Why Thucydides Still Matters
Of the numerous intrigues present in The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’ (pronounced: thoo sid id ees) use of speeches is paramount.
Within the narrative he includes forty-one different speeches. What is so interesting is how Thucydides approaches the inclusion of these speeches compared to how he ascertains his information for his narrative. Of the speeches he says,
…it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers to say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions…
But of the narratives he claims,
…far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand…that accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible.
In other words, Thucydides gives great effort to establishing the accuracy of the narrative, but recreates the speeches from his opinion of what was “demanded of them by the various occasions.”
This begs the question: what is accomplished by such an approach to historical literature?
Certainly, this is not the work of a scientific historian, but rather a philosopher whose purpose is not to chronicle the particular, but rather to use the particular as “as an aid” for understanding the universal, and by it, the future course of human experience.
It is the use of speeches that make Thucydides’ work, “not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”
One of the reasons social media like Facebook and Twitter are so popular in modernity is community exists in the heart of human identity.
For the Christian, this is corroborated by the biblical narrative where the triune Creator creates humankind in His own image, conferring on the first man and woman a communal nature indicative of the perfect communion He enjoyed with Himself before creation.
Since the fall, man has attempted to recreate the edenic community that once affirmed and supported life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in its purest and most just sense.
Examples can be seen in the earliest human records (i.e. Cain builds a city in the land of Nod and Nimrod attempted to build the tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar), and the earliest human discussions (i.e. Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and the work under consideration, Thucydides’ The Pelopponesian War).
In each of the examples, the one shared element is the rhetoric, or speeches, that shape and reflect the nature of those communities. For example, when Cain founds a city, the narrative is reticent about its nature; it is in the speech of Lamech where the reader experiences the culture of Cain’s city. This is similarly true of Nimrod’s Babel, of Plato’s republic, Thucydides’ Grecian poleis.
By integrating the political speeches of the characters into his own narrative, Thucydides is able to better reveal the character and spirit of the major players, the nature of the poleis under the various regimes, and the factors that shape the outcome of the war. Leo Strauss says,
“In fact, precisely the speeches more than anything else convey to us [Thucydides] judgment of the speakers and not only of the speakers.”
Put another way, the speeches not only reveal the thoughts and judgments of the speakers, they make explicit the implicit lessons to be learned for those in generations to come.
Consider how universal Nicias’s speech to the Athenian assembly is when he attempts to dissuade them from the Sicilian expedition. His words could have very well been that of a seasoned German general addressing Hitler in December of 1941 as he foolishly prepared to invade the Soviet Union. Nicias says
Against your character any words of mine would be weak enough; particularly if I were to advise you to keep what you have and not risk it for advantages which are dubious in themselves, and which you may or may not obtain. I will, therefore, content myself with showing that your ardor is untimely, and your ambition not easily accomplished. I affirm, then, that you leave many enemies behind you here to go there far away and bring more back with you.
And when Alcibiades–defending himself against Nicias’s accusations and attempting to affirm the Sicilian expedition–addresses the Athenian assembly on the same occasion, one finds his rhetoric similar to a number of United States presidents from the last twenty years. For example, reminiscent of former President Clinton after being indicted by a grand jury, Alcibiades says to the assembly,
Such are my aspirations, and however I am abused for them in my private life, the question is whether anyone manages public affairs better than I do. Having united the most powerful states of the Peloponnesus, without great danger or expense to you, I compelled the Spartans to stake their all upon the issue of a single day at Mantinea; and although victorious in the battle, they have never since fully recovered confidence.
In other words, Alcibiades shows it takes little effort to persuade a democracy as long as his public policy works for the good of the many, and doesn’t cost them fiscally. His private affairs should be of little consequence to the Athenians, making him, therefore, the best man for the job.
Shortly thereafter, like recent US presidents who think in kind, Alcibiades argues for war, minimizing the danger, so they can export Athenian democracy to Sicily and secure the Island for the Athenian empire. He asserts
Nor should you rescind your resolution to sail to Sicily, on the ground that you would be going to attack a great power. The cities of Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, and easily change their institutions and adopt new ones in their stead.
In Politics, Aristotle concludes that “man is by nature a political animal… and the only animal whom [nature] has endowed with the gift of speech.”
He further asserts that it is the power of speech by which man is able to associate with living beings in a family or a state. Armed with this same understanding, Thucydides makes brilliant use of his characters’ speeches to record for all time the nature of justice and expediency, as well as their opposites, for the universal communities of man.
Regardless if it is to the poleis in antiquity or to democracies in modernity, from his unromantic tome, Thucydides being dead yet speaks.
Get your copy of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War
Bloom, Allan David. The Republic of Plato. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
Jowett, Benjamin, and Aristotle. Politics. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
Peterson, Houston. A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Speeches. Spencer Press: Chicago, 1953.
Strassler, Robert B. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.