10/9/13 - "the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must"

In today's selection -- from Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard. Thucydides was the ancient Greek historian who wrote of the wars of Sparta and Athens and who took the practice of writing history from the realm of mythology to the realistic examination of human motives. But like so many modern academics, he used prose that was unnecessarily difficult. And his most famous phrase -- "The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must" -- is most likely a slight mistranslation:

"Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in almost impossibly difficult Greek. Maybe the contorted language has something to do with the novelty of his enterprise. Writing at the end of the fifth century BC, he was attempting something never done before: an aggressively rational, apparently impersonal analysis of the history of his own times, utterly free from religious modes of explanation. In Thucydides' view, the Peloponnesian War, fought on and off for thirty years between the two leading Greek cities of Sparta and Athens, had to be understood with respect to human politics and power struggles, not -- as Homer had earlier seen the Trojan War, or as Herodotus had explained the Greek wars against the Persians -- by referring to quarrels among the gods on Mount Olympus. This was revolutionary.

Bust of Thucydides"But however we choose to excuse Thucydides, the fact remains that his History is sometimes made almost incomprehensible by neologisms, awkward abstractions, and linguistic idiosyncrasies of all kinds. These are not only a problem for the modern reader. They infuriated some ancient readers too. In the first century BC, in a long essay devoted to Thucydides' work, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic and historian himself, complained -- with ample supporting quotations -- of the 'forced expressions', 'non sequiturs', 'artificialities,' and 'riddling obscurity'. 'If people actually spoke like this,' he wrote, 'not even their mothers or their fathers would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of it; in fact they would need translators, as if they were listening to a foreign language. ...

"Take, for example, perhaps the most favourite of all Thucydidean catchphrases, repeated in international relations courses the world over, and a founding text of 'realist' political analysis: 'The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.' It is taken from the famous debate that Thucydides evokes between the Athenians and the people of the island of Melos. The Athenians had demanded that the neutral state of Melos come over to the Athenian side in the war between Athens and Sparta; when the Melians resisted, the two sides debated the issue. The representatives of imperial Athens put forward a terrifying version of 'might is right': justice only existed between equals, they asserted -- otherwise, the strong rule the weak and so the power of Athens could always ride roughshod over the aspirations of a small island.

"The Melians, honourably but naively, stuck by their own independence. The immediate result was that Athenian forces besieged and captured Melos, killing all the men that they could get their hands on, and enslaving the women and children. Significantly, in the design of Thucydides' History, the next major event turns out to be the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily -- where the idea of 'might is right' rebounded on its Athenian exponents and effectively sealed Athens's defeat by Sparta.

"The famous slogan about the strong and the weak comes, obviously, from the Athenian side of the argument, and its current popularity owes much to the nice balance between the powerful doing 'what they can' and the weak suffering 'what they must' -- as well as that iron law of inevitability (or realism, depending on your point of view) that is introduced by the phrase 'what they must.' But that is not what Thucydides wrote. As Simon Hornblower correctly acknowledges in the third and final volume of his monumental, line-by-line commentary on the whole of Thucydides' History, a more accurate translation is: 'The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply.' Even that exaggerates the idea of compulsion on the weak: to be precise, what Thucydides claimed was only that 'the weak comply' -- no necessity was introduced at all. And Hornblower's commentary also raises the question of exactly what the action of the strong was supposed to be; it could equally well be translated from the original Greek as 'do' or 'exact' or even (as one Renaissance scholar thought) 'extort'. 'Do what they can' and 'extort what they can' conjure up very different pictures of the operation of power.

Reprinted from Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations by Mary Beard. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Beard Publications Ltd. First American Edition 2013. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.


Mary Beard


Confronting the Classics


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2013 by Mary Beard


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