Great Expectations: The Expected and the Unexpected in Thucydides and in Liberal Education

[[The following text is adapted from a lecture given at the 9th Arthur and Mary Platsis Symposium, which was held on November 7, 2010 at the University of Michigan on the occasion of the retirement of H. Don Cameron. Portions of the text may be quoted without permission provided credit is given. The text is still a work in progress.]]
Wars—all wars, I believe—are extreme cases of a much wider human experience, being blindsided, taken unawares, caught by unexpected consequences. Their study also makes it possible to examine how human beings respond to surprise, the interior battles surprises engender, the violence that so often follows and in turn “strips bare the special body.” [1]
In this respect the Peloponnesian War, as Thucydides understood it, is exceptionally revealing, not least in its implications for undergraduate education today.
As a starting point, I want to focus on the theme of expectations and surprises in a few parts of Thucydides’ narrative, and focus especially on word choice, and suggest an approach to reading this most difficult of classical Greek prose texts.

I. Starting Expectations

Good writers rarely state outright, but often hint at major themes in the first few sentences of their work. Here’s the opening sentence in Crawley’s translation, in my opinion still the best one available:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. (1.1.1) [2]

The statement is straightforward enough but there is one problem: the phrase, “believing that it would be a great war.” There are many ways to say “believing” or “expecting” in Greek, but Thucydides chose a word for hoping—elpisas. It’s a surprising choice, especially since hope—elpis—in Thucydides is often delusionary. Something almost always goes wrong with hopes.

In Thucydides, elpis is not personified, a mean, trouble making semi-goddess—capital epsilon Elpis, but a force in the psyche or human affairs more broadly, whose bright side, confidence, often turns into a dark side, delusion.
Thucydides is surely not saying, “I thought it was going to be a great war and I was wrong.” But his phraseology points to a certain ambiguity in the very next word, megan, “great.” In what sense did he hope the war would be great and in what way was it in fact, great?
Thucydides, we can safely infer, began his work as a young man, probably still in his twenties. Herodotus’ history of the Persian Wars was probably just coming out, perhaps in bits and pieces, presented at public readings. Say “great war” in 431 BC and most Greeks would think of the valiant struggle against the Persian invader a half-century earlier, or of Homer’s story of the Trojan War. But young, ambitious Thucydides thought, expected, hoped that he had hit on a truly great subject, a contemporary one, reflecting the strength and power Greek cities had acquired now that Greece had grown in strength and resources. One could now expect something even greater than the mythic and gloriously valiant exploits of the past.
That was a grand hope, a very bold one, since most people at the beginning of this war expected it would be quickly over. The Spartan infantry, the finest anywhere in the Mediterranean world, would march into Attica and swiftly beat the Athenians into invidious submission. Thucydides suspected otherwise, that Athens might show surprising power and resilience.
He was right. It was a big war, lasting—in his interpretation—27 years, and it was often fought on a grand scale. But, as slowly becomes clear, the true measure of its greatness is not the number of years, or of troops, or of ships engaged in it, but the brutality, the atrocities, the suffering, the erosion of characteristically Greek conventions and customs (nomoi) that ripped Greece apart during that struggle. Thucydides, I suspect, is hinting at the beginning of his work that his hopes and expectations as a young writer, his idea of greatness, were profoundly changed as the war went on.
In this first sentence, then, Thucydides introduces themes that will recur throughout his work—expectations about the outcome of the war and its greatness, and how they go awry, or turn out to be true in quite unexpected ways.
War—any war—is full of the unexpected and surprises. Machiavelli saw that when he wrote in The Art of War, “Surprise is the most essential factor of victory . . . nothing makes a leader greater than the capacity to guess the designs of the enemy . . . to recognize, to grasp the situation and take advantage of it as it arises . . . new and sudden things catch armies by surprise.” The Chinese strategist Sun Tsu, born around 500 years before our era, placed similar emphasis on surprise and deception in war, as did Clausewitz who saw actions that could put the enemy in an inferior position and render him vulnerable were “the soul of the fortune of arms.” He devoted a whole chapter (9) of his Art of War to it and observed, “Surprise very frequently has ended a war with a single stroke.”
No single surprise ended the Peloponnesian war at a stroke, but surprise and the unexpected were important throughout—and important at a far deeper level than the merely tactical level emphasized by so many writers on war.
In Thucydides, surprise works at many levels in addition to the tactical. It is time, then, to turn to a specific instance and examine it in some depth.

