By Kalev Pehme
In an essay on Thucydides, Leo Strauss writes: “Wisdom cannot be show by being spoken of. How then can it be shown at all? Wisdom is the highest form of the life of man. How can the life of man be shown? The life of man, or, if you wish, the inner life of man, man’s awareness in the highest sense in the widest sense, shows itself in deeds and in speeches, but mostly in such a manner that neither the deeds by themselves nor the speeches by themselves suffice to reveal it.”
We glimpse, we speak of the whole, in patterns of contraries. Some contraries are contradictions, things that are negated by their contrary, while other contraries are complements like yin and yang.
“To take the most examples: one man makes just speeches and does just deeds[;]” Strauss continues. “[a]nother makes just speeches and does unjust deeds; a third makes unjust speeches and does unjust deeds; and a fourth makes unjust speeches and does just deeds. In every case we see the man only when we both hear his speeches and see his deeds. And in every case the contribution made by the perception of the speeches on the one hand, and by the perception of the deeds on the other, is different.”
The principle of contradiction is simply that something cannot be and not be at the same in the same respect is not violated here. Because there is a whole, contraries that are natural parts of the whole cannot cancel each other out. They become two contrary poles within the whole.
Strauss then notes: “What is true of men applies also to measures or policies. Every policy proceeds from deliberation, from speech; speech is the cause of deed. Yet the speech, the deliberation, is itself based on consideration of facts, of deeds. Speech is neither the beginning nor the end, but a state on the way, or rather a beacon which illumines the way. Only through speech are the deeds or facts revealed.”
There has to be a point of beginning, which is both speech and deed at the same time, apparently, which is non-contradictory, yet has a dyadic structure where the indeterminate becomes a one.
Strauss: “Yet while revealing, speech also conceals or deceives. The speech, or deliberation, does not control the outcome: it has no power over chance. The speech may be based on some misapprehension of one kind or another. And the speech may be meant to deceive. The speech is meant to reveal causes or reasons of the deed, but it states only defensible reasons, which may or may not be the true reasons. The deeds without the speeches are meaningless, or wholly ambiguous. But the speeches add an ambiguity of their own. The light which the speeches throw on the deeds is not the light of truth. Speech distorts reality. But this distortion is part of reality. It is a part of the truth.”
But it is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because wisdom cannot be spoken of. Speech of necessity deceives, but it can do so in a systematic way, not in a random way where the truth arises from chance or luck. The role of luck in speech and deed, as it is in life in general, has far more efficacy than what we, as moderns, like to believe. For we believe that we can control chance, beat her down like a woman as Machiavelli says. You have a friend and you want to meet that friend at Windows on the World at the old World Trade Center. You are in the subway, and the train stalls. You are very late, but by then two planes have hit the towers. You are saved, and your friend dies. Chance has exceptional power over life and death. We don’t think much about chance, except when it hits us hard, breaking our routines which falsely gives us a sense of secure order. We think something is true when it is not or we don’t recognize what is in front of us. With that, we create a law or a tradition and then we force people to live by that. Or we go to war where by chance a soldier or civilian dies or lives. Not everything necessarily happens “for a reason.”
Because chance is such a great force in human life, chance itself is a cause of most of the events in our lives. It is rare when we actually have control over anything in our lives. The inseparability of speech and deeds affected by chance means that not only do words fail the whole truth and the whole of things, but, when we add the problem of secrecy and deliberate deception, means that speech and deeds are distorted almost always. The proper role we must take in life is constant caution and moderation especially when taking political positions. Sadly, today, our world is intensely directed against both caution and moderation. We live in a world of constant revolution through our economy and technology, while at the same time the will to power has become the core of our politics. Tea Party politics is nothing more than the will to power (made stupid).
It also means that if we strive for truth or wisdom that we must be constantly on guard when we examine human life at the very least in the way Thucydides did. He looked for what was concealed and hidden from view. It would have been very interesting to have seen the way Thucydides would have looked at the Weapons of Mass Destruction cause of the war in Iraq. For example, did Colin Powell, when attempting to persuade the United Nations, carried a small glass vial with a power in it used that vial to deceive the world? If he didn’t, and it was inadvertent, it is no less a lie. The lie set a whole host of horrors into the world, especially when we now know that the intelligence (the secret knowledge obtained by dark men) was actually faked.
We are also warned that we cannot make conclusions about human and political life with total certainty. All conclusions are provisional until we can ascertain both the private or secret from the public or open. In Thucydides, the narrative of events is more or less the way they were, while Thucydides made up the speeches or edited them. By doing so, he made the struggle between Athens and Sparta intelligible. In that way, Thucydides was able to control chance a bit, maybe even a lot. By editing or making up the speeches, the improvement means that the original true speech really was not true. The verbatim speech of Colin Powell in the UN was untrue both in terms of what was truly going on in Iraq and untrue because it is limited by the very events that were meant to be set in motion. Powell became a character in a drama that was much bigger than himself which limits the horizon he could see. If Powell knew what the lack of WMDs in Iraq would do, he would have given a totally different speech. Thucydides would have edited the speech in such a way that the reader would know that that Powell was lying, something we could not know at the time when we watched him give that speech at the UN carrying his little glass vial of powder that was mean to be a biological weapon of mass destruction.
Another thing we know is that Thucydides wrote about the events that occurred contemporaneously with his life. He was not researching the past per se. He questions the past, but he does so in the context of Homer, a poet, and the alleged greatness the Trojan War. The past is more than just a foreign country; it is another planet. Herodotus wrote extensively about the past with tremendous skepticism. Herodotus also was acutely aware of how chance and how misapprehensions and lies color human thought and human conduct. It is difficult enough to sort out the present; it is nearly impossible to divine the past. I can’t account for what happened in my own life two or three days ago. I can’t do it at all for years before, except by my memory, which is not only selective, but ever forgetting. I believe that forgetting is hard-wired in us, because if we remembered everything we did in our lives we could not function. We need to forget a great deal so that we can live every day.
The Greek word for forgetting generally is lethe. In Archaic Greece, the word was associated with silence, darkness, oblivion, and blame. The word for truth, aletheia, a negation of lethe, was associated with true memory, light, speech (i.e, logos both speech and reason together), and praise. Together, aletheia and lethe form a dyad in the same way that speech and deed, barbarity or Greekness, or war and peace do in Thucydides.
We can show wisdom by seeing a wise man in action. A wise man acts wisely, and he speaks wisely. However, we don’t see a wise man too often in the world. Instead, we can read how a wise man writes or we can read the dialogues that both Xenophon and Plato wrote about Socrates. There is a portrait of Socrates, the wise man; however, it is also clear that both Xenophon and Plato made up speeches and put words in the mouth of their character. By improving on Socrates’ speeches, Xenophon and Plato remove chance from the events in which Socrates participated. It is beautiful lie that suspends itself and gives us what is true simply. The best lie is the lie that reveals what is true. That is one wise way.