Are Thucydides’ values applicable in the modern era?

Ioannis Dedes
Jun 7, 2020 · 6 min read
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Statue of Thukydides in front of the Parliament of Vienna (Austria)

Thucydides can be considered one of the most influential figures of Ancient history and despite the fact that he died over two millennia ago, his values and beliefs are explained thoroughly and respected by the new generations, up until this day. The problem is, are they applicable?

The Greek historian was born in Alimos around 460 and 455 BC, he was an aristocrat and proved that he was a prominent writer from the first decades of his life. At the young stage of his career, the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) began, between the troops of the Peloponnesian League in Sparta and the Delian League in Athens. Despite the fact that both powers entered the war with great potential, the aftermath was more damaging than expected and it is arguable that it reshaped the next decades of the Ancient Aegean world, due to the considerable and long-term weaknesses for both sides. Additionally, the war opened the door for Greece’s annexation by Philip of Macedon, who would be followed by Alexander the Great and, finally, the Romans.

The 27-year war paved the way for Thucydides to start perfecting his writing skills and completing his book, entitled “History of the Peloponnesian War”, which was published after his death. Thucydides claimed that he managed to include everything that happened in the war, considering its significant and astonishing scale for the Ancient Greek world. There is no arguing about Thucydides’ statement because of his proven meticulous way of writing, his dedication in the presentation of the events in accordance with a thorough, first-hand analysis. As the same applies to many authors of that time, this is the only work of the historian that was saved, while also being the only ‘tool’ of modern-day experts who intend to analyse Thucydides’ personality and thoughts. His historical ‘report’ of the events is still taught today in schools of secondary or tertiary education, while it’s considered one of the earliest scholarly works of history.

“Peace is only an armistice in an endless war” — Thucydides

Nevertheless, the writing ability of Thucydides isn’t the only thing he is remembered for. Historical reports show that he participated at the Peloponnesian War as a general, alongside the other Athenians. After surviving the deadly epidemic, which devastated Athens during the second year of the war, he was sent to Amphipolis when Spartan general Brasidas attacked the region. Thucydides was chosen on the grounds that he was one of the most respected Athenians at the time and he also had tremendous influence in the Thracian region, where Amphipolis is located.

It’s obvious that this action proved his urge of serving his homeland and despite the fact that he was an aristocrat, his luxurious way of living didn’t stop him from risking his life in the battlefield. However, the defeat of the Athenians was inevitable and because the region was of great significance and Thucydides failed to protect it, he was exiled. This doesn’t take away from the fact that he fought for the sake of Athens, another reason for which he is honored until today.

As a matter of fact, him being exiled caused a problem in the presentation of history because the Melian Dialogue, a chapter included in his work for the Peloponnesian War, is a paraphrased dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenian emissaries and the rulers of Melos, as a result of him being away when the events took place in his homeland.

“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable” — Thucydides

This article, however, intends to present Thucydides’ values and beliefs, which is the main reason for him being one of the greatest historians of all time. The above mentioned information is valuable for understanding the context of Thucydides’ era and the importance of his actions. The main personality traits for which he is honored even in today’s era is his impartiality, his ‘matter-of-fact’ approach and his powerful distinction between personal opinions and historical presentations.

When Thucydides’ started his writing career, historical representations took a whole new direction and his work, which resonates various disciplines of history, international relations and political science, has proven to be a masterpiece of objectivity and impartiality. His analysis of the causes which led to the conflict, along with the provision of insight for the war events and the battles, were completely based on experiences that he was a part of and could be considered a reliable eye-witness. This was the main characteristic which fulfilled the author’s own identity, including a way of writing which varied in many ways from the previous historians but was closer to the nature of historiography.

Him being a part of the Athenian forces as a general in Amphipolis provided further firsthand experience of the war and insight on how vested interests can intervene and provide explanations for complex events in the battlefield. Thucydides’ way of writing alongside his tremendous knowledge about Athens’ political stage were the main advantages of his work. He is considered by many as the ‘father of political realism’, considering his reports on the different behavior of individuals and their connection with the subsequent outcomes in political science and societal changes.

Nonetheless, the fact that he was an Athenian and his homeland was involved in such an important dispute wasn’t something that forced him to start relying on impartiality and personal emotions. Thucydides never hesitated to present both sides of his homeland’s society and when he made an emphatic appeal on the Athenian justice, Democracy and supremacy, he was sure that he didn’t ‘miss out’ on cases of lawlessness, disregard for custom and lack of order, that might had occurred in Athens.

“I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time” — Thucydides

Thucydides’ spirit of objectivity would also be the reason for him pointing out his predeccessors’ mistakes, focusing mainly on Herodotus. Herodotus is considered the ‘father of history’ and his excellence has been fully displayed in multiple works. He was the main author of the events in the Greco-Persian War (499 BC — 449 BC) but also provided precious information for geographical and ethnographic knowledge. The fact that he included fables or extensive stories was the main source of criticism for Thucydides, for whom the historians’ judgement and opinion shouldn’t be included in the factual description of events. Whereas Herodotus viewed history as a source of moral lessons and a way of evaluating multiple sources in a partial way, Thucydides based his work on factual, free-of-judgement presentation, without revealing any included sources. On the one hand, people support that history can be considered a moral lesson and a constant repetition and on the other hand, Thucydides’ views are the reason the pushed many experts’ giving him the tile of ‘father of history’.

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Thukydides (left) and Herodotus (right)

As mentioned above, students are learning about Thucydides works and values even two thousand years after his death but what we need to ask ourselves is whether we just passively learn more and more about this figure or we make an effort to embrace his way of living and writing. In today’s world, there are various obstacles that prevent the implementation of value-free judgement and publicly present unbiased evaluations. Social media and the reports of people who are actively involved in politics, who might as well serve vested interests, make it even harder to use the objectivity that Thucydides represented.

It’s naturally impossible that our opinions about various things in life aren’t affected by personal experiences or beliefs but it’s an expert’s job to provide insight for events while ‘hiding’ his own judgement. That’s why, there’s an a problem when applying Thucydides’ values in the world of today and if we intended to start implementing his way of thinking and writing, it would definitely be worth the embracement of his beliefs and not just passive lessons of some of his chapters in schools and universities.

References

Kindt, Julia. “Guide to the Classics: Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.” The Conversation, 19 Dec. 2018, theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-thucydidess-history-of-the-peloponnesian-war-71550.

“Thucydides and the Science of History : Cochrane, Charles Norris, 1889–1945 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, London : Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1 Jan. 1970, archive.org/details/thucydidesscienc0000coch.

“Thucydides Quotes (Author of History of the Peloponnesian War) (Page 4 of 5).” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/957.Thucydides?page=4.

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Ioannis Dedes

Written by

18-year-old fanatic for history and politics; also writing about economics, environment, self-improvement, and health.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Ioannis Dedes

Written by

18-year-old fanatic for history and politics; also writing about economics, environment, self-improvement, and health.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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