What is an Outside Scholar

NOTE: The following is 1st draft of a chapter which I wrote for a book I am currently working on.  I decided to cut the chapter as being outside the scope of the book but it seemed a shame to waste it, so I decided to post it here, particularly since parts of it relate so various of my Great Books posts.


So far in this book I have used the term outside scholar fairly casually to refer to Victor Sharrow and those like him. Before proceeding, I think it is time to expand on what I mean when I use this label. First, though, I think it is appropriate that we review a bit of history about scholarship in general.

A scholar is a person who creates knowledge by a process called research and transmits it to others, usually through writing. In contemporary usage the term often connotes a profession. In the truest and most historic sense, however, scholarship is a vocation; scholars are driven by intellectual curiosity, love of knowledge, and a desire to create a permanent legacy for other scholars who will come later. A person with the true scholarly vocation will usually find a way to pursue their interests regardless of what formal profession they follow to make a living. In fact, the idea of a professional scholar who is paid for their studies is largely an invention of the modern age.

In our western tradition this conception of scholarship has its roots, like much else in our society, in the Golden Age of classical Greece when literate men began to research science, philosophy, and history and record their conclusions on scrolls which they allowed other scholars to borrow and copy, birthing the concept of scholarly publication. Typical of these men were the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The first of these was a merchant, while the other two were career military men but all three were fascinated by recent history and the causes and effects of war. After collecting and comparing oral histories and visiting the some of the locations where important events had occurred, they wrote books which not only chronicle history, but also analyzed it. There works are still read and studied today1.

Thucydides, at least, was fully cognizant of his drive to leave a permanent intellectual legacy, writing,

“It will be enough for me…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 taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

Thucydides knew Herodotus personally and was influenced by his book. Xenophon would have been acquainted with the work of both and seems to have written the Hellenica as a direct sequel to Thucydides’ work. Nevertheless, it never occurred to these men, or their contemporary colleagues whose work is now lost, to think of themselves as a community or school of historic scholars. They merely shared a common interest. It was the philosophers of Greece who originated the idea of an academy. The original academy was a grove of trees outside Athens where teachers met with their students. The academy became an actual institution when Plato joined with other local philosophers to create a school, holding classes in his home or the nearby gymnasium. Aristotle, the son of the Macedonian Royal Physician, studied there for several years before returning to Macedon to found his own academy, the Lyceum. Philosophers in Greece had always supplemented their incomes by teaching the sons of the local aristocracy. Formal academies were a way of persuading the students to come to them, rather than wandering the country in search of students. Academies in the pattern of Plato’s came and went in the Hellenic until the very end of the ancient period. From the first century of onward the Christianity began to dominate the intellectual life of the West, gradually replacing the more secular philosophy of classical antiquity. By the time the Western Roman empire collapsed, most learning was concentrated in the Church. Literacy rates dropped throughout Europe and the secular members of the upper classes found they were too busy fighting for survival to devote time to scholarship. The Eastern empire survived and was spared the worst effects of the Dark Ages, but the Byzantine mind was increasingly inclined towards mysticism and away from rational scholarship. In 529 the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the last incarnation of the Athenian Academy, an event which some historians consider to be the official end of the ancient era and the beginning of the medieval period.

For nearly 1000 years, the church, particularly the monasteries, had a virtual monopoly on scholarship. Nearly everyone who learned to read and write was taught by clerics and most of what books still survived were the property of the church. The first universities were an outgrowth of earlier monastic schools and existed mainly to train priests and church officials2. Even those rare lay scholars who did not accept ordination pursued their studies with and within the church organization, or not at all.

All of this began to change around the end of the 15th century. The invention of the printing press and availability of paper drastically lowered the cost of books. Rising economic prosperity allowed more lay people in the upper class and the emerging bourgeoisie the luxury of an extended education. Since the 13th century, classical works which had long been lost in Europe but had survived in the Islamic world had begun to make their way back into the libraries of the West. Now they could be purchased and read by the laity. A new kind of intellectual, began to emerge throughout Europe to help build the modern age .

