Lessons of the Prose Artist: An Analysis of Morality in Thucydides's History

By Noah Coffman

Coffman cover image

Thucydides in marble, adapted from Wienwiki / Walter Maderbacher, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://

Thucydides’s magnum opus, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is often interpreted as a dry account of war within antiquity. However, given Thucydides’s utilization of speeches, overall narrative structure, and moral criticisms, Thucydides seemed to have a much larger purpose than some may presuppose. Thucydides does even say himself at the beginning of the work that it was “done to last forever” (I.22), contributing to the contention that he had much more ambitious intentions in mind than just simply outlining the history of the Peloponnesian War within Greece. The existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche, a great admirer of Thucydides to whom he claims much of his intellectual paternity, is one notable individual who subscribes to this perspective. He writes in his book Twilight to the Idols:

My recreation, my predilection, my cure, after all Platonism, has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and perhaps Machiavelli’s Principe are most closely related to me owing to the absolute determination which they show of refusing to deceive themselves and of seeing reason in reality—not in “rationality,” and still less in “morality.” There is no more radical cure than Thucydides for the lamentably rose-coloured idealisation of the Greeks which the “classically-cultured” stripling bears with him into life, as a reward for his public school training. His writings must be carefully studied line by line, and his unuttered thoughts must be read as distinctly as what he actually says. There are few thinkers so rich in unuttered thoughts. In him the culture “of the Sophists”—that is to say, the culture of realism, receives its most perfect expression: this inestimable movement in the midst of the moral and idealistic knavery of the Socratic Schools which was then breaking out in all directions. Greek philosophy is the decadence of the Greek instinct: Thucydides is the great summing up, the final manifestation of that strong, severe positivism which lay in the instincts of the ancient Hellene. After all, it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes such natures as Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward I in the face of reality—consequently he takes refuge in the ideal: Thucydides is master of himself—consequently he is able to master life. (114-115)

Although Nietzsche’s larger conclusions concerning Thucydides will be challenged, one thing that Nietzsche is correct about is that the History must not be read on purely historical terms, but as a moralistic tragedy. “Nietzsche’s Thucydides” was a “morally-interested, selective and shaping prose artist, a view that significantly anticipates the modern consensus of Thucydides’s method” (Thompson 3). This morally interested Thucydides makes conscious choices regarding his work that shapes how it must be interpreted and what lessons we can draw from it. Thus, it is important to ask what comes of Nietzsche’s Thucydides? That is, what comes of analyzing Thucydides on moral terms? From the many passages present within Thucydides’s work, we can come to conclusions about the moral teachings within the History. By reading Thucydides through Nietzsche’s lens as the tragic “prose artist,” we can learn the following moral lessons: morality is a psychological rather than divine concept, human nature is self-interested and dominating, and only through the security of a state is adherence to morality plausible.

Before an analysis of Thucydides’s thesis within the text, we must analyze the moral and religious background of the author. Although much debate has gone into whether he is an atheist or a theist, “not one extant passage is sufficient to acquit, or condemn” Thucydides of the “charge of atheism” (Furley 416). However, despite our limited understanding of Thucydides’s religious beliefs, his exclusion of religious mythology in his analysis of the war—marking a major departure from the Greek historians who predated him—is an important indicator of what he believes composes the content of human moral relationships. Thucydides’s assertion about religion is that the divine does not mediate human events. This proposition is indicated through a couple of key passages. First, he begins his magnum opus asserting history is the product of human events rather than of divine intervention, stating that “this history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it” (I.22). Second, within his Archaeology, he expounds that the Trojan war was not conducted under the sanction of a divine oath: the suitors bound to aid Menelaus and Agamemnon were not divinely bound by the gods, but instead, they were just induced to join by Agamemnon’s great military power (I.9). This is a particularly important view because it means that Thucydides believes that the power of oaths is not found within religion but in the sociological and psychological facets of such promises. Thus, moral contracts must extend from something independent of the divine. Third and finally, he denies the authenticity and preeminence of the oracles. Thucydides tells of an oracle who sang the “Doric war will come and, with it, plague”; however, there was confusion as to whether the oracle sang “famine” or “plague” (II.54). However, the view prevailed naturally once the plague fell upon Athens that “plague had been sung” as “men adjusted their memory to their suffering” (II.54). Thucydides then says, “If another war happened in the future accompanied by famine, then people will quite likely sing accordingly” (II.54). Thucydides, by denying that oracles have access to absolute truth, destabilizes the explanatory role that many believed religion to have in Greek society, subsequently threatening its normative force. This systematic exclusion of the mythological element does not mean that Thucydides does not recognize the integral part religion plays in the Peloponnesian War; it simply means he will not be theorizing about whom the gods took favor to. Instead, he only focuses on the psychological elements of religion—in other words, how individual religions behaved in conflict. Thus, Thucydides emphasizes that morality is not to be realized on divine or religious terms. This, however, leaves us one major question: if not religion, then what does the History say to be the basis of morality?

