UBC Theses and Dissertations
Moral lessons from the harsh teacher : Thucydides, Nietzsche, and the sophists Thompson, Tristan Nicholas
This paper suggests an unconventional solution to the “moral question” regarding Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. The term “moral question” refers to the fact that a significant number of current leading commentators on Thucydides think that the historian must have some form of moral outlook, but experience difficulty when they attempt to decipher a moral perspective from the historian's text. To find a solution to the “moral question”, this paper looks back to a short passage written by Friedrich Nietzsche titled “What I Owe to the Ancients.” In this short and highly personal essay, Nietzsche suggests that the key to properly reading Thucydides is to interpret him in the context of the sophists, teachers of rhetoric and moral philosophers prominent in Thucydides' 4th century Athens. By comparing statements on the sophists that appear throughout Nietzsche's body of work to the surviving writings of the sophists and their contemporaries, a picture of “sophist culture” is established, in order to test the hypothesis that Thucydides can be profitably interpreted as expressing a sophistic understanding of morality. A “sophistic understanding of morality”, in the simplest terms, centers on the the relativity of morals, the idea that morality has no real, concrete, and universal existence, and that morality is thus a fragile and changeable human construct. By following Nietzsche's picture of Thucydides as the “highest expression of sophist culture” to its fullest extent, we are able to answer the “moral question” of Thucydides' History, and to perceive a work that is itself a bold and challenging statement on the nature of morality, while containing relatively little explicit commentary on questions of right and wrong.
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