Collective Emotion in Thucydides

Citation with persistent identifier:

Visvardi, Eirene. “Collective Emotion in Thucydides.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no. 1 (2012).

§1  In classical Athens, negotiations in diverse public contexts – forensic, deliberative, poetic – explicitly evoke and examine the role of the emotions.[1] At the same time, in the context of the debate over the relationship between nature and culture (φύσις and νόμος), emotions occupy an interesting, if slippery, position because they can be variably associated with primal forces of human nature, with deliberative processes that suggest or emphasize their cognitive apparatus, or with both. For this reason, individual and collective pathologies are often seen as driving decision-making. Thucydides’ History portrays and comments extensively on such pathologies and their role in shaping domestic and international policy. My analysis focuses on Thucydides’ depiction of the nature, characteristics, and effects of emotions primarily as collective responses. The History has been seen as the first document of political science that aims to produce leaders with Periclean abilities by explaining the Athenian sociopolitical system in terms “of the reflexive interaction between a technology of power and human psychology”.[2] In this case, Thucydides’ presentation of collective emotion stakes out a significant space in the competition not only for representing but also for shaping citizen psychology. In the process, Athenian collective desires, fears, hopes, and sympathies come under scrutiny.

§2  The relationship between reason and emotion in Thucydides occupies a central position in the understanding of individual and collective psychology in antiquity.[3] Scholars often suggest that the emotions stand as the archenemy of reason in his historical narrative. Bedford and Workman, for instance, argue that “the fall of Athens is accounted for by its increasing propensity to substitute impassioned action for reasoned deliberation”.[4] The dichotomy between reason and passion is, however, sustainable only to a limited degree.[5] I argue that the distinction between the two in the History points to conflicting directions that undermine the sharp divide. Passion appears, at times, vehemently to oppose rational and systematic thinking (most often encapsulated in the term γνώμη) and thus to lead to impulsive decisions in the assembly and on the battlefield. But in most cases, it is inseparable from conscious reflection regarding what constitutes self-interest and justice. Even when emotion appears as lacking in reason, closer examination shows that it actually stems from a rationale that subverts accepted laws and customs and results in corrupt individual or collective decisions. It would, therefore, be more accurate either to redefine the dichotomy as one between competing types of reasoning (e.g., moral vs. immoral, preoccupation with collective prosperity vs. preoccupation with self-interest) that are accompanied by emotions of varying identity and intensity, or to think of Thucydidean emotion along a spectrum of degrees and types of rational considerations.

§3  At the same time, the analogy between individual and collective psychology that permeates Thucydides’ History converts questions of psychology into political and moral dilemmas. Thus an examination of the interrelation between emotional expression and the different types of thinking processes that it reflects can contribute to our understanding of Thucydides’ preoccupation with the emotional life of the Athenian qua citizen. Such preoccupation reveals, I suggest, the motivational power of emotion as well as its normative value. Even though the dêmos is often criticized for emotional reactions that are volatile and short-sighted, we never hear that emotion ought to be eliminated.[6] Rather, emotional involvement and attachment remain necessary in the process of collective decision-making that determines policy and action. What remains under negotiation is the appropriate emotion (and its rationale) in each situation as well as the appropriate understanding and experience of attachment. By attachment I refer to different types of relationality including different expressions of philia. Thucydides’ Pericles famously constructs the ideal citizen as an erastês of the city who, like himself, views collective interest and prosperity as the only true and necessary conditions for individual flourishing and contentment. Such an attachment to the city would ideally define the quality and hierarchy of all interpersonal and public relations.[7] Throughout Thucydides’ text, collective emotion reflects precisely the negotiation between self- and collective interest. Understanding and fine-tuning the citizens’ emotional capacities, Thucydides’ text suggests, is imperative in order to render them conducive to political and social cohesion and prosperity.

§4  As much as collectivity itself adds to the power of the dêmos’ emotion, it also presents challenges precisely with regard to how it can be understood and cultivated for the common good. In addition to examining how external factors (human agents and circumstances) shape collective emotionality, I look at how participation in a collective body shapes emotional and, consequently, social and political experience and action. At significant junctures in political life (such as the stasis at Corcyra and deliberation regarding the Sicilian expedition), collective emotion silences thoughtful opposition by individuals who are too afraid to articulate their views against the impassioned collective. It also becomes apparent that, despite its being shared by all, powerful collective emotion can also conceal diverse individual motives and goals. This is the case with the Sicilian expedition. Instead of creating deeper attachments among the citizens in the interest of the common good, shared passion becomes the vehicle for pursuing goals that, in the long run, undermine collective prosperity.

§5  Closely related is the tendency of the crowd to indulge collectively in certain emotions. Fear, pity, desire, and pleasure (of different kinds) figure prominently among them. Cleon famously accuses the Athenians of indulging in the pleasure of the spectacle of competing speakers in the assembly. In addition to the emotional gratification that stems from the spectacle, Thucydides points to the pleasure that is derived from sharing emotion collectively. In this and other instances, the citizens take pleasure in the act of participation that consists of both deliberating and emoting as a group – what I call “participatory pleasure”. The problem that the text raises is that such pleasure is not conducive to responsible decision-making. Immersed in the crowd, individual citizens feel comfortable enjoying political debate passively and proceeding with decisions that do not result from the active intellectual and emotional engagement that is necessary for effective policy-making. For this reason, Thucydides expresses distrust in the ability of the crowd to self-regulate. Not only are charismatic figures like Pericles necessary to calibrate collective emotion, but, in the absence of such figures, collective emotion also corrupts the leaders themselves. In their pursuit of personal aggrandizement, they gratify and thus cultivate the low pleasures of the crowd (2.65). But in the very act of declaring his distrust in democratic emotion, Thucydides once again underlines its motivational power. In this context, I argue, we see that intellectual rigor is necessary for rendering the emotions efficacious within democratic politics. But it does not suffice. It ought to be combined with an understanding of, and the experience of, relating closely to others. Informed participatory pleasure can then have the power to foster a renewed sense of relationality and trust among the individuals it connects, and can habituate them to thinking and feeling responsibly together.