II. Plataea

Let us begin at the beginning, by the surprising way the war started. Thucydides spends the first of the eight books of his history, constructing a narrative that does double duty. It sets the war in its historical context, and—no less important—it analyzes the sources of power in Greek society. In his view, effective military power in the Greek world did not depend on the hoplite phalanx. It derives rather from financial resources, especially tribute payments, which both pay for and require naval power.
By the end of book one, the attentive reader sees the force of Thucydides’ analysis and its implication—that a naval power such as Athens might indeed be a match for Greece’s greatest land power, Sparta. The Spartans, however, do not share this view. They are confident their infantry and cavalry can carry the day. Their strategy will be to march into Attica and try to provoke the Athenians into a land battle.
Here is how Thucydides describes the actual beginning of the Peloponnesian War. It’s the first sentence in book two: “The war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians and their allies on either side now really begins….”
This echoes the first sentence in book one, but with a slight shift. The first sentence in book one defined Thucydides’ subject as “the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians.” In book two, it is “the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians and their allies on either side.” A trivial difference? Yes, except that once again the wording introduces what will be a major theme in books two and three, that is, the role of allies on the war and how they relate to one another.
Who, then, are these “allies on either side”? Thucydides will tell us—when he is good and ready—but right now, he goes on to date the outbreak of the war with great precision (the beginning of spring 431 BC). Then, comes the surprise: just north of the border separating Attica from Boeotia, a region dominated by Thebes,

A Theban force, a little over three hundred strong … about the first watch of the night, made an armed entry into Plataea, a town of Boeotia allied with Athens. The gates were opened to them by a Plataean called Naucleides, who with his faction had invited them in, meaning to put to death the citizens of the opposing faction, bring over the city to Thebes, and thus obtain power for themselves. (2.2.1; modified)

So the attack that starts the war comes not from Sparta or Athens, but involves “allies on either side”—Plataeans, who Thucydides now tells his readers, were allies of Athens, and Thebans whom he will shortly explain were allies of Sparta. Shortly, but still not yet.

It would have been easy for Thucydides to allude in book one to Plataea’s services to the Greek cause, or Thebes’ support of the Persians. Instead, he mentions Thebes and the Thebans only twice in book one (1.27.2 and 1.90.2), both times very briefly and without clarifying the city’s strategic significance, its ties to Sparta, or its history of attempting to dominate Boeotia.
Whatever the reason for postponing clarification of Thebes’ alliance and military goals, the effect is clear: the start of book two startles the reader. We are not prepared for this attack, any more than the Plataeans were. We wonder, “What’s this about the Thebans?” “Why did they attack Plataea and why just at this moment?” “How does an attack well outside the Peloponnese fit into the story of a Peloponnesian war?” These are all good questions. Here’s how Thucydides begins his account of the Theban attack on Plataea:

Plataea had always been at variance with Thebes, and the latter foreseeing that war was at hand wished to surprise her old enemy in time of peace … Indeed this was how they got in so easily without being observed, as no guard had been posted beforehand. (2.2.3)

In Greek, the words rendered as “foreseeing,” “surprise” and “posted beforehand” all begin with the prefix pro-, “in advance of.” Thucydides has taken out his verbal machine gun—it goes propropro. This stylistic feature is a forceful reminder of the difference between the Thebans’ expectations and the Plataeans’. The Thebans know what was evident from book one—that war was coming. The sleepy Plataeans get taken by surprise.

But we, the readers, are surprised as well. We thought the story that the big Peloponnesian army would come in to Attica hoping for a big battle. And the Athenians would hole up behind their city walls and wait them out. Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet would sail along the Peloponnese, inflicting damage wherever it could. When things don’t work out that way, there is literary surprise as well as surprise among the participants in the war.