These renaissance men had more in common with the scholars of classical Athens than with monks of the Middle Ages. Typical of them was Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a Florentine politician. After finding himself on the wrong side of a coup, he found himself unemployed and was forced to retire to the countryside. His best known work, The Prince was an unsuccessful attempt to showcase his knowledge of political science and recent history in the hopes that a powerful noble would notice and offer him a position. Permanently shut out of politics, he consoled himself by reading the classics and writing a scholarly commentary on the works of Livy. Machiavelli might be the first successful outside scholar of the modern age. In fact, at least some historians feel that the publication of his works mark the start of the modern age3. Machiavelli was a layman and out of favor with the establishment. His major works were not published until after his death and were officially banned by the Church. Even today The Prince, while widely read, remains controversial. Despite this, Machiavelli’s eventual influence on western thought is incontestable .

Perhaps the greatest of all the Enlightenment outsiders, though, was Spinoza. Born in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had fled to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition, he showed a scholarly turn and was initially expected to become a rabbi. His curiosity soon drove him beyond the Torah, Talmud, and orthodox judaica into the Cabala and other esoteric studies. Then, after taking Latin lessons from a gentile freethinker, he proceeded to devour every philosophical text he could find, from Aristotle to Descartes. By then the young philosopher was beginning to harbor theories that made the elders of the synagogue extremely nervous .

Intellectual life among the Dutch Jews of the 17th century was closely circumscribed. Holland was one of the only places in Europe that was not closed to them in that period, and they remained only at the sufferance of their Protestant Christian hosts. Driven by the dual imperatives to maintain their cultural unity and to avoid giving offense to the Christians, they focused their studies on the Torah and avoided dangerous speculation. Young Spinoza, who had now begun saying things like “Angels are probably only hallucinations” and “The Bible uses figurative language and isn’t meant to be taken literally,” was not just a destabilizing influence, but was all too likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian majority on the Jewish community .

At the age of 24 Spinoza given a choice: he could either accept an annuity of 1,000 florins in return for keeping his unorthodox theories to himself, or he could be excommunicated from the Jewish faith. He chose excommunication. Europe had recently concluded a series of brutal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants which raged intermittently for 126 years. Religious affiliation was still the single most important factor in the personal identity of most people and to not belong to an organized religion was unthinkable. Yet Spinoza never converted to another faith. Changing his first name from Baruch to Benedict, he moved into an attic apartment and spent the rest of his life writing books on philosophy while he supported himself by grinding lenses. Later, when his reputation began to grow, he turned down financial support from Lois XIV of France and even a prestigious university professorship on the grounds that accepting money from the government would irrevocably compromise his freedom to philosophize.

Of his five works (one unfinished) only two could be safely published during his life: a commentary on the philosophy of Decarte and the Theologico-Political Treatise, which was immediately placed on the index of banned books and had to be sold with a false cover and only the author’s initials on the title page. Among the inflammatory ideas contained in the book is the idea that the Bible is written in figurative language. The key to understanding it is to study the historical, biographical, and cultural context in which the authors lived,

The universal rule, then, in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.

… such a history should relate the environment of all the prophetic books extant; that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further, it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Bible, and, lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole.

All such information should, as I have said, be contained in the ‘history’ of Scripture. For, in order to know what statements are set forth as laws, and what as moral precepts, it is important to be acquainted with the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of their author: moreover, it becomes easier to explain a man’s writings in proportion as we have more intimate knowledge of his genius and temperament.

Further, that we may not confound precepts which are eternal with those which served only a temporary purpose, or were only meant for a few, we should know what was the occasion, the time, the age, in which each book was written, and to what nation it was addressed. Lastly, we should have knowledge on the other points I have mentioned, in order to be sure, in addition to the authenticity of the work, that it has not been tampered with by sacrilegious hands, or whether errors can have crept in, and, if so, whether they have been corrected by men sufficiently skilled and worthy of credence. All these things should be known, that we may not be led away by blind impulse to accept whatever is thrust on our notice, instead of only that which is sure and indisputable.

Today, this viewpoint is at the core of all but the most fundamentalist bible Judeo-Christian bible study, but it was revolutionary in 1670. In fact, the Theologico-Political Treatise is barely studied or quoted today, except by historians, because most of its arguments are now taken for granted in mainstream western thought.