§6  In the following section, I turn to two examples that contain a range of the ideas that permeate the portrayal of collective emotion in Thucydides: the Mytilenean Debate and the Sicilian Expedition. These narratives also constitute two of three cases where pity plays a significant role. The third one – to which I will refer briefly – is that of the plague.

Collective emotion in the assembly and on the battlefield

§7  The Mytilenean debate brings together issues that pervade the representation of collective emotion in Thucydides. Coming to regret their decision to punish the whole Mytilenean population for their revolt, since only the island’s oligarchic faction bears responsibility for it, the Athenians convene the assembly to reconsider their decision (3.36). Cleon’s and Diodotus’s respective speeches include reflections on the analogy between individual and collective psychology, concerns of morality and justice in the negotiations of imperial power, and the role of rationality and emotion in defining policy. They also raise an issue that recurs in deliberations regarding the cooperation between states: the choice between a xummachia for the sake of expedience and a philia that entails further obligations and raises the political and ethical issue of equality and justice.

§8  Introduced as most violent (βιαιότατος, 3.36.6), Cleon opposes the Athenians’ change of heart and accuses them of not understanding the real nature and workings of their empire:

On many other occasions in the past I have realized that a democracy is incompetent to govern others, but more than ever today, when I observe your change of heart (μεταμελείᾳ) concerning the Mytileneans. The fact is that, because your daily life is unaffected by fear and intrigue in your relations to each other (διὰ γὰρ τὸ καθ’ ἡμέραν ἀδεὲς καὶ ἀνεπιβούλευτον πρὸς ἀλλήλους), you have the same attitude to your allies also, and you forget that whenever you are led into error by their representations or yield out of pity (οἴκτῳ ἐνδῶτε), your weakness involves you in danger and does not win the gratitude of your allies. For you do not reflect that the empire you hold is a despotism imposed upon subjects who, for their part, do intrigue against you and submit to your rule against their will, who render obedience, not because of any kindnesses you may do them to your own hurt, but because of such superiority as you may have established by reason of your strength (ἰσχύι) rather than of their good will (εὐνοίᾳ) (3.37.2).[8]

§9  Cleon draws a sharp line between the relationship that the Athenians have with each other and those with their allies. Absence of fear sustains trust within the Athenian state, while fear ought to sustain the xummachia with the Mytileneans who are their subjects. Cleon essentially reaffirms the reasoning that the Mytileneans themselves earlier presented to the Spartans, when they explained their wish to revolt.[9] The xummachia between the two states is no philia, but an alliance for the sake of Athenian interest based on Athens’ superior power. Given this unequal power-dynamic, Cleon urges the Athenians to adhere to their initial decision and to sustain their anger. Delay for further deliberation can only be to their disadvantage because it renders them less angry and therefore less evenhanded: “the edge of the victim’s wrath is duller when he proceeds against the offender, whereas the vengeance that follows upon the heels of the outrage exacts a punishment that most nearly matches the offense” (ὁ γὰρ παθὼν τῷ δράσαντι ἀμβλυτέρᾳ τῇ ὀργῇ ἐπεξέρχεται, ἀμύνεσθαι δὲ τῷ παθεῖν ὅτι ἐγγυτάτω κείμενον ἀντίπαλον ὂν μάλιστα τὴν τιμωρίαν λαμβάνει, 3.38.1). From Cleon’s perspective, collective anger reflects unerring judgment, and holding on to it with unfailing vehemence can only result in just retribution.

§10  Cleon reiterates this need to hold on to anger at the end of his speech:

Do not, then, be traitors to your own cause, but recalling as nearly as possible how you felt when they made you suffer (γενόμενοι δ’ ὅτι ἐγγύτατα τῇ γνώμῃ τοῦ πάσχειν) and how you would then have given anything to crush them, now pay them back (νῦν ἀνταπόδοτε). Do not become tender-hearted at the sight of their present distress, nor unmindful of the danger that so lately hung over you (μηδὲ τοῦ ἐπικρεμασθέντος ποτὲ δεινοῦ ἀμνημονοῦντες), but chastise them as they deserve (κολάσατε δὲ ἀξίως) and give to your other allies plain warning that whoever revolts shall be punished with death (3.39.7-8).

§11  In his final attempt to stir the Athenians to angry punishment, Cleon makes clear that it is the evaluation of their suffering as the result of injustice that has evoked their anger. Such sentiment in turn justifies their decision to impose harsh punishment on the Mytileneans. Anger reflects an evaluation, gnômê, of unjust treatment, and holding on to the emotion means holding on to the memory and clarity of that gnômê. Vehement emotion, therefore, can ensure punishment that is truly proportionate to the offence. In this case, justice (τὰ δίκαια) and what is advantageous (τὰ ξύμφορα) for the Athenian empire coincide.

