Author: StJohn Piano
Published: 2020-11-15
Datafeed Article 193
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I'm about halfway through The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (in English, translated by Rex Warner).

The war lasted for 27 years (431 BC to 404 BC). The two primary combatants were the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta, each of whom had a large network of allies and subject cities. Thucydides (460-400 BC) was a Athenian general during the war.

There's a lot of detail, but Thucydides wasn't trying to be pointlessly difficult to read. It flows rather well.

It's a full picture of all the different ways in which the various social systems interact, in politics, diplomacy, and war. This picture is drawn mainly using examples (because it's a history, which is being recounted event by event), but sometimes more general observations are made. Various people make speeches at appropriate points (Thucydides has them say what he thinks is most fitting for the occasion), and the speeches are actually interesting. It gives a proper, tragic view of the nature of man and politics, and of Chance, who may at any point enter the game, no matter how carefully plans are made.

It's an excellent history, and in a larger sense it's a practical manual for politics. Its scope is much greater than that of The Prince by Machiavelli.

Some more detailed thoughts:

x) The aristocratic cities generally seem to have made better plans and to have been more coherent in executing those plans. Aristocratic systems tend to be good at passing down excellence to the next generation. The downside is that they're not very creative - their excellence is structured around a particular way of operating, and they don't like to vary from that. This rigidity of structure and social hierarchy produces a corresponding rigidity of mind - their thinking runs along deep grooves and has trouble with new approaches. A further downside is that they have inherent difficulty with any field in which rhetoric is required e.g. getting a large number of people to do complex productive work in synchrony. [0] The rhetoric has to be less universal and heroic - "We fight for the right of the better few to rule over the not-so-good many" never sounds as good as "We fight for the good of all.". [1]

x) The democratic cities seem to have been really good at creativity. Lots of people of all stations coming up with new ideas. Lots of opportunity for those who can come up with a new idea and sway the crowd to support it. This means that democratic systems tend to sniff out and exploit many more opportunities. They also find talented people born into a lower echelon and promote them up based on their ability rather than their station. The downsides are that because things change so rapidly within the democratic system, it has enormous trouble keeping promises (responsibility is very diffuse - the crowd is always willing to disavow promises made by a previous crowd) and the execution of any plan is always more chaotic and incoherent. A further problem: The endless promotion of new people from lower down the hierarchy tends to prevent any excellence accumulating at the top. Democratic leaders, however great, are always less great than their aristocratic counterparts.

x) There's a parallel here with the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left uses existing mental structures to look at the world and the right creates new mental structures to see if they might work better than the existing ones. The local environment sets some constraints on the utility of each approach. Too much of either (relative to the local constraints) is bad. So it's a constant balancing act. In the same way, the endless conflict between the few and the many (i.e. aristocracy vs democracy) is a ceaseless process of recalibration to the changes in the local environment, which might present both opportunity and danger. This does not just apply to cities or countries - it applies to any group of people: companies, sports teams, charities, armies, bureaucracies, etc.

x) Ultimately, the choice of social system comes down to the ability to wield force. If the economic and military tech structures can be used most effectively by the disciplined few (e.g. Spartans on land: farming estates and infantry), then the social systems will tend to be aristocratic. If the structures can be used most effectively by the free many (e.g. Athenians at sea: trade and navy), then the social systems will tend to be democratic. The rhetoric, thinking, philosophy, beliefs, behaviours etc will shift over time to match the prevailing social system.

Note: The ability to wield force applies internally, not just externally. Within the local social system, can the few defeat the many, or vice versa? What is the military value of an angry crowd / elite platoon, in the present circumstances? Are the few/many gathered around an effective cult, that binds them together socially, or can they be detached from each other, and defeated in detail?

So: We can sum up: Where the economic and military tech structures are stable and well-understood, aristocratic behaviours are effective, and tend to win. Where these structures are chaotic and complex, democratic behavours are effective, and tend to win. The History of the Peloponnesian War is so striking because it chronicles a time period when these two dynamics were evenly matched, and fought each other for primacy, and it was not clear which would win in the end.

[start of notes]

Details of my copy:
- Translated by Rex Warner
- First published 1954
- Reprinted 1956, 1959, 1961
- Penguin Books Ltd

[end of notes]

[start of footnotes]

This is one of the reasons that the Spartans had such trouble with naval warfare. They had the technical skills to build the triremes, but using these tools as effectively as possible required a different cultural framework i.e. a more democratic one. Triremes were best used by a large group of more-or-less equals who were motivated to row in synchrony. Triremes rowed by free men usually defeated those rowed by obedient workers. However, such a "we're all equals" culture doesn't just stay on the boats - it comes ashore later. So, the Spartans would have had to sacrifice a lot of their culture (which gave them their advantage in land-based warfare) in order to adapt completely to naval warfare.

Note: Practical experience indicates that software companies work rather like triremes. A large group of skilled workers must believe in the company cult / religion / rhetoric / mission, else their work will be of poor quality.

[return to main text]

The "good of all" rhetoric tends to disregard the fact that successful democracies are simply extensions of oligarchic status to the entire citizen body, and that the resource & energy requirements that power this status upgrade must be supplied by an empire, in which a much larger mass of "not-citizens" pay tribute.

But it can easily do this, because it's rhetoric, not logic.

[return to main text]

[end of footnotes]

There's a parallel here with the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left uses existing mental structures to look at the world and the right creates new mental structures to see if they might work better than the existing ones.

It would be better to say this:

The left sees disconnected items ("items in themselves"), and the right generates and tests and throws away patterns / context for items. The left is more "open" by default, because it doesn't immediately reject things (for not matching a pattern). It just notices them. Note: The right usually accepts new items / ideas only when it absolutely has to. First, it tries to ignore them.