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?
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.
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.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
A cacophony of words and sounds follow us wherever we go
From Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: An introduction by T. Greer.