§12  The role of emotion in delineating interstate policy remains central throughout Cleon’s speech. He brings home the justice and usefulness of the initial angry decision of the dêmos, by opposing it to the three emotions that he sees as most detrimental to empire: pity, taking pleasure in eloquence, and clemency:

Therefore, I still protest, as I have from the first, that you should not reverse your former decision or be led into error by pity, delight in eloquence, or clemency, the three influences most prejudicial to a ruling state (μηδὲ τρισὶ τοῖς ἀξυμφορωτάτοις τῇ ἀρχῇ, οἴκτῳ καὶ ἡδονῇ λόγων καὶ ἐπιεικείᾳ, ἁμαρτάνειν). For compassion may rightly be bestowed upon those who are likewise compassionate and not upon those who will show no pity in return but of necessity are always enemies (ἔλεός τε γὰρ πρὸς τοὺς ὁμοίους δίκαιος ἀντιδίδοσθαι, καὶ μὴ πρὸς τοὺς οὔτ’ ἀντοικτιοῦντας ἐξ ἀνάγκης τε καθεστῶτας αἰεὶ πολεμίους). As to the orators who charm by their eloquence, they will have other opportunities of display in matters of less importance, and not where the city for a brief pleasure will pay a heavy penalty while they themselves get a fine fee for fine speaking. And clemency (ἡ ἐπιείκεια) would better be reserved for those who will afterwards be faithful allies than be shown to those who remain just what they were before and whit the less our enemies (3.40.2-3).

§13  Only equality of power and shared ideology justify pity. Both pity and clemency are emotions that necessarily warrant action and, for this reason, ought to be based on a premise of equality and voluntary reciprocity. Therefore, pity toward inferiors is not an option. By asking the Athenians not to indulge their desire for competitive political debate, he requires of them to bypass individual “interest” and focus on the interest of the polis. He thus concludes his argument, according to which a change of mind will display disrespect for the law. While presenting the original decision as more law-abiding than a consequent one makes for a specious argument, Cleon attempts to appeal to democratic sensibilities that ensure solidarity – in addition of course to securing the collectively enjoyed power of empire. As Danielle Allen has argued, anger was not only assumed to be at the root of law itself; it also justified punishment as a cure for the social disruption that anger – as a justified response to injustice – caused.[10] By remedying their anger the Athenians can justly restore harmony in their social and political relations.

§14  Opposing Cleon’s points, Diodotus claims that he is not concerned with issues of justice. He is rather concerned with good deliberation (εὐβουλία) that aims to define how the Mytileneans will prove most useful for both conserving resources and solidifying Athenian influence. Hastiness (τάχος) and anger or passion (ὀργή) are the greatest opponents of such good deliberation (3.44). Advocating a more restrained policy as the most expedient strategy for the present and the future, Diodotus offers an analysis of human nature and behavior, with special attention to its emotional dispositions. According to Diodotus, “all men are by nature prone to err, both in private and in public life, and there is no law that will prevent them” (3.45.3). Certain circumstances are particularly conducive to risk-taking and error. These include poverty (through necessity), power (through insolence and pride), other conditions (ξυντυχίαι) (through anger or passion more generally – ὀργή), desire (ἔρως), hope (ἐλπίς), and fortune (τύχη). Though (or because)[11] unseen and elusive (ἀφανῆ), desire and hope are particularly harmful, because they have the power to prevail over visible, clear dangers.[12] Fortune itself urges equally men and states to take risks:

…and the individual, when supported by the whole people, unreasonably overestimates his own strength (καὶ μετὰ πάντων ἕκαστος ἀλογίστως ἐπὶ πλέον τι αὑτὸν ἐδόξασεν). In a word, it is impossible, and a mark of extreme simplicity, for anyone to imagine that when human nature is wholeheartedly bent on any undertaking (τῆς ἀνθρωπείας φύσεως ὁρμωμένης προθύμως τι πρᾶξαι) it can be diverted by rigorous laws or any other terror (ἢ νόμων ἰσχύι ἢ ἄλλῳ τῷ δεινῷ) (3.45.6-7).

§15  In Diodotus’ depiction of human nature, the passions either result from extreme circumstances, or are themselves the initial trigger of risk-taking. Because they are devoid of calculation and forward thinking, they cannot be diverted, especially when they are embraced by collective bodies. Human nature at its most visceral rushes forth and, when set on its eagerly passionate course (ὁρμωμένης προθύμως), cannot be stopped. This is as close as we get to an identification of human nature with irrational passion.[13] For this reason Diodotus insists on a less extreme punishment that in the long run will function as a deterrent measure within the Athenian empire. In other words, the decision not to punish Mytilene’s innocent population will prove to be more expedient. As a well thought-out policy, it will inspire fear in Athens’ enemies, both currently and in the future: “for he who is wise in counsel is stronger against the foe than he who recklessly rushes on with brute force” (ὅστις γὰρ εὖ βουλεύεται πρὸς τοὺς ἐναντίους κρείσσων ἐστὶν ἢ μετ’ ἔργων ἰσχύος ἀνοίᾳ ἐπιών, 3.48.2). The one who is able to show euboulia in this case stands as the truly more powerful opponent (κρείσσων) in contrast with the one who uses iskhus, here to be identified with both brute force and anger. But is euboulia separate from and devoid of emotion?

§16  Both Diodotus and Cleon present collective emotion as leading, in many cases, to irresponsible decisions. Even though in different terms, they describe collective decision-making as often driven by pleasure and/or desire for what is absent – as devoid of conscientious deliberation about responsibility for consequent action. Diodotus, as we saw, allows very little room for rational thinking, and argues that, absorbed and empowered through collective participation (μετὰ πάντων), the individual makes decisions unreasonably (ἀλογίστως). He also characterizes the Athenians as irresponsible listeners who make hasty decisions, and who, when encountering a reversal, give way to their first impulse/anger by punishing their adviser instead of taking responsibility for communal erroneous decisions.

