Thucydides and Aristophanes, austere historian and ribald comic playwright,
lived in an Athens that had, since Themistocles, been moving from a regime of ancestral piety towards a secular empire. Thucydides suggests an agreement between his understanding and that of the pious Nicias — over and against this move. Aristophanes too is a vigorous proponent of peace, and the conclusions of many of his plays appear to suggest or encourage a conservative disposition towards ancestral piety or the rule of ancestral, divine law.While these first impressions are not entirely misleading, a careful examination of the two thinkers’works, with attention to Nicias and the question of the gods, suggests a more complicated and revealing picture. Neither thinker is in agreement with Nicias, who proves to be representative of a fundamental human delusion. Each, however, sees that delusion as inescapable for political life, and so makes his appeal to more serious readers inconspicuously.
Thomas Hobbes’ dispute with Dionysius of Halicarnassus over the study of Thucydides’ history allows us to understand both the ancient case for an ennobled public rhetoric and Hobbes’ case against it. Dionysius, concerned with cultivating healthy civic oratory, faced a situation in which Roman rhetoricians were emulating shocking attacks on divine justice such as that found in Thucydides’ Melian dialogue; he attempted to steer orators away from such arguments even as he acknowledged their truth. Hobbes, however, recommends the study of Thucydides’ work for a new kind of political education, one that will benefit from Thucydides’ private, even ‘secret’, instruction, which permits the reader to admit to himself what vanity would otherwise hide from him.