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First Person Personal

My personal views on a variety of matters ranging from popular culture to quantum physics to religion to politics to history to bushido to ... well, whatever I feel like, really. Warning: we all have agendas. Trust no one totally, myself most specifically included. Email me at wbrerwolf at gmail.com

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Review of Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield – Bantam Books, Sept 2001.

“A novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War” is the subtitle and it is a very good description of the book. True, there are very interesting sidebars, such as the Spartan critique of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, chillingly apt even today, or Socrates’ discussion of why he chose to follow the law, even though it condemned him to death. Still, no one can doubt that Pressfield believes that Alcibiades of Athens overwhelmingly dominated the military and political landscape of the twenty-seven year long Peloponnesian War. Even Socrates was better known at the time as Alcibiades’ former teacher and comrade in arms rather than for his own achievements. Alcibiades was perhaps unique in human history by being at one time or another either a military commander or a senior advisor for every major faction involved in the war. He was universally recognized as the finest general and the most insightful politician of his time.

He was also the least trusted public figure of the period, known as a man who would do anything to anyone in order to attain his goals.

Alcibiades was virtually superhuman: a wealthy Athenian noble of the best family, arguably Socrates’ finest student, who also possessed amazing physical beauty, incredible physical stamina, peerless courage and an unquenchable drive to succeed. He was also a brilliant practical politician who, thanks to his unmatched charisma and cunning, was able to repeatedly change sides in the middle of a war without being killed on the spot as well as being a military leader who never lost a battle in a twenty-seven year long career.

And, as a superhuman, it is impossible for a mere mortal such as Mr. Pressfield to write about Alcibiades directly with any hope of success.

So Mr. Pressfield writes about him and the war itself in the most indirect way imaginable: as the reminiscences of Jason, the son of Alexices about the simultaneous trials of Socrates, who was both Alcibiades teacher and friend, and Polemides, the one-time captain of Alcibiades’ bodyguard and the man who eventually killed him. Jason, as Polemides’ lawyer and Socrates’ student as well as being a veteran of the war and a survivor of the even more murderous political frenzies that plagued Athens throughout the war and its aftermath is the perfect narrator. Jason’s conversations with Polemides and Socrates, together with his own terse memories serve to illuminate the war and Alcibiades’ part in it to perfection. One particularly interesting point is made: Socrates is on trial for his life largely because Alcibiades was his student and many feared that he could produce another Alcibiades; Polemides is on trial for his life because he killed Alcibiades and thus removed the greatest Athenian of his generation from the world. As Socrates pointed out in the book, logically if one defendant was convicted, the other must be acquitted. Logic, however, had very little to do with Athens and its politics at this time.

One may well ask just how interesting a novel about events in 399 BC depicting people who wear sheets, fight with swords and spears and who talk about events two or three levels removed from the framing narration?

The answer is – it is very interesting indeed.

Admittedly, this book starts very slowly. It took me ten to twenty pages to really get into the story, and to understand what was going on. Once I did, I found this to be Mr. Pressfield’s finest book to date. In addition to being a fascinating story about an extremely obscure but pivotal episode in Classical history, I believe it to be a cautionary parable about the excesses of a democracy that turns to a path of conquest and imperialism. In many ways, Athens used the very principles that made it great to destroy itself.

Or, as Lysander of Sparta says in this book: “Democracy devours its young”.

Highly recommended, as are most books by Mr. Pressfield