Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Relevance of Thucydides (or the lack thereof)

So we discussed Thucydides today. We heard the argument that the Spartans were more honorable, and some apparently believe that is why they won. After all, if you've got to side with a major power, it might as well be one that keeps its word. Thus, it could be argued that Thucydides's writings contain a lesson in morality for great powers. With all due respect, I must disagree with this interpretation. History is never this clear-cut.

Another interpretation of Thucydides is a comparison of the Athenian and Spartan governments. Athens was a prosperous democracy; Sparta was an militaristic aristocracy. In Athens, ideas were freely discussed, and any citizen (citizenship being far more narrowly defined then) could hold office. Spartan society virtually centered on maintaining control of the helots, the slave caste. I would think that parallels between the US and Athens would be obvious, while parallels between Sparta and various authoritarian governments would be equally plain. Athens lost. I have no doubt that militaristic societies such as Nazi Germany used Thucydides to support their wars. "Athens lost. The US will, too. Why? Because democracies are weak." I don't agree with this interpretation. I'm just using it as an example of a potential lesson in Thucydides.

There are a lot of lessons in Thucydides; many of them are still relevant. Thucydides is like virtually any historian; what get out of his writings depends on how you approach them.


Meow said...

I do agree that Thucydides is open to interpetation, and I also agree that history is not that clear-cut. Unfortunately, what we read was not a history. Thucydides' commentaries were as much literature as history as he clearly incorporates elements of storytelling that were not actual facts. The Melian dialogue, for example, never actually happened. As Farley pointed out, Thucydides was actually driving home a point.

We should not read Thucydides as a pure historian, a Classical version of the modern figure. He wasn't. He existed in a time and in a culture that probably didn't prize the dispassionate recital of facts as much as do we.

Modern scholarship is already wary of the historian's agenda in an age that's grounded in the "what actually happened". We should be much more aware of Thucydides' possible motives because his era doesn't put such an emphasis on that.

Now, I'm not saying one interpretation is better than another...I'm just pointing out that this isn't a history in the purest sense of the word, which means that the interpretation discussed in class isn't as implausible as it might seem.

Cavour said...

You're certainly correct that Thucydides is not a historian in the modern sense. One aspect I didn't point out was Thucydides was in fact working for the Spartans, making his version rather questionable. However, my point wasn't to criticize Thucydides' objectivity or accuracy. Those are doubtful, and I think everyone knows it. My point was that Thucydides can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I was just seeking to point a second interpretation.