Spinoza’s greatest work is his Ethics which solidified his reputation, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three greatest rationalist philosophers. It would be hard to exaggerate the extent of Spinoza’s influence on the next 500 years of modern philosophy. His impact on Judaism, once his people were ready to reclaim him, was equally pervasive. He has been called “The “first modern secular Jew” and credited with originating many of the core ideas of Reform Judaism .

Even as Machiavelli, Spinoza, and numerous other freethinkers were revolutionizing Western thought from outside any organized intellectual establishment, new forces were making themselves felt throughout Western Civilization4. Universities, which had first appeared in the medieval period, multiplied through the modern period, first in Europe and then in the New World5. Meanwhile scholars and learned professionals, seeing the value of communication and collaboration, began to organize themselves into societies. Typical of these was the Royal Society, founded in 1660, of which Henry Oldenburg, one of Spinoza’s best friends, was the first secretary. The, often overlapping, influence of the universities and societies on the growth of knowledge was overwhelmingly positive. However, as time went on a divide began to appear between the “elite” scholars who attended and taught at universities and/or belonged to scholarly societies and the “amateur” scholars who did not. A new Academy was forming which had the power to give or withhold approval and legitimacy to scholarly efforts.

The implicit narrative began to be that outside scholars were undisciplined and underprivileged. By the end of the Enlightenment, efforts were made to bring the most brilliant of them into the fold, which many accepted joyfully. Spinoza was exceptional in turning down a university position when it was offered. More typical was Samuel Johnson, that brilliant titan of English letters, who was given an honorary doctorate and referred to as “Dr Johnson” by academics forever more. Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who spent his early career as the archetypal outside scholar, happily accepted his own honorary doctorate and membership in the Royal Society in later life, glorying in his hard-won academic legitimacy.

As time went on, it became harder even for exceptional outsiders to gain admission to the ivory tower of academia. The Academy had emerged as a new international priesthood, with a hold over scholarship almost as strong as the church had enjoyed in the previous age. Only those who had served their novitiate and displayed appropriately orthodox dogmas could be ordained.

Rise of the Modern University

While universities first appeared in the middle ages and can, in at least in theory, be placed into the tradition of higher education which began with the Athenian academy, most of the traits which we associate with the modern university first appeared in the 19th century. It was in this period when two major schools of thought emerged which still shape thinking about the role of the university. One of these viewpoints was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, in a series of lectures given in Dublin in the 1850s. Newman’s view was shaped by his own experiences at Oxford which, like the other “ancient universities” of the British Islands was then in the process of transitioning from training aristocrats to providing a liberal education for the new class of skilled bourgeoisie. He argued that the primary role of a university was to provide a generalized education. Research was a less important mission than teaching. Indeed, research could be more efficiently conducted outside the university,

The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science. … …there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge, than a University. Such, for instance, are the literary and scientific “Academies,”… … To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new .

The Newman model of the university’s mission was highly influential in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, on liberal arts colleges in America .

Meanwhile, in Germany, another model was emerging based on the University of Berlin, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. In the Humboldt type university teaching and research were inseparable. The university was a sort of knowledge factory. Students learned by being involved, albeit at a very low level, in the critical investigation of truth. The overall prestige of a university was based on the quality of research it generated. The Humboldt model became wildly popular on the continent because Humboldt type research systems were seen as a major factor in Germany’s economic growth. When the US began building its state university system with the passage of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890, the Humboldt model was taken as a template for the ideal public university .

Until World War II most new universities in Europe and the Americas were based on the Humboldt paradigm. After the war, however, pressures to provide mass education to all citizens, combined with population pressures from the baby boom and the passage of the GI Bill in the US, which allowed returning soldiers to finance higher education, created demand for a third type of university. Neither Newman nor Humboldt type schools were physically capable of absorbing the influx of new students, which pushed student-to-faculty ratios to an historic high. nor were the new–primarily first generation–students particularly interested either in gaining a generalized liberal education or engaging in research. They came to school to learn technical skills and gain specialized diplomas which would increase their incomes. In response to this demand, the second half of the twentieth century saw a wave of new polytechnic schools, vocational schools that reinvented themselves as “technical universities”, and, finally, for profit “universities”. At these new schools basic research, if conducted at all, was a distinctly secondary pursuit. The need for faculty in these institutions paved the way a type of second-class academic whose primary job was lecturing to students who would never themselves become scholars .

