The Speech of the Corinthians

Published 29 Nov 2016

The Speech of the Corinthians and the Speech of the Athenians

The Debate at Sparta elucidates the reasons and motivations that precipitated the Peloponnesian War (Woodruff 29). While the speeches of the representative of the main contending forces both have the same end – the pursuit of their respective interests – their arguments and the manner by which they expressed them to persuade their listeners interestingly differs.

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The main thesis of the Corinthian speech is that engaging in war against Athens is both essential and urgent for the simple reason that the Athenians intend to dominate the Greek world. And its main argument is that “the Athenians encroached upon their neighbors little by little” (Woodruff18) evidenced by the fact that “they have subjugated some of us”, “have taken Corcyra from us by force” and “besieged Potidaea” (Woodruff 18). Footnote 60 by P. Woodruff, 1993 indicating the strategic importance of Potidaea in northern Greece suggests Athenian’s intention as alleged by the Corinthian.

The Athenians’ fundamental assertion, on the other hand, is that engaging in war against them would be a bad decision, which should be avoided. They argued that in the war against the Persians “we took risks to achieve benefits that partly went to you” even “when no one came to help us” and that “we are not being unreasonable in holding on to our possessions” (Woodruff 21) since “we did not take the empire by violence; it was the allies who came and begged us to take command” (Woodruff 22).And to further deter them from waging war against them they boldly asserted,”we are a city to be reckoned with” (Woodruff 21) and recounted how their “zeal and intelligent strategy during the Persian Wars”(Woodruff 22) consolidated the Greek victory over them even when the Spartans withdrew from the war.

As a fundamental strategy for setting the tone of their persuasion, both the Corinthians and the Athenians approached the debate by juxtaposing themselves with the Lacedaemonians.The Corinthians, however, highlighted their difference with the Lacedaemonians in regard to their respective attitude towards Athenian adventurism; and pointed out that whereas they have the worst complaint against the Athenians to the point of advocating war against them, the Lacedaemonians have conversely remained indifferent and procrastinated in taking any action. Furthermore, the Corinthians projected an accusatory attitude towards the Lacedaemonians and challenged them to make up for their procrastination by taking immediate and decisive action.

On the other hand, the Athenians set the tone for their persuasion by aligning with the Lacedaemonians’ penchant for peace and enticing them towards the arena of right reason and common inclination to rule. And they further bolstered the need for restraint in “making bad decision on important matters” (Woodruff 21) by boldly asserting, “we are a city to be reckoned with” (Woodruff 21).

With regard to their persuasion strategies, both the Corinthians and the Athenians reviewed the past in the light of the needs of their then current situation and used it to justify the actions they are advocating. The Corinthians, however, focused on the more recent past as a basis of their incitement for war and to advance with more precision their argument for forced change, whereas the Athenians appealed to the more distant past and used it as a more comprehensive justification for maintaining the status quo.

In implementing their persuasive strategy, the Corinthians commenced withgiving in advance the balm for the wounds their stinging barbs of arguments would inflict to the Lacedaemonians through acknowledging and respecting their confidence in their own government and society and their culture of self-control,which can be qualified as “prudence”, “moderation” and “clear-headedness” (Woodruff17)– all positive and admirable qualities.And then they launched into series of accusation by recounting their failures of the recent past: completely ignoring their guidance, neglecting them when attacked by the Athenians and the less recent past: allowing the Athenians to consolidate their power. And for all these the Corinthians audaciously lay the blame and responsibility to the Lacedaemonians. And the prime weakness that the Corinthians took issue against them was their procrastination – both in the conflict among Greeks and in their conflict with the Persians.And to drive the final nail to the coffin of Lacedaemonians’ perceived ascendancy over them they denied them credit for the victory over the Persians by attributing the victory to the Persian’s blunder more than to any help from them. This strategy is meant to lay the rationale as well the moral foundation for forcing them to take the opposite action of their repeated procrastinations and that is, to take decisive action by”immediately attacking Attica” (Woodruff 20).

