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On Human Suspicion

‘Man is by nature a suspicious animal!’

I hope Aristotle would have forgiven my (mis)appropriation of his original statement (‘man is by nature a social/political animal’). However, I think he would have seen my point. Human beings do become suspicious easily whether rightly or wrongly. One may suspect it perhaps was originally a survival instinct, never entirely to trust in one’s safety. Now we see it directed towards politicians, public figures, and a vast array of public figures and even the Media as a whole.

There are also certain circumstances which foster suspicion among humans. This Thought for the Day was inspired by the following moving and insightful article on the atmosphere of suspicion tearing apart cities in Ukraine as the war rages.[1] Fear of infiltrators and spies and no longer believing they know whom to trust, collaborators are being sought amidst the increasing tension.

Saddened at what I read, I was also struck by a close parallel to a situation described by Thucydides that followed swiftly upon the heels of the disastrous Sicilian expedition which saw the destruction of the Athenian fleet in 431 BC.

Persuaded to reach out for expansion, despite the reignition of the war with Sparta, the Athenian assembly was persuaded by gifted orator Alcibiades, against the advice of the more perspicacious and cautious, but less rhetorically gifted politician Nicias, to seek to mount an expedition against Sicily. They lost. Amidst the turmoil and despondency that ensued in Athens, the backlash against the democratic politeia of Athens was swift. As had happened in Athenian democracy on many occasions, the people turned on those who had persuaded them to vote for the expedition. Athens was left undefended and in a state of fear, although the fear of an immediate follow up invasion from Sicily was a little excessive (see Thucydides, 8.1.4 on the how panic spread in democratic Athens). However, they were not entirely wrong; the Spartans saw their chance and allies were poised to revolt.

To somewhat oversimplify and fast forward, the fear led to doubts about the efficacy of Athenian democracy, which was seized upon by conspirators who sought to establish themselves as the short-lived oligarchy of the Four Hundred. Creating the impression that they were greater in number than they actually were, opposition was quelled through fear of reprisal and suspicion that anyone could be a member of the band. With the masses and the assembly deceived, this narrow oligarchy ruled Athens for a short period, 411-410. Similar to the situation in the Ukraine, suspicion proved to be a human sentiment proved to be a tool favouring the one side by dividing its opponents.

A reign of near terror with the threat of violence ensued at Athens (8.67-70). The regime was eventually overthrown on the initiative of the fleet at Samos.

Suspicion is natural to human beings and is easily rousable and manipulable. One does not need to be in a state of war, as in Ukraine and in Thucydides, situations used to the advantage by certain groups and individuals. Election campaigns can be run along these lines. Did not Trump play on fear and suspicion of ‘others’ in his inflammatory rhetoric? And one can think of plenty from the rallies of the twentieth century with their stirring rhetoric.

What was Thucydides trying to tell us? If you become suspicious of a situation, think very carefully about who is fostering this feeling in you and why!


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