Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Hoffman on Reading Thucydides

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

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Dr. Frank Hoffman

‘Tis the season for Thucydides. At War on the Rocks, military scholar and theorist Frank Hoffman argues that we give The Peloponnesian War a read, but do it with a critical eye.

THUCYDIDES: READING BETWEEN THE LINES

…His insights have proven invaluable to serious students attempting to understand the past and apply it to the present and future. But much of this reputation is based on Thucydides’ purportedly dispassionate style, attention to detail, and perceived objectivity. We often take him at his word that “those who want to understand clearly” the history he recounts. For example, Princeton’s James McPherson has stated that he relies on Thucydides “because he is a more careful, precise, and trustworthy historian who does not try to go beyond the evidence.” Williamson Murray, the strategic historian, appreciates and endorses the Greek author because he was able to examine with honesty and ruthlessness the reality of war—not glory, not colorful parades, little but desolation and tragedy, yet a fundamental and everlasting part of the human tableau.

Yet, while we can admire his realism, how ruthlessly honest was Thucydides in his analysis?

As the distinguished Yale classicist Donald Kagan shows in his impressive Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, the ancient Athenian is not simply the detached historian we have come to think he was. After he was exiled for presiding over the embarrassing loss of Amphipolis in 424 BC, Thucydides had much time to ponder the war. However, he was also biased by his close association with critical key participants, including Pericles. Murray later admitted that our good Greek admiral was capable of “loading the dice” a few times in his perceptions of what occurred. Murray himself points out the Pericles’ famous speech as recalled by Thucydides “proved more flawed in its long-range analysis of the future.” It is hard to disagree with Mark Gilchrist, who argues that Athenian strategic rationality declined, but we should also recognize it was not perfect to start with.

Read the rest here.

It is a fair point that Thucydides was a critic of his country but an admirer of the Periclean regime; in fact, he was something of an apologist for Pericles personally. The Democracy, in Thucydides view, functioned well only so long as the wise hand of Pericles was there to steer the ship of state. As Hoffman explained, eminent classicist Donald Kagan has gone further, arguing that Thucydides was the first revisionist historian. It seems at least fair to me to say that Thucydides is more concerned with the crimes and folly of the Athenian politicians who exiled him than those of their Spartan enemies. It is also arguable that Thucydides knew Athenian elite society far more intimately than he knew the leadership classes of the Spartans, Corinthians, Argives or Persians and his narrative inevitably unfolded accordingly.

A critical eye is useful indeed.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Graham:

    I’ve noticed that not all Thucydides content is linked via the pinned index entry at the top- not these addenda, at least.

  2. zen:

    It’s catch as catch can I’m afraid – most of the master-post was put together by Lynn Rees. I have added a number of posts – not sure who else has. With Charles convalescing there isn’t a daily presence here minding the store. We will tidy everything up eventually though

  3. Lynn C. Rees:

    Linked.

  4. zen:

    Gracias Lynn!