Thucydides 2022

Whenever sabers begin to rattle somewhere in the world, I am irresistibly drawn back to Thucydides, the Athenian general who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, the deadly clash between Athens and Sparta that raged from 431 to 404 BCE and engulfed most of the Greek-speaking world in its chaos. He wrote, perhaps, precisely for people like us: in the first of the three introductions that he eventually added to his masterwork, he declared that he intended it as a “possession for all time,” and so it has been for over two millennia. No one has ever turned to Thucydides’ history for any sensation that could be called comfort. He presents a clear-eyed chronicle of war both as a constant of human life and as the ultimate form of human folly. But his clarity, won at a terrible personal price (he suffered both plague and exile because of it), has its own harsh beauty, and makes his work as piercing now, and as precious, as it has ever been to previous centuries. Our weaponry and the theaters of our conflicts may have changed, but the same basic forces still drive human beings to destroy one another, and everything else around them, for evanescent promises. The war between Athens and Sparta, at least as Thucydides presents it, may have been the inevitable result of too much power concentrated in two rival polities, but battling over their differences benefited neither state in the end; indeed, it came close to destroying them both. The conflict hinged on too many variables for anyone, however insightful, to predict, and thus Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War becomes a vast spectacle of misjudgment and its consequences. The fact that Thucydides himself provides that History with three separate introductions at three separative points in the narrative

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