By Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Today we think of Thucydides as one of the first historians. Yet perhaps that word is a bit misleading, or at least doesn’t paint the full picture.
In his Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes the historian from the philosopher and the poet. History is not philosophic because it deals with particulars, whereas philosophy deals with the universal. Poetry lies between philosophy and history, dealing with the universal in the particular.
At first glance, Thucydides seems to fall decidedly into the category of historian. The beginning of The Peloponnesian War undermines the exaggerated grandeur attributed to early Greece, built mainly on the authority of Homer. The glory of poetic vision is scrapped for a realistic assessment of early ages. In addition, Thucydides himself remarks that he does not write as the poets do.
Thucydides narrates the history of a particular war, the Peloponnesian War, which occurred between Sparta, Athens, and their allies in the 5th century B.C. Yet he claims that he has written his work “as a possession for all time” and that it will be an aid to understanding the future. But one must ask how a history of a particular war bound in time and place could so illumine future action.
Just as with the poet, the particular and the universal are interwoven in Thucydides’ work. He describes this war between these two cities at a certain time but reveals the story of mankind.
Thucydides looks to motion and war as most revealing of human nature. This is the difference between Thucydides and the philosophers. Thucydides does not seek the nature of man in the contemplation of a static realm of truth and light; rather, he seeks it in movement and uncertainty. But man in motion is also the favorite theme of the poets. Poetry flourishes in conditions of stable peace, but it portrays man in crisis, man in flux–the bloody field of Ilium, the trials of the homeward journey, the city infected with plague.
The historian is not free, like the poet, to invent, shape, or alter events for dramatic purposes. But Thucydides does. Events must be selected, arranged, and narrated even by the historian. The deeds of the war are edited by Thucydides. Only if they are selected and arranged properly will we get a true picture. No mere chronicler, Thucydides weaves a narrative balance between word and deed.
There are two great wings to the Peloponnesian War, marked by Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the plague on the one hand, and the Melian Dialogue and the Sicilian expedition on the other. The word is immediately followed by the deed. In each case, the hubris given in word is then terribly punished by what happens. Like a poet, Thucydides creates a narrative balance – an act of hubris and its consequences. Also like a poet, he does not give explicit interpretation of the events, but lets the events themselves present a terrible drama.
In terms of invention, Thucydides admits he does not present the speeches in his history exactly as they were given; they are, in his opinion, what the speakers should have said. In truth, Thucydides composes the speeches himself.
Thucydides does not make explicit judgements on the understandings expressed by the speakers, but rather presents them in all their partiality and partisanship. In doing so he creates, or rather imitates, political drama. Political speeches are necessarily partial because they present a particular policy of a particular city to a particular audience; they are bound by the limited horizon of the political actor. The reader is drawn into the drama through the clash of conflicting views. By allowing the struggle to work itself out before the reader, he presents a poetic imitation of political life.
The most well-known of the speeches, the Periclean Funeral Oration, puts forward a vision of immortal glory. Pericles asserts that the glory of Athens will survive even if Athens is ruined.; it will survive forever. “The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours,” he says, “because the power of Athens has been shown by mighty proofs…We have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us” (PW 2.42).
Thus Athens does not need Homer for a eulogist. Pericles claims the deeds of the city are self-sufficient, they stand by themselves, they do not need the poet’s craft. But it is the craft of Thucydides that continues to breathe life into Periclean Athens.
Thucydides’ presentation of Pericles must bring forward for the reader what is a fundamental underlying question for the entire work: Can the fortune be mastered by human planning?
Pericles counseled the Athenians to shut themselves up within their walls rather than to chance battle in the field, to hold to the impregnable position afforded them by the city and the sea. His plan worked against the Peloponnesians, but it could not defend against the natural force of the plague, which ravaged the city. The terrible suffering of that pestilence emphasized the fragility of life and gave vent to the worst of the passions. “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” (PW 2.53)
This episode demonstrates the two kinds of motion in Thucydides: 1) the motion of natural forces and 2) the motion caused by human passions, both of which are matters of necessity or fortune rather than human planning.
Pericles’ vision of immortal glory is the greatest claim for the durability of human endeavor. But Thucydides contradicts this claim, implicitly, through the work as a whole. The story of human action is presented against a background of earthquakes, tidal waves, solar and lunar eclipses, droughts, floods, famines, and a volcanic eruption. Thucydides emphasizes the forces of nature to point out that not everything can be controlled. Nor are natural forces always spectacular: the silent workings of water and earth can undermine anything wrought by the hands of man.
The force of human passion is also prevalent in Thucydides. He describes the Corcyraean revolution as a great motion which spread until “the whole Hellenic world was convulsed” (PW 3.82). The sufferings were many and terrible: death raged in every shape and there was no limit to the violence. These possibilities are always present in human nature. Passions are kept quiet in peace because men are not confronted with imperious necessities. War lowers character to a level with circumstances, and often lends victory to simple brutality.
Thucydides suggests that every city will finally succumb to necessity, either from natural forces or from a failure to control and moderate the human passions. This is the tragic understanding in Thucydides: Man seeks rest from motion and change through his intelligence, but all of his constructions are subject to chance, necessity will overwhelm his islands of rest— one cannot promise immortal glory. Thucydides views the existence of man through a veil of sadness. His readers feel that universal melancholy because he has drawn it forth from the particulars of history.