Pestilential Politics: Stasis and Plague in Thucydides
Was Thucydides the first to comment on how populism leads to ruin? Is there such a thing as the ‘Thucydides Trap’ and is America stuck in it? Much as I love it, Thucydides popping up twice in one summer during discussions of American politics can mean only one thing, troubled times. Politicians have long enjoyed referencing the great historian as both parable and war doctrine and his narrative is one of a thriving state brought low by hostile politics and disunity, a tale that could describe nearly any age of human history. To say society has had a hard time learning from these lessons would be an understatement but, by comparing this internal feuding with his chilling account of the plague in Athens, Thucydides paints a particularly memorable warning against civil unrest...
Thucydides’ description of stasis (στάσις, a Greek term denoting internal conflict or civil strife in all it’s philosophically ambiguous glory) is reminiscent of his discussion of the plague in Athens. Just as the biological plague appears unexpectedly and ravages the body from the inside out, so too are seditious plots born in secrecy and implemented at unexpected times to produce strife from within a polis (city-state). Both are maladies that cause the “body” to work against itself, introducing internal discord and a will to discard customary societal standards, and both are sources of tremendous suffering for mankind.
Like a town in the grips of plague, prolonged stasis will cause a demos (people) to degenerate into a state of moral depravity. When Athens was ravaged by the plague, men:
“did just what they pleased. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object.” (2.53)
In fact, the people who did abide by honor died the most readily since “honor made them unsparing of themselves” and more willing to help infected friends (2.51).
Stasis “proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (3.82) and causes men to lose respect for loftier ideals like justice and piety, burdening them with the task of simply surviving.
“In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities.” (3.82)
It is this regression into being governed by “imperious necessities” that is the most common, and devastating, similarity between the effects of the plague and the effects of stasis. Gratification of immediate desires and opportunity-seeking become the law of the land and society is reduced to a state of savagery in which people show themselves to be:
“ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority.” (3.84)
Stasis and the plague share another unfortunate similarity in that neither result in a quick “death” and both only intensify problems the longer they wreak havoc. Coups, and similarly unsanctioned transfers of power instigated by power hungry despots or political parties, may happen quickly but they are rarely pulled off without bloodshed. Even if they are, it is often only a matter of time until another ideologue or party attempts an overthrow in their own favor. Thus, the periods of strife and violence, far from being short lived, create a state of anxiety that becomes a staple of everyday life and the demos is condemned to suffer indefinitely. The righteous and honorable men, like the doctors, are the first and most numerous to die because they are obliged by their morals to stand in harm’s way at all signs of injustice.
As stasis persists, a polis’ moral values begin to disintegrate and the unrest amongst its leaders and governing bodies is reflected in the people’s unwillingness to make sacrifices in good faith for a better tomorrow. Without this cornerstone of civil society, people will inevitably determine that:
“present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful.” (2.53)
As a demos gives up on ideals such as honor, truth, and civil discourse, for being too time consuming and without observable benefit, it becomes impossible for the polis to survive in any recognizable form.
“Words had to change their ordinary meaning” and “men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.” (3.82)
As these inverted values take root in a demos, it becomes harder to see them for the perversions they are and an environment is created in which the basest of people can prosper and reasoned judgment looks like cowardice and indecision.
“The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries.” (3.82)
In these situations:
“the blunter wits were more successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action: while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking… that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy could provide, often fell victim to their lack of precaution.” (3.83)
In the end, both the plague and stasis lead men to self-defeating behavior. In the particular situation Thucydides is discussing when he brings up his thoughts on stasis, the Corcyraean infighting led to the devastation of their own territory, which led to famine and further civil strife. For the plague-stricken Athenians, they abandoned (albeit temporarily) all civic responsibility and turned to hedonistic and entirely self-destructive behaviors while in the midst of the most important war of their lives. Though the war would last an additional 20 + years, Athenian leadership would never regain the moral clarity it had at the outset of the contest.
One is tempted to argue that the civil strife and political revolutions of the Peloponnesian War-era were far more brutal than similar issues today but a cursory glance at the last 100 years of government in places like South America or the Middle East show this is not at all the case. Pull any of the above quotes out of context, would they be so out of place describing aspects of America in 2017?
**This is the first installment of the ARCHIVE series, in which I post modified versions of scholarly papers I’ve written in the past. This paper was originally written in 2006 and revised in 2017
SOURCES / FURTHER READING:
Thucydides - In my humble opinion, this is hands down the best version of Thucydides that a person can buy (as is the edition of Herodotus’ Histories and Xenophon’s Hellenika from the same series) as it is not only beautifully formatted and arranged but it contains maps and other relevant historical info throughout the text. These add invaluable context to the story and I have no idea how anyone could keep the geography straight without them. Thucydides is notoriously difficult to translate and this edition does a decent job making the prose lucid as well.
For a much more in depth discussion of this topic, I recommend this work by Clifford Orwin. (Jstor is a great resource for scholarly articles of all sorts.) Here, Orwin argues stasis reflects the “ consequences of the radical ‘politicization’ of life” while the plague reflects the consequences of depoliticzation.
This article also contains an interesting discussion of stasis, albeit in an entirely different context.
Thucydides is a complex work, to be sure, and open to many degrees of interpretation so be careful taking any situation out of context...The White House and Thucydides.