The answer seems to lie within the psychological for Thucydides. Thucydides frequently incorporates a psychological view of human relationships to explain the creation of moral values. This is most readily seen within Pericles’s Funeral Oration. Within the oration, Pericles asserts a position of Athenian supremacy grounded not in the power that the city possesses or the city’s religious piety, but instead to its “surrender to ethical goals” (Mittelstadt 70). Pericles says Athens behaves as a “model to others” through its democratic ways and how it allows all to be equal before the law (II.37). Additionally, Pericles articulates that the way in which Athens gives obedience to authority, protects the oppressed, acknowledges unwritten laws, and creates recreation makes the city “an education to Greece” (II.37-41). Indeed, the word aretē—symbolizing “courage, self-control, justice, and wisdom,” at least from a Platonic perspective— only occurs “43 times in the text of Thucydides, 13 of those in the Funeral Oration alone” (Mittelstadt 70-71). In this sense, Thucydides’s argument is not merely that force and power have determined the city’s success, but “a genuine communal optimism and achievement” allowed the city to be in such a position (Mittelstadt 69). Therefore, Thucydides contends that Athenian morality is a product of its inner character rather than of its devotion to any religious set of principles. Thus, “a valid and viable ethical system does not include norms forced externally upon man” but is rather “shaped by his inner attitude,” making morality a psychological, not a divine, concept (Mittelstadt 71). Thucydides’s reliance on psychology to frame history is illustrated in many other places in the text as well. One example is seen within The Debate at Sparta and Declaration of War. Here, Thucydides points out that the Spartans ignore the Corinthians arguments for any religiously consistent, pious reason for declaring war against Athens and instead make their decision for war solely because “they were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power” (I.88). Thucydides thus incorporates the basic concepts for understanding the tragedy of the conflict not as “religious forces at work” but as “psychological forces at work within the nature of man himself” (Mittelstadt 62). “Moral values” then take “psychological basis as well,” as “tragedy maintains its link with morality” (Mittelstadt 62). Specifically, the evaluative moment for the development of morality seems to be found within the capacity for reason. Thucydides says within the Civil War in Corcyra that moral behavior is only possible when men are able to bring their minds out of “the level of their actual circumstances” (III.82). Subsequently, morality is not just a psychological concept for Thucydides but one only guaranteed in the conditions where proper reason is possible. Because Thucydides embraces morals as something within the inner workings of the self, his insights for the academic world become more monumental because he relies more on insights into human psychology, something with verifiability and reliability, rather than appeals to divine retribution.

Thucydides’s reliance on a psychological view of morality is what allows us to draw a second moral lesson from Thucydides: Human nature is dominating, self-aggrandizing, and pleasure-seeking. There are a couple of key observations that can be made from the text to help frame what Thucydides understood human nature to mean in the first place. First, we can draw some basic conclusions from the language he utilized. The word he utilized to directly refer to human nature is anthrōpeia phusis, translating quite literally to “people’s nature.” One important word associated quite frequently with Thucydides’s argument was orgē, a word used “to denote the forces issuing from the lower depths of consciousness,” which is ascribed to “primitive violence and to which is related the dark and pessimistic side of history” (Mittelstadt 67). Thus, the parts of human nature that Thucydides references are the violent drive deep within our lower consciousness. Second, Thucydides’s only references to human nature, of which there are ten within the text, are generally in reference to states of anarchy such as in Corcyra or during the plague in Athens. Thus, he understands the human nature he is describing to only be truly realized when the bonds of civil society are removed. He indicates this directly within the revolution in Corcyra, where he says that “with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature […] showed itself proudly in its true colours” (III.84). Third and finally, Thucydides argues that because human nature is a concept defined by psychology, it is consistent across time and space. This is indicated within the Civil War in Corcyra, where Thucydides says that the “general rules will admit of some variety” but generally “human nature is what it is” (III.82). It’s also shown when Thucydides outlines his larger purpose for the book in I.22, where he directly links the value of his text to the consistency of human nature:

