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17 October, 2016

Why I Read Thucydides

Note to readers: The following post was originally published at Zenpundit as part of the on-going Thucydides Roundtable. I encourage you to follow the comment thread there and read the other participant's posts as they are published throughout the week.

On a summer night, nearly three thousand years ago, three hundred men of Thebes, wet and mud soaked, snuck into the town of Plataea with murder on their minds. Their attempt to launch revolution in Plataea was futile: most would die before the night was over. If their aim was political change, they failed, and failed utterly. But if their aim was undying fame, they succeeded. Perhaps they did not know that their deeds would echo through time, but they have. These were the men who began the Peloponnesian War. What they did is still read and written about thousands of years later.

Why is this?

Why is this war so well remembered?

Thucydides answers these questions in terms of scale:
This was the greatest movement yet known in history…there was nothing on a greater scale, either in war or other matters (1.1).

Perhaps this was true in Thucydides day, but to moderns who have witnessed millions perish in global wars, the scale of the Peloponnesian War is minuscule. Even by classical standards, it can claim no special title in size or extent.

Thebes and Plataea were separated by only seven miles. That is barely a shadow on the frontier of the greater ancient empires. Even the fabled Sicilian campaign, whose distance robbed Athens of her empire, was only half as far away as Caesar wandered from Rome, and only a fourth of the distance Han warriors traveled from their capitals at Chang’an or Luoyang to the farthest frontier of their empire.

A bit less than three hundred Thebans died that day. This was a fairly normal casualty count for the war. Even Athens at her greatest could only put ten thousand hoplites into the field. In contrast, in one day of fighting at Cannae, Rome lost more than 50,000 men. Emperor Ashoka lamented that he killed more than 100,000 enemy soldiers in the conquest of Kalinga.

Seen in this perspective, the Peloponnesian War was a tiny conflict, fought between the small towns of a fractious, tribalistic, and self-absorbed people. Despite this, it is not only remembered, but earnestly studied and carefully reconstructed. Many wars of far greater scale languish unremembered.

Perhaps the key to the war’s hold on our minds is its complexity? This was a war that involved dozens of polities. It pitted land powers against sea powers, oligarchs against democracies, coalition against empire. Culture and ideology played their part in this war; so did domestic strife and civil conflict. This war spawned great contests for food, for wealth, and for power; it witnessed both plague and starvation. No matter what angle you wish to take, the Peloponnesian War has something for you.

Yet the Peloponnesian War’s complexity is hardly unique. American history began, after all, with a war that stretched across land and sea, entangling enemies both domestic and foreign, flinging diverse cultures, ideologies, and political regimes into one violent contest. This sort of multi-sided warfare, one-part wheeling-and-dealing on the international stage, another part grandstanding on the domestic one, is the historical norm. It describes all great wars found in our records—and its shadows haunt the legends and ruins of wars who had no historian to record them. To parse through the tales of the Iroquois oral tradition, or piece together inscriptions from Mayan steles and tombs, is to be struck with wonder. It is wonder at the intricacy of their wars, the complexity of their alliances, and the drama of their betrayals.

Above all, it is to wonder what classics these events might have produced if these peoples and places had a Thucydides to write about them. Alas! They had no Thucydides. There has been only one of him. That is all that truly sets the Peloponnesian War apart from the other wars of human history: this was the war witnessed by Thucydides.

It is difficult to peg this Thucydides. Political scientists, historians, and military theorists all claim him as the father of their craft. Whenever one of these disciplines is infected with a new "path breaking" paradigm, a blizzard of articles are written to graft the latest fashion onto his work. This literature is enormous. Forgive me for quoting none of it. So many of yesteryear’s intellectual fads have died. They are forgotten. Thucydides and his history live with us still. He will outlast them all.

In any case, their purpose for consulting Thucydides differs from mine. They approach his work like miners on the mountainside, drilling narrow shafts down through hardrock until they find something marketable. The results are predictable: Thucydides’ book is more often referenced than read, and when read, more often in part than in full. The quote is what matters.

