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Dr. Larry Arnn Continues On Thucydides

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HH: Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn, who is the president of Hillsdale College, And each week at this time, we engage in the Hillsdale dialogue, where Dr. Arnn or one of his colleagues helps explicate a great text of the Western canon. All of those conversations dating way back now are all available at, and you can link to it from, or go to And thousands of you have done that, and that’s very gratifying, and I hope thousands more do, and that you begin at the beginning. And it doesn’t cost you a thing. You just have to sign up and give them your email. We are working our way this week, and for the next three weeks, as we did last week, through an introduction to the history of the Peloponnesian War. Dr. Arnn has recommended the Strassler translation with an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson. Mine arrived yesterday, but I am still working through the Crawley translation, Dr. Arnn, so we might be a little bit different.

LA: No, no, no. Crawley and Strassler are the same.

HH: Oh, terrific.

LA: Strassler has used Crawley in an edited volume where he adds lots of maps and footnotes and explanations. It’s really great. The Landmark Thucydides is…

HH: I know. I got it, and I started paging through it last night, and I said this is terrific. No wonder VDH did this.

LA: Yeah, yeah, and Victor Hanson helped him with it, and Victor Hanson is the man.

HH: Well, he has unfortunately not taught me how to do my pronunciation, so I know how to say Corinthians. But am I saying Corcyrans correctly? How do you say it?

LA: Corcyrans.

HH: Corcyrans. Yeah, 50% chance. So this is, we’re early, the war has not begun. Last week, we talked about how Persia invaded and the Greeks came together and repulsed it. But a long period of uneasy peace between Athens, the sea power, and Sparta, the land power, is coming to an end. And people are choosing sides. And why does this, and you discussed last week how dialogues are used by Thucydides to illustrate things. Pick up there, because this is the first great speechifying segment of the Peloponnesian War.

LA: So Thucydides reproduces long detailed and eloquent and extremely revealing speeches 141 times at events where there was no written record, and most often, he was not there. So you have to explain how does he come up with this? And he basically says I heard a lot of reports, and I wrote what it was required for them to say given what they are and what the situation was. And think about that for a minute. What would you say if Hugh Hewitt were pleading before Justice Roberts, and he was asking you, and Scalia, and they were asking you those intelligent questions? The questions would say what you had to say combined with what you, Hugh, are and believe, right?

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: So it’s a look into the souls of the people who are talking, and that’s what these speeches are. And we come to the first one, the first great one here, and it’s the speech of the Corcyrans and the Corinthians before the Athenians. And it’s worth, here’s a little school of foreign policy in microcosm. We always thing we’re going to banish war. This will teach you that that cannot be done, because here are the facts. Corinth, a great naval power, second only to Athens, is located down in the bottom part of Greece, the part called the Peloponnese. That’s where Sparta is. And Corinth is the great naval power located there right on the edge, almost directly between Athens and Sparta. Corinth established a colony, Corcyra. And Corcyra is all the way around on the other side of Greece in the Adriatic, over toward Italy, and then north of that, even farther, Corcyra in turn started a colony called Epidamnos. So mother, Corinth, daughter, Corcyra, granddaughter, Epidamnos. Now who can predict these things? Epidamnos is up there by itself, it’s on its way to Syracuse and Italy, and it’s happy as a pig up there. And they’ve got their own ways up there. And Corcyra does, too. And if you want to go boating around there and trade, there’s a big trade way there, then you put into those ports. And those are kind of not allied cities on the sea, and they choose not to be allied. And Corinth claims that they’re abusive of the shipping that stops in there. Several Epidamnons are, sounds almost onomatopoetic, are exiled, and they make some allies, and they lay siege to Eipdamnos.  And Epidamnos goes to the daughter, Corcyra, and says help me out. And Corcyra won’t help them. And you know, in Athens and Sparta, nobody knows this is going on.

HH: Good point.

LA: They’re about to be the great powers at war. So Epidamnos then proceeds immediately to Grandma, to Corinth, and says you help us out. And Corinth looks out there and says a-ha, yes, I don’t like the way my daughter’s been acting anyway. We have rituals and we have get-togethers, and they don’t treat us with the respect due to a mother. They’re getting stroppy and powerful and rebellious, and I don’t like them. I’m going to side with the grandchild. And so they send some ships. There’s a battle. And the battle doesn’t go terribly well for Corinth, which however is a great power. And so Corinth gets busy. And they start hiring sailors and building ships and borrowing money, and really getting ready. And Corcyra knows it’s in trouble. And so they go to Corinth, and now they say oh, my goodness, Mom, let’s submit this to arbitration, or ask the Oracle at Delphi what’s right here, and we will agree in advance to do whatever it is. And the Corinthians say too late. So now the Corcyrans have got to have somewhere to go, so off they go to Athens. So now the big boys are getting involved, and the Spartans are involved because the Corinthians, near the Spartans, connected to them by land, and that means a bad thing.

