Peter Jones

Thucydides on McGuinness

Even at his funeral, you could see the distortion of values the historian pinpointed so many centuries ago

Text settings

When Gerry Adams rose to announce at his funeral that Martin McGuinness was no terrorist but a ‘freedom fighter’, the historian Thucydides probably allowed himself a grim smile. He knew all about these sort of people.

In 427 BC, Corcyra (ancient Greek Kerkura, now Corfu) was in the grip of a ferocious civil war between oligarchic and democratic factions for control of the state. The feature that stood out for Thucydides was the reversal of all normal, civilised values on both sides of the divide. Most striking of all, ‘men reversed the usual evaluative force of words to suit their own assessment of the situation’. The result was that ‘cowardice’ was now the term for what had once been ‘prudence’; ‘manliness’ for ‘lunatic impulsiveness’; ‘those holding violent views’ were ‘trustworthy’, any who spoke against them ‘suspect’; to conspire was to be intelligent, to spot a conspiracy still more so; but to try to provide against having to do either was the mark of a ‘subversive’.

Oaths of reconciliation were sworn ‘simply to meet some current difficulty and had only temporary force’; catching an enemy off guard by breaking an oath was doubly sweet, since winning through treachery was a sign of real ability; and ‘those who could put a euphemistic gloss on evil deeds were greatly valued’ — glosses such as, no doubt, ‘freedom fighter’ for ‘terrorist’.

The cause of this factional violence, says Thucydides, was ‘the lust for power arising from greed and ambition… its leaders committed appalling atrocities in order to pursue their own interests while pretending to cherish “public interests”, embracing any means in their struggles for supremacy. In their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the factional whim of the moment their only standard.’

Thucydides understood all too well this post-truth world which men like Adams inhabit, and the perversion of values that results.