Volume 8, Issue 4: Historia
The Possession for All Time
The Peloponnesian War stands out among the great events of history. Many of us, 2,400 years hence, are tempted to dismiss this collision of spears, archers, and oared ships as quaint and obscure, hardly relevant. Indeed, the war would be of little interest to us were it not for Thucydides, the Athenian general who chronicled it.
The war began in 431 bc, and its causes may be traced back several decades. Two rival alliance systems were in place, the Delian League (dominated by Athens), and the Peloponnesian states under Sparta's headship. Because of these complex alliances, a series of rather obscure events brought the Hellenic world into war. At its outbreak, Thucydides resolved to record what transpired. He noted that "this war will prove, for men who judge from the actual facts, to have been more important than any that went before" (I.xxi.4),[*] and proved his claim by weighing the Peloponnesian War against the great wars of previous times. So convinced was he of this war's importance that he predicted that future generations would value it. He writes,
[W]hosoever shall wish to have a clear view both of the events which have happened and of those which will some day, in all human probability, happen again in the same or a similar way--for these to adjudge my history profitable will be enough for me. And, indeed, it has been composed, not as a prize-essay to be heard for the moment, but as a possession for all time (I.xxii.4).
Here, Thucydides weighs his work's import on a great principle: history repeats itself. If this were false, we could not learn from the past. For the circumstances we face today, and will face in the future, will--according to God's governance--resemble those that others have encountered before (Eccl. 1:9,10). Thus, the extent to which a historian's work is a "possession for all time" depends upon how closely the events it covers relate to experiences which all men share.
The Peloponnesian War is remote to us in time, place, and culture. But Thucydides' narrative brilliantly depicts matters that all men face: the science of statecraft and the intricacies of alliances and diplomacy; the psychology of a people at war; a theatre-wide analysis of war strategy; the political, military, and social impacts of fighting either on home or foreign soil; the complexity of party politics; the assets and drawbacks of different types of leadership; the frailty of peace; etc. Those who have narrowed their study to the great conflicts of modernity, from the Napoleonic Wars through the Gulf War, will be thunderstruck at a first reading of Thucydides. His work is remarkably relevant. For, knowing that history repeats itself, he highlights the timeless elements of his own era to teach us about our world today, just as he has taught his readers for 2,500 years. Outside Scripture, there exists no better study of corporate human nature than Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.
Consider a few of his insights. In 426 bc, awkward wartime alliances prompted revolutions in many Greek city-states. Thucydides recounts the resulting convulsions:
Reckless audacity came to be regarded as courageous loyalty to party, prudent hesitation as specious cowardice, moderation as a cloak for unmanly weakness, and to be clever in everything was to do naught in anything. Frantic impulsiveness was accounted a true man's part, but caution in deliberation a specious pretext for shirking. The hotheaded man was always trusted, his opponent suspected.... The cause of all these evils was the desire to rule which greed and ambition inspire, and also, springing from them, that ardour which belongs to men who once have become engaged in factious rivalry (III.lxxxii.4,8).
His full analysis is more detailed, and could apply to most modern revolutions, including the French, the Bolshevik, and those in Africa and Latin America. Any student of political science would benefit from his observations. In another case, one who contemplates European imperialism in the last century or Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" foreign policy, will find a fundamental axiom of international relations in the account of Athens' takeover of Melos. What motivates imperialism and international influence-peddling? In an Athenian's words,
For of the gods we hold the belief, and of men we know, that by a necessity of their nature wherever they have power they always rule. And so in our case since we neither enacted this law nor when it was enacted were the first to use it, but found it in existence and expect to leave it in existence for all time, so we make use of it, well aware that both you and others, if clothed with the same power as we, would do the same thing (V.cv.2).
Thus Athens justified her takeover of Melos. This captures the whole argument of Roosevelt's book, Fear God and Take Your Own Part; neither Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, nor Bismarck could have said it better.
Thucydides understood that the past resembles the present and future, and so he wrote his history to be always relevant. Indeed, his record of the "war waged by the Peloponnesians and the Athenians against one another" is a possession for all time. It will teach men about themselves for many generations to come.