HH: So Grandma and daughter are going to fall to blows over the granddaughter, and who is going to run the granddaughter’s life.

LA: Right.

HH: But before we go to, and they go to Athens to make an appeal. But you just mentioned something in passing. We have two minutes to the break. Let’s appeal to the Oracle at Delphi. They really did do that, Dr. Arnn. I want you to emphasize. Why would any rational people do things like that?

LA: They’re very pious. And the Greeks are very pious, especially the Spartans. But to disobey, to flaunt the gods, and at Delphi, there’s an establishment, a priestly, a priestesquely establishment. And you can go there and ask them a question, and you’ll get an answer. The answers are famously equivocal or mysterious, but then you can parse it out and try to figure out what they said and do what they said. And so that’s the way they run their business.

HH: And did they themselves believe that those were the gods speaking through the priests? Or did they believe that this is a good intermediary mediating institution that is useful for the resolution of conflict?

LA: Well, you’re asking us to look into the hearts of men. But of course, some did and some believed the one thing, and some believed the other. And there’s some evidence that the Greeks at this stage are not as pious as they have been in the past.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, we’re talking as we did before the break about Corinth and Corcyra going to the Athenians to ask for their help. Why did they go to Athens as opposed to Sparta?

LA: Well, the reason for that is you can only go to one of those places, and the Corinthians think they have the upper hand, and they’re the ones who are closer to Sparta. They’re closer geographically, and it’s just a fact if you live on the land, and you’re a marchable distance from Sparta, Sparta can tell you what to do. There’s only one exception to that, and that’s Athens, and that’s because of the certain wall that the Athenians built. But so the Corinthians don’t have cause for complaint right now. They’re winning. The Corcyrans are the ones who need a friend, and so they go to the only place that’s big enough to be a friend, and it’s worth saying here, to start, because one of the things that goes on in these speeches is there’s lots of talk of the importance of naval power. In fact, that’s terribly important throughout this war. And the decisive battle that decided the war was a naval battle. And oddly enough, Athens, the great naval power, managed not to win it. But Athens is the greatest naval power in history. And think of the character of naval power. You just get in the boat and go. And you can go anywhere the water can go. You can go very far, whereas a land power, you’ve got to walk. And so the naval powers have a kinship, and distance doesn’t matter as much to them. And the naval powers in Greek in order are Athens, Corinth and Corcyra. And so two of those are at war with each other, and if one of them allies with Athens, Athens becomes by a bigger margin the great naval power. If both of them, because maybe of a conquest, of course, Corcyra from Corinth, allies with Sparta, then all of a sudden, Sparta is now not just the overwhelmingly dominant land power, but a great naval power, too.

HH: So an assembly quoting was convoked, and the rival advocates appeared before the Athenians. Now Dr. Arnn, was this preordained, in your view, how it would turn out, before the speeches were ever given?

LA: I think that you sent me a very able outline, and I want to add one thing to it next week. I think we should talk about 1-70, where the Corinthians are before the Spartans, and the Athenians are before the Spartans, because that is extremely revealing, too.

HH: Okay.

LA: But both of them, and there’s a wonderful characterization of the difference between the two countries, from the Corinthians to the Spartans, and with the Athenians listening. And in both cases, the weight of the argument seems to me at the very most, mixed. They both make some really great cases, right, and factual cases about what’s going on. But Athens decides a way that leads toward war and conflict with Sparta quicker, and then later you’ll see that Sparta decides in a way that leads with conflict and war toward Athens quicker. And I think that’s because the reasons existed already.

HH: Okay, okay. So two minutes to the break. Open up how the Corcyrans go about stating their case.

LA: Well, it’s just wonderful. You know, if only people would talk this plainly in the press…

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: …you know, statesmen. All Athenians, they say, yes, it’s true that we’ve been isolated from you and haven’t done a darn thing for you. And so we appear inconsistent, and we appear inexpedient. Why would you get yourself messing around in our affairs when there’s nothing but complication coming from it? That’s their opening.

HH: It’s candid.

LA: Can you help us?

HH: Yeah, help us.

LA: And that’s exactly what the Athenians have got to be thinking, because everybody’s worried to death about war, and this thing started heck and gone, all the way around up the other side of Greece, forever and a day away against an obscure granddaughter, and their exiles, and some barbarians and locals.

HH: And early on, Dr. Arnn, the Corcyrans say let the conduct of the Corinthians towards us who are their children, be a warning to you not to be misled by their deceit, nor to yield to their direct requests. Concessions to adversaries only end in self-reproach, and more strictly they are to be avoided, the greater will be the chance of security. So he’s attacking their credibility at the start, too. It’s a throw down.

LA: That’s it. That’s it. And you know, the way they’ve treated us, do you want to be treated that way? And you know, we’ve been off there, it’s true, by ourselves doing nothing, but now we’ve got a problem, and we’re coming to ask for help. And we need help, because they’re big and strong and mean.

