Thucydides On Civil War

Unifying with your fellow citizens is a whole lot easier than trying to subvert and destroy them.

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With the recent uptick in Civil War rhetoric, Jeff and I thought it might be wise to reflect back on the brutal nature of civil wars and the moral imperative to avoid them at all costs. To assist in this effort, we will turn to an Ancient Greek historian named Thucydides and focus on several passages detailing the Corcyraean Revolution. In the opening years of the Peloponnesian war, the island of Corcyra was engaged in a horrific civil war between Democrats and Oligarchs.

Both sides were engaged in butchering those of their fellow citizens whom they regarded as their enemies…Death thus raged in every shape; and, there was no length to which violence did not go.

From our reflections on the Corcyraean Revolution, we hope to steer people away from escalating the political divide and encourage moderating any hostile, uncompromising opinions of their fellow citizens. Politics is the challenge of figuring out how 330 million different people can live together happily in the same society; civil wars represent a total failure in this challenge. Once we grasp the true nature and moral hazards of civil wars, it should be clear that unifying with your fellow citizens is a whole lot easier than trying to subvert and destroy them.

Civil Wars Are A Moral Hazard

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Thucydides teaches us that the door to civil war is opened by emotion but closed with force. Civil wars constitute a moral hazard because the social pact is suspended and the right of the strongest becomes the standard of justice. As a result, chaos erupts, innocents always get caught in the crossfire, and people take advantage of the suspension of civil society to abuse and impose their will upon the weak.

Convulsed By Ideology

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Politics is the challenge of figuring out how hundreds of millions of different people can live together happily. When we allow ourselves to be convulsed by ideology we invite chaos into our politics and risk losing our individual liberty and constitutional government.

Foreign Powers & Civil Wars

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When discussing civil wars, it is easy to forget that others around the world will not remain static. Once the doors to civil war are opened, foreign powers will take advantage of the chaos and look for opportunities to exploit.

War Proves A Rough Master

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"In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes."

The Evils of Civil War

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The evils of civil war are grave and many. Loyalty to party dogma overtakes traditional bonds to country, family, and even religion. Goodwill perishes between the citizenry, honor gets laughed down, group think runs rampant, words have to change their meaning, and any moderate voice becomes associated with cowardice. In civil wars, blunter wits prevail.

Losing A Civil War

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If you decide to wage a civil war, you will resort to extra-constitutional means to pursue your ends. If you lose a civil war, you may find yourselves at the mercy of the victors and look for protection under the same constitution that you had abandoned at the outset.