And it may well be that this history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it (to mythodes). It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the needs of an immediate public but was done to last for ever. (I.22)

This is an important reading, because it means that the accounts that Thucydides associates with the devolution of political life into anarchy are applicable not just in those cases, but in all cases where human nature is involved, expanding the scope of his work from the particular to the universal. Therefore, now that we understand the basis of Thucydides’s understanding of the concept of human nature, we can analyze the content of what composes that nature. There are two immensely important passages for understanding Thucydides’s view of human nature—The Plague and Civil War in Corcyra. These passages are uniquely insightful precisely because they analyze societies in the absence of the rule of law.

Beginning with The Plague, Thucydides illustrates how people became overwhelmed by a disease that afflicted much of the Athenians. Thucydides outlines how “words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease,” precisely because the disease was too traumatic for human beings to understand or express symbolically through language (II.50). Additionally, people paid no further attention to religion because consultation of oracles and prayers offered no further help than human beings (II.47). The plague was simply so overwhelming that individuals became “indifferent to every rule of religion,” as indicated by people abandoning traditional burial methods and having dead bodies scattered across sacred temples, which all Greeks knew was sacrilege (II.52). The purpose of these descriptions by Thucydides is not to critique those not following the Greek religion but to describe the state of men’s minds during the crisis. He describes how individuals seek divine validation, and, when they are disappointed, they abandon faith altogether. Similar conventions also collapsed as Athens entered into, in Thucydides’s words, “a state of unprecedented lawlessness” (II.53). Individuals began to “venture on acts of self-indulgence” rather than follow the general rules of society (II.53). What was valuable became not the pursuit of honor, as “no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws,” but “the pleasure of the moment” and anything that might “contribute to that pleasure” (II.53). With the collapse of civil society, “no fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence” (II.53). Ultimately, the lesson from Thucydides’s description of the plague is that the destructive capacity of self-interest can undermine communal order. Threats to bodily security like plagues preclude the ability for individuals to behave in any moral way by bringing individuals down to their specific circumstances, forcing them to prioritize self-preservation and engage in acts of self-indulgence rather than behave morally or contribute to larger communal projects—morality becomes secondary to expediency and self-interest. With no external constraints to the individual, there comes a default to egoistic behavior.

Next, we begin the analysis of Thucydides’s description of the Corcyrean revolution. The language that Thucydides uses in the description of the revolution is important to understand the moral and political dimensions of the state of Corcyra. In describing the revolution, Thucydides employs the use of the word stasis (στάσις), which simultaneously suggests “rising up” and “agitation,” while also signifying “standing position” and “immobility” (Joho 35). The ambiguity of such a term was purposeful in that it describes civil strife as a “fixed explosive, i.e., as both standstill and motion” painting the city as “both shaken by relentless conflict and hamstrung by agony” (Joho 35). Other semantic choices made by Thucydides are important as well. Compounds of the Greek word histēmi (ἵστημι) “signify the putting into a position of something,” indicating that revolution involves a sort of entrapment whereby individuals are unable to engage in “prudent, self-determined agency” (Joho 35). Thus, Thucydides believed that the state of revolution was a sort of immobile explosion that prevented sensible forethought and autonomy, subsequently linking Thucydides back to a psychological, reason-based understanding of moral value.