Older universities, forced to compete with the new technical schools for funding, faculty, and students, began to adopt some of their traits. Student-to-faculty ratios rose, universities began doing more applied research, and an increasing number of specialized professional degree programs appeared in catalogs. Many older universities added professional schools, which allowed them to attract talented students who might otherwise go to a technical university while charging them tuition at a much higher rate than that for “research” graduate degrees. In 1908 Harvard began offering a new graduate degree, the Master of Business Administration (MBA), which was essentially a vocati9onal diploma for corporate executives. Other major research universities rapidly followed. Today the MBA is the most awarded graduate degree world-wide. Some MBA students are involved with research and a few go on to PhD programs, but the degree is not seen as preparation for a research career. In most business schools that offer PhD programs, MBA and PhD candidates are admitted based on different criteria and are almost completely segregated from each other throughout their studies. An MBA, even if they are a talented researcher, has almost no chance of landing a tenure-track academic job after graduation. There are around 800,000 of them graduating every year and every one of them, if they choose to do research, is, by definition, an outside scholar6.

The result of these four decades of competitive convergence, the typical state university of today has a case of institutional schizophrenia. One side of the split personality is a Humboltian research university in which research teams, led by tenured professors assisted by a chosen few students, spend their time competing for grant money and cranking out papers. The other side is a career school in which lecturers and graduate teaching assistants cater to legions of undergraduates’ and professional students’ need to diplomas which will allow them to take their places among the ranks of the bourgeoisies.

The same period over which the university attained its final form has seen the stratification of the scholarly community into four rigid castes, with relatively little mobility between them. The two upper castes make up the Academy, while the two lower castes are outsiders. At the top are the professional researchers. Most often they are tenured professors at a research university, or hold an analogous position at a public or private research facility. This caste not only has little trouble getting their research published and accepted, but because they control the peer review process, conference agendas, and PhD committees, are able to give or withhold the stamp of legitimacy to scholars of the lower castes. Below them are the lecturers, scholars who have either failed to reach the upper class, or whose main interest is education. Their main function is undergraduate and professional education but if they can somehow find the time and money for research they can often get it published. Below them are the professionals who hold specialized doctoral or masters degrees in law, business, medicine, engineering, education or other fields. They they generally are generally able to publish applied research in their own field, generally under the auspices of a professional association, but are discouraged from pure or theoretical research. At the lowest level are the autodidacts. These scholars, no matter what their level of interest, ability, and knowledge, have not managed to obtain the graduate degree which is the minimum requirement for scholarly legitimacy. In general, they have no access to journals, conferences, or “respectable” academic presses and are totally ignored by the academy. The avenues open to them to communicate their work–“popular” nonfiction, Internet blogs and predatory, for-profit journals, have little reach even among their own caste.

One of the most universal traits of all four castes in specialization. Despite a certain amount of lip service to multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary scholarship, 21st century scholars tend to confine their work to incredibly narrow disciplines. The typical modern scholar is thus defined by their place in a rigid system which labels and circumscribes them according to type of (or lack of) institution, rank, and specialty. There is no place in such a system for a Benjamin Franklin, a Francis Bacon, or even an Aristotle or Spinoza.

Historian John Lukacs explains this phenomenon as part of a process of bureaucratization which has continued in all aspects of Western Civilization throughout the modern age, reaching new heights in the twentieth century, “In this increasingly bureaucratized world, little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools–rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees–depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word ’meritocracy’ was coined…In reality the term ’meritocracy’ was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic.” Securing admission to a program and earning a degree is only the first step for someone seeking an academic career. In the US it takes around ten years for the average PhD student to earn their degree, counting from the receipt of their bachelor’s . Once they take the examinations and submit to copious paperwork to gain admission to a program, they are presented with a list of required courses, further exams, and residency requirements to gain the degree. The only requirement that is designed purely to test the student’s skill as a writer and researcher is the dissertation. Even in this area following the correct format and submitting the appropriate paperwork often becomes nearly as important as the actual scholarship. In many fields, particularly the physical sciences, the PhD program is not even seen as adequate preparation for independent research and students are expected to spend further years in one or more “post-doc” research appointments to gain further experience.

