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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck

On Rereading Thucydides

Title:     On Rereading Thucydides
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

At moments above all when history is in the making, in these times when great and as yet incomplete pages are being traced, pages by the side of which all that had already been written will pale, it is a good and salutary thing to turn to the past in search of instruction, warning and encouragement. In this respect, the unwearying and implacable war which Athens kept up against Sparta for twenty-seven years, with the hegemony of Greece for a stake, presents more than one analogy with that which we ourselves are waging and teaches lessons that should make us reflect. The counsels which it gives us are all the more precious, all the more striking or profound inasmuch as the war is narrated to us by a man who remains, with Tacitus, despite the striving of the centuries, the progress of life and all the opportunities of doing better, the greatest historian that the earth has ever known. Thucydides is in fact the supreme historian, at the same time swift and detailed, scrupulously sifting his evidence but giving free play to intuition, setting forth none but incontestable facts, yet divining the most secret intentions and embracing at a glance all the present and future political consequences of the events which he relates. He is withal one of the most perfect writers, one of the most admirable artists in the literature of mankind; and from this point of view, in an entirely different and almost antagonistic world, he has not an equal save Tacitus. But Tacitus is before everything a wonderful tragic poet, a painter of foul abysses, of fire and blood, who can lay bare the souls of monsters and their crimes, whereas Thucydides is above all a great political moralist, a statesman endowed with extraordinary perspicacity, a painter of the open air and of a free state, who portrays the minds of those sane, ingenious, subtle, generous and marvellously intelligent men who peopled ancient Greece. The one piles on the gloom with a lavish hand, gathers dark shadows which he pierces at each sentence with lightning flashes, but remains sombre and oppressed on the very summits, whereas the other condenses nothing but light, groups together judgments that are so many radiant sheaves and remains luminous and breathes freely in the very depths. The first is passionate, violent, fierce, indignant, bitter, sincerely but pitilessly unjust and all made up of magnificent animosities; the second is always even, always at the same high level, which is that which the noblest endeavour of human reason can attain. He has no passion but a passion for the public weal, for justice, glory and intelligence. It is as though all his work were spread out in the blue sky; and even his famous picture of the plague of Athens seems covered with sunshine.

But there is no need to follow up this parallel, which is not my object. I will not dwell any longer--though perhaps I may return to them one day--upon the lessons which we might derive from that Peloponnesian War, in which the position of Athens towards Lacedaemon provides more than one point of comparison with that of France towards Germany. True, we do not there see, as in our own case, civilized nations fighting a morally barbarian people: it was a contest between Greeks and Greeks, displaying however in the same physical race two different and incompatible spirits. Athens stood for human life in its happiest development, gracious, cheerful and peaceful. She took no serious interest except in the happiness, the imponderous riches, the innocent and perfect beauties, the sweet leisures, the glories and the arts of peace. When she went to war, it was as though in play, with the smile still on her face, looking upon it as a more violent pleasure than the rest, or as a duty joyfully accepted. She bound herself down to no discipline, she was never ready, she improvised everything at the last moment, having, as Pericles said, "with habits not of labour but of ease and courage not of art but of nature, the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardship in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them."[1]

For Sparta, on the other hand, life was nothing but endless work, an incessant strain, having no other objective than war. She was gloomy, austere, strict, morose, almost ascetic, an enemy to everything that excuses man's presence on this earth, a nation of spoilers, looters, incendiaries and devastators, a nest of wasps beside a swarm of bees, a perpetual menace and danger to everything around her, as hard upon herself as upon others and boasting an ideal which may appear lofty, if it can be man's ideal to be unhappy and the contented slave of unrelenting discipline. On the other hand, she differed entirely from those whom we are now fighting in that she was generally honest, loyal and upright and showed a certain respect for the gods and their temples, for treaties and for international law. It is none the less true that, if she had from the beginning reigned alone or without encountering a long resistance, Hellas would never have been the Hellas that we know. She would have left in history but a precarious trace of useless warlike virtues and of minor combats without glory; and mankind would not have possessed that centre of light towards which it turns to this day.