Thucydides promptly begins his description of Corcyra by saying “there was death in every shape and form,” supplying two examples afterward: fathers killing their sons, and men starving and being slaughtered at the temple of Dionysus (III.81). These two instances are important, because they involve both familial and religious relationships becoming moot under the pressures of human nature. What subsequently followed in Corcyra was the total collapse of religion, which saw divine law come secondary to passions and self-interest (III.81). The apparent collapse of moral law also saw the corruption of the very language that individuals spoke. In one of the most widely cited passages within his text, Thucydides writes: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would 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” (III.82). This reversal in semantics is understood as the apex of the devolution of structural systems of order and meaning within society, further epitomizing the corrupting capacity of unbridled human nature. This phenomenon is nothing new but has reemerged hundreds of times throughout human history. Knox writes in 1973:

We know this phenomenon very well. George Orwell (who apparently did not realize that Thucydides had anticipated him) satirized the perversion of language for political ends in his chapter on “Newspeak” in his novel 1984, but the process has continued undeterred. The half of Germany which calls itself the Democratic German Republic is the one ruled by Communist dictatorship, and the “peace-loving nations” are the members of the Warsaw Pact; to come closer home, the word “pacification” is used to describe some activities of ours in Vietnam which have very little to do with peace, and George Orwell would have taken off his hat to the unnamed genius in the Air Force who thought up “preplanned protective reaction.” (11)

Thucydides then goes on to describe a further collapse of the very bonds that hold society together. In describing the collapse of the family structure, Thucydides posits that “family relations were a weaker tie than party membership” because members of the party were always willing “to go to any extreme for any reason” (III.82). These parties abandoned any moral purpose to “enjoy the benefits of the established law” in exchange for the sole end “to acquire power” (III.82). Moreover, what follows within Corcyra is the collapse of contractual relationships, as “pacts of mutual security were made” and quickly broken in a clear “breach of faith” (III.82). Thucydides sums up the entirety of all of these evils quite succinctly towards the end of the chapter, explaining, “Love of power, operating through greed and personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils” (III.82). The terror within the Corcyra narrative comes from the “way in which the abstraction makes the event typical” (Hau 202). This typifying even goes so far as to imagine such evils with a prompt from Thucydides: “and everything that is liable to happen in such a situation did take place—and worse beside” (Hau 202; III.81). The horror is not found within the individual instances of violence, but rather in the “capacity of human beings throughout time and across cultures to commit atrocities against each other” (Hau 204). Thus, Thucydides interprets anthrōpeia phusis as mediated entirely in terms of self-interest; with power as its currency, what follows is a total abandonment of moral law to explain the deterioration of contractual, familial, and religious relations. Corcyra provides a harrowing example of how when the cloaks of civil society are removed, there is a repeal of the “general laws of humanity” (III.84).

However, one must be careful not to take Thucydides’s descriptions of human nature as totalizing. A totalizing perspective would leave “little or no hope for the improvement of the human condition” (Mittelstadt 69). If such a viewpoint were taken, we could not even speak of morality, precisely because calculations of individual self-interest are mechanical and deterministic, and therefore the larger purpose of Thucydides’s works loses its normative force. Thus, it’s important to recognize that although Thucydides recognizes the pitfalls of man’s inherent nature, he does not “exclude the ethical or moral side of man” (Mittelstadt 69). Instead, Thucydides articulates that what is required for society to generate moral behavior is overarching institutions acting as checks on the harmful power of human instinct. However, Thucydides argument is not just that such overarching institutions must exist, but they must be effective, functional, and stable, which is the major lesson within Corcyra. While The Plague occurs independent of the existence of a state or society, the revolution in Corcyra is the exact opposite—the existence of the state is origin of the suffering. Thus, the lesson from Thucydides is not simply that a state must exist to check the worst impulses of human nature, but that the state must be fundamentally decent, or else human nature’s worst tendencies will manifest itself within the confines of the society.