Newly made PhDs as next subjected to yet another “meritocratic” sorting process. The lucky and well-connected are placed in “tenure track” positions as assistant professors. The second tier secure positions as lecturers–second class faculty who have no prospect of tenure and are expected to teach heavy course loads to free up the professors for research. The rest, an increasing percentage of the total, eke out a living as part time adjunct instructors, often commuting to three or more schools in a week in order to earn a living income. These “gypsies”, as they are referred to by their more fortunate colleagues, live in hope that a full time position will materialize, but the odds are stacked against them. It is hardly surprising that so many PhD students either fail to complete their degree or, having obtained it, give up and leave academia forever. Some of them have no choice: a gap in employment of more than a few months, or two much time spent as an adjunct, is often seen as a black mark in an academic’s career, permanently excluding them from consideration for full time positions7.

As for those lucky few, the small percentage of scholars who make it onto the tenure track, they are privileged to spend the next six or seven years working sixty hour weeks while they accumulate the requisite ticket punches for promotion. If all goes well they gain tenure around year seven, finally making it into full membership in the academy. If something goes wrong, or the university simply decides that it doesn’t need any more associate professors at the moment, they are thanked and excused and leave to start over from the beginning .

An associate professor working towards tenure has no incentive to take risks. A large volume of acceptable publications is always less risky than a few brilliant ones. Research that is two controversial, or steps on the toes of a member of the tenure committee, can easily wreck their career. Some of them tell themselves that they will play it safe until they get tenure, then work on the projects that they really want to do. A few follow through on this, but it is hard to radically change the direction of one’s research after seven years of escalating commitment. Many of them, after spending two decades of their research career playing it safe, have no idea how to take risks even if they wanted to.

Everything in the career path of an academic selects for risk avoiding individuals who know how to play the system. Successful professors have all the same character traits of a career bureaucrat. Worse, by the time they achieve tenure they have been thoroughly socialized to look down on any scholar who has not managed to survive the same process. At the same time, they have spent years acquiring narrowly specialized knowledge, working mostly with people in the same discipline, and being warned by their mentors not to have opinions or do work outside their field8

American research universities are incredibly good at their main function, which is rigorous, deep research in narrowly defined areas. They focus on training the kind of scholars that they need for this mission. Unfortunately, these specialized professors are much less effective at some of the other functions which have traditionally been associated with scholars. Teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level, is generally fobbed off on lecturers and graduate students. Practical applications, particularly those involving interdisciplinary knowledge, tend to be the province or corporate R&D organizations, where researchers are expected to pursue projects that will make a profit for the company and which only share their findings with competitors when it is in their interest. The task of advising policymakers is carried out by staff intellectuals at government agencies–which are, more or less by definition–even more bureaucratic and conservative than the universities.

But what of those scholars who follow the more traditional model, more like the great thinkers of the ancient world and the enlightenment? What about those who left the academy after earning a graduate degree–PhD, masters or professional, but still have an interest in doing real scholarly research and creating knowledge or affecting public policy? What about autodidacts who never had a formal education at all but, after a lifetime of reading are now ready to write serious nonfiction works? Is it even possible for these outside scholars to make a contribution in the modern era?

So far in this book, I have deliberately avoided writing any autobiographical details because I felt it would distract from the purpose of the work. Now, however, in the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that I too am one of these outsiders, and the answers to these questions affect me personally. I attended professional school at a major research university, earning an MBA. While there I did original research and completed a thesis which was later published as my first book. Several professors strongly urged my to continue on and finish a PhD. Upon examining what would actually be required, and the personal and family sacrifices that I would need to make, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I am still doing primary research in my specialty, but I am finding every aspect of it more difficult now that I am now affiliated with an institution: it is much harder to obtain grant funding, I have trouble getting the journals and database access I need, and I no longer have a departmental fund to pay my way to conferences. When I go to publish in journals I find that the burden of proving my credibility is on me; without the name of an institution under my byline, the assumption is that I don’t have the qualifications to publish. I am far from the only one in this situation, though. Later, I will talk about some of the changes which are making life easier for us.