III. Belligerents’ Surprise and Readers’ Surprise

In Thucydides, these two kinds of surprise often operate simultaneously. There’s the surprise the Plateans experience when the Thebans come through the gates. We can call that “belligerents’ surprise.” There is also the surprise readers feel when they realize the war is taking forms they had not anticipated, which can be called “readers’ surprise.”
Why is this distinction important? Because literary surprise can turn into heightened reader engagement, especially suspense. Suspense also works on two levels: that experienced by the belligerents as they worry whether their hopes will be realized, and that experienced by the reader who may share the belligerents’ concern about survival, but in this case, for example, may also wonder whether the analysis of power (and the strategy it entails) will prove successful. The first works on the level of immediate physical survival; the second on a more cerebral, and potentially more universal, level.
The next section of Thucydides’ narrative of Plataea helps make these distinctions clearer. As soon as the Theban force enters their city, even before their successful counterattack, the Plataeans send off a messenger to their ally, Athens (2.6). Greek conventions make clear what Athens should do under the circumstances. Allies in the Greek world promised to help one another in event of an attack in every way possible.
As narrative, then, the story of the surprise attack on Plataea could easily turn into the account of an innocent ally rescued from an unscrupulous enemy by help from its honorable ally. Will Athens, however, do what it has promised to do?
That question lingers throughout Thucydides’ narrative of the Plataean affair in books two and three. At first it seems that Athens will do its best to help the Plataeans. Athenian troops march to Plataea, and bring in provisions; then leave a garrison there, evacuating all the women, children, and the older men. In other words they help prepare the city for a siege (2.6 ad fin.).
The situation, however, is already more complicated than anyone could have expected. The Plataeans regain control of their city, capturing 180 of the Theban invaders. They send another message to Athens with the good news, but the Athenians fear that something will go wrong. At this point the Athenians “… sent a herald to the Plataeans to forbid their proceeding to extremities with their Theban prisoners without instruction from Athens” (2.6.2). Too late. The Plataeans have already put their prisoners to death—the first of many violations of Greek norms and conventions (nomoi)—in this long and unquestionably brutal war.
Athens now finds itself in the difficult position it must have feared when it sent this message to its Plataean allies. Once the Thebans learn of the slaughter of their prisoners, they can be expected to attack with all their force and fury. It is just at this point—not before—that Thucydides adds the detail that reveals the full gravity of the situation. Now (2.9) he lists the allies on each side, making clear thereby that Thebes and Sparta are allied. We might have expected that list earlier, but placed at this point it brings into focus a fact of immediate relevance—that Thebes, along with other Boeotian, was allied with Sparta. This, then, shows a new dimension of the conflict and raises, implicitly, two questions: Will loyalty to her ally force Athens to fight a land battle with Thebes and its Spartan ally? And Will Sparta help its Theban ally?
Let’s cut to the chase. It turns out that Sparta does act, albeit slowly. It, not Thebes, takes the lead in besieging Plataea. And Athens? Even though some of its troops are still there (the Athenian garrison sent to Plataea at the outset), even when supplies in the city are running low Athens takes no further steps to help Plataea. It never sends a relief force to try to break the siege. By the winter of the fourth year of the war, things have become desperate: the Plataeans, “distressed by the failure of their provisions, and seeing no hope of relief from Athens” (3.20.1), try a nighttime escape over the walls. Thucydides described their efforts in detail, down to the feet—each of those trying to escape took off the right shoe to improve their footing on the slippery ground (3.22.2).
Those who didn’t get out of the city this way held out until the following summer and then were starved into surrendering to the Spartans, “accepting them as their judges, upon the understanding that the guilty should be punished, but no one without form of law” (3.52.2).
The surrender comes as no surprise. We saw it coming and, presumably, so did the Plateans and the small Athenian force cooped up with them. But what happens next is surprising. The narrative of the surprising attack on Plataea turns into an atrocity narrative. Thucydides reports that more than 200 Plataeans and 25 Athenians were executed by the Spartans. In one sense this atrocity is not unusual. In this war, as Thucydides makes clear, surprises tend to turn into atrocities. This had already happened as a result of the Plataeans successful counterattack shortly after the Thebans’ initial attack (2.5.7).
The narratives of the two atrocities, however, are very different in scale and effect. The difference in the number of dead is not the point. Much more significant is the way Thucydides represents the processes leading up to the two atrocities.
In book two there is a brief report, almost Herodotean in nature, of the differing stories given by the Plataeans and the Thebans. This is followed by a succinct statement about the dead, and an immediate transition to a summary of the messages sent to Athens. Less than ten lines of text are devoted to the subject.
In book three, the scale of the narrative is totally different. Chapter 52 recounts the surrender terms; the execution of the Plataeans does not come until the end of chapter 68, a dozen pages later.
Why the discrepancy? The answer, I believe, must come from a careful examination of the content of those twelve pages. As in other atrocity narratives—the narrow escape of the Mytileneans, the Corcyrean revolution, the assault of Melos—Thucydides’ focus is on language and rationalization. He is not much interested in ratifying the cliché that his contemporaries, like many other people, when confronted by the unexpected in war used extreme measurers. He does not deny this, but used the stories of some of these atrocities for deeper literary and analytic purposes.
The account of the slaughter at Mycalessus recounted in 7.29 shows another kind of atrocity narrative, very succinct but no less powerful for that. (See my essay, “Mycalessus”)
These include the exploration of the rationales by which the perpetrators of extreme measures justify their violation of Greek norms (nomoi). Thucydides often carries that exploration forward by reconstructing, as best he can, the debates about such decisions.
In the case of the execution of the Plataeans, the debate turns on the surrender terms offered by the Spartans, that the Plataeans should accept “them as their judges, upon the understanding that the guilty should be punished, but no one without form of law.” That translation, by Richard Crawley, is accurate, but it does not catch another of Thucydides’ machine gun bursts of related terms, in this case all concerning justice, to dikaion. The special “judges” from Sparta are dikastais (3.52.2); the word would better be translated “Justices.” The Greek, moreover, does not say “the guilty”, but adikous, the “unjust.” And it does not say “no one without form of law.” It says “no one contrary to justice,” para diken. So we hear the syllable –dik– repeated three times: dikastais, adikous, para diken. It’s all about justice.
Or so it seems. But when five special Justices arrive from Sparta, no formal accusation is brought forward; they simply call up the Plataeans and ask them “whether they had done the [Spartans] and their allies anything ‘good’/ noble/ brave’ (agathon) in the war then raging.” (3.52.4; modified)
The Plataeans manage to convince the Spartan Justices to let them make their case more fully. And the Thebans, in turn are allowed to respond. It’s an inversion of usual courtroom procedure, in ancient Greece as in modern times, when accusers speak first and defendants second, after specific charges are brought against them. The trial of the Plataeans turns this order around. It is an inversion of real justice.
At least the Plataeans have a chance to make their defense. Their speech by the standards of Greek rhetoric is a very good one, and the response of the Thebans no less skillful. But when all is said, Thucydides tells us the rationale the Justices used for their decision. The Plataeans, they note, had turned down the offer the Spartans had made on invading their territory (2.72). This the Justices deem a justifiable reason (dikaiai boulesei) to abrogate any prior commitments their country had made to the Plataeans. And so,