Thucydides understood, well before the contractarian theorists of the Enlightenment era and after, that it was the individual’s overpowering self-interest that perverts the creation of a coherent, communal society. This brings us to the third and final moral lesson of Thucydides: adherence to moral law is the product of the existence of a state. There are a couple of key places within the text where Thucydides’s final moral lesson can be further qualified. Within The Plague, Thucydides underscores how people took “offences against human law” because “no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished” (II.53). Thus, it is quite directly the potential for a future that links human beings to a system of values; in other words, absent the potential for punishment or retribution from the state, individuals no longer find purpose in behaving morally. This is the reason for the creation of a state in the first place: to create the conditions by which individuals can envision a future so they are guaranteed their safety. Thucydides even confirms this in the Archaeology when he writes of “the whole of Hellas” carrying arms on all occasions until the Athenians gave up this habit, joining a city and adopting a “more relaxed and luxurious lifestyle” (I.6). What should be noted is the dropping of arms and subsequent luxury that followed directly from the safety guaranteed by the city, making security a prerequisite. Thus, Thucydides described this shift away from the state of nature, not as a “moral development,” but only as a potential for “increased safety and security,” which bonded the Athenians into a new state, subsequently creating the conditions for observance of moral law (Thompson 75). Thucydides expands on this later, during the stasis in Corcyra, where he says that, during peace, individuals “follow higher standards,” whereas “war is a stern teacher” bringing “most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances” (III.82). Once again, obedience to moral standards is related to the safety ensured to everyone by a state.

Although Nietzsche and other authors point to Thucydides’s work as an indication that he is in line with the Sophists belief that morality is an “artificial” construction (Thompson 77), I find this argument unconvincing on multiple levels. First, it assumes that morality and adherence to morality are the same things. Thucydides never argues that morality does not exist in the state of nature; just that, absent the coercion of a state, individuals refuse to behave morally because they only operate in terms of self-interest. The lesson from Thucydides is not that morality does not exist, but that human beings must work tirelessly to ensure that our primary structures of security do not falter and allow the lower depths of human nature to seep into our behavior. Second, although Thucydides does not make an explicit argument for universal moral standards, it seems as though he subscribes to such an idea. His brutal critique of the “disgraceful action[s]” in Corcyra (III.84) and his praise of Periclean virtue—as well as the tragic nature of the work itself—seem to show that Thucydides recognizes a universal moral system to which everyone is judged against. Third and finally, even though Thucydides might take a psychological view of human nature and morality, Thucydides does not see human nature as entirely antithetical to morality. This is explained through his frequent use of the word orgē, a word symbolizing primitive violence deep within the unconscious, to describe human nature. The use of the term is indicative that Thucydides believes that there are other parts of our nature that generate morality. Specifically, it is reason itself through the suspension of our human needs that allows for moral thought. These three reasons are why Thucydides cannot subscribe to morality as an artificial construction and instead agrees with a more universalist approach.

Thucydides, often thought of as the first true historian, should not just be examined on entirely historical ground; rather, he should be thoroughly investigated as a tragic writer depicting the demise of the Athenian state on moral grounds. This paradigmatic shift towards analyzing Thucydides as the “prose artist” generates multiple moral lessons. First, morality is a product of the psychological, not the divine. This is evidenced in Thucydides’s explanations for the failures of religion as the mediator of human relations (in what is a radical departure from some of the major thinkers of his time), his description of Athenian morals in Pericles’s Funeral Oration, and the grander pretext for the Spartan choice for conflict found within The Debate at Sparta and Declaration of War. The second moral lesson: human nature is self-aggrandizing, lustful for power, and dominating. Through his vivid writings within The Plague and Civil War in Corcyra, Thucydides asserts that, in the absence of the coercive measures of society, individuals engage in destructive, egoistic behavior that violates the moral principles intrinsic to each human being. Third and finally, Thucydides argues that adherence to moral law necessitates a state. Through his descriptions within Archaeology, The Plague, and Civil War in Corcyra, Thucydides posits that only through the construction of civil society do individuals adhere to moral standards. I also find Thucydides is certainly in major disagreement with many authors, such as Nietzsche, who declare a more realist and less moralistic view of the author of the History. Ultimately, what makes Thucydides’s work so groundbreaking is how applicable his work is even to this day. His moral lessons withstand the test of time and generate reasons why the existence of the civil society is a prerequisite to adherence to moral law and to subsequent prevention of the violent antagonisms intrinsic to unrestrained human nature.