Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words


He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on 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 usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would 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 a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of 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 benefit of the established laws, but to acquire 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” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.


One response

  1. Powerful insight; they might have written yesterday, not over 2000 years ago. Think how today we adulterate the meaning of words, eg marriage.

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