Welcome to a new and occasional series here on Traces, in which I plan to introduce you to some people, real and imagined, from the classical world. Sound boring? There’s only one way to find out! First up is the historian Thucydides (THo͞o/si/də/dēz).
Why You Should Care
- Would you kill another person to keep your family safe from suffering and death? Okay, but what if you and your family are not in immediate danger but might very well be, if you decide to be lenient? Would you be willing to torture someone, too?
- If people are dying all around you and the bonds of society are loosening, would you do whatever it takes to increase your chance of survival amid the chaos?
- If you have other people in your power, people who (you are convinced) would certainly become your enemy, perhaps even seek their revenge, as soon as you liberate them, what would you do?
- Is there an irresolvable conflict between embracing democracy and equality before the law at home, while following the law of the jungle beyond its boundaries?
- What course is the right one to take in life: (1) always ask first, “What’s in my own interest?” or (2) always ask first, “What’s the right and moral thing to do here?”
Thucydides asks these questions, in one fashion or another. Do they seem worthwhile and important to you? Do they seem relevant and realistic?* We simply don’t get to questions of this sort in our humdrum lives. But we need to. It’s partly what the classics are for.
Greek. To be precise, Athenian. Second half of the 5th century BCE. A contemporary, therefore, of the politicians Pericles and Alcibiades, philosopher Socrates, sophist Protagoras, artists Phidias and Myron, and playwrights Sophocles and Euripides. Wrote a year-by-year history of the great war between the Spartan and Athenian alliances that today we call the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).
And lest you have in your mind an image of a rumpled history professor, all leather arm patches and chalk on his forehead, know that Thucydides commanded an Athenian fleet during the first few years of the war.
Why His History Matters
- With a handful of other works — e.g., those by Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli — the most influential analysis of war in all of human history.
- As a work of political theory, it has shaped our understanding of democracy, its strengths and weaknesses.
- As a work on historical research and writing, it speaks to the historian’s purpose and approach.
- The import of this history has been hotly contested within the last two decades by neoconservatives in the United States (Irving Kristol: “the favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs”), who include the authors and strategists of the Iraq War, and by critics of the neocons.
- In the Strategy and Policy course at the United States Naval War College, the week devoted to examination of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War is said to be far and away the most popular among the students. In other words, it still speaks.
- Quotes like this: ““Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (See below on the dialogue between the Melians and the Athenians.)
- Iconic passages like these: Pericles’ funeral speech (“The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we Athenians have a peculiar power of thinking before we act and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection); the account of the plague (“Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honor when he knew not whether he would ever live to be held in honor?”); the civil war in Corcyra (“The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the partisanship which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize”); and too many more to list.
The Melians were islanders who sought to remain neutral in this great war. The powerful Athenians were having none of it. Representatives from both sides met to discuss whether the Melians might surrender and accept Athenian hegemony. (5:41 video, and note the truly wonderful Michael Kitchen as one of the two Athenians.)
A Thought or Two
Suppose someone writes a sort of memoir or biographical sketch of her parents. She promises her readers that she has relied on the clearest evidence that could be had, viz., what she saw with her own eyes and what she learned from others after diligent inquiry. She promises to offer a true picture of their lives.
Ya think? One of the best reasons to read Thucydides is that he makes the same claims about his history (whether in earnest or ironically is for us to decide). And that means that you and I get to judge how far it is possible to resist the biases and assumptions and great narratives that — like someone clutching the back of your head and forcing you to look now this way, now that — shape our perception of “reality.” Or put it this way: read Thucydides to inoculate yourself against our modern malady.
We live in an age of science. That means we’re entitled to feel a little smug, my fellow human beings. After all, we know how to build a device capable of destroying an entire city within seconds. Suddenly, all those centuries we spent fretting about the indeterminacy of absolute truth and falsity seem, well, just stupid. Look! I flip the switch this way, and the light comes on. I flip it that way, and it goes off. Problem solved! Hello, certainty!
Or maybe you secretly have some doubts about all that. If you do, read Thucydides. Watch for the moment when his narrative settles into a pattern that should be very familiar to you. Look for instances of arrogance leading to disaster. Note how often one person’s selfishness or stubbornness or incompetence or venality mucks things up for everyone else. In short, be on the lookout for compelling stories about the ineradicable human potential for making a hell out of every utopian vision. Grim? Not to me. I’d say truthful.
*If these questions seem irrelevant or unrealistic, then, at least for those of us who are citizens of the United States, we’re simply not paying attention. Put it this way: there’s a reason that President Obama looks 15 years older than he did six years ago.