  1. Read together Books V-XII of Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Hellenica form a continuous trilogy of the history of Greece and her neighbors from just before the Greco-Persian wars up to the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a period of approximately 136 years.
  2. Note the modern similarity between academic regalia and monastic habits.
  3. Alan Bloom argues that Machiavelli was the philosopher who began the Enlightenment. According to Bloom, it was Machiavelli who first suggested that the philosophers of western civilization, who had formerly been dependent on the patronage of the aristocracy, should “change camps” and espouse democracy, reason, and the theory of rights–some of the most characteristic concepts of the modern age–as these would create a society that offered them greater protection and scope for their talents.
  4. My discussion has necessarily been limited in scope to the history of Western Civilization. Other societies have their own scholarly traditions and institutions, some of which predate Western civilization itself. Likewise, they have had their own outside scholars who toiled outside the scholarly establishment and gained legitimacy and influence only late in life or even centuries after their deaths. Confucius is but one example. As the modern age continued, however, the ruling and intellectual classes of the East were increasingly educated by the Academy of the West. By the 20th century the Academy was completely international, and organized on the Western Model. See Eberhard.
  5. Even the destruction and upheavals of the Wars of Religion did little to slow the spread of universities. In fact, some of the most famous universities were founded as gambits in the struggle between Protestants and Catholics. For example, Trinity College in Dublin was established on the orders of Elizabeth I to educate the sons of her protestant subjects in Ireland without subjecting them to the corruptive influences of Catholicism.
  6. During orientation on my first day of business school I raised my hand and asked an associate dean about research opportunities for MBA students. He laughed and said “If you want to do research, what are you doing in the MBA program? You should have applied as a PhD.”
  7. For purposes of discussion I have focused on the career path of scholars at a research university. Many PhDs also work for government agencies or for-profit research organizations which have their own bureaucratic hurdles.
  8. At American universities and schools in other countries that are based on the American model, the basic unit of organization is the department, which consists of all of the university’s specialists in a particular discipline. At English universities, on the other hand, the basic unit is the college, which will typically include one professor from each discipline. English professors, and European academics in general, also tend to be more involved with teaching and administration than their American colleagues. See Eagleton for a delightful overview of some of the differences.

Bibliography

Anderson, Robert. “The ‘Idea of a University’ today.” History and
Politics (2010). http://www.historyandpolicy.org/hp/research/papers/policy-paper-98.html.

Bloom, Allan David. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Copulsky, Jerome E. “The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess.” University of Chicago Divinity School, 2008. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/imce/pdfs/webforum/032008/copulsky_last_prophet.pdf.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Kindle Ed. Aristeus, 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America. 2013

Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. 3rd ed. [org. pub. 1969]. Project Gutenberg, 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17695.

Herodotus. The Persian War. Translated by William Shepherd. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Hoffer, Thomas B., and Vincent Welch. Time to degree of U.S. Research doctorate Recipients. National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, March 2006. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/.

Lukacs, John. At the end of an Age. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2002.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Translated by George Bull. LondoEagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America.
2013n; New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24526

Newman, John Henry. The University: Its Rise and Progress. Edited by Kevin A. Straight. Montrose, CA: Creative Minority Productions, 2015.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Ronin Insitute for wayward academics: a bold new idea to solve the PhD crises.” Boston Globe  (May 27, 2012). https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/05/26/new-idea-for-unemployed-academics/UUZOGe1KNWvUXDl7Yae1IL/story.html.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The ethics of Spinoza: the road to inner freedom. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theologico-Political Treatise. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. Project Gutenberg, 1997. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/990.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and Joseph Ratner. “The Life of Spinoza.” in The philosophy of Spinoza, [org. pub. 1926]. Project Gutenberg, 2010. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31205.

