Thucydides was probably born about 460BC and was for a time a General on the side of democratic Athens against aristocratic Sparta in what is known as the Peloponnesian War in which most of Greece took a side. After being exiled he wrote his famous history. The passage that I’ve quoted in full below is, in my opinion, one of the finest passages of classical antiquity. I was somewhat surprised not to be able to find it elsewhere quoted online. It descibes the breakdown of civil society and in doing so it perfectly describes every civil war and revolution that has taken place in the almost two and half thousands years since it was written including the English Civil War, French Revolution, American Civil War, Russian Revolution, and Spanish Civil War. Human nature, it seems is immutable.
I bring it to attention in the vain hope that those who have blindly pursued the policies which have brought Greece to the brink and risks plunging the whole of Europe into the abyss, might consider more keenly the consequences of their actions and change course before it’s too late.
“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occured late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one might expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted and anyone who objected to them became suspect. To plot successfully was a sign intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of established laws, but to aquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.
Revenge was more important than self-preservation, And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who seized it boldly, catching the enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.