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Category Archives: Historians

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Thucydides and 2000 Years of Political Realism

by September 22, 2014

While I tend to enjoy my time reading obscure philosophy texts and various translations of Homeric epics, I simply can’t contain my literary habits to one genre. The ancient classics are like ice cream. I love ice cream, but one can’t live off of frozen desserts alone.

One of my favorite newsletters to get into, when I’m not writing my own, is The Daily Reckoning.
XXXAnything from international affairs to the tenuous state of the global market, they got it all in healthy doses.

The following excerpt is from their September 18th edition, and it got me thinking on a few things:
“And so, Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko bellyached to Congress…
“With just one move,” he told in his scariest voice, “the world has been thrown back in time — to a reality of territrial claims, zones of influence, criminal aggression and annexations,”
One fist was pounding the podium. The other, extended in the hopes of getting military assistance. Apparently, fighting the Russians is trying… even after the U.S. has given $219 million in aid.
“The post-war international system” Poroshenko pleaded, “of checks and balances [is] effectively ruined.” -Peter Coyne (The Daily Reckoning)
That last little bit about how the international system of checks and balances being destroyed got me particularly riled up. Are you saying that the balance of power has been upset upon the international stage? Athens and Sparta will surely be at war!
Isn’t that what you were thinking? No? Well, maybe it should be.
Hostile annexations? Growing foreign powers? Unstable system of checks and balances upon the world stage? Those certainly are all charges that have been laid before us today, especially when considering the uneasy situation in Eastern Ukraine. Then again, it’s not the first time we have heard of such things.
That’s right everybody, we got all the proper ingredients to have ourselves a full-blown Peloponnesian War here. For it was the rising power of Athens, the continued expansion of the Athenian empire, and the subsequent fear it inspired in Sparta, more than anything else that lead to the bloody Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.
For almost three decades, the Athenians and the Spartans would butt heads in one of the most costly and most violent wars of the ancient world. And there all the while, eager to report on the occurrences and the causes of such a fiasco, was Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War.
I know what you are probably thinking. All that happened over two thousand years ago! Surely things have changed since then. And I suppose I would have to agree with you on that point, but I wouldn’t necessarily say things have changed for the better.
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein explained this rather simply within their book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… when they write…

“Social and political philosophy examines issues of justice in society. Why do we need government? how should goods be distributed? How can we establish a fair social system? These questions used to be settled by the stronger guy hitting the weaker guy over the head with a bone, but after centuries of social and political philosophy, society has come to the conclusion that missiles are much more effective.”

– Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar)
Now that might get a laugh (try using it at cocktail parties) but the humor is also rather dark. For while we might think we have grown up over the millennia, evolved and become more civilized, the truth is that we are still killing each other for the same reasons that we were killing each other for back in 400 BCE. We’ve just become more efficient about the whole business.

Perhaps to explain this, we ought to take a quick peak at what is known as “political realism”, a school of philosophical thought that Thucydides is sometimes credited with founding (that is to say he was writing on it before Thomas Hobbes or Nicolai Machiavelli ever got the chance to.)

At the heart of political realism is the assumption that humans, deep down, are selfish, fearful, ambitious, and self-interested. This brutish nature of humanity is something of a dirty little secret. However, if we are to understand the causes for war, we must accept people for what they are, not what we would like them to be.
Fear, honor, and advantage are all factors that contribute to “normal human interactions” and by extension, they also contribute to actions between countries.
Political realism takes a rather pessimistic view of world affairs. The world stage is something of an amoral, value-free environment in which each and every country finds itself in constant conflict with every other player on the board.
Lacking some over-arching world government, each state is under constant fear of invasion or betrayal from its neighbor. States react to threats in the same manner that an individual human might react. We look upon weaker neighbors with ambitious thoughts of subjection and gaze at our growing enemies with dread.

“I will first write down an account of the disputes that explain their breaking the Peace, so that no one will ever wonder from what ground so great a war could arise among the Greeks. I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” -Thucydides (The History of the Peloponnesian War)

In the case of Thucydides, it was the Athenian empire that grew so rapidly and with such determination, that it would be inevitable that they would one day clash swords with the only remaining super power in the region, Sparta. That is perhaps one of the truest lessons we can learn from Thucydides. Any state growing too powerful, too fast will garner the disdain of its neighbors, and violence is often an inevitable conclusion.
XXXThe world view of political realists like Thucydides casts a rather bleak picture of human nature and the patterns of world affairs. The Greeks were cast into war much the same way the Romans were time and time again as their empire expanded. The American government of the 50’s and 60’s watched the rise of communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union with dread and concern. And again, we were cast into war.
Now, this is all very easy for me to say. Here I am sitting comfortably at my desk, reading philosophy while the tea kettle warms. The ins and outs of any armed conflict can never be explained as easily as this. Even the Peloponnesian war of Thucydides consisted of innumerable variables that lead to the bloody confrontation.
I will never be the first to say that I am intimately informed with the goings-on of the international community. I would perhaps say that I am slightly more informed than the average citizen (most of my friends watch too much reality television), but that does not give me the right to look down and judge an entire region.
I am, however, acquainted with political philosophy, and I am familiar with ancient history. Several months ago Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This prompted a military engagement and the Ukrainian government is now asking for the support of the United States.
Two thousand years ago, the city of Corinth was annexed by the Athenian empire. What ensued was a military engagement where the Corinthians, you guessed it, turned to their neighbor, Sparta, for aid.
Are they exactly the same? No. Are there some similarities? Oh yes. And that, my friends, I find rather curious.
Thucydides gave us a dark picture of the world. Whether or not it was entirely accurate is a topic of some discussion. However, the same problems between nations do tend to repeat themselves, whether it is in the Mediterranean region in 400 BCE or Eastern Europe, circa 2014. I suppose the bottom line is that when it comes to war, war never changes.

Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?

by April 12, 2013

Insatiably curious, prone to whimsy, a talented writer, a slave to gossip, an innovator, a barbarian apologist, a cosmopolitan, a partisan egoist; Herodotus has been praised for and accused of much since the publication of his Histories.
He was both denigrated and venerated in his own time…and has remained so ever since.
However, it is almost as difficult to understand his legacy as it is to chronicle his life. Because, for the latter, in the words of George Rawlinson: “the data are so few…that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards”.
mausoleum of Halicarnassus

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

It was circa 484BC that Herodotus was born into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). However, from hereon in, there is little solid evidence of the precise movements of his extraordinary life.
We know he was exiled at least once. It is possible that, with his family, he fled to the island of Samos due to conflicts with the tyrant Lygdamis. Indeed, some fancifully think Herodotus may later have returned to lead an uprising against his oppressor.

Ruins in Samos

It is likely that Herodotus experienced an unusually multicultural upbringing. Halicarnassus, originally a Greek colony, was also a key trading post with Egypt and would thus have been awash with a diversity of peoples.
Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.
Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer.
bust of Herodotus
Additionally, the fact that his work was known in his lifetime and was thought (by Lucian) to have been performed at the Olympic Games, indicates his contemporaries did not doubt, as some later did, that these journeys really happened.
His fame seems to have been largely to his benefit, though not quite enough to win him a citizenship vote in Athens. However, even to be considered for this was a great honor in itself.
His literary clout was respected by the tragedian Sophocles; there are echoes of The Histories in Antigone. Herodotus also received the ultimate back-handed compliment of being important and well-known enough for comic playwright Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Acharnians.

Illustration of Aristophanes

The final resting place for a famous writer of no fixed abode is almost inevitably open to dispute. The main contenders are Thurii in Southern Italy, Thurium in Macedonia or, of course, Athens. However, the notion that he was buried alongside Thucydides is fantastic in the extreme.
So why does this debate about his reputation constantly flare up? How could he manage to be of differing credibility to men like Plutarch, Strabo, Aristotle and Cicero (not to mention a host of modern scholars)?
The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.
In fact, there is no logical reason to presume he was anything other than what he claimed to be, a publisher of inquiries.
So, was he the father of history or the father of lies? Well, he could simultaneously be considered both and neither.
herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Most problems with Herodotus arise when inspecting him from a ‘modern’ point of view. Modern in the sense that we view history as a series of hypotheses and probabilities which must be investigated, debated and, ideally, resolved. Herodotus is far detached from this, content merely to play the role of reporter. Consequently, we cast over him a patronizing and judgmental eye, an eye that isn’t compatible with his method.
Thucydides used a different ‘modern’ eye to belittle his contemporary.
Herodotus was interested in a range of human and natural characteristics as well as customs (together with their backgrounds). In contrast, Thucydides was primarily concerned with tangible facts that were directly relevant to him (i.e. politics and warfare). He considered his work historically definitive in a way Herodotus never did.
Indeed the very problem arises because of our obsession with viewing Herodotus as an historian, something he himself never claimed to be for the simple reason that the word didn’t exist! ‘History’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greek historia – ‘inquiry’.
As John P.A. Gould succinctly put it: “He nowhere claims to have been an eye witness or participant in any of the major events or battles that he describes”.
So, if not an historian, then what?
One could argue he was more of a travel writer, a chronicler of a general encyclopedia, or a journalist. Though actually calling him a novelist is perhaps a stretch too far.


Herodotus made it perfectly clear that he was not reporting truth or fact, but making a record of what others had told him: “I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”. [7.153-2]

If he were an historian, then he could only be said to have been a war, or anti-war historian. This is made clear from the preface to his work in which he states his wish to record how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife. Thus, everything else (topography, local customs etc) becomes entertaining garnish.
And it is precisely the garnish, the tall-tales, the meandering yarns, the detailed landscapes, the curious dress and peculiar fauna, that have brought him in for such weight of attack.
However, as one man traveling in an unknown world, desperate to learn and share all it had to teach him, he is no more worthy of censure then the authors of obsolete entries in the Lonely Planet.
Modern assumptions and misinterpretation wound Herodotus. It is not up to him to justify himself to us, but up to us to read him as he wrote, without certainty, without authority, but with keen interest, enthusiasm, a willingness to think and a thirst to learn.
And, naturally, a pinch of salty skepticism.

Interested in reading the Histories by Herodotus? You can access it here for Free:

“Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?” was written by Ben Potter