The Ancient Greek Who Speaks to All History and Military Buffs

Open Source, a radio pro­gram host­ed by Christo­pher Lydon, recent­ly pulled off some­thing rather unusu­al. The broad­cast (iTunesmp3) made it abun­dant­ly clear why an Ancient Greek text, Thucy­dides’ His­to­ry of the Pelo­pon­nesian War, remains fas­ci­nat­ing and high­ly rel­e­vant to mod­ern day read­ers. Writ­ten 2400+ years ago, Thucy­dides has some­thing impor­tant to offer his­to­ry and mil­i­tary buffs alike, and also those who want to delve into the com­pli­cat­ed human psy­che. For his­to­ri­ans, Thucy­dides’ work gives us the first mod­ern his­to­ry — the first his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that looked to ren­der the past in an ana­lyt­i­cal, empir­i­cal and objec­tive way (a depar­ture from the more lit­er­ary, myth-based his­to­ries that came before it). For mil­i­tary thinkers, includ­ing stu­dents at West Point, the work holds such appeal because it recounts the epic, 27-year war (431–404 BC) between the two great­est Greek pow­ers — on the one side, Athens, a demo­c­ra­t­ic but increas­ing­ly impe­ri­al­ist pow­er, and, on the oth­er side, Spar­ta, a harsh oli­garchic pow­er that held no par­tic­u­lar impe­r­i­al aspi­ra­tions. Thucy­dides, an Athen­ian gen­er­al, gives you the blow-by-blow account of a land­mark his­tor­i­cal war. But he also gives you more. What par­tic­u­lar­ly engages read­ers, both past and present, are Thucy­dides’ philo­soph­i­cal insights into human nature — into how our pas­sions and fears, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing times of war, can counter-pro­duc­tive­ly under­mine our civil­i­ty and human­i­ty. This applies to lead­ers and cit­i­zens of Athens, who over­reached and even­tu­al­ly lost their war. Yet it also poten­tial­ly applies to mod­ern Amer­i­ca because it is Thucy­dides’ assump­tion that human nature remains fun­da­men­tal­ly the same across time and place. And, in that sense, there is a cau­tion­ary tale for all of us in this sem­i­nal Greek work.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.