Thucydides. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1954.

Xenophon. Hellenica. Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1174

 

How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.

The Crito of Plato

The Crito is an interesting addition to the Platonic canon. Stylistically and linguistically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other dialogs. Most scholars explain these by assuming that it is either a very early or very late work. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Hugh Tredennick explains that either of these poses difficulties. The majority theory that the Crito is one of Plato’s first dialogs is appealing because of the extreme simplicity of Socrates’ line of questioning–more a series of rhetorical questions than the knife-like elenchus we see in the other dialogs. However, there is still the problem of the inconsistent language and lack of Socratic Irony, as compared to the other earlier, more “Socratic” dialogs. There is also a line which seems to reference a later work by Polycrates the Sophist.

The less popular theory, that the Crito was written either by an elderly Plato or another Platonist, perhaps his nephew Speusippus. The simplicity of the Crito works against this theory, as does its failure to reference any of the sophisticated metaphysics which were such a feature of later Platonic works. These objections can be partly dealt with, however, if we assume that the Crito was deliberately kept simple because it was intended for a lay audience. This would explain the choice of Crito himself (respectable and affluent, but no intellectual giant) as a relatable interlocutor. The text itself also seems to imply that it was intended to overcome the criticism of Athenians who essentially asked, “If Socrates was so great, why did he let himself be killed?”,

Crito: …But, O! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this- that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.

 

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy.  From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy. From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Despite its failure to joint neatly into the rest of the corpus, the Crito is unmistakably a Platonic work, even if it is not a work by Plato. The primary question is whether Socrates should allow himself to be rescued by Crito and his other friends. Crito argues that public opinion would be on Socrates’ side and that he has an obligation, under the general norms of their culture, so preserve himself so he can care for his family. Socrates reduces the argument to one of justice. In the eyes of Justice, any obligation he owes do to public opinion or norms is insignificant compared to that he owes to the laws–what we today might call “rule of law”. Socrates has been fairly condemned through due process of law. His conviction may have been unjust, but that does not free him to commit his own injustice against the law and reason.

To me this offers the most digestible justification for why Socrates allowed himself to die: he was a martyr for Reason. Having reasoned his way through an ethical dilemma and convinced himself of the just path, he could do nothing else without ceasing to be a philosopher; a philosopher who does not trust reason is no philosopher at all.

I like this justification much better than Xenophon‘s, that Socrates was ready to die and wanted to do so before his powers failed. It also seems more noble than the argument in the Phaedo that philosophers are destined to a better afterlife, or at least a more pleasant reincarnation, than normal people and should welcome death, particularly since they are forbidden to suicide. That point, however, will have to wait until I write about the Phaedo in a future post.

Lady Justice.  J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Lady Justice. J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.

Virtue

One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus
Lysis
Protagoras

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.

From History to Speculative Fiction: How to Write a Peloponnesian War Story

In recent weeks I have been blogging about The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides as part of my ongoing Great Books project to improve my writing.  For non-fiction writing the value of the History is obvious; Not only is it one of our most important primary sources  about the ancient Mediterranean world, but Thucydides’ political and diplomatic analysis is also applicable to many other periods and his methods represent a watershed moment in the evolution of the discipline of history itself.  As writers, though, we should never read a history book without asking ourselves what we could take from it and how we could adapt it to create fiction.

History itself is a literary genre; the History and the Novel are first cousins.  In this post, however, I am writing mainly about adaptations of history into genre fiction.  The two modern genres that do this most obviously are historical fiction and alternate history, both of which, fall under the general umbrella of speculative fiction in the currently fashionable nomenclature.

The Peloponnesian War has fueled the creative flames of of many a speculative fiction author.  Not only is it a dynamic and interesting period, but it has the advantage that good primary sources exist, yet not so many of them that a writer can not read all of the important works over the course of a few weeks.  Two modern writers who have handled the period effectively are Rosemary Sutcliff and Harry Turtledove, both prolific writers and acknowledged masters of their respective genres.  Both chose to focus their narrative around the life and career of Alcibiades who, as I wrote last week, is an intriguing character for a number of reasons.

