Thucydides vs Plato

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Compare and contrast Thucydides’ and Socrates’ analyses of the fate of Athenian democracy in war, of why the Athenians went to war, and of how and why they failed.

The Peloponnesian War was the turning point in Athenian hegemony in Ancient Greece. It was fought in 431 B.C. between the Delian League, led by Athens, and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. According to Thucydides, Athens’ imposing hegemonic status and its overwhelming quest for more power made the Peloponnesian War and Athens’s eventual fall from power inevitable. Despite the Athenians having a far more superior navy and being considerably wealthier, they were defeated and made subjects of Sparta. In this paper, I will discuss Thucydides’ and Socrates’ reasons for why Athens lost the war and then I will present my own theory.

Thucydides was a Greek historian who served as a general during the Peloponnesian war. He is often thought of as the father of political realism and one of the first historians to implement strict standards for evidence gathering and analysis. He is also noted for not succumbing to religious biases and beliefs when recounting the history of the Peloponnesian war. Thucydides starts by talking about the history of the Athenian and Spartan relationship. Most notably he discusses how Athens became so powerful that war with Sparta was unavoidable. He also talks about his method of collecting evidence and recounting history. Thucydides says that while it is impossible to remember everything exactly as it happened, he recounted the events to the best of his ability. He was present at every event he wrote about or had reliable eyewitnesses present.

Reading into Book 1 of the History, we quickly get the impression of what the rest of the world thinks of Athens. Representatives from Corinth describe the Athenians as being “incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so”. Athenians are never happy with what they have. They are greedy always wanting more, for “if their enterprise is successful, they regard that success as nothing more compared to what they will do next.” This shows that Athens has crossed the line from being ambitious to being avaricious. Corinth seems to be resentful but still reverent towards Athens. The Corinthians do not seem to blame Athens completely for its behavior. Instead, they hold Sparta partially to blame for letting the balance of power get so out of control. They accuse Sparta of being apathetic to Athenian aggression and for allowing them to build the Athenian long walls in the first place.

Athenian representatives that were present at the Spartan assembly never denied any of the Corinthian accusations, let alone apologize for them. However, they were even more arrogant and brazen by replying that they should be praised for being “human enough to enjoy power [and still] pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do so by their situation.” According to the Athenians they deserve every bit of the power they were given after rescuing Hellas from the grip of the Persians.

From the first few readings from the History, we see how arrogant the Athenians are. Athens thinks it is the greatest city in the world and it’s entitled to the powerful empire it commands. After several aggressions against Sparta, the Peloponnesians finally have enough. They issue an ultimatum towards Athens essentially saying, “free the people of Hellas!” The Athenians, with the holier-than-thou attitude are perplexed. Even before this, at the Spartan assembly, the Athenian reply to the accusations was that surely the Corinthians were treated worse by the Persians and now they complain about us being oppressive.

Reading these passages, you get a feeling that both parties are resentful towards each other. The Peloponnesians were resentful because of Athens overstepping its power, and Athens because they felt that its subjects were being ungrateful even though they were being...
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