Daniel W. Drezner

The top three reasons you should read Thucydides

Your humble blogger is teaching Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War this week. Now, back in the day, there would be no need to justify the inclusion of such a classic into a course. Nowadays, with the kids and their YouFace, I suppose some justification should be provided. Here are three reasons to read this Greek ...

Your humble blogger is teaching Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War this week. Now, back in the day, there would be no need to justify the inclusion of such a classic into a course. Nowadays, with the kids and their YouFace, I suppose some justification should be provided. Here are three reasons to read this Greek classic:

1) It will purge 300 from your system. The ancients were all about the purging, and this classic will help you void the non-so-classic film. True, the two stories don’t overlap all that much. And true, I like homoerotic goofiness as much as the next hetrosexual. That said, it’s a crying shame that far more people have seen that mockery of Greek history than read… any Greek history. Alas, even modern criticisms of 300 wind up infected with stupid and ignorant Thucydides references. So read some Thucydides and you can enjoy Gerald Butler’s abs Lena Headey’s abs 300 on a more refined, absurdist plane. 

2) You will earn Star Trek street cred. Want to know where the Star Trek franchise gets the names for 90% of its obscure alien species? Look no further than Thucydides. Just one read and you’ll discover the source of the Cytherians, the Battle of Tanagra, and other names that will bore amaze your friends. 

3) You will recognize some recurrent patterns in history. Thucydides will help one develop a better appreciation for life in 5th century BC, but it will really help one develop an appreciation for the aspects of human nature that are unchanged through time. 

For exhibit A, consider this recent Kindred Winecoff post with respect to American soldiers, war crimes, and nativism. The relevant section: 

The Washington Post recently reported that a handful of soldiers engaged in murder campaigns that targeted Afghan civilians for sport. I assume this, like the Abu Ghraib disaster, is an isolated incident, but that’s not really the point. After reading the piece a friend remarked:

[T]his isn’t about U.S. troops, or even about this particular group of U.S. troops. It’s too easy to blame this on the type of people likely to be soldiers, or say that this is a group of bad apples. In the right situation, this could be me. This could be you.

War may bring out courage and heroism in the human heart, and many of us like celebrating that. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating valor. But war also brings out brutality and nihilism. And that is why we cannot go to war lightly, why if war is to be an option, it must be the last option, a desperate refuge that we flee to with a heavy heart.

We generally don’t think like that, especially in the run-up to wars. It doesn’t enter our cost-benefit calculus.

I strongly suspect it enters into the cost-benefit calculation of any officer required to read Thucydides. All it takes is one read of his discussion of state failure in Cocyra to recognize that war has always had this kind of effect on individuals and societies. See if any of this sounds familiar: 

The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.

Seriously, go read the whole thing. [But, like, that was a really long paragraph of unindented text, man!!–ed. Then buy the book — it looks much better on the printed page.]

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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