Nicias: The Great Refusal.
By David Trumbull
By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005
Poscia ch’io v’ebbi alcun riconosciuto,
Dante places among the cowards who suffer in Hell, Pope Celestine V; his "great refusal" was his abdication in 1294, five months after his election, which allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's enemy.
Plutarch, who always sees good mingled with the bad in lives he narrates, would probably not place Nicias (c. 470-413 B.C) in Hell, even if he believed in Dante's Hell, which, of course, as a pagan, he does not. And be sure of it, there is good in "poor reluctant Nikias, pushed by fate" as Robert Browning calls him (Balaustion's Adventure, A.D. 1871).
Nicias is a younger contemporary of Pericles who comes to prominence on the death of Pericles (Life of Nicias, 2). His virtue is mostly of a negative sort, consisting in avoidance of evil more than seeking the good.
He observed that the people, in the case of men of eloquence, or of eminent parts, made use of their talents upon occasion, but were always jealous of their abilities, and held a watchful eye upon them, taking all opportunities to humble their pride and abate their reputation... Upon such considerations, Nicias declined all difficult and lengthy enterprises; if he took a command, he was for doing what was safe; and if, as thus was likely, he had for the most part success, he did not attribute it to any wisdom, conduct, or courage of his own, but, to avoid envy, he thanked fortune for all, and gave the glory to the divine powers. And the actions themselves bore testimony in his favor; the city met at that time with several considerable reverses, but he had not a hand in any of them.--Life of Nicias, 6.
Now, managing the destructive envy of others is one of Plutarch's recurring themes. But Nicias does not so much manage the people's envy and redirect it to more healthful and productive emulation as he simple tries to avoid it. And while giving credit to the gods --and not being like Timotheus the son of Conon, the Athenian, who claimed his own merit was the sole cause of his victories, and assigning no credit to good fortune, until, at last, fortune deserted him, leaving him to failure (Life of Sylla, 6)-- Nicias refuses to take responsibility for his own talents. In public affairs Nicias acts as one afraid of the people; in warfare his successes are largely due to luck (Life of Nicias, 2).
The chief fault of Nicias --a grievous one-- is his cowardliness and unwillingness to stand up to the unprincipled men who, rising to power in the vacuum he allows, do so much harm to Athens.
Besides all this, he did great mischief to the city by suffering the accession of so much reputation and power to Cleon, who now assumed such lofty airs, and allowed himself in such intolerable audacity, as led to many unfortunate results, a sufficient part of which fell to his own share. Amongst other things, he destroyed all the decorum of public speaking; he was the first who ever broke out into exclamations, flung open his dress, smote his thigh, and ran up and down whilst he was speaking, things which soon after introduced amongst those who managed the affairs of State, such license and contempt of decency, as brought all into confusion. Already too Alcibiades was beginning to show his strength at Athens, a popular leader...Thus it fell out that after Nicias had got his hands clear of Cleon...he found everything carried away and plunged again into confusion by Alcibiades, through the wildness and vehemence of his ambition. --Life of Nicias, 8-9.
In a State where there is a sense of virtue, a powerful man ought not to give way to the ill-affected, or expose the government to those that are incapable of it, nor suffer high trusts to be committed to those who want common honesty. Yet Nicias, by his connivance, raised Cleon, a fellow remarkable for nothing but his loud voice and brazen face, to the command of an army. --Comparison of Crassus with Nicias , 3.
Failing to dissuade the people from the Sicilian expedition; Nicias, along with Alcibiades, is placed in charge of the venture. Here again we see in Plutarch's Lives that no one is wholly bad (or wholly good) for when called on to lead, even in a war he disapproves, he goes and does the best he knows. So the Athenians sail to Sicily, 415 B.C. But as general, Nicias fails to prosecute aggressively the war in Sicily, even undermining, through his harping on the inadvisability of the expedition, the morale of his men (Life of Nicias, 14).
After some months of forbearing to attack, Nicias finds himself now the object of a planned Syracusan counter-attack. In the initial assault the Athenians vanquish the Syracusans. However, Nicias fails to complete the victory and the Syracusans regroup and return to fight again (Life of Nicias, 16). He besieges Syracuse in 141 B.C. and is so sure of victory that he little regards the approach of Gylippus with reinforcements from Sparta. But when Gylippus arrives fortune turns and the Athenians are beaten back. (Life of Nicias, 17-19). Nicias is afraid to stay and equally afraid of the Athenian response at home if he retreats in defeat. Just as Nicias has finally decided on retreat and is about to quit his untenable position, a lunar eclipse frightens him off his plan. This delay will be extremely costly. The Athenians attempted retreat turns into a total rout;, Nicias is captured; the Athenians killed or enslaved. Finally Nicias is put to death in 413 B.C. (Life of Nicias, 20-27).
So why did Nicias founder so? Well, he is almost unique among Plutarch's Lives in being nowhere noted as having emulated any other great man of his age or of the past. Considering the great stock that Plutarch puts in emulation, this is surely not a coincidence. A better education (for Plutarch says nothing of Nicias' education) may have inculcated a greatness of soul that could have overcome his petty avoidance of evils and spurred him on to use his talents to the fullest. The limits on the spirit that has not been liberated by education is another Plutarchan theme, perhaps most explicit in his Life of Marius where he writes:
...if any could have persuaded Marius to pay his devotions to the Greek Muses and Graces, he had never brought his incomparable actions, both in war and peace, to so unworthy a conclusion, or wrecked himself, so to say, upon an old age of cruelty and vindictiveness, through passion, ill-timed ambition, and insatiable cupidity. --Life of Marius, 2).
Ultimately, however, Nicias' turning away from responsibility --with such dire implications for Athens as she, denied the leadership of a just and wise man, turns to dangerous demagogues-- must be rooted in a willful refusal to face the truth that his country needs him. This willful ignorance persists through most of his public life. He will scold the people for going the wrong way, but he will not lead them another way, and so, in the end, the Athenians suffer the calamity that Nicias has predicted and Nicias dies tragically.