Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

Thucydides matters today, even though the events he wrote about – the Peloponnesian War – took place almost 2,500 years ago. He matters even though he only managed to chronicle 20 or the war’s 27 long years, before he died.

He matters because he is, many historians claim, the father of modern historiography. He treated history as a comprehensive, wide-ranging and comprehensive subject, He matters because he was, unlike Herodotus and other classical writers, an objective observer of events who didn’t rely on myth, legend or unsupported anecdote. He matters because he made some pithy and wise statements worth remembering today. Like these quotes:

So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. Book I, 1.21-[3]
…we know that there can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities that is worth the name, unless the parties be persuaded of each others honesty… Book III, 3.10-[2]
I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.
Book III, 3.42-[1] (Speech of Diodotus…)

AmazonHe matters because the Peloponnesian War still matters: it carved its effect on the Greek civilization, on the nascent democracy in Athens, which helped define how our Western culture evolved.

As Professor Hunter Rawlings noted in a lecture about Thucydides,

Thucydides seemed to speak to me directly about the nature of war, the choices it imposed, the pressures it brought to bear on a democracy, the inversion of values it forced upon society, above all, the suffering it caused for all concerned. Now I had a text in front of me that demanded the closest, most engaged, personal attention. Philology seemed suddenly to matter.

Well, I’m not a scholar, so philology* matters less to me, and I don’t read or speak ancient Greek. History and its lessons matter more to me. So does politics and culture.

Thucydides is also about modern events. It’s a way of seeing how war, politics, cultures, patriotism, morals, power, strategy and religion all intersect – collide in many cases – in times of great crisis. It’s not all that different from my reading of histories of WWII, Viet Nam or Korea.

Thucydides matters as do every book written on strategy since Sun Tzu. He is still taught in military colleges. In his essay, Thucydides and Contemporary Strategy, Craig Nation writes:

Thucydides’ influence has been manifest in modern American strategic thought. In 1947 U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall tu ned to Thucydides to fathom the emerging Cold War: “I doubt seriously,” he proposed, “whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep conviction regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens.”
A latter U.S. Secretary of State and former general officer, Colin Powell, speaking upon his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993,cited Thucydides to the effect that “of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.”Powell kept the passage posted at his desk for many years.
When Stanfield Turner set out to revamp instruction at the U.S. Naval War College in the 1970s he made Thucydides the focal point of the curriculum. Today Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides are the only strategic theorists whose work predates the twentieth century that are systematically studied at U.S. senior service schools.

In his book, Reading Thucydides, author James Morrison writes,

Thucydides appeals to the reader’s involvement by bringing written literature as close as possible to the live, extemporaneous, face-to-face debate of Greek politics. The audience is engaged in a unique way that we might term “dialogic” rather than “dogmatic.”

Professor Rawlings concludes:

To read Thucydides is to understand what is happening as it happens, to identify some order amid chaos, to watch ethical conflict (cf. the Melian Dialogue) play out in real time, to grasp the perverted meanings of partisan slogans (stasis at Corcyra) as they emerge, to recognize recurring patterns of behavior, of states and their political leaders alike, and to see, beneath the surface, the self-interest that actually motivates them.

I started reading Thucydides last night, but not the aging Penguin edition, which still lies hidden behind the front layer of paperbacks. Instead, I picked up a used, hardcopy copy of The Landmark Thucydides, 1996, edited by Robert Strassler – a large, heavily annotated version with maps and footnotes – from the library’s sale book section yesterday.**

It’s not easy. It’s not a scifi or mystery novel, to be consumed quickly.Thucydides wrote for the elite, for the educated. The University of Bristol notes about Rawlings’ lecture says:

Thucydides’ expectation for his readership has been essentially fulfilled, right up to the present day. His history is dense and detailed, and it is full of complex and rhetorically sophisticated arguments. He made history an intellectual enterprise, full of penetrating observations and paradigmatic lessons. As a result, the general public does not read Thucydides, and never will. Instead, his readers are political scientists, professional historians, military leaders, classicists and philosophers of history. Invariably, they read Thucydides in the way he meant to be read: by analyzing individual passages, by debating their meaning, and by arguing about their capacity for constituting general principles.

Thucydides’ readership, then, is elite and committed; reading his history is an intense experience requiring close attention and moral judgment. To a surprising degree, events in Thucydides matter.

Strassler’s work is based on the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, available online in its original at MIT’s internet classics site. Strassler’s (and other contemporary editors’) efforts to modernize and untangle Crawley’s sometimes dense prose have not gone uncriticized, but the edition has been overall well received. Strassler manages to make Thucydides accessible to the average reader; something you can read at home, on your own, over a cup of tea, not merely in a classroom. Thucydides becomes a living work again, not simply stored on some library shelf, unread.

The Penguin edition is a newer translation (1954) by Rex Warner, and I will have to dig up my copy to reread the introduction, and maybe compare some sections side-by-side. I may want to look for an even more modern translation. Styles change.

It also sparks my old interest in wargaming – it seems there are several wargames on the Peloponnesian War available (Victory Games and Clash of Arms, for example) – but finding local opponents would be tough.***

The only serious challenge I face – as I always do – is to keep reading through to the end and not get distracted by another book that calls my attention. Like that copy of Herodotus poking its spine out at me (or Strassler’s own version, now on order…). Or that paperback edition of Team of Rivals I picked up at the same time as Thucydides. Or that textbook on baking I got last month… The pile of books beside the bed grows…

Sigh. So little time, so many books. But for now, I’ll put Thucydides on the top of the pile.

* Wikipedia: “the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistics. It is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.”
** Strassler is also editor of The Landmark Herodotus and The Landmark Xenophon, both of which I intend to purchase in the near future. He is also co-editor of The Landmark Arian: Campaigns of Alexander.
*** I don’t have many paper wargames left in my closet, but I still have a couple of versions of the great Napoleon’s Last Battles quad, first published by SPI in 1976. It was always one of my favourites. No one to play with, these days, though.

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  1. Pingback: Reading The Histories | Scripturient

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