Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, May 31, 2013

THUCYDIDES: The Peloponnesian War (History and Justice)

We just finished reading the Gospel of Mark and considered the trial of Jesus. But trials in law courts are really just a subset of the larger over-arching question: what is justice? In the Gospel of Mark we considered if there were really two types of justice; one type of justice according to Jewish law and another type of justice under Roman law. This time we read the Greek historian Thucydides and face a similar question regarding justice. Does justice stay the same throughout the ages or does it change with the times?

Our attitude regarding the nature of justice depends on our view of history. Is the purpose of history (a) to find out the TRUTH about the past, or (b) to find out the MEANING of the past? If (a) is our answer we should pursue history the same way we pursue science. There’s a truth to the past and we can know that truth. So we look for factual data and draw conclusions based on reason and observation. But if (b) is our answer then we need to use a different method. If we’re searching for meaning to history; meaning that speaks directly to us right now, in our current times, then we need to use language that will share our own historical vision and show its meaning. Under Method A we discover truth in history. Under Method B we give meaning to history. The History of the Peloponnesian War is an example of Method A. The Book of Exodus is an example of Method B.

Thucydides displays Method A when he says: “In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way… However, I do not think that one will be far wrong in accepting the conclusions I have reached from the evidence which I have put forward.” This is a search for truth. Thucydides sees history as a cause-and-effect relationship. So he uses factual evidence as his historical material. Moses (in the Book of Exodus) displays Method B when he says: “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians…” This is a search for meaning. Moses sees history as a glove ultimately moved by the hand of God. So Moses uses revelation as historical material to find the meaning behind the action.

Now we go back to our original question: does justice stay the same or does it change?  Let’s put the question in concrete terms. Is justice the same in modern America as it was in ancient Athens? Thucydides lived 2500 years ago. Was justice the same in ancient Athens as in ancient Egypt? Moses lived 1000 years before Thucydides. Is it even possible to get a firm grasp on history going that far back? Moses and Thucydides give a clear answer. They wrote for people far down the road of history. They didn’t know about a country far in the future called the United States of America. But they hoped they were writing for folks like themselves. Thucydides said, “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.” Moses said, “I AM hath sent me unto you.” Not “I was.” But “I Am.” As if to say, history will always be with you; the problem of justice will too. So every generation must reconsider what history is and what justice is. This task is much easier if we stand on the shoulders of men like Moses and Thucydides.


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