Thucydides wrote a history of the epic struggle between Athens and Sparta. His work has proved to be—as he hoped—a “possession for all time,” though perhaps not in quite the way he intended. Virtually every age, every occasion, every interpreter, has appropriated a different Thucydides and a different masterpiece. Both the author and the work remain enigmatic.
The reliable biographical details are few, and all derive from his own account. Thucydides son of Olorus was an Athenian, born around 460 BCE. In his analysis of the causes, symptoms, and consequences of the plague that devastated Athens a few years after the outbreak of hostilities with Sparta, Thucydides drew on his own experience of the illness. He was for a time prominent in Athenian public life.
During the war, he attained the office of general, one of the very few elected positions in the Athenian democracy (most offices were allocated by lot), and was sent to Thrace, perhaps because of his connections and influence there. In 423 BCE, his fellow citizens banished him for failing to reach the Athenian colony of Amphipolis in time to rescue it from the Spartans.
Athens’ loss was posterity’s gain: Thucydides proceeded to travel the Greek world and gather information for his history from a variety of sources including, as he noted, the Spartans and their allies. He lived to see the end of the war he chronicled, though his narrative breaks off seven years earlier, in 411 BCE.
The history is no less difficult to pin down than the historian, in part because it gives eloquent voice to the various protagonists in the conflict. The history therefore provides ample fodder for a variety of interpretations.
Thucydides has been dubbed a scientific historian by some, a dramatist by others. His history is said by some to argue for a realist view of human affairs and international relations, by others to demonstrate the fallacy of such a view.
Thucydides’ history is more and other than the sum of its parts. The complexity of his account cannot be reduced; but it can be understood, by taking seriously several considerations. First, Thucydides chose to write history, not tragic poetry, philosophical dialogues, or medical treatises. He explicitly commits himself to giving an accurate account, based on firsthand knowledge or scrupulous inquiry.
In the case of the speeches, he states that since it was not possible to “carry them word for word in one’s memory,” he makes the speakers say what in his judgment is “demanded of them by the various occasions, while adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”
In so doing, Thucydides does not abandon history for drama or dogma, but rather insists on the need for and the possibility of rigorously truthful historical interpretation.
Second, certain aspects of human nature (including judgment, passion, chance, the need for security, and the desire for power and gain) form the backbone of Thucydides’ attempt to explain and interpret—not merely recount—the events of his time.
Different speakers appeal to these concepts in different ways under different circumstances, and so does Thucydides himself when he characterizes the sources and trajectory of Athenian imperial power and the polarization of the Greek world.
These building blocks of an intelligible history are therefore not to be seen as static truths, but construed instead in terms of the relationship between actions and contexts over time.
It is, for example, not true that the will to power is the fundamental and inexorable force in human affairs, but rather that the will to power leads to greatness for some and security for others until the Greek world is fully polarized, at which point it is essential and possible to exert self-control.
Third, Thucydides was not writing in a vacuum. His decision to write an interpreted history is a response to challenges raised by the experience of democracy. Thucydides’ history is intended as a political argument and a political education, and effective as such only to the extent that it is an accurate and intelligible history.
Throughout the fifth century the Athenians wrestled with the question of how a polity that gives equal access to decision-making power to all citizens, including those without breeding, education, or property, can possibly achieve order, freedom, or the collective good.
|Protagoras of Abdera|
Protagoras of Abdera, one of the Sophists, or teachers of the art of politics, argued that participation in democratic practices facilitated self-expression while promoting self-restraint.
By the time of the war, continued reflection on the democratic experience had spawned the view that Nomos (law or custom), self-imposed as it was by the people, or by a majority, was in fact an artificial constraint, unrelated to the well-being of any particular citizen. Political deliberation was characterized as a manipulative process designed to advance the interests of some at the expense of others.
In response to these challenges to the belief that man’s good could be secured through democratic political interaction, some thinkers (Socrates among them) appealed to the force of reason, detached from the realm of politics and persuasion, as the fundamental criterion of the good for man; others (Callicles, in Plato’s Gorgias) appealed to the force of desire and ambition, likewise detached from social convention.
Neither view could accommodate the complexities of the human condition: the real constraints on any person or polity’s will to power, and the no less authentic claims of personal needs and passions against the single-minded cultivation of the rational soul.
By the time Thucydides came to write his history, and in part because of the process he charts, the significance of these various aspects of the human experience had become all too evident. He portrays the social and ethical corrosion caused by the polarization of the Greek world, both within and among states, and by war, which he calls a “harsh schoolmaster.”
Thucydides offers history as a way for people to think and act prudently under such conditions. An interpreted history—which engages the reader’s emotions as well as their reason—extends the range of man’s experience and cultivates their capacity for judgment under trying circumstances, an appreciation of the need for self-control, and an ability to exercise it.
Historical analysis is most effective when it informs political leadership, as occurred in Athens under the guidance of Pericles (495–429 BCE). As Thucydides portrays him, Pericles sought to educate the Athenians about their real condition, its sources and implications, in such a way as to enable them to anticipate and reconsider their responses.
Thucydides acknowledges that this kind of historical leadership did not always work—even when Pericles was alive—and gave way to demagoguery and distortions of the truth after he died. Thucydides himself has acquired a reputation for hostility to democracy because he inclines at times toward institutional substitutes for the dynamic cultivation of judgment through democratic interaction.
But his characterization of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Athenians and the Spartans points to Thucydides’ belief that the most admirable polity—the one capable of understanding and responding to the world as it really is—is a democratic polity, like Athens, that cultivates initiative, flexibility, passion, freedom, and is guided by prudent leadership— and by history.