Thucydides’ History, Book 6

Chapter 18

“Thus by saying what is it befitting that we shrink from it or by making excuses to our allies there, that we would not give aid? To these men, since we swore an oath together, we must give succour, and not rejoin that they have not done so for us. For it was not so that they might help us in turn over here, that we associated ourselves with them, but rather so that by being troublesome for our hated foes over there, they might prevent them from sending forth over here. Thus did we procure an empire, both ourselves and as many others as have ruled, by being ever and eagerly at hand, whether summoned by barbarians or by Hellenes, since if allies were all to be at rest or were to choose by race those whom they must give aid, then by gaining only trivial addition to our empire, we would, concerning that very thing, take more risk. For one defends against attacks, not only the most pressing, but also anticipates so that they do not attack at all. And it is not for us husband the extent to which we wish to rule, but rather there is a need, especially since we are set in this position, to plot against some, and not let others go (unpunished), due the existing risk that we ourselves would be ruled by others, if we would not ourselves rule the others. And peace is not to be considered on the same terms by us as others, unless you would also take their customs in exchange for the like.

“And so reckoning that it would strengthen this here more, if we should go against those there, let us make the voyage so that we might lay low the pride of the Peloponessians, if it is seen that we scorn the peace in its present form and sail against Sicily ; and furthermore, either we shall, with the addition of those lands, in all likelihood rule the whole Hellas, or we shall despoil the Syracusians, in which case both ourselves and our allies are aided. But our ships furnish a steadfast thing, both to remain, should one prosper, and to depart ; for we shall have more sea-mastery than even the whole of the Sikeliots. Let not the love of ease of Nicias’s speech and his schism between the young and the older dissuade you, but in customary fashion, just as our fathers, as young men deliberating with the elder, raised this empire so high, endeavor now, in the same way as well, to lead the city forward, and believe that the youngest and old age, without each other, can accomplish nothing, and likewise that should something simple and something middling and something altogether precise be mixed together they would be especially strong, and if the city is tranquil it will be worn out concerning itself, just as any other thing, and will decay in the knowledge of all things, whereas ever striving to add experience to itself, will be more accustomed to defending itself not by word but rather by deed. I have altogether come to the conclusion that a city not inactive in worldly matters would very quickly, it seems to me, by a change to a love of such inactivity1 be utterly ruined, and that the most steadfast things of men dwell in those men who stand by their manners and customs, even if it should be worse, they would govern with the least discord.”

1. The Greek pairs up a couple of wonderful words here. First of all, the adjective ἀπράγμων (apragmon), combines the alpha privative ἀ-, with indicates a lack or removal (a-theism, a-typical) and πρᾶγμα, meaning business, affair, or thing, and is frequently used to refer to public activity. So someone who is ἀπράγμων has withdrawn from the affairs of the world. Here, Alcibiades talks about how a city that is μὴ ἀπράγμονα, that is, not ἀπράγμων, might become ἀπραγμοσύνη. The –οσύνη tends to turn an adjective into a noun, like adding “-ness” in English (righteousness, goodness, happiness). For ἀπραγμοσύνη, the dictionaries I’ve looked at seem to want to translated as love or affinity for being ἀπράγμων. If someone knows a succinct way to express all this in English, I’d be glad to hear it.

Chapter 19

Thus did Alcibiades say ; and after the Athenians heard from that man and from the Egestaioi and from the Leontinoi fugitives, who, having come forward, were asking and were, by recalling the treaty, supplicating for aid for themselves, they were more eager by far than earlier to go to war. And Nicias, having come to understand that they would no longer be turned away by the same words, but by the amount of preparation, if he demanded a lot, they would quickly change their position, coming forward again, he said the following.

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