§17  Cleon, on the other hand, allows for rationality within emotion, namely the gnômê that stimulates emotional response. To him, competing emotions reveal competing gnômai. It is inability to form sound judgments that results in ill-advised emotional responses and irresponsible action. In his version of the dêmos’ inability to think and feel responsibly, he accuses the Athenians of being spectators of speeches and listeners of deeds (θεαταὶ μὲν τῶν λόγων, ἀκροαταὶ δὲ τῶν ἔργων), who do not care about facts that offer a trustworthy basis for judgment, but are slaves of paradoxes (τῶν αἰεὶ ἀτόπων), as alluded to above. He argues:

… you are as quick to forestall what is said as you are slow to foresee what will come of it. You seek, one might say, a world quite unlike that in which we live, but give too little heed to that which is at hand. In a word, you are in thrall to the pleasures of the ear and are more like men who sit as spectators at exhibitions of sophists than men who take counsel for the welfare of the state (ἁπλῶς τε ἀκοῆς ἡδονῇ ἡσσώμενοι καὶ σοφιστῶν θεαταῖς ἐοικότες καθημένοις μᾶλλον ἢ περὶ πόλεως βουλευομένοις) (3.38.6-7).

§18  When Cleon advocated holding on to anger, he argued that it would preserve the perceptive judgment that triggered it, the fact that the Athenians suffered undeservedly in the hands of their allies (τῇ γνώμῃ τοῦ πάσχειν). It would thus result in responsible policy and would counter the dêmos’ emotional tendency to passive participatory pleasure. Such collective pleasure, akin as it is to that felt by uncritical spectators in the theater or sophistic competitions, subdues the mind. It weakens or eradicates passionate deliberation that leads to realistic assessment, active decision making, and responsible action on behalf of the city-state and its interest.

§19  In addressing the contribution of emotion to euboulia, both Cleon and Diodotus argue against the advisability of invoking pity in order to motivate policy regarding allies in revolt. In the case of Diodotus, however, pity is essentially reintroduced. Diodotus glosses over his call to pity with his discussion of human nature and, consequently, with his proposal to establish a less violent policy that will function as a deterrent in the future. Addressing the politics of pity, Cleon earlier argued that only homoioi, equals in power and those who share a common ideology, deserve pity because of their ability and willingness to reciprocate it. Leaving ideology temporarily aside, Diodotus turns to a different type of “similarity”, that of human nature under the compulsion of passion. Building on that, he constructs an argument against harsh punishment as a deterrent policy. The type of responsible action that Diodotus requires of the collective body of the Athenians inevitably results in a more empathetic policy, even if such a policy is pursued for the sake of expedience.[14]

§20  Even as Diodotus argues that the assembly ought to make a decision based on expedient policy rather than to hold a trial about just conduct, he echoes the terminology that the Mytileneans themselves use to define philia – as opposed to xummachia based on phobos. In an earlier address to the Spartans, as mentioned above, the Mytileneans had accused the Athenians of masking an attack of (using) force against them (ἐφόδῳ ἰσχύος) with an attack based on policy (ἐφόδῳ γνώμῃ). In true interstate philia, they claimed, it is good will (εὔνοια) that ensures good faith (πίστις).[15] Diodotus now calls for good counsel (εὐβουλία) that would replace an attack of force pursued with lack of good will (ἀνοία): “for he who is wise in counsel is stronger against the foe than he who recklessly rushes on with brute force” (ὅστις γὰρ εὖ βουλεύεται πρὸς τοὺς ἐναντίους κρείσσων ἐστὶν ἢ μετ’ἔργων ἰσχύος ἀνοίᾳ ἐπιών, 3.48.2). He asks, in other words, to substitute an attack of force with a policy that shows good will. By voting in favor of Diodotus’ proposal, the Athenians opt for a type of alliance that approximates philia.[16] The answer, then, to the question whether euboulia is devoid of emotion ought to be negative. In my reading, pity informs the good counsel that Diodotus promotes.[17]

§21  Both speakers attempt to direct collective emotion by defining it and analyzing the rationale that it reflects. In so doing, they point to shortcomings in collective decision-making that they see as mutually reinforcing and intrinsic to its nature. They both suggest that a) the dêmos as a whole tends to be moved by the wrong emotions, and that b) as a member of a collective body, the individual loses sight of his personal responsibility. In this portrayal of emotional disposition, they call attention to a pleasure in and aspiration for what is absent and unseen, stimulated by “watching” speeches (Cleon) or visualized through the instigation of erôs and hope (Diodotus). Aesthetics thus plays a significant role in stimulating the collective imagination and collective feeling, creating a particular perspective, and consequently influencing decisions on policy. As they articulate their acute awareness of the tendency of the dêmos to indulge in such pleasure, both speakers demonstrate that they are attentive to it. Perhaps this helps to explain why Diodotus prevails in the debate, with his evocative personification of erôs and hope, the former of which is presented as leading the way and contriving a plan for action, while the latter follows along and offers ill-advised encouragement. At the very moment that it denies or explains empathy away, Diodotus’ narrative succeeds in evoking it and thereby effecting a more empathetic policy. His highly visual speech wins the day and leads to a policy that claims to be more expedient and certainly is more humane.

§22  The debate, then, indicates that only consistent renegotiation and conscientious deliberation can remedy the lack of responsibility with which the two speakers charge their audience. It also recommends a place for pity by redefining its connection with self-interest. If Diodotus covertly encourages empathy, then empathetic involvement results in both a better understanding of self-interest and a more ethical policy. Thucydides’ text as a whole, “shows that actual political behavior was much more complex and various than just “selfish human nature writ large.” The simple realization that humans tend to seek their own interests was only one part of a larger socio-political equation”.[18] I suggest that empathy constitutes the flip side of the social pathology that plays into the sociopolitical equation.

§23  The depiction of pity in the narrative of the plague – the other instance where the workings of pity are addressed explicitly – will help to clarify my argument. During the plague, only the survivors show pity for and assist those suffering or dying, “because they had learned what it meant and were themselves by this time confident of immunity” (2.51.6). But they also feel so empowered, that they cherish an empty hope (ἐλπίδος κούφης) that never again will fatal disease afflict them. Pity, then, in both the narrative of the plague and the Mytilenean debate remains ambivalent. In the former, it encompasses both a deep understanding of the state of those afflicted and a misled sense of empowerment through a belief in everlasting immunity. In the latter, it is glossed over but contributes to the final decision that combines expedience with a more humane treatment of the opponent. This ambivalence indicates that pity consistently involves a sliver of self-assurance, gratification, and benefit while remaining invested in helping the sufferer. It thus helps redefine the pursuit of self-interest in terms that create the potential for equal treatment and reciprocity.[19]

§24  When we turn to the Sicilian Expedition, the Athenians are shown to enact Diodotus’ portrayal of emotional human nature. Erôs, elpis, and intense fear prevail at different stages of the narrative, while pity is both experienced and evoked at the end of the expedition.[20] A notable emphasis on seeing, moreover, takes the aesthetics of Cleon and Diodotus to a new level. The narrative foregrounds the experience of opsis and the development of literal and metaphorical points of view. It thus highlights, I suggest, the very process of how different types of rationale develop behind collective passion, and how collective passion, in turn, reinforces or undermines such rationale. By vividly conveying this process, the account of the Sicilian expedition raises a question that recurs in Thucydides’ portrayal of democratic processes: how can true emotional (and therefore ideological) cohesion be promoted within and for the democratic community?

§25  When the Athenians gather to deliberate in preparation for the expedition, Nicias attempts to convince them to renounce their original decision altogether. He calls specifically on the older men not to suffer the younger men’s disease, their “morbid craving for what is out of reach (δυσέρωτας εἶναι τῶν ἀπόντων), knowing that few successes are won by greed but very many by foresight” (6.13.1). He also asks the president of the assembly to put the issue to the vote again, and thus become a physician (ἰατρός) who can cure the state. Alcibiades’ speech, however, intensifies the dêmos’ desire for the expedition, as does, paradoxically, Nicias’ consequent exaggeration of the preparation and expenditure that the expedition will require.[21] As Diodotus pointed out in the Mytilenean debate, when human nature is passionately bent on a course, no terror can dissuade it. Instead of being discouraged, the Athenians “were far more bent upon it; … and upon all alike fell an eager desire to sail” (πολὺ δὲ μᾶλλον ὥρμηντο; … καὶ ἔρως ἐνέπεσε τοῖς πᾶσιν ὁμοίως ἐκπλεῦσαι, 6.24.2-3). Thucydides emphasizes the force and contagiousness of collective feeling. The aberrant desire (δυσέρως) to sail that is short-sighted and excessive infects everyone like a disease (ἐνέπεσε). When individuals consider expressing their objections, “on account of the exceeding eagerness of the majority” (διὰ τὴν ἄγαν τῶν πλεόνων ἐπιθυμίαν, 6.24.4), they refrain out of fear that their motives will be falsely interpreted as disloyalty to the common cause. The majority’s passion stifles opposition. This depiction reminds the reader of the conditions of violent stasis. During the stasis at Corcyra, moderation is eclipsed by outright collective violence (3.82.8). In the current circumstances emotional imposition takes the place of violent acts. Thus the eagerness to take on the expedition spreads like disease and thrives on the passions that sustain political stasis.

§26  Passionate desire akin to Diodotus’ earlier depiction of erôs and hope seems also to combine with an interesting transmutation of stasis. While all Athenians are unified by their aberrant erôs to sail, different hopes and desires motivate different segments of the population: the older men believe that they will subdue the places they are embarking against or, at the very least, that they will not be defeated. The young ones long for “sight and theôria” (πόθῳ ὄψεως καὶ θεωρίας), in good hopes that they will obtain a safe return. And the great multitude eagerly desires to make profit in the present and to secure resources for the future (6.24.3-4). Passionate desire and hope indeed lead the way. But they both are misleading, based as they are on false evaluation of the dangers lying ahead.

§27  These differing views regarding the potential rewards of the expedition reveal the absence of a cohesive vision that is overlooked under the disorienting influence of passion. Among the goals that Thucydides voices, the desire for opsis and theôria is particularly telling. [22] The younger soldiers conceive of this military expedition as a theoric journey. Andrea Nightingale has shown that, though varied in character (religious, civic, individual), and monitored by political and religious institutions to different degrees, theoric journeys involve detachment from the city and potentially have a profound effect on the theôros:[23]

…the defining feature of theôria in its traditional forms is a journey to a region outside the boundaries of one’s own city for the purpose of witnessing some sort of spectacle or learning about the world. Theôria involves “autopsy” or seeing something for oneself: the theôros is an eyewitness whose experience differs radically from those who stay home and receive a mere report of the news. On the journey as well as at its destination, the theôros encounters something foreign and different. This encounter with the unfamiliar invites the traveler to look at his own city with different eyes.[24]

§28  The language of opsis and theôria indicates that the younger soldiers view the expedition as a journey away from home that opens up the possibility of encountering alterity. The lack of familiarity entices them. At the same time, the anticipation of a theôria-like experience indicates how misled their perspective is: this is a military expedition that entails high financial and political risks. For this reason, not only will the spectacle be disenchanting; it will inevitably require direct involvement in ways that go well beyond theoric participation. It will thus force upon them a perspective that unifies them with their fellow-combatants and will indeed make everyone look at their city with different eyes.[25]