The second persuasive strategy taken by the Corinthians is to put up another balm for the wounds they have just inflicted. This balm is the affirmation of their friendship and then unmasking to the Lacedaemonians, whom they judge as “ignorant in foreign affairs” (Woodruff 17), the nature of the true enemy – the Athenians. And by showing how different and unmatched the conquering and aggrandizing character of Athenians with the Lacedaemonians’ sense of fairness and justice, they drove the point that peaceful means, particularly the respect for treaty, will not deter the Athenian expeditionary and conquering nature and implied that this should be their primary premise for waging war against them.

The persuasive strategy of the Athenians hinged on the moral and rational justification for holding on to the empire. In calling to mind the Persian Wars, the Athenians’ primary contention is that they “took risks to achieve benefits” (Woodruff 21) that are partly shared by the rest of the Greek world and equally by the Lacedaemonians. They said “our action did you at least as much good as it did us” (Woodruff 22). In effect it is saying that without the victory against the Persians, they would be in a far worse situation than what they complained of at that moment.And to pierce more deeply this justification to the heart and consciousness of their audience, the Athenians brought to the forefront the essential elements of their valor, sacrificial actions, brilliant gambit and intelligent leadership that sealed the victory for the Greeks.This served as the foundation for the second level of moral justification for their keeping the empire: it is a gift from the allies as a reward for taking the helm of leadership and achieving victory for the rest of the Greek world.

The second persuasive strategy of the Athenians is to justify their holding on to the empire by appeal to shared human motives and propensities and common philosophy of power. They openly acknowledged that they were compelled to develop the empire out of fear, ambition and self interest, contending that their pro-active self-defense was instigated by the behavior of the rebel state that the Corinthians supported. And they moved the arena of contention from the right of those who are ruled to the right of those who rule; an arena where the Lacedaemonians are themselves vulnerable. And from hereon the Athenians shifted the argument towards similarity of their actions and inclinations, not only with human nature but with Lacedaemonians’ practice, habit and inclination as well. And through all of these the Athenians downplayed their strong handedness and insisted that the Lacedaemonians would not have been more lenient than them.They supported this contention with what they claim as a philosophy of power, which by practice is shared by the Lacedaemonians themselves. “It has been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger” (Woodruff 23) and “those who have the power to use force . . . have no need at all to go to law” (Woodruff 24). All these array of arguments played upon their audience’s cultural character of self-control and sense of justice; the latter, though, applied in a more restricted manner to their common practice as rulers.

How did their audience respond? The majority was persuaded that the Athenians have committed injustice and that it is justified to go to war immediately. However, their king, Archidamus, warned that war is not an enviable option; but when compelled to engage with, it required intelligent planning and adequate preparation. Despite the tight arguments of the Athenians, which appealed to the likes of King Archidamus, “who had a reputation for intelligence and prudence” (Woodruff 25) the Lacedaemonians were more persuaded by the Corinthian’s argument of the Athenians’ threat of domination. The Athenians argued to their defeat by offering nothing new by way of relief but simply justifying themselves, calling for sobriety and appealing to the treaty which the Lacedaemonians perceived have already been broken by them, having deprived member states of their autonomy(Dunkle, “The Peloponnesian War,” Par. 12).

Analysis of the speech and their consequences affirmed what has been commented upon that “Speeches in Thucydides rarely affect action …” (Woodruff 82). The same motives – fear, ambition and own advantage – which the Athenians advanced to justify their behavior were the same motives that moved their listener to ignore their appeal for prudence and reason and to opt for war against them. How true then are their statements which the Lacedaemonians took to heart and which the Corinthians demonstrated with crystal clarity and force enough to drive their listeners to clamor for decisive and immediate action. No matter what the strategies adopted by the two speakers, their success and failure pivoted on how they handled the basic emotion of fear which according to Woodruff is “Thucydides’ favorite explanation for violence and injustice (22).

Works Cited

  • Dunkle, Roger. “The Peloponnesian War.”Classics Technology Center. 1998-2000. Able Media 28. November 2008
  • Woodruff, Paul, Ed. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: Selections from History of the Peloponnesian War. Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1993
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