Arts & Culture

Hidden agenda

Book review

Anne Applebaum ’86, whose history of the Soviet gulag won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, writes a column for the Washington Post and Slate.

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Who was Thucydides, and what can we learn from him? Since antiquity, he has been revered as the true father of objective history, a writer who “reports the facts without judging them,” in the words of Rousseau. Nietzsche also applauded him for his “hard matter-of-factness,” so different from the “morality-and-ideal swindle of the Socratic schools.” Surely, writes one modern scholar, “no more lucid, unillusioned intelligence has ever applied itself to the writing of history.”

But Donald Kagan—Sterling Professor of Classics and History and a man possessed of a lucid, unillusioned sort of intelligence himself—begs to differ. Having studied Thucydides and his era for most of his adult life, Kagan concludes that he was not a remotely objective historian. Despite Thucydides’ “unprecedented efforts to seek and test the evidence,” despite his desire “to establish the particulars and to present the data as accurately as he could,” even despite “aiming at the highest possible objectivity,” his History of the Peloponnesian War was a work of what we would now call revisionism, a polemic directed against the conventional wisdom of his time. Instead of merely recording what happened, Thucydides wanted “to demonstrate that common opinion is often wrong, and that his own account deserves greater credence.”

To prove this point, Kagan sets out to treat Thucydides as a flesh-and-blood person, and not as a “disembodied mind” writing about great events from a great distance. Thucydides was an Athenian aristocrat from a prominent family, was very much involved in contemporary politics, and was often very partisan in his description of events. His book was written in exile—he was expelled from Athens for a military failure—and some of it may have been an attempt to justify his own political decisions. He was very influenced by other thinkers of his time, notably Hippocrates, whose pragmatic attitude to illness and medicine was at the time revolutionary, as well as the Sophists. They, like Thucydides, avoided using supernatural or divine explanations for the phenomenon around them, instead looking for natural and rational explanations.

In his introduction to this book, Kagan hints that this subject has interested him for a very long time:

“When I began my study of Thucydides and his History so many years ago I came to realize that there could be no hope of understanding his thought and purposes merely by reading his work and pondering it carefully. That could be only the first step. The next required a painstaking comparison between what he said about the subject and what really happened.”

Much of Kagan’s long career has been dedicated to making that “painstaking comparison,” and to finding out what really happened when Periclean Athens went to war with Sparta in 431 BCE. One of the results of his investigations was his own widely admired history of the Peloponnesian war, a book which is considered the definitive modern account. This latest volume, a slim and readable investigation of Thucydides’ most radical assertions, is another, simpler attempt to solve the same problem.

To enjoy this book, it does not matter whether you remember the details of the battles between Athens and Sparta (or whether you ever took one of Kagan’s classes at Yale), and that seems to be part of the point. Kagan uses straightforward, almost journalistic prose to expose Thucydides’ subtle exaggerations and excisions—almost as if he were dissecting the words of a modