The Aftermath of War

6 December 2010


The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.

I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.

What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.

The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.

But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”

It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”

In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.

We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.

We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.

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