Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

THUCYDIDES: The Study of History

The Great Books have been broken down, roughly, into four basic categories: Literature, Philosophy, History, and Mathematics/Natural Science. Each one has its own method and purpose. In some ways they all have something in common with history. Literature tells stories; so does history. Philosophy pursues wisdom; so does history. Mathematics tries to put things into a logical order; so does history. Science tries to explain the real world; so does history. Then what makes history different? Why does it claim its own separate category of method and purpose?

Let’s tackle the question of purpose first. What’s the point of studying history? What good does it do? People give many different answers to this question. Historians themselves don’t always agree. Here’s one answer: Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta…in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. Thucydides could have written about literature or philosophy or science or mathematics. All of these areas were fertile subjects in ancient Athens. After all, this was the age of Sophocles and Socrates and Hippocrates. Yet Thucydides chose to devote himself to writing a history of the war between Athens and Sparta because it was “worth writing about.” Why? Because this wasn’t just an ordinary skirmish between a couple of small city-states. Thucydides writes that…after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else. But this time things were different. This was to be a “great war” fought between the two regional superpowers: Athens and Sparta. The fate of the whole Mediterranean region depended on who came out victorious. In hindsight, the fate of the whole western world depended on the outcome. For better or worse, western civilization is what it is because the Athenians lost this long drawn-out conflict. Studying the past teaches us how things got to be the way they are. That’s one purpose of history.

But the war between Athens and Sparta was a long and complicated affair. Many events happened: treaties were made and broken, battles were fought, speeches were made, political alliances were formed and also broken, armies and navies were moved around in various locations… What method can we use to make sense of all this apparently random activity? Here’s the method Thucydides used: It may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever. If Thucydides wanted to tell a story he would have written literature. If he wanted to find wisdom he would have written philosophy. If he wanted to put the real world into some sort of logical order he would have written science or mathematics. By writing history Thucydides teaches us how to gain wisdom from the Athenian-Spartan conflict, and he does it in a logical way. This is a tall order but Thucydides passes the test by writing a great history about a great war. He bet that people would always read history because human nature never really changes; and people do in fact still read stories about the past in order to gain wisdom. Thucydides was right.


Blogger Brian said...

It is interesting that we use the history of war to find ways to fight better battles instead of trying to prevent war.

1/04/2010 8:50 AM  

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