Guest Post: The Wisdom of Thucydides

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by gojam of The Needle blog,

Thucydides was probably born about 460BC and was for a time a General on the side of democratic Athens against aristocratic Sparta in what is known as the Peloponnesian War in which most of Greece took a side. After being exiled he wrote his famous history. The passage that I’ve quoted in full below is, in my opinion, one of the finest passages of classical antiquity. I was somewhat surprised not to be able to find it elsewhere quoted online. It descibes the breakdown of civil society and in doing so it perfectly describes every civil war and revolution that has taken place in the almost two and half thousands years since it was written including the English Civil War, French Revolution, American Civil War, Russian Revolution, and Spanish Civil War. Human nature, it seems is immutable.

I bring it to attention in the vain hope that those who have blindly pursued the policies which have brought Greece to the brink and risks plunging the whole of Europe into the abyss, might consider more keenly the consequences of their actions and change course before it’s too late.

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occured late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one might expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted and anyone who objected to them became suspect. To plot successfully was a sign intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of established laws, but to aquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.


Revenge was more important than self-preservation, And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who seized it boldly, catching the enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.


Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable – on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy – but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggle for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.


As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state off affairs, no guarentee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were the least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognised their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manoeuvred in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, overconfident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off guard.


Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occured the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilised life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious powers of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may be a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.”



This. Is. TROIKA!!

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rajat_bhatia's picture

But you havent mentioned your own advice, or the steps the europeans should take to avoid going into the abyss, its easy to criticize a problem, rarther difficult to offer a practical solution. Please also specify a solution. 

candyman's picture

Great piece of antiquity! Where the fuck do you find these passages. geesh

Bunker Boy's picture

Getting away from this is why we're fucked now, douche bag. You must be enlightened. I'm sure they have a place for you in the Federal Reserve, the State Department, White House or California.  You'll fit right in.

fnord88's picture

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Western's picture

1) Top 2 comments....... lol


2) Considering this piece is 2.5k years old, the writer was certainly an elevated dude. Hopefully there's enough elevated souls this time around, globally, going forward these next few years.

anonnn's picture

A most workable viewpoint to keep in mind ...

Unfairness creates chaos.


i-dog's picture

Unless enough of those affected by the breakdown of the current system (say, just 2-3% of those with influence in their local communities) take positive steps to bring back local control over their lives, the muthaz that created the current mess will simply impose a new system of centralised control that keeps them in power and riches.

Most/all of the past revolutions -- eg. China, Russia, France, England -- simply replaced the central control of a king with the central control of a politburo ... so nothing really changed!!

Only the American Revolution of 1776 attempted to change from a central committee to a system of local government, and even that was subverted right from the start by agents of the European monarchs, papists and money-changers.

Harlequin001's picture

No shit. And this 2-3% you refer to are going to change that are they?

Thomas's picture

Bhatia deserved some scorn--he is not describing solutions because he is describing solutionless outcomes--but Candyman's comment was flattering and got jumped with a bunch of negative checks.

ED's picture

I think they are counting on what is written above occuring. And I think they believe their technology will shield them from the effects of it. Instead of asking you to participate in solutions to the challenges we face today, you will be dispensed with, any survivors, controlled. The economy has been designed to facilitate this. All of this because you are human, ie, you cannot be trusted to do the right thing (see above). This is just my gut-feel. Tell me Im wrong.

Harlequin001's picture

I think you need to think some mildly happier thoughts.

FEDbuster's picture
“The first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero.”  Judge Andrew Napolitano

Skynet, the new Utah NSA spying center, the NDAA, etc...., the DC sheepherders are preparing to keep a closer eye on the flock.

Orwell's "1984" was just a little early.

Think for yourself's picture

1984 was also quite simplistic, technologically speaking, less encompassing and less ruthless that what they have in store for us.

It's not only endoctrination, society and big brother that constitutes the oppression, but everything from the poisoning our complete environment in and around us (vaccines, sick-care "medecine", air, water, food, electromagnetic spectrum) to the control of the whole planet's genome combined with terminator seeds. Drones are just the cherry on top.

goldfish1's picture

unheard-of atrocities in revenge

There was a story Polak told about his grandmother being killed by the nazis because she hid someone. The villagers went to the snitch's house and burned it down with the entire family inside. Stopped the snitching.

My father always told me "Desperate people do desperate things." Don't forget it.

Confused's picture

One name for you:



You are saying it isn't possible?


Harlequin001's picture

Gandhi was lucky he didn't end up wearing a British Army Landrover.

Had they simply run over him and apologised profusely they would have gotten away with it, no sweat.

and anyway, Gandhi's clearly dead now, so no it's not possible...

Harlequin001's picture

'They may torture my body, break my bones..."

He got that one right. A Landrover would certainly do that.

Let me guess, they'd like the British to leave but they'd be grateful if they'd leave their investment behind, for free, thanks... so that they can pick up all the industry and carry on with all the trade. Just ask Mugabe.

and then they wonder why the British were pissed off. Typical fucking socialist. Better off dead...

Thanks for the link though...

Confused's picture

Gandhi's clearly dead now, so no it's not possible....

And those who fought to free the colonies from British rule? There will ALWAYS be someone to fight. To suggest there will not be, begs the question:

Why do we all frequent this site? And why would the Tylers even bother? What good would anyones research be if there would never be someone to use it?

