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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Pericles and the Loneliness of Logic

Roughly two and a half thousand years ago, the Aegean and Mediterranean worlds were wracked by the Peloponnesian wars. Arguably, the long term effects of these wars ripple down to us today. Without the defeat of Athens and the depletion of Sparta, Philip of Macedon could not have conquered the Greek world, thus paving the way for his mercurial son Alexander to Hellenise the Persian Empire, creating routes for the flow of ideas, merchandise, disease, and conflict which continue to shape the world we live in today.

It makes sense, then, that the causes of these wars are hotly contested in the mainstream of historical discourse to this day. Thucydides and the war he chronicled are justly taken as the fons et origo of modern historical inquiry, and we devote as much time to unpicking his methodologies and motives as we do to understanding the events he chronicled.

There are many theories of the root cause, but possibly one of the most disturbing is Kagan's. He contends (very convincingly) that the fundamental error on the part of Pericles, official and de facto first citizen of Athens, was to overestimate the rationality of his opponents. Faced with a complex and existentially perilous set of circumstances, Pericles conducted a linear and cool-headed appraisal of the situation and, largely through the force of his personality, embarked Athens on a policy exactly rationally matched to his circumstances. Kagan's contention is that if Sparta, Corinth and Corcyra had been equally rational, they would have seen Pericles' plan for minimal deterrence for what it was, and maintained the balance of power and the peace, thus avoiding the war that arguably destroyed the classical Greek world. Unsurprisingly, however, Pericles was alone in his rationality, and his policies were sadly out of place and ineffective in the face of the reactionary fear and anger manifested by the other great powers.

This argument is particularly well evidenced, but the most compelling factor for me is its familiarity. Its plausibility is rooted in its deep resonance with that we already know about how people work. The age of the internet is an eavesdropper's paradise in that the vast majority of online material consists essentially of conversations overheard, usually in the form of dispute. An analysis of the progress of these 'arguments' makes it very clear that the vast majority of people simply do not know how to think in a linear fashion, and those few who do, seem incapable of pointing that line in any reasonable direction.

Mental acrobats like Edward De Bono contend that we naturally think in a linear fashion, but I would argue that this is a thought only possible for someone who lives in an academic and intellectual bubble. It is painfully obvious to me that the default mode of thinking for the bulk of humanity is free association. We see something, it reminds us of something else, which reminds us of another thing, ad infinitum. And this woolly and unreliable process really only serves for the rationalisation of emotion. Or, put more simply, our natural mode of thinking is highly effective for justifying our knee-jerk reactions to ourselves and others - a vital evolutionary development, but also a highly specialised one. This kind of thinking allows us to very effectively understand social dynamics and short range, simple, or repetitive phenomena, but what it is emphatically not useful for is the parsing of large scale and abstract complexity.

What is required for the understanding of such complexity, or the balancing of non-binary and potentially perpetual problems, is a kind of thinking which can only be developed through rigorous mental exercise and ceaselessly vigilant metacognition. It's important to remember, however, that anyone who embarks on such a process is likely to be quite the rara avis, adrift and alone in a sea of muddle-headed sentimentality and reactionary outrage. I'm willing to bet everyone reading this is inwardly nodding and congratulating themselves on being exactly such an island of rationality, but I'd suggest that this reaction is an indication of peril. The essence of this kind of thinking is in the constant doubt of one's own thought processes, and vigilant attention to the processes of others - precisely the two areas in which Pericles, rational as he was, failed.

The simplest test of rationality runs thusly:

Qaere: 'Am I utterly convinced my thinking is rational?'

If the answer is 'yes', it's time to rip down the entire framework and start again.

1 comment:

  1. So the general idea in Kagan is that Pericles failed to account for the irrationality of others, but or similarly, failed to include the limits of reason in his own reasoning? If that's it I don't really think that's the whole story. Pericles has a highly developed sense of psychology - he knows how conventional morality or justice within a polis changes as that polis grows in power. He also knows that reasoning with his own demos requires irrational appeal if they are going to be persuaded to do what is in the city's interest. I haven't read Kagan on this yet (but I'm about to write a paper on Pericles and his rationalisation of the war). To me however, I think an argument can be made that defends Pericles as having done everything right but yet still failing, this might follow from considering how language itself is an imprecise tool for rationalisation; that there are certain ineffable things that can't be quantified and described with abstract nouns and the nearest we can come to understanding reality is in fact an approximation. So rationalisation is impossible and myths are necessary. I think Thuc's use of rationalisation may be to put the truths inherent in myths in a historical form, useful for all time. Realpolitik then, on a deeper analysis, is not the main issue at large.