— – – –

HH: There is eight pages of this, Dr. Arnn, and I’m going to give the floor to you for eight minutes to explain why this first dialogue, this really first contending debate in Western civilization ought actually to be read by every college student.

LA: First introduction, think of the Middle East today – a bunch of powers, many of them Islamic, one of them Jewish, different tribes and sects, and I guess sects is the word of Islamic powers, power politics very common, assassination not uncommon, and despotism very common. What are the conversations like? And they probably aren’t as candid as these, because these are rendered by a great mind, Thucydides. But underneath, what they’re saying is the same mixture of principle and interest that runs through all of these conversations. If you read, I think, every conversation in Thucydides, but certainly the famous ones, there’s always an appeal to the interest of the person you’re trying to persuade. And then there’s always an appeal to principle. And it’ll jangle to the modern ear, but it ought not, that very often the principle is the stronger gets his way, and we’re stronger. That happens a lot.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so we have to talk about that. We’ll talk about that when we do the 1-70 next week, because it’s a really great place for it. But what happens in the dialogue is the Corcyrans then say look at the principle involved. You’ve got to treat your children pretty well, don’t you? And we didn’t get founded by these people. We moved out here and we’ve done all this, and we started this place. And we’re not to be abused by our mother. And that’s wrong. And so you should stand up against that principle. Now it’s true, they say, that you have a treaty with both Corinth and with Sparta, All three of your signatories to a wider treaty. We are not signatories to that. But that treaty permits you, however, to make an alliance with anybody you want to who is currently a neutral, and that’s what we are. So you don’t do them any harm. Now that argument by Corcyra is undercut by the next argument, which is however, look at the facts. We are a really great naval power, and so are you, and if we join up with you, wow, aren’t we something? And if you do it at this moment of our need, when you don’t have any obligation to do it, lord, will we not be really grateful, gosh, we’re going to be so happy, and owe you so much. And we’ve got this navy to pay it back with, whereas if you leave us to our own devices, Corinth might conquer us, get our navy, and join up with Sparta. And you know, they warn, that war is upon you, and that’s bad. And so that’s their speech. And the speech is, if you imagine yourself with the power to decide a thing like this, which neighbor are you going to join, what are you going to do in a business situation, and people are telling you right is on my side, and your interest is on my side, and if you decide my way, you’ll get stronger and better. And if you decide the other way, you’re going to get hurt.

HH: You’d say to yourself good speech, good arguments.

LA: Very good, might dang good, well done, you know? And you want to go, right? And then the thing is, all the time that they’re talking like this, and these people by now have been killing each other already, the Corcyrans and the Corinthians. There’s a body count, a significant one. And so, and they’ve been quarreling for a long time, and you know, undercutting each other at the rituals and stuff. But the Corinthians are sitting there listening, and then they get their chance to talk. And what they say is yeah, yeah, yeah, they’ve been very separate, and that’s not because, as they say, they wanted to be isolated from the wrongs that other people do. In fact, they’re kind of a stationary pirate state, because they’re located up there in a place where ships are always having to put in, and they steal their stuff, and they tax them, and they behave abominably. And by the way, you, Athens, are a great imperial power with lots of colonies. Are you going to let your colonies treat you the way these guys have been treating us? Really? Because they’re just behaving terribly. And all we did was go up there and try to help the grandchildren, the Epidamnians, who we had, you know, second removed, founded. And they were in dire straits, and the Corcyrans had refused to help them out. All we did was go help them. And now, the Corcyrans are upset with us, with a situation that they had ignored, we are trying to fix. You would never put up with that. Right is on our side. So that’s the principle argument. And sure enough, we are a great naval power. And then we turn to the interest argument. And the interest argument is do you really want us joining up with the Spartans?

HH: Yup.

LA: Because yeah, you have the right to make a treaty with a neutral if you please, but not in a case where the purpose of the treaty is to harm the interest of others in the treaty. And so you will in effect be declaring hostility to people who are very strong, and they might be coming. And you don’t want to alienate, because we, too, are a great naval power. And guess who we might be allied with? And then you’ll be in a world of hurt.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, next week, you mentioned 1-70. That’s Book 1, the 70th paragraph. We’re going to talk about when Sparta has its assembly. But as you conclude reading these dialogues, do you think that there was any doubt in the Athenians’ mind, given as you said at the beginning of this conversation war was coming, which way they would go?

LA: Yeah, and they decide pretty quick, but they do a middling thing, because this speech, by the way, some of the best of the later speeches are looking into the different kinds of human souls, the different ways that human beings live, and what they value. This one is really just a little school in how foreign affairs works, because the questions are always tangled, and wars start from things that the big powers hardly know about. And so it’s like that, right? But what the Athenians do is they join Corcyra for a defensive only alliance, and they send a bunch of ships out there and says if you attack Corcyra, we will attack you. But we will not help Corcyra attack you.

HH: The results of that alliance next week when we continue the Hillsdale Dialogues. Dr. Arnn, Happy Easter.


End of interview.


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