Freedom and its Discontents

Review: Mary Nichols’ ‘Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom’

Thucydides / Wikimedia Commons

In the first year of the war between Athens and Sparta, Pericles was chosen to speak at a state funeral for the Athenian war-dead. This was an old tradition and a grand spectacle, starting at the funeral pyre and ending in front of a mass, ornate sepulcher. Traditionally, the speaker, surrounded by the wailing female relatives of the fallen, would make a speech about the noble deeds of the dead, but Pericles’s speech was different.He spoke to the mourning public about why Athens is worthy of empire.

Above all, Pericles said, Athens is worthy of ruling other cities because of the character of the Athenian regime. Athens is worthy because that regime is beautiful, and Athens is beautiful because she is free.

We owe our account of this speech to Thucydides, in whose work, Professor Mary Nichols of Baylor University argues, freedom is the central, animating force.

For some readers of Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, this assertion may seem too idealistic. Thucydides is known for being a teacher of godless and bloody power politics who expresses little sympathy for the cities Athens conquers. We see this side of Thucydides in the Melian dialogue, a section of his history where he takes us inside negotiations between anonymous Athenian envoys and the leaders of Melos, a tiny island city that Athens is about to destroy. The Melians tell the Athenians that they will not yield without a fight. Although they are small, they say, they believe they can win because the gods are on their side.

"Of gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of nature they rule wherever they can," the Athenians respond. The "law" the speak of, is that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." Athens destroys Melos, kills all the men of the city, and sells the women and children into slavery.

In a series of five essays, Nichols argues that harsh words spoken by the Athenians at Melos are not Thucydides’ full political teaching. If force were the only meaningful arbiter in political action, then the character of a conquering city wouldn’t matter. However, Nichols shows that to Thucydides, the character of a regime matters a great deal.

For Thucydides and Pericles, freedom is not merely "freedom from subjection to others, or autonomy," although this is where it begins.  Freedom also "refers to the free way of life within cities that autonomy makes possible," she says. Thucydides "demonstrates that freedom makes possible human excellence, including courage, self-restraint, deliberation and judgment, which support freedom in turn."  But, Nichols says, Thucydides in not blind to freedom’s excesses, the way in which "the pursuit of freedom, in one’s own regime and the world at large, clashes with interests and material necessity, and indeed the very passions necessary for [freedom’s] support."

The Spartans, in fighting a war against Athenian domination, believe themselves to be the true defenders of freedom. But as Nichols points out, Thucydides shows how the unfree nature of the Spartan regime circumscribes their ability to act in the way they desire.

The Spartan cause of freedom is undermined by the fact that Sparta relies on a slave class, the Helots, to support their warlike lifestyle. Thucydides shows us many times that Sparta’s actions are limited by their fear of a Helot revolt. Sparta’s allies often learn the hard way that they cannot depend on Sparta’s claims to be defenders of their freedom. So do Sparta’s citizens. Sparta withdraws support from one of its most excellent citizens, Brasidas, when he proves too enthusiastic in freeing cities from Athenian domination.

Thucydides admires Brasidas but also shows how his autonomy and strength is limited by the fact that he does not come from a city that values his pursuit of freedom. Had Brasidas been an Athenian, his pursuit of excellence could have been supported by his city. In Athens, Brasidas’ commitment to freedom would have been magnified rather than crushed.

And yet Thucydides also shows that the freedom Athens affords her citizens can create problems. Athens enables certain individuals, like the dashing Alcibiades, to flourish, becoming so great that they become a threat to the regime. In a democratic society, great men inevitably become a cause of envy and fear. Alcibiades is ruined by rumors spread by his enemies that he is defacing statues of the gods and plotting a tyrannical overthrow. Thucydides does not tell us whether the rumors about Alcibiades were true, but the people believed them, and sentenced Alcibiades to death.

In response, Alcibiades defects to Sparta, confirming his enemies’ worst accusations. Alcibiades next defects to a Persian satrap, giving the leaders advice that he believes will allow him to return, and to conquer Athens. Alcibiades demonstrates the double-sided nature of political freedom, Nichols writes: "Repossessing one’s city—and therefore making it one’s own—is the ultimate demonstration or proof of one’s own freedom." However, Alcibiades’ success "would mean not that he belonged to Athens but that Athens belonged to him," and was thus "no longer be a free city."

Thucydides indicates that the pursuit of individual freedom must be limited by the city in order to curb the influence of Alcibiades and others like him. These limits, Nichols says, are best described in Pericles’ Funeral Oration. By attaching one’s freedom to one’s city, Thucydides and Pericles give the Athenians an image of political freedom that is beautiful but constrained, and therefore not by nature self-destructive.

Nichols is right to argue that Thucydides’ project is an examination of human freedom. However, in the Funeral Oration, Thucydides introduces a tension that Nichols never resolves: Pericles does not simply claim that Athens is beautiful and good. His claim is that Athens’ beauty makes her worthy of conquering others, depriving them of their freedom and the ability to live under their own laws. If Thucydides is truly engaged in a "mission of liberation," Nichols must show us how he resolves this problem.

Thucydides describes his work as an inquiry into "true causes."  By determining which actions are the result of fortune and nature and which actions result from the freely chosen conduct of individuals, Thucydides examines the extent to which any of us can be free.

Nichols demonstrates that Thucydides’ judgment of men and their cities is significantly influenced by the extent to which they are acting for the sake of freedom. The pursuit of freedom can be destructive and dangerous, and often ends in failure and corruption. However, in the examples of statesman and cities he gives us, Thucydides also presents us with the kind of human and political excellence that freedom makes possible. By providing us with these images of freedom, Nichols says, "Thucydides shows us the human without undermining the beautiful."