The longer game

What a week it has been, at least in the yellow world of journalism and politics. I have had nothing new to say on anything — at least I hope to have said nothing new, for my intention in commenting on passing events is simply to repeat the old gnomes which they freshly illustrate. Thucydides, into whose works I privately dipped last Tuesday, was as up-to-date as anything I found “breaking” on the Internet.

Consider, for instance, the career of the Athenian general (then Spartan, then Persian, then Athenian again), Alcibiades — more sinned against than sinning, and more sinning than sinned against, by turns. A large man, persistently underridden by the mean and small; a hero and no saint. Loved to the point of worship by the crowds; hated by the umbrous, to the point of madness; and always “in the news.”

A polarizing figure, as we’d say today; who, for his impieties, was finally run down by a mob. They set fire to the cottage where he’d retired with his mistress. (The Spartans commissioned the mob by one account; the young lady’s parents by another.) Boldly emerging from the flames to confront the whole tribe of his adversaries, he died in a hail of arrows. The gods let only Stalin die in his sleep. (Or so we thought until we got more information.)

Thucydides alone has the full measure of Alcibiades, it seems to me, reminded by comparison to scholars, ancient and modern alike, who cannot agree on what his virtues and vices were, let alone their applications, each choosing a new stick to get the wrong end of. Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades is quite enthralling, as ever; the orators Demosthenes and Isocrates throw off their usual bright sparks. Plato, who casts Socrates as Alcibiades’ mentor, does so in two dialogues so facile that we doubt Plato wrote them. Our Shakespeare catches something of the ancient and immortal bitterness that surrounds Alcibiades’ persona in his “problem” play, Timon of Athens (among my favourites). Until the recent loss of Western memory — the Alzheimer’s of our dying Civ — we continued to be amazed and puzzled by the man.

But Thucydides had the generosity, and attentiveness of spirit, to grasp him in his very largeness — great artist among strategists and tacticians, victorious as an Alexander wherever he led men; immensely strong, courageous, eloquent, flamboyant — but finally only in his own cause. Lesser authors diminish him, even when they praise; Thucydides can find the small within the large.

The world makes room for such men of action; men make room in their heads and hearts. But Athens would have ruled Hellas had Alcibiades and Athens pulled together, consistently upon the same ox. Each, in the end, was unworthy of the other: the man, traitor to the city; the city, traitor to the man.

How the great self-cancel! Few end well; and even those still lionized in old age, as Churchill, know themselves failures as they think back. In the long game, of human history, all the men of action are failures, and only the Saints leave legacies which moths, rust, thieves, and intellectuals are unable to corrupt.