James Holmes

Thucydides, War and Natural Disasters

“There’s no point being bitter about a tsunami or storm. It takes an enemy to envenom human affairs.”

So it's Peloponnesian War week with our senior students. As always, reviewing Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and the commentaries on that long-ago conflagration sheds new light on human endeavors while raising big questions. Thucydides is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Here's a question that struck me afresh: is it more traumatic to live through a natural disaster, or through a violent upheaval like a revolution or civil war? Assume the scale of human suffering and physical devastation is comparable. Which form of cataclysm is worse?

The historian writes about them in much the same terms, implying that many classical Greeks saw war as a virtual force of nature. Sometimes the fire flickered. Major engagements during the Peloponnesian War took place in times of ostensible peace. Sometimes an inferno raged. Real tranquillity was rare.

Thucydides' major point is that civilization is a thin veneer. Death, destruction, and privation peel it away almost instantly when calamity strikes. It's no accident that he juxtaposes first citizen Pericles' eloquent Funeral Oration, lauding Athenians' democratic society and culture, against the plague that felled a quarter or more of the populace. No one knew whence the pestilence came or how it was communicated; it respected no profession or social class. Despair was among its worst effects, as was the collapse of religion. Few would bury the slain or administer funeral rites for fear of infection. In short, the plague loosened the social bonds that hold a civilization together. It's a wonder Athens rebounded.

Civil war imposed similar hardships. Later in the war the oligarchs of the island state of Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) revolted against the ruling democratic faction allied to Athens. Such turmoil, writes Thucydides, is especially cruel because it permits no one to remain neutral. Moderates swiftly perish. It pits citizen against citizen, kinsman against kinsman; old scores are settled with extreme prejudice. Indeed, a kind of Orwellian Newspeak prevails. Political factions garb themselves in lofty slogans while pursuing the basest of motives. Words mean their opposites. Prudence is cowardice, moderation effeminacy, indiscriminate violence manliness, treachery superior intelligence. Two plus two equals five!

Gruesome stuff — but doubtless familiar to veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other counterinsurgent campaigns. Ultimately, I think, civil strife wins this macabre sweepstakes. We remember a San Francisco earthquake and fire, or a Hurricane Katrina, or a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, or, more locally, a Blizzard of 2013. These are life-altering events. But no one nurses a grudge against a natural disaster, the way more benighted residents of my Southern homeland still lament — reputedly — the "War of Northern Aggression," or the way Chinese citizens of nationalist leanings bewail their century of humiliation.

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There's no point being bitter about a tsunami or storm. It takes an enemy to envenom human affairs.