The Importance of Thucydides

English author F. E. Adcock (1886-1968) was an old-fashioned scholar and author of the concise monograph Thucydides and History (1963). I am lucky to come across such gems as I dig through what remains of the old stacks at the city library. More and more non-fiction classics are slowly being “de-acquisitioned” by a management which see their facilities as social “destinations” (whatever that means) rather than repositories of books. The librarians themselves are dismayed, and so I check out as many rarities as I can in the hopes of keeping them in circulation.

Adcock provides some interesting speculation about how Thucydides’ famous history of the Peloponnesian War was compiled and offers the tantalizing possibility that the work did not end in medias res, as we have it now, but that subsequent books have been lost to us. He makes a good case that the ancient Athenian soldier penned his history contemporaneously with events rather than as a chronicle composed after the fighting was over. The war ended in 404 B.C. and Thucydides is thought to have died about ten years later.  The “internal evidence” for this is the seeming inconclusiveness of earlier sections and the lack of retrospective interpretation. It is also these qualities that give Thucydides’ work a sense of immediacy.

There are two types of history writing: narrative and interpretive. In many works these overlap, and certainly you cannot have a sensible factual record without some interpretation or judicious selection of what is important or how events are linked together. But you always need good fact-gathering. Otherwise, if your historical chronicle is grossly inaccurate or unduly selective then even the best interpretative approach will be pointless.

Adcock points out that Thucydides rarely engages in ethical judgments. He describes atrocities and massacres as a matter of course. Yet this “realism does not mean that his heart did not ever stir within him. When the Athenians decreed the massacre of the Mityleneans, he described the decree as ‘savage and monstrous’….” The author is depicted as a Hobbesian “realist.” This is likely true. He was a skeptic instructed in the art of rhetoric and logic by Sophists. He was a principled man, but (like many contemporaries) he considered the honor and well-being of the city state as paramount and thus would not have understood the intensely personal and universalist morality of Socrates.

Thucydides’ history is worth reading for a fascinating wealth of detail, its military stratagems and its political scheming. Yet it is also a timeless work. As Adcock explains:

The history is not didactic in form: what it supplies is the material to study…. The reader is to be a man who, in his own day, faces a situation, and faces it better in act or speech because he can discover how, in the past, men of like passions to his own acted and spoke in comparable situations.

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