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The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and The Republic by Plato Essay

Both The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and The Republic by Plato are referential texts for understanding the social and political life of ancient Greece, as well as its culture and civilization. In his work, Thucydides relates and analyzes the war between Sparta and Athens, during what is usually called the “Golden Age” of Pericles, and thus, we get valuable information about the Greeks customs and ways of thinking from the account of the events, and also from the speeches of Pericles, as reproduced by Thucydides.

The funeral oration that Pericles gives in honor of the victims of the war is among the most famous texts of the time, as it develops an enlightening portrait of Athenian democracy and about the spirit of the people. As a historical text, The Peloponnesian War provides direct information about the general ways of thinking and living of the Athenians, and thus, differs from Plato’s essentially philosophical work.

The texts do share a common focus though: the importance of the polis as a center of Athenian life, and the relationship between the individual or the citizen and the city.

Thucydides’ work describes the Athenian political system as a perfect democracy with equal rights and just laws for everyone, in which all the citizens have their place and their advantages according to their merits. In the historian’s view therefore, the Athenian state is based on the perfect symbiosis existing between the city and the citizen:

“A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country be ruined he must be ruined with it; whereas a flourishing commonwealth always affords chances of salvation to unfortunate individuals.”(Thucydides, 1950, p. 134)

Any citizen of the state must be an active member of the community and of the social and political life of the city, even if he is not a statesman himself. Justice is therefore represented in the form of a democratic state, in which all citizens have equal rights and obey the same laws. The freedom that ensues from this type of government is also transferred to the life of the individual, and thus policy is always a part of ordinary life as well. In this way, Pericles defines the Athenian state as one based upon an almost consummate form of democracy:

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.”(Thucydides, 1950, 123)

Government and individual life always intermingle: an individual is never just that, but a citizen as well. As it will be seen, Plato’s ideal republic was probably inspired by the model of Thucydides, and the two authors share a common view of the importance of the city for the inhabitant. To understand better the ideas proposed by Thucydides, one should look also at the emphasis he lays upon the particular qualities of spirit of the Athenian, which set is apart from other peoples, such as the Spartans who are considered almost barbaric.

Indeed, as it is widely known, the ancient Greece was not only a rich and developed state but one that possesses incredible cultural resources, and in which the arts were part of the daily life. Education, especially through the most appreciated arts of the time, such as gymnastics and music, was essential to the Athenian mode of life. As Pericles emphasizes, although Greece was a great military power, its force resided in something else than mere military discipline, in the spirit of the people and in their devotion to their city:

“[…]while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”(Thucydides, 1950, p.125)

Thus, the harmonious way of thinking of the Greeks and their love for arts resulted in an equally virtuous form of government. All the citizens stay united, so as to retain the perfect harmony of the city. The secret of this harmony was the love Greeks had for themselves as a people and for their own spirit:

“[…]you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer.”(Thucydides, 1950, p. 129)

As Burstein and Dolan (1999) have found, Pericles’ speech emphasizes the artistically focused Greek civilization versus the militarized and unprincipled culture of Sparta:

“The speech has a markedly defensive tone. Its purpose seems to be to counter suggestions that an easygoing polis such as Athens, with its love of words, of ideas, and of beauty, could not compete successfully in war with a highly regulated, militarized society like Sparta, where words are despised as a hindrance to action, people have little choice about how they live their lives, and anxious secrecy is the order of the day[…].”(p. 291)

As already mentioned, Plato’s Republic seems to have drawn heavily on Thucydides text, while at the same time trying to refine the vision of the historian. The main argument of Plato’s text revolves around the concept of justice and justness, and the philosopher presents his reader with a serious of definitions of justice as given by the participants in the dialogue, until arriving at the ‘right’ definition supplied by Socrates. First of all, Plato’s view of justice is similar to that of Thucydides: the government of a state is an art, and as any art it has to serve its subjects and not pursue its own interests: “[…]then we should have plain proof that the true ruler is not meant by nature to regard his own interest, but that of his subjects. “ (Plato, 1945, 231)

Unlike Thucydides’ perfect democracy, the state envisaged by Plato is neither democratic nor totalitarian as such. He does not emphasize so much the relationship established between the city and the citizen, but rather that between the ruler and the inhabitants. The city is in itself, essential for the life of the individuals, but here the art of government and that of the ruler are highlighted instead of the idea of democracy.

The basic similarity between the two texts would thus be that in both the city, as a form of government, must serve its inhabitants and establish a state based on liberty and justice. Also, just as Thucydides emphasized the importance of education through art for the Greek spirit, Plato acknowledges that every action and every craft should be seen as arts, which have to be performed with excellence. The comparisons between different forms of art and the form of government are abundant in the text, especially in Socrates divergence of argument with Thrasymachus:

“Socrates: ‘And do you think, my excellent friend, that a musician when he adjusts the lyre would desire or claim to exceed or go beyond a musician in the tightening and loosening the strings?’ Thrasymachus: ‘I do not think that he would.’ Socrates: ‘But he would claim to exceed the non-musician?’ Thrasymachus: ‘Of course.’”(Plato, 1945, p. 333)

The most striking amendment that Plato brings to Thucydides’ state is definitely the analogy he draws at the end of text, between the city and the human soul: Socrates idealizes the democratic view of Pericles and contends that everything has an end which could not be fulfilled by anything else, and that the soul for example, has the same end for a human being as the sate for its inhabitants:

“Well; and has not the soul an end which nothing else can fulfill? For example, to superintend and command and deliberate and the like. Are not these functions proper to the soul, and can they rightly be assigned to any other?”(Plato, 1945, p.342)

The soul and the state seem therefore to fulfill the same parts: those of commanding or judging and so on, therefore Plato identifies the virtues of the soul with those of the state and the state-ruler. Given that justice constitutes the excellence of the soul then, a republic has to be just to be happy and prosperous: “And we have admitted that justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul?” (Plato 1945, p.343)

Nikolas Pappas (2003) comments on the analogy that Plato makes between the city and the soul, by observing that the philosopher identifies the different psychical structures with the institutions of the state:

“The Republic‘s analogy between city and soul, while it still envisions reason in a second-order capacity, describes a more specific function for the tribunal of reason. In the city, the governing classes come into existence to serve the needs of the productive class, whether they work for this class in obvious ways-when the army protects the city-or in a way that only the rulers appreciate, as when they deprive all citizens of the delights of drama in order to keep the army both fierce enough to protect the city and gentle enough not to overrun it.”(Pappas, 2003, p.196)

Thus, it can be concluded that Plato was inspired by Thucydides’ idea of plenary justice and harmony, but he idealized the concept of mere democracy into one which would imitate the perfect and immortal soul, since the latter best comprises in itself the ideas of justice and righteousness.

Reference List:

Burstein, S.M. & Donlan, W. (1999). Ancient Greece: A political, social and cultural history. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Thucydides. (1950) The history of the Peloponnesian war. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Pappas, N. (2003). The Routledge philosophy guidebook to Plato and the Republic. New York: Routledge.

Plato (1945) The republic. London: Oxford University Press.

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