Mildly happier thoughts. Please.

Harlequin001's picture

'those who fought to free the colonies from British rule?' - were smugglers and slavers dude.

Forget the idea of them being freedom fighters.

So you didn't want to pay taxes to the British hunh, for providing all that investment, infrastructure and not to mention a rather large fleet of warships to protect American traders whilst they made money selling and transporting goods to the rest of the world? You wanted to pay those taxes to yourself at whatever rates set by yourself without ever paying back those nasty investors (banks) that had made it all possible in the first place because that was freedom. So why shouldn't California now tell you all to sod off with your Federal debt now and go it alone trading through the West Coast ports? It's entitled to isn't it, or is 'tyrrany' only applicable when there is a body of water between the workers and the authorities? 

But yes, 'There will ALWAYS be someone to fight.' that's why the British Empire had soldiers charged with protecting British interests around the globe, one of which was its investment in America.


akak's picture

You are as disgusting and vile an apologist for statism as I have ever read.

buckethead's picture

Googled it. Yeats.




I stole it.

Doubleguns's picture

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.


Thomas Jefferson.


Harlequin001's picture

and why was a slaver talking about any 'tree of liberty'?

swamp's picture

You'd fit right in too, with your profane misogynist language.

LouisDega's picture

Im not sure. It looks like lyrics from the King Crimson album, Court of the Crimson king

Dugald's picture

Put away your Comic books,

LeonardoFibonacci's picture

This is ....Spartaaaa, then i kick you in the face and you fall into a deep deep hole of DEBT!!!!!

Harlequin001's picture

pretty much the same as the run up to the French Revolution eh, the have nots demanding everything from the have's, and destroying what remains of any local economy to get it.

Not too distant than the world voting far left in response to a crisis, just like Greece. This is just the start. Since when did socialism ever solve anything?

These are very dangerous times for us all now...

fnord88's picture

This is fascism dickhead. 

dasein211's picture

We'll never solve the problem as long as dumb fucks can't tell the difference between fascism and socialism. It's like a goddamned retarded virus stopping all intellectual thought. Fuck.

fnord88's picture

Are the rich getting richer or are the poor getting richer? Is money getting transferred from Wall St to Main St, or visa versa? Fascism calling itself socialism is still fascism.

Harlequin001's picture

Look dick head, the govt transfers my money to those that don't work through taxes. Since when is that fascism?

That's called socialism, Tosser.

fnord88's picture

Taxation, any taxation, equal socialism does it?. HAHAHA. I see. Your an ideologue. An extremist. You love anarchy so much, fuck off somewhere where there are no taxes, laws or governments. I hear somalia is nice. Only you won't. Cause your a fucking pussy, who is too much of a coward to put his money where his mouth is. 

Harlequin001's picture

Coherently please, if you're capable.

fnord88's picture

The Federal Reserve is socialist? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAA The bankers are socialist? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. They set up Fractional Currency to take from the rich and give to the poor? HAHAHAHAHAH

Your poor deluded fool.

Harlequin001's picture

You referring to me or someone else?

Not sure I ever said that, ever, anywhere.

Like I said, you need to stop making this shit up if you want to start looking like something other than a total fucking arsewipe. 


prole's picture

fnord comes across as particularly distasteful. The Somalia crack and the insults remind me of the rabid anti-Libertarian trolls who crop up and fade away. He used the "go to Somalia" defense of Socialism like a mantra. It must be the statists religion, to hate those who propose any kind of freedom from despotic government

Bolweevil's picture

Interesting. You guys going at each other fit the premise of the article perfectly.

Harlequin001's picture

He is a troll. He has nothing to say so he makes it up and then responds abusively to try and make some kind of point. Real straw man stuff.

The man's a prick.


Confused's picture

It would appear to be both, however, it would also seem those at the top do far more damage to us all. And then blame those at the bottom.

Sean7k's picture

Fascism includes the growth of corporations protected by government police power, a miliatry industrial complex that plays at colonialism (having the US do this for Britain does not relieve Britain of this responsibility, although your antagonist probably is talking about America) and social/government spending via debt. 

By this definition, all of europe and the us can be judged as fascists.

Harlequin001's picture

dasein - This guy has no clue...

ATM's picture

Fascism or Socialism??


The labels Fascism and Socialism are just marketing. The end goal is simply Authoritarianism wrappend in the cloudy veil by the marketers of death.

goldfish1's picture

Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority as well as the administration of said authority. It is usually opposed to individualism and libertarianism. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political authority is concentrated in a small group of politicians.

Totentänzerlied's picture

Broadly, socialism is a category, divided into two subcategories: statist and non-statist. Statist is further divided into two categories: national and international. It is problematic, as many schools of socialist thought employ the Marxist gimmick of promising no state at some point in the indefinite future, after the worker's utopia has been established blah blah blah.

Obvious examples: Hitlerism = national socialism, Leninism = international socialism (fairly closely aligned with classical Marxism), Stalinism = socialism in one country (major departure from classical Marxism), Italian fascism = national socialism with syndicalism

etc. etc. etc.

Two notable examples of anarchist socialists are Noam Chomsky (left libertarianism) and Mikhail Bakunin (collectivist anarchism)

It goes without saying that 99.9% percent of all people could not possibly care any less about such distinctions or what they mean.