Sutcliff’s work, The Flowers of Adonis (1969), is a full-length adult historical novel which follows Alcibiades from the start of the Sicilian expedition to his death.  She draws material mainly from Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenica, and Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades.  Sutcliff’s most characteristic style, seen in most of her young adult novels, is to tell the story through the first person point of view of a single main character, usually a young person who is a minor participant in a historical event.  This technique works well in YA fiction because it makes it easier for readers to relate to the character and immerse themselves in the time and place.  In The Flowers of Adonis, however, Sutcliff abandons this style and tells the story through the first person viewpoints of numerous supporting characters, often switching characters several times in a chapter.  The one character whose point of view and inner thoughts we never see is Alcibiades.  This is an incredibly effective structure because it allows the reader to see how Alcibiades is perceived by his friends, lovers, enemies, and the common people in the city of Athens and the Athenian fleet, yet the reader must draw their own conclusions about the man’s thoughts and motivation.  By not showing any of Alcibiades’ internal dialogue, Sutcliff avoids conveying an over-familiarity which might undermine the “larger than life” aspect which is such an enduring part of the character’s mystique.

IMG_2409

Turtledove’s work, The Daimon (2002), is an alternate history novella which was written for the anthology Worlds that Weren’t and has since appeared in other collections.  Like Sutcliff, he draws heavily from Thucydides and Plutarch.  He also introduces material from Aristophanes‘ plays and Plato‘s dialogues.  Like Sutcliff, he starts his story in Athens as Alcibiades and his forces are preparing to depart on their invasion of Sicily.  This is an alternate history, though.  The point of departure from actual history is when Socrates, despite being a bit too old for such adventures, decides to volunteer for the expedition.   This means that when the assembly sends a ship to recall Alcibiades to stand trial for blasphemy Socrates is on hand to advise him to ignore the summons and stay in the field.  Under Alcibiades’ leadership the Athenians win the Sicilian campaign instead of suffering the crushing defeat which was the turning point of the actual Peloponnesian War.  This allows Alcibiades to force a Spartan surrender and return home victorious to install himself as a tyrant, changing the entire course of world history.

The Daimon differs from The Flowers of Adonis in several important ways.  Being a novella, it covers a single plot arc, in contrast to The Flowers of Adonis which, like most novels, has several secondary plot lines.  Unlike Sutcliff, Turtledove uses a limited third person point of view which follows both major and minor characters.  Besides being typical of his own style, this makes it easy for him to insert narrative details of the historical period, and vivid details are the key to creating believable worlds in speculative fiction.  The most important difference, though, lies in the fundamental question that each story strives to answer.  You can’t have speculative fiction without speculating.  The Daimon, while it is certainly character driven, is primarily concerned with causation.  Did the defeat in Sicily cause Athens to loose the war?  Did Alcibiades’ absence cause the defeat?  Did the Athenian defeat shape later history?   The Flowers of Adonis, on the other hand, is effectively a 383 page character study of one person.  What did Alcibiades want?  What made him the way he was?  Why did he do the things he did?

Of course historical fiction does tend to be rather concerned with character, while exploration of causation could be considered the purpose of alternate history.  In this case, however, I think the difference flows just as much from the authors’ interests and their decision about the kind of story they wanted to tell.

These two works are only two examples, drawn from only two genres, of the sort of fiction an author can create from a historical event like the Peloponnesian War.  The ancient historical works we have about the period provide enough background for an infinite number of stories, told in an infinite number of ways.  Perhaps the next will be written by you or me.

Thucydides Book V: Enter Alcibiades

Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war.  Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted.  Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty.  None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift.  Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.

Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history.  “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics.  He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids.  Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human.  He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich.  The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles.  Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander.  When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death.  There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,

[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern.  Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics.   He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,

“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “

Many are unconvinced.  For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.

We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often.  From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica.  He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.

One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is.  The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society.  Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis.  Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere.  Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war.  He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born.  Alcibiades served only Alcibiades.  He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them.  In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.

One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished.  Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble.  He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently.  But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings.  Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, c. 1781 [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]