There is nothing entirely wrong with this. Analogies to Thucydidean events can be revealing; pithy Thucydidean one-liners add punch to all essays in need of it. But those who limit their acquaintance with Thucydides to a few snapshots miss a great opportunity. There is more to Thucydides than a frantic search to find another model for all time. If they look hard enough, the seeker of evergreen political models or eternal laws of war will find what they are looking for in Thucydides, though it is hard for me to believe that any thinker as subtle as he would smile on this quest. What I value in Thucydides is something different altogether. I do not turn to him for templates "for all time," but for an escape from my time.

We all live in the moment. A cacophony of words and sounds follow us wherever we go, broadcast into our cars, our workplaces, our homes, and our pockets. We live in an unescapable echo chamber—an echo chamber relentlessly focused on the now.

Not so with Thucydides! His history is about many things, but 2016 is not one of them. Here then is a chance to put the present to the side. Cast away that dreadful election! Muffle the droning of the news reports. Close the Twitter stream. Before us is a world that has never heard of the twenty-first century nor imagined its problems. Your guide to this world will be a man from an alien past; his values and assumptions will be starkly different than your own. Wrestle with him—let your beliefs and assumptions be tested. What better chance to assay the building blocks of your politics than by exploring the politics of a different age, removed from the passions of the moment? Thucydides does not spell out his lessons for you. Instead he invites you to follow along with him and find what lessons history allows by yourself.

This is a long process, for Thucydides’ history is a long book. But it does not go on forever. When you come out the other end, you will be ready to face the present again, hopefully more thoughtful, wise, and penetrating than when you began. My hope is that I will carry a little of what I have learned with me wherever else I go. In reading Thucydides, I aim for what Joseph Sobran once described as the real purpose behind reading ‘old books’:
To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing…you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.

When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof…

When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.”

But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.1
Thucydides earned a place at my “internal council” table. A spot has been saved for him near the doorway, between the seats given to Xunzi and Ibn Khaldun. One day he might sit opposite to Tocqueville; the next he will debate with Madison. In all cases I will be glad to hear his voice. But Thucydides is a wily one, and I am not quite ready to let him in yet. I have too many questions that must first be answered. So I invite him instead (or, at least, so I imagine) to a cozy side room, warmed by a great fire place and graced with two old armchairs. I ask him to sit down and bear kindly the interrogation that is to follow.
  • “How should I read your book?"
  • "Should it be understood as a work of what we call history, or literature, or social science?"
  • "How can I distinguish between your narrative of events and the events themselves?"
  • "Could your explanations be wrong? How would I know?"
  • "And why, for heaven’s sake, did you not tell us when and how the Athenians passed the sanctions on Megara?”
Thucydides smiles, pulls out his manuscript, and begins his reply. I listen carefully, questioning here, prodding there, occasionally crying out, “You rascal, you almost fooled me!” and then arguing furiously against what I hear. I know these questions will not all be resolved in one sitting. It will go on for weeks, I think, and even then some queries will remain unanswered. But by then the old Hellene will be ready to take his seat place at my table. I, in turn, will have learned a great deal about the world and its workings that I'd never considered before.

Luckily for you, Thucydides no longer lives in flesh and blood. I cannot secret him off to my study for weeks on end to prevent others from stealing his company. Everyone reading this has an equal claim to the historian; all can spend their evenings considering his words. I invite you to do so. Question him about his work, argue with him about war and power, badger him about what he might think of the wars in Vietnam or Iraq. Ask away! Just remember to write down what you have learned. Share with us what you have gained by wrestling with Thucydides.

I will have more to say about Book I later this week. For now, welcome to the Thucydides Roundtable.


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Joseph Sobran, "Reading Old Books," The Imaginative Conservative (8 July 2013).

2 comments:

Brett said...

I need to get on board and re-read Thucydides. It was a genuine pleasure to read the first time.

uair01 said...

Thanks for the post. I have hovered around Thucydides for some time now but I don't dare to start yet. It's the same feeling I had when embarking on Proust. The complexity of the language, complicated sentences. Is it something that can be read in big chunks or just in little bites?