Politics and Ontology in Thucydides’ story of Alcmaeon

By Borden Flanagan of American University

Flanagan-PullQuoteThe story of Alcmaeon, in an emphatically unnecessary digression, frames Periclean imperialism in terms of the cosmological themes of motion and rest, thereby suggesting how ontological questions are disclosed in fundamental political problems.

Thucydides’ Archaeology and war narrative are cast in terms of motion and rest. (Human community begins in constant motion, settles into a cycle of motion and rest; Athens the city of motion/empire, Sparta of rest/devotion to law, etc.) The Alcmaeon story begins with a description of motion and rest as expressed in the interplay of earth and water in the river Achelous, before turning to Alcmaeon himself. Condemned by Apollo to ceaseless motion for having murdered his mother, Alcmaeon settles finally on the Achelous river delta, land created by the motion of the river. It is unclear whether Alcmaeon circumvented Apollo’s curse by finding land that did not exist when Apollo declared all ground polluted for him, or settled there by Apollo’s direction. The former possibility suggests that divine commands are less powerful than natural processes, much as the Athenians argue that natural compulsion renders their empire blameless before gods and men. The latter suggests divine patience/forgiveness for human weakness and longing. Both possibilities undermine hope for justice, and call into question whether justice has a natural ground, yet without debunking it. Apollo recedes from the story.

Alcmaeon’s crime, matricide, suggests hubris by denying or forgetting one’s subordination to the order of generation, an order protected by divine and human law. It is to treat oneself as sui-generis and self-sufficient, free of the cycle of growth and decay, as if immortal. His punishment is to be homeless, without origin or end. This makes him miserable, suggesting that happiness requires accepting one’s rootedness in generation and mortality. Alcmaeon finds a home only by acknowledging his need to ground himself on the interplay of motion and rest, on the land created by water, and on this acceptance of his subordination to flux is thereby able to generate his own line and patrimony.

Several textual clues suggest a connection to Pericles. Thematically, Pericles’ imperial project resembles Alcmaeon’s hubris. Demoting the ancestors in his funeral speech, Pericles promises immortal glory for civic devotion, sums up Athenian virtue in the word autarkes or self-sufficiency, and treats Athens as subject to no principle above her own excellence. He never mentions the gods, and promises, through Athenian motion, a rest that is beyond all motion, abstracted from motion. The demotion of the ancestors suggests that ambition seeks self-sufficiency lest one’s glory be reduced to a reflection of another’s. One must deny one’s beginning as well as one’s end, because the former implies the latter; one must deny that one has been caused, that one is implicated in the process of motion and rest. Otherwise, glory would fail to assert one’s selfhood against the flux. The demotion of the ancestors is part and parcel of Pericles’ denial of the salience of the gods, for the apotheosis that is the promise of the empire requires subordination to neither. (In the last speech, where Pericles declares the irrelevance of the divine, imperial glory is cast as an escape from nature.)

The illusion of ontological self-sufficiency is the heart of matricidal hubris and love of glory. This is reflected in Pericles’ description of Athenian virtue, whose central theme is freedom and self-sufficiency. Easy courage, daring and deliberation, and autarkes or self-sufficiency all characterize Athens as a calm axis at the center of whirling motion, a rest from which motion flows but which is herself unmoved. Pericles presents Athens as cause par excellence, both as force compelling enemies and as school of Hellas.

Thucydides thus suggests that a core political passion, the eros for glory, has a transpolitical goal; politics seeks apotheosis. To understand politics one must understand the transpolitical character of its longings. Framing this longing in terms of motion/rest likewise reframes the soul. Eros is akin to motion, a seeking of what is beyond or absent, of a rest that is apontos. In eros for glory the soul seeks to be a self that is flash-frozen in the moment of maximal virtue, static but without an inside, beyond time and causality. The soul however is both motion and rest, is caused and is a locus of causes. It therefore cannot be thought of apart from its mortality; our longing to transcend our limits teaches us our limits. This prepares us for Alcmaeon’s acceptance of his rootedness in flux, the basis of his recovered happiness and sanity. But this education of eros requires its transformation, from a longing for immortality to a consideration of what that means to a reflection on its own character, and on what it has in common with the cosmic order whose permanence it wishes to assimilate.

Following out this hierarchy of questions raises, finally, the question of Being, in two ways. First, the dyad of motion and rest appears as a paradox; each is neither separable from nor reducible to the other, they cannot be understood separately, and so their being remains mysterious. Dialectic points beyond itself, must be resolved on a higher plane than the dialectic itself. If nature is motion and rest, by virtue of what? Second, toying with the problem of whether justice is precluded by natural necessity (the claim made by the Athenians about their empire) and whether motion/rest precludes divine authority and law (the same problem as captured in the Alcmaeon story) raises questions of ultimate grounds. Thucydides neither endorses nor debunks the Athenian Thesis on Justice. He successfully casts the question of justice in terms of nature but without offering an answer to that question.  Human nature needs and destroys justice, supports and undermines it. The questionable character of justice thereby suggests the questionable character of nature. By virtue of what is nature the way it is? If the problem inherent in the surface of Alcmaeon’s story is Apollo’s strange withdrawal from that story, the heart of it is the question of Being.


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About the Author: Borden Flanagan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at American University. His research “Alcmaeon’s Islands: Motion and Rest in Thucydides was recently honored with the Review of Politics Award for the best paper in normative political theory.