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Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

At the conclusion of his own introduction to his history of the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides announces his intention: “It will be enough for me if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events that happened in the past and that will, human nature being what it is, at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future. My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession and not to win the prize of an hour.”

He then observes that the Greek strife between Athens and Sparta wrought far greater physical damage than the Persian Wars, which were decided in two battles by land and two by sea. Implicit is the contrast between the liberation of creativity amidst the Greeks during and following their struggle for freedom and the irreparable moral damage done by the struggle for power amongst themselves. Thucydides goes on to trace the spreading corruption of power from the war between states to its internalization in each state in civil strife, and finally to its corruption of the individual leaders, the conflicts and defeats of conscience, and the monstrous growth and ultimate destruction of individual wills.

In Herodotus, history emerges from epic and anecdote into the beginnings of the science of man. Thucydides is the first to treat history as moral drama. The emphasis in Herodotus is on people. In Thucydides it is on persons. He never deals with the forces that operate in the affairs of men in abstract terms, but only as embodied in characters. Sometimes this comes dangerously near to personification. From Thucydides descend those generalizations so misleading and convenient to demagogues — the French are lewd and frivolous; the Swedes commit suicide because they drink too much coffee.

Thucydides himself avoids such generalities. His Athenian and Spartan generals and statesmen speak in accordance with national character that Thucydides presents empirically, inductively, but he is careful to distribute the components of that character amongst real men, balanced with human contraries and contradictories in each case. It has often been remarked that Thucydides’s point of view is medical. His subject is the disorder that threatens the life of Greece. He treats it in terms of symptoms, etiology, diagnosis, implicit therapy, and prognosis. His characterization of his protagonists is remarkably like that of the Elizabethan playwright who had a medical concept of drama, Ben Jonson, with his theory of humours.

Themistocles the wise man; Pericles the urbane and skillful politician; Cleon the demagogue; Nicias the pious, na´ve soldier; Archidamus the cautious and wily man; Alcibiades the insolent spoiled adventurer; the envoys of the contending allies who speak with caution and rashness, truculence and prudence, turn and turn about. Behind them, as in Shakespeare, the mob functions at first as the residue of those impersonal forces which do not lend themselves to casting in Thucydides’s dramatis personae. As time goes on, the moral base of the contending leaders is eaten away in the attrition of war. Each at last operates as the embodiment of the narrowest possible character consistent with his essential humanness — of which Thucydides never quite loses sight. Virtue and vice together fall away into the sump of the inchoate mass — the war of each against all.

The method of Thucydides has obvious faults — “Life is not all that simple.” To which the response of the Classicist, or of what we call the inner-directed man, will be, “Ah, yes, but the lessons of life are precisely that simple, and the job of the historian is to arrange, without falsifying, his material to show forth the lessons of history in their natural simplicity.” At the moment we are in an anticlassical and other-directed period of taste, and Herodotus is preferred to Thucydides.

The difference between the two authors is manifest in their greatly disparate styles. Herodotus is one of the most engaging writers who ever lived. He is always interesting, eventful, and picturesque. His prose is always relaxed. We never have any feeling of pressure. Thucydides amongst prose writers might be called the inventor of the antidemocratic style. His sentences are at once hard and complicated, clear and businesslike. The narrative proceeds like an inescapable argument, with the snap of a Jesuit disputation.

Herodotus is the source of our knowledge of those great battles against the Persians which have become precious myths for Western Civilization. When we read over sentence by sentence his story of the fighting, it is often difficult to tell what is going on. Herodotus personalized combat like Tolstoy, Stendhal, or Stephen Crane. War to him was a vast disorder intruding like a poisonous storm upon the decency of civil life. Thucydides thought like a tactician and personified the forces of battle. He always knows who is doing what to whom; who advances, who threatens, who overcomes, just as in a game of chess. Battles in fact seem to have been down the ages pretty much as Herodotus or Tolstoy described them. However, it would not pay a general to deploy his men against the enemy with any other guiding principles than those of Thucydides.

The famous speeches scattered throughout the narrative unfold a philosophy of history. History acquires a logic, almost a geometry, which can be learned and applied by the men who come after to create a politics of wisdom. Thucydides conceives of history as depending ultimately upon the interaction of gentlemen like himself. Although he sees the struggle for power as the operative dynamism of history, he sees it in a contrary manner to that of Machiavelli. Those recipes for politics which we call Machiavellian, Thucydides attempts to prove unworkable because they are imprudent. Although he cuts through the cant and propaganda, still he deals with politics as a department of ethics. It is not that in his eyes might makes right — but that might makes the inescapable historic fact and the politician who uses power with prudence, firmness, balance may make right in fact.

This is the political philosophy of Aristotle or Sophocles. Behind its clear Euclidean relationships, Thucydides is always aware of the ungovernable irrational factor of tyche: not doom or fate, in his use of the word, but chance. If the will holds firm and the reason preserves its order, the man of power, says Thucydides, can rise above the disasters of chance — if not always, at least often enough to make a significant difference in the history of the people over whom he rules. This may be the moral of the most exemplary of all historians; but as he casts backward glances in the course of his narrative, you feel that Thucydides realized its only truth might be that of operative myth, of necessary fiction.


This essay is from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

This book is in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get it.

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