refute that. And that means that going on in Athens in Socratic philosophy, and in the school of Plato, is something that might have been a cure to this willfulness that ran away from them and destroyed them. And the Melian dialogue is written almost like it’s part of that question, that claim from Tisimachus that if you’re strong, justice is whatever you want it to be. So that’ s a fundamental wrong written in the heart of Athens. Now the war went on for a long time after this, because of weaknesses in Sparta, because they were slow to take up their advantages. And in fact, the Peloponnesian War, in the History, doesn’t, it doesn’t make it to the end of the war. But the things are in place when it ends that show how the war ends. And what happened was, was an alliance between Persia and Sparta, now with a navy, and with the Athenian navy reconstituted, still powerful but weaker. They have a fight up around the Dardanelles, where Churchill fought and lost in the Hellespont, near what we call Turkey now, in between Turkey and Greece. And at the battle of Aegospotami, which is a, Potamos is river, so they were drawn up near a river near the shore. And the Athenian navy is destroyed. And that’s how the war ends, because Athens can’t go on without, it has lost the biggest navy any Greek city ever had, or Persian, and it builds another one that’s still very strong, and it loses that, too. And Alcibiades, by the way, was on the scene. And the sources say, some of them and some of them not, that he gave them the advice not to fight the battle here, but to move somewhere else where they had more options. So perhaps if he had been in command, then it might have been different. And that means that it was the vices of Athens that destroyed it, and the failures of leadership that stemmed from those vices. But of course, Alcibiades himself was a personification of those vices – brilliance, changeability, immoderation. Now after it’s over, the real, the person, the nation that gained from this was Persia. And Persia is a factor in Greek affairs. It’s not like Sparta ascends to the leadership of all Greece and has a long reign there. First of all, it’s not very good at it. They’re not very dashing. They don’t move very fast. They don’t move around very well, although they are changed by having a navy in ways that affect their polity. So that happens, but there’s never a time when Sparta enjoys, or the Greek cities themselves, enjoy the dominance that they collectively had for about 30 years after the Persian wars, because the Persians are made stronger again by their division.

HH: And we enter into a long period of the rise of Rome and Carthage. And to a certain extent, they destroyed the entire region. Is that a correct way to say it?

LA: Well, you miss out Macedon, and Alexander and Philip, who really, they themselves reduced the Greek city-states to the polis, to servitude, or to…they’re not independent anymore once Philip is done with them. And then, and then you know, Alexander goes on his great conquest and conquers Persia. And that doesn’t last very long. He dies young. But it’s, so there’s an intervening step. The dominance of Macedon leaves the Greek states prey to the Romans.

HH: But do you teach much of…I mean, it is interesting, and Pressfield comes to our aid again with Alexander, if for people who wish to follow the course of the story, but do you teach much of Philip or of Alexander at Hillsdale? Or do you go from the great time of Greece and the playwrights and the philosophers, which we’re turning to next week, with Plato?

LA: Sure.

HH: Or do you pause a while and talk about, I don’t even know what you would read for Philip and Alexander.

LA: Well, you know, Plutarch.

HH: Okay.

LA: But yeah, you know, the story is, there isn’t the great historian to tell that story. And so you’re right to say the texts are not as good. But of course, you have to tell the story and understand what it means. And you know, Alexander’s generals rule much of the Middle East and the Greek peninsula for a long time after that until the Romans replace them. So it’s a story worth telling. You know, some of it, by the way, is, it reaches almost to Biblical times, right?

HH: But before we do that, next week, we are going to tarry quite a while in the golden age of Greek philosophy and playwrights, so don’t miss next week on the Hillsdale Dialogues as we begin with Plato and Dr. Larry Arnn. Thank you, Dr. Larry Arnn.

End of interview.


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