§29  As duserôs builds on and further enhances miscalculation, disorienting emotions only continue to proliferate during the expedition. Fear that leads to disorder dominates a number of episodes in Sicily. Especially in the final battles that result in the retreat of the Athenians, fear and panic take over. The battles at Epipolae and at the harbor and the Athenian retreat become emblematic of the Athenian state of mind and the nature of the war. At Epipolae, most signs of difference between the opponents lose their efficacy because of the time of the battle and the narrow space in which it takes place. Even though there is a full moon, the Athenians and their allies can perceive “the sight” of the bodies (τὴν μὲν ὄψιν τοῦ σώματος) in front of them but cannot “trust the recognition” of fellow-soldiers as being their friends (τὴν δὲ γνῶσιν τοῦ οἰκεῖου ἀπιστεῖσθαι) (7.64.2). They make the watchword known to the enemy as they shout in an attempt to reach more of their allies. And every time the Argives, the Corcyreans, or any Dorian contingent of the Athenian army raises the paean, the Athenians become terrified because they think that the enemy is ready to attack. Thus in their own ranks, the Athenians and their allies experience stasis fraught with fear, disorder, and killing of kin:

And so finally, when once they had been thrown into confusion (ἐπεὶ ἅπαξ ἐταράχθησαν), coming into collision with their own comrades in many different parts of the army, friends with friends and citizens with fellow-citizens (φίλοι τε φίλοις καὶ πολῖται πολίταις), they not only became panick-stricken (οὐ μόνον ἐς φόβον κατέστησαν) but came to blows with one another and were with difficulty separated. And as they were pursued by the enemy many hurled themselves down from the bluffs and perished (7.44.6-8).

§30  The inability to acquire clear knowledge and a unified vision during the decision-making process for the expedition is echoed by its literal instantiation during the battle. The Athenians and their allies prove unable to see who is who on the battlefield: opsis itself fails and does not translate into gnôsis. Thus they lack the literal vision that would allow for succesful collaboration and mutual support.

§31  Great confusion also dominates the final battle at the harbor. The terminology of opsis and spectacle becomes prominent, as the Athenians on shore watch the fight at sea. Because the spectacle is now too close (δι’ ὀλίγου γὰρ οὔσης τῆς θέας καὶ οὐ πάντων ἅμα ἐς τὸ αὐτὸ σκοπούντων), different perspectives elicit different emotional responses and hence contribute to the generalized confusion. The soldiers who can only see the Athenians who prevail in the battle take heart (ἀνεθάρσησαν). Those who see a portion of the army defeated, lament (ὀλοφυρμῷ τε ἅμα μετὰ βοῆς ἐχρῶντο) and become “enslaved with regard to their gnômê” as they grow more fearful than the fighters themselves (ἀπὸ τῶν δρωμένων τῆς ὄψεως καὶ τὴν γνώμην μᾶλλον τῶν ἐν τῷ ἔργῳ ἐδουλοῦντο).

Others again whose gaze was fixed on some part of the field where the battle was evenly balanced, on account of the long-drawn uncertainty of the conflict were in a continual state of most distressing suspense, their very bodies swaying, in the extremity of their fear, in accord with their opinion of the battle (καὶ τοῖς σώμασιν αὐτοῖς ἴσα τῇ δόξῃ περιδεῶς ξυναπονεύοντες ἐν τοῖς χαλεπώτατα διῆγον) (7.71.3).

§32  The men fighting on board become, in turn, similarly affected. Thus “autopsy” through opsis is powerful enough to set bodies in motion in a literal sense, and consequently to shape points of view (δόξαι, γνῶμαι). As was the case at Epipolae, the inability to develop a unified perspective reflects both inadequate positioning (in real space) and false perception and evaluation. Defeat, however, eventually unifies the Athenian army’s points of view: “with one impulse all broke forth into wailing and groaning, being scarcely able to bear what was happening” (ὁ δὲ πεζὸς οὐκέτι διαφόρως, ἀλλ᾽ἀπὸ μιᾶς ὁρμῆς οἰμωγῇ τε καὶ στόνῳ πάντες δυσανασχετοῦντες τὰ γιγνόμενα, 7.71.6). The collective impulse to grieve replaces the initial collective erôs, but the new passion is based on true knowledge. United in defeat the Athenians and their allies can clearly see where their miscalculations lay.

§33  In the rest of the narrative, the emphasis shifts to suffering that creates a truly shared perspective. Such a perspective is not only communal; it is also accurate. As the Athenians depart, each one of them sees things that are painful to both sight and mind (τῇ τε ὄψει ἑκάστῳ ἀλγεινὰ καὶ τῇ γνώμῃ αἰσθέσθαι). Pain (λύπη) and fear (φόβος) seize them (7.75.2-3). They come across corpses and the sick and wounded whom they have to abandon despite their persistent entreaties and lamentation, and who cause them more pity and pain than do the dead.

The whole army, being filled with grief and in such perplexity, found it hard to depart, even out of a country that was hostile, and though they had endured already sufferings too great for tears and feared for the future what they might still have to suffer. There was also a general feeling of dejection and much self-condemnation (κατήφειά τέ τις ἅμα καὶ κατάμεμψις σφῶν αὐτῶν πολλὴ ἦν). For indeed they looked like nothing else than a city in secret flight after a siege, and that no small city (οὐδὲν γὰρ ἄλλο ἢ πόλει ἐκπεπολιορκημένῃ ἐῴκεσαν ὑποφευγούσῃ, καὶ ταύτῃ οὐ σμικρᾷ).

Furthermore, the rest of their misery and the equal sharing of their ills (καὶ μὴν ἡ ἄλλη αἰκία καὶ ἡ ἰσομοιρία τῶν κακῶν) – although there was in this very sharing with many some alleviation (ἔχουσά τινα ὅμως τὸ μετὰ πολλῶν κούφισιν) – did not even so seem easy at the moment, especially when one considered from what splendor and boastfulness at first to what a humiliating end they had now come. For this was indeed the very greatest reversal that had ever happened to a Hellenic armament. (7.75.4-7).

