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Honor, Fear and Interest


The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler (ed.)

As noted earlier today by Crispin at Wings over Iraq, Dan Drezner has written one of his better posts:

“The Top Three Reasons You Should Read Thucydides

3) You will recognize some recurrent patterns in history. Thucydides will help one develop a better appreciation for life in 5th century BC, but it will really help one develop an appreciation for the aspects of human nature that are unchanged through time. 

For exhibit A, consider this recent Kindred Winecoff post with respect to American soldiers, war crimes, and nativism. The relevant section…

Agreed. Human nature has not changed much since 400 BC nor has politics become more nuanced than in the days of the polis. I am also dubious that America, or most nations, for that matter, have produced leaders recently who were of the caliber of Pericles or Lysander. On the other hand, Nicias, Alcibiades, HyperbolusCritias and various bumbling Spartan Navarchs, the world appears to enjoy in spades.

It is often said that history is philosophy from examples, but in Thucydides, history is also strategy from examples. I agree with Professor Drezner that Thucydides belongs on the shortlist of books military officers should read; I’d feel a lot better when the next international crisis erupted,  if our politicians read him too. If our elected officials could at least internalize “honor, fear and interest”, it would make our foreign policy debates markedly less stupid and public expectations of policy more realistic.

5 Responses to “Honor, Fear and Interest”

  1. Scott Says:

    As a note of interest, Thucydides was quoted at the recent Violent Armed Groups seminar here in Pittsburgh (John Robb was the keynote speaker, although it wasn’t he that used the quote).

  2. J. Scott Says:

    On the short list before the end of October (and for shame, I’ve had the book for over a year). "Less stupid" is good in an environment where stupidity, in the words of PJ O’Rourke, "a renewable resource." Reminds me of the old Jay Leno commercials for Doritos—"Eat all you want, we’ll make more." In many respects, we’re stuck on stupid at several echelons of governance where we could (I hope) do better…

  3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    The Landmark Thucydides sits in my antilibrary back in the states.  I will get around to reading it one of these days.

  4. Sean Says:

    right: when i read HotPW this summer i was struck by the similarities to today, especially in politics!

  5. seydlitz89 Says:

    The foundational work of classic realism.  I really like this edition – the maps and accompanying articles provide useful context and additional information. Truth is I’ve never read this classic "cover-to-cover", but have always focused on the debates and descriptions.  A beauty of this work is that one can simply open the book at any place and begin to read, and learn.

    Sparta feared the growing power of Athens, but it was the narrow interest of Corcyra which triggered the conflict, along with Corinth’s honor – in reality all three being but different facets of the political.  At the same time, Hellas as a political unity begins to dissolve as language is no longer able to resolve (or even describe!) the differences that the war has uncovered and expanded, as illustrated in the quote Drezner posts. 

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