having, as they considered, suffered evil at the hands of the Plataeans , they brought them in again, one by one and asked each of them the same question … whether they had done the Lacedaemonians and their allies any service in the war; … and upon their saying that they had not took them out and slew them all without exception.” (3.68.5)

Thucydides never makes explicit that the Justices’ decision is a perversion of justice. He doesn’t have to; the debate provides a perfect vehicle for his exploration of the theme of justice and its abuse, in a way that the Plataeans’ execution of their prisoners, done in the heat of the moment and apparently with little discussion, did not.

But there remains the theme of relationships among allies. He returns to that theme a few sentences later when he concludes his account of Platea with this observation

The adverse attitude of the Lacedaemonians in the whole Plataean affair was mainly adopted to please the Thebans, who were thought to be useful (ophelimous) in the war at that moment just starting. Such was the end of Plataea in the ninety-third year after they became the allies of the Athenians. (3.68.4; modified)

The sentence turns the narrative back to the part of the second book, where precise dating and the theme of allies and their responsibilities is introduced.

IV. The Statesman’s Dilemma

The Plataean episode, however, is only a small part of Thucydides’ exploration of the expected and the unexpected. The story of the Mytileneans’ surprise revolt from Athens, their appeal to Sparta for aid, and their hairbreadth escape from extermination by the Athenians is intertwined with that of Plataea, thereby reinforcing and enriching his implicit analysis of the Plataean story. Time and time again surprise (ekplexis), unintended consequences, and the limits of foresight shape the narrative. Thucydides seems to imply that in a war like this, and perhaps more widely, human beings constantly confront the unexpected.
Thucydides implies it; some of the speakers in his history say it outright, notably Archidamus, the commander of the Sparta army, who reminds his force, just before the first invasion of Attica, that “the course of war cannot be foreseen” (2.11.6)—a sharp contrast to Pericles’ confidence expressed in book one and reiterated in 2.13.
Most poignant, however, is the appeal of the desperate Plataeans before the Spartan Justices, who remind them “of the impossibility of predicting how soon misfortune may fall even upon those who deserve it not” (3.59.1). The word here translated as the “impossibility of predicting” is a rare one, meaning wandering, unstable, with no permanent residence. It occurs in one other passage in Thucydides, in a powerful speech by a Syracusan statesman, Hermocrates, who reminds his Sicilian countrymen:

Vengeance is not necessarily successful because wrong has been done, or strength sure because it is confident; but the incalculable element (to astathmeton) in the future exercises the widest influence, and is the most treacherous…. (4.62.4; cf. Euripides Orestes 981)

The theme of unpredictability in Thucydides’ history, however, is not confined to occurrences of this word. It is infused throughout the work. Rather than tracing it in these remarks I would like to extrapolate from it by asking this question: If, as we have suggested, wars—not least the Peloponnesian war—are extreme cases of a much more universal human experience, how is one to prepare oneself for the instability of the future, unexpected consequences, the likelihood of being blindsided?

V. And Liberal Education?

The question is a fundamental one not only for the statesman, but for education as well.
The only thing we can expect with confidence is the unexpected.
We don’t need Thucydides to remind us that our contemporary world is full of amazing and unpredictable change, technological, political, cultural. We need him instead to help us prepare for such change.
Let us imagine, then, Thucydides’ voice booming at us from some remote but confident-inspiring distance. Let him speak about the unexpected, but warn us to get ready for a great but unspecified disaster, a flood, a tornado, a tsunami that will, he implies, require every bit of physical strength we can muster if we are to survive. If you believe this overpowering voice, what will you do? Go to the gym, spend ten minutes on the elliptical machine, do a dozen curls on the free weights, and a few sit ups, then return home for a beer and some television? That strategy is not likely to do what is needed if the tsunami hits. The educational analogue of this laid back approach is not likely to do much good either when we find ourselves confronted with radical and unforeseeable change.
What’s the alternative? To take seriously our imaginary voice from above, and so seek out the best trainer you can find, ask her to work out a regimen that will push you as far as you can possibly go, encourage you when you get tired, but then challenge you to go to the next level? The educational analogue to this form of physical training is called “liberal education.”
It’s clear, isn’t it, which of these two strategies is most likely to prepare you for the flood, the tsunami, the tornado, whatever unexpected disaster is waiting to strike?
Perhaps we needn’t be as gloomy as this Thucydidean voice. It’s not just disasters that are hard to predict. Radical change of this very sort is hard to foresee, and so are the opportunities it entails—in technology, science, literature, and the other arts, and in all sorts of developments that affect our economic and social lives. Throughout your adult life, for better or for worse, you will indeed confront radical change. It makes sense to ask now what is the best way to use the college years to be ready for that uncertain future. Will you find and follow the course of least resistance, one that may prepare you for an entry-level job in some well-paying field, that does not stop you from enjoying “the best years of your life,” as people keep calling them? Many well-intentioned people, parents, relatives, friends, advisers even, will point you to such a course, even though there are two obvious problems with it: first, the technical knowledge needed at the entry-level often quickly becomes obsolete. Second, without a wider perspective on the unexpected, you may get blindsided by unexpected difficulties or missed opportunities.
The alternative is to go for an education that stretches you, pushes you to your personal best, shows you ways to climb to a point where can get a broad perspective on what is emerging, and readies you for unforeseen challenges. This sort of education, call it a liberal education for short, is demanding, and the more urgent it becomes, the less fashionable it appears. “Irrelevant” is what people of narrow intelligence will call it, even though for you it may prove the least culture-bound, most enduring, and ultimately the most rewarding course of study you can find. If you choose it, you will need to read difficult authors, study remote cultures and their histories, watch how others have missed opportunities, encountered unintended consequences, or been blindsided. And, yes, you may find yourself once again meeting Thucydides and the unexpected.


[ back ] 1. Cf. Mark Danner, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War (Nation Books, 2009), reviewed by Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books, 11 Feb. 2010,pp. 6 ff.
[ back ] 2. All translations in this essay are Richard Crawley’s (1874) unless otherwise indicated.