§34  The disastrous outcome of the Sicilian expedition unites all the soldiers in the suffering that they experience in equal share (ἡ ἰσομοιρία τῶν κακῶν). The emphasis on the reversal of Athenian fortune brings home the magnitude of their initial miscalculation and their shared learning through recognition. The army in Sicily of course does not comprise the whole Athenian dêmos. But the soldiers represent Athens literally and metaphorically: Thucydides compares them with a city in secret flight, “and that no small city”.[26]

§35  The grand reversal in Sicily also points to the correspondence between misguided opinion and passion. Though shared, the (dus)erôs that drives the Athenian assembly passionately to pursue the expedition is also a desire to succeed in diverse goals. At the same time, such erôs is not in itself necessarily an irrational passion, as the terminology of disease would initially suggest. To the motives that I have pointed out, David Smith adds ten more reasons that incite the Athenians’ collective desire. “The over-abundance of points of view about Sicily and the reasons for invading it given throughout the beginning of Book Six are consciously designed to make the reader feel like [the Athenians] are not sure what the real reason was”.[27] This over-abundance reveals that the Athenians rely on knowledge that cannot be trusted. Instead of using systematic observation, they trust in information they have accumulated from hearsay, gossip, and the dramatic stage.[28] Josiah Ober similarly argues that Thucydides establishes for his readers “the existence of a fatal structural flaw in the edifice of democratic ways of knowing and doing and this flaw is a key to his criticism of Athenian popular rule”.[29] These readings point to the flawed knowledge behind the powerful passions that motivate decision-making in the assembly and consequent action. The passages that I discussed above bring to the battlefield itself the habits of the mass and emphasize its flaws. By presenting perspective in literal terms, that is, by connecting it with the (in)ability to see while in the dark or in proximity even to fellow-citizens and allies, Thucydides’ text undermines the sharp divide between reason and emotion, especially in the context of shared experience. And the causality is difficult to trace: fear does skew the perspective of both combatants and their spectators. But it is their limited view (and already skewed perspective) that instigates and sustains their fear.[30] Thus the narrative of the defeat in Sicily throws into sharp relief the challenges of “seeing” together – of developing an accurate perspective that allows a collective body competently to judge, feel, and act as a cohesive group.

Closing thoughts

§36  Thucydides’ depiction of collective emotion undermines, I have argued, the sharp divide between reason and passion (γνώμη and ὀργή). By pointing to the ways in which the dêmos acquires, disseminates, and acts on knowledge, the text suggests that it is difficult to discern the precise workings of emotional experience: whether it is (unreflective) emotion that leads to ill-advised deliberation and action or misinformed reasoning that produces and perpetuates emotions that further feed shortsighted decisions. In general, however, emotional responses are shown to be processes that include evaluation based on belief, pleasure or pain, and a sense of attachment that equips emotional experience with the motivational force for action.

§37  In addition to the pain or pleasure that accompany emotions such as fear, pity, and erôs, Thucydides’ text suggests a pleasure experienced through participation in a collectivity. Cleon’s accusation that the dêmos indulges passively in the spectacle of speeches points not only to the enchanting spectacle itself, but also to the fact that the participants enjoy indulging in it collectively. In the narrative of the Sicilian expedition, the only “pleasure” possible upon defeat comes from collective grieving. Such a pleasure stems from the alleviation that the equal share of evils (ἡ ἰσομοιρία τῶν κακῶν) affords. Thus participation in the collectivity of the dêmos or the army has an experiential dimension that creates bonds among its members and helps to create a coherent ideology. Shared decisions and ideology, in turn, reinforce such an attachment. It is the combination of the cognitive and the experiential aspects of collective emotion that leads to the translation of emotional experience into action, and to the definition of the type of action to be taken in each case.

§38  Precisely because collective emotion carries normative value and motivational power for decision-making and concerted action, Thucydides’ text foregrounds the need for the cultivation and sublimation of the emotions. Such a need poses a consistent challenge for the Athenian dêmos to find ways to translate participatory pleasure into a truly shared vision of responsible political action. As he has come to distrust the ability of the dêmos to self-regulate emotionally, Thucydides advocates for competent leaders with a clear and reliable vision of the congruity between individual and collective interest who can create a political culture of trust.[31] If calibrated wisely, the emotions of the dêmos will contribute to such culture. Thus collective emotion in the institutions of the democracy reflects ideas and attachments at the same time that it shapes them. The same is the case for collective emotion in Thucydides’ text.

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[1] I would like to thank the junior and senior fellows at the CHS for their suggestions and comments. This paper is a section from the first chapter in the book I am currently working on, titled Dancing the Emotions: Pity and Fear in the Tragic Chorus. In this first chapter I turn to Thucydides for an extensive examination of collective emotion in domestic and interstate politics. Irrespective of the degree of accuracy in the transcription of the speeches and the precise chronology of the composition of Thucydides’ text, I view the depiction of the dêmos and the historian’s assessments of collective emotion in political deliberation and consequent action as a significant instantiation of ideas and concerns that circulate in the 5th c. BCE and are in dialogue with tragedy.

[2] Ober 2006: 148, 156-9.

[3] Starting early in the 20th c. with F. Cornford 1907, classical scholars and political theorists have viewed Thucydidean psychology as influenced by the historian’s tragic conception of Athenian history. See, e.g., Immerwahr 1973, Lateiner 1977, Macleod 1983, Mittelstadt 1985, and Lebow 2003. For interpretations that focus on particular emotions, see Monoson 1994 on the erotic imagery in the funeral oration; Ludwig 2002 and Wohl 2002 for an extensive analysis of the social, political, and philosophical implications of the rhetoric of erôs in the History overall; de Romilly 1956, Chittick and Freyberg-Inan 2001 and Desmond 2006 on the role of fear.