What was to be the issue of this war? Here begins the lesson which it were well to study thoroughly. It would seem indeed as if, with the first encounters in that conflict, as in our own, the inexplicable will that governs nations was favourable to the less civilized; and in fact Lacedaemon gained the upper hand, at least temporarily and sufficiently to abuse her victory to such a degree that she soon lost its fruits. But Athens held the evil will in check for seven-and-twenty years; for twenty-seven summers and twenty-seven winters, to use Thucydides' reckoning, she proved to us that it is possible, in defiance of probability, to fight against what seems written in the book of heaven and hell. Nay more, at a time when Sparta, whose sole industry, whose sole training, whose only reason for existence and whose only ideal was war, was hugging the thought of crushing in a few weeks, under the weight of her formidable hoplites, a frivolous, careless and ill-organized city, Athens, notwithstanding the treacherous blow which fate dealt her by sending a plague that carried off a third of her civil population and a quarter of her army, Athens for seventeen years definitely held victory in her grasp.

During this period, she more than once had Lacedaemon at her mercy and did not begin to descend the stony path of ruin and defeat until after the disastrous expedition to Sicily, in which, carried away by her rhetoricians and bitten with inconceivable folly, she hurled all her fleet, all her soldiers and all her wealth into a remote, unprofitable, unknown and desperate adventure. She resisted the decline of her fortunes for yet another ten years, heaping up her sins against wisdom and simple common sense and with her own hands drawing tighter the knot that was to strangle her, as though to show us that destiny is for the most part but our own madness and that what we call unavoidable fatality has its root only in mistakes that might easily be avoided.

To point this moral was again not my real object. In these days when we have so many sorrows to assuage and so many deaths to honour, I wished merely to recall a page written over two thousand years ago, to the glory of the Athenian heroes who fell for their country in the first battles of that war. According to the custom of the Greeks, the bones of the dead that had been burnt on the battlefield were solemnly brought back to Athens at the end of the year; and the people chose the greatest speaker in the city to deliver the funeral oration. This honour fell to Pericles, son of Xanthippus, the Pericles of the golden age of human beauty. After pronouncing a well-merited and magnificent eulogium on the Athenian nation and institutions, he concluded with the following words:

"Indeed, if I have dwelt at some length upon the character of our country, it has been to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessing to lose and also that the panegyric of the men over whom I am now speaking might be by definite proofs established. That panegyric is now in a great measure complete; for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of most Hellenes, will be found to be only commensurate with their deserts. And, if a test of worth be wanted, it is to be found in their closing scene; and this not only in the cases in which it set the final seal upon their merit, but also in those in which it gave the first intimation of their having any. For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country's battles should be as a cloak to cover a man's other imperfections, since the good action has blotted out the bad and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual. But none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance and to let their wishes wait; and, while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face and, after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped not from their fear but from their glory.

"So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And, not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For by this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old and, for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives: these have nothing to hope for; it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!

"Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. Still I know that this is a hard saying, especially when those are in question of whom you will be constantly reminded by seeing in the homes of others blessings of which once you also boasted; for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed. Yet you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead: not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but they will be to the state at once a reinforcement and a security; for never can a fair or just policy be expected of the citizen who does not, like his fellows, bring to the decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. While those of you who have passed your prime must congratulate yourselves with the thought that the best part of your life was fortunate and that the brief span that remains will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honour that never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

"And, now that you have brought to a close your lamentations for your relatives, you may depart."

These words spoken twenty-three centuries ago ring in our hearts as though they were uttered yesterday. They celebrate our dead better than could any eloquence of ours, however poignant it might be. Let us bow before their paramount beauty and before the great people that could applaud and understand.



[Footnote 1: This and the later passage from Pericles' funeral oration I have quoted from the late Richard Crawley's admirable translation of Thucydides' _Peloponnesian War_, now published in the _Temple Classics_.--A. T. de M.]

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Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: On Rereading Thucydides