[4] Bedford and Workman 2001: 56, 58.

[5] I use both terms (emotion, passion) to convey the varying degrees of intensity or viscerality of the affective experiences that Greek πάθος is used for.

[6] On mass psychology and the aptness of an analysis at the psychological (and not the sociological) level in Thucydides, see Hunter 1986 and 1988.

[7] On the idealizing erotics of citizen-sentiment, see Farenga 2006 esp. 436-438 and fn. 2 above.

[8] I use C.F. Smith’s translation in the Loeb.

[9] In 3.10-12, the Mytileneans describe the different types of association possible between states according to the principles on which they are founded. Respect for equality that ensures good will and builds trust leads to philia. Fear (phobos/deos) of an ever-changing power dynamic, on the other hand, can only lead to a xummachia that is devoid of good faith and is sustained for the sake of narrowly defined interest.

[10] Allen 1995 discusses the centrality of anger to the Athenian experience of wrongdoing and punishment and points out the view of anger as a disease that requires cure. She argues that “the wrongdoer transmitted disease because, in angering people, he upset the harmony of social relations. Anger justified punishment because as a disease, it demanded a cure” (382-3). See also Allen 2000: 50-9.

[11] Gomme 1956: 320.

[12] I read ὀργῇ with the MSS. See also Gomme 1956: 319.

[13] The circumstances that Diodotus includes in his account without expanding on them point, however, to a rationale behind passion, i.e. the type of immoral thinking that comes with poverty, power, etc. What precisely constitutes ‘human nature’ in the History is the subject of continuous debate. For the identification of ‘human nature’ with unthinking emotion, see e.g., Mittelstadt 1985 esp. 67 and 99-101 and Loraux 2009: 263-8. On the other hand, developing Farrar’s (1988) approach Farenga 2006: 441 argues that ‘human nature’ is a psychological structure that is itself dominated by the tension between reasoned judgment and powerful emotion (γνώμη and ὀργή).

[14] In his discussion of the relationship between pity and politics, Konstan 2005 makes a similar argument by focusing primarily on dramas of supplication but also looking at historical examples that include the Mytilenean debate. Because pity is based on considerations of whether suffering is deserved, he argues that conventional ideas of what counts as lawful are relevant to the emotion of pity. But since consideration of self-interest is what becomes central in political deliberation, “the only way to introduce a concern for what is right is to argue that defending the nomima or conventional laws is itself to the community’s interest” (54).

[15] See also p. 4 and fn. 8.

[16] Cogan 1981 argues that with the Mytilenean debate we also have a shift in the politics of the war. From now on, ideology will consistently define policy. The Athenian state will pursue alliances not with governments but with political factions so that “the allies can be kept close to Athens by cultivating the political sympathies which exist between the democratic factions of the subject cities and Athens” (12).

[17] For the opposite interpretation, see Lateiner 2005: 80-4 who argues that Thucydides “does not credit the Athenians with impressive pity or mercy” (84).

[18] Ober 2006: 145.

[19] My interpretation overlaps with Lebow’s analysis of the relationship between ethics and interest. Lebow 2003: 283 argues that “a demonstrable commitment to justice can create and maintain the kind of community that allows actors to translate power into influence in efficient ways”. Justice in his argument provides the conceptual framework according to which actors can construct interest intelligently and thus sustain their power and influence.

[20] In interpretations that view Thucydides’ conception of history as informed by tragedy, the defeat at Sicily constitutes Athens’ tragic fall from great prosperity and power which leads (or fails to lead) to knowledge through anagnôrisis. For references, see fn. 2.

[21] Wohl 2002: 196 argues that Nicias represents Athens’s imperial erôs as a fever that will kill the polis while Alcibiades sees it as the force that keeps Athens alive. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate erôs from thanatos.

[22] The use of the term θεωρία is certainly marked. With one exception (4.93.1), all other occurences of θεωρία, θεωρός, and θεωρεῖν in Thucydides refer to institutional θεωρία, namely to sending deputies to games and festivals or to consult oracles. See: 3.104.3, 5.16.2, 5.18.2, 5.47.9, 5.50.2, 6.3.1, 6.16.2, 8.10.1.

[23] Nightingale 2009: 40-71.

[24] Ibid., 68.

[25] Wohl views this theôria as a type of “imperial speculation” that promises to save the Athenians from the exhaustive struggle of their imperial tyranny (195).

[26] In his attempt to encourage the soldiers as they begin to retreat, Nicias too points to the analogy between the army and the citizen-body: he urges them to be brave so as to raise up again the power of their city, “because it is men that make a state, not walls nor ships without men” (7.77.7). On the metonymic relationship between soldiers and city-state and how the spatial contingencies that define Athens “structure both the narrative of the city’s transcendent power and the reality of its eventual defeat”, see Bassi 2007: 196-7.

[27] Smith 2004: 47.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For Ober 1993, such structural flaw stems from the competitive context of decision-making in the assembly. Since speakers compete to win the vote of the dêmos, they can be neither objective nor impartial. Therefore Thucydides’ own epistemology based on laborious historical investigations is to be contrasted with the epistemologically flawed rhetoric of public speakers. See esp. 90-92 and 97-8.

[30] For a discussion of fear-terminology (deos, phobos, ekplêxis) in different sources including Thucydides, and the aspects of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in communally experienced fear, see Nagy 2010: Nagy draws connections especially between collectively experienced ekplêxis in Thucydides and the ekplêxis experienced in the theater by the notional community of the Athenian audience.

[31] As mentioned earlier, Ober 1993 and 2006 discusses this notion of congruity with regard to what Thucydides sees as the shortcomings of democratic knowledge as well as Pericles’ structural role in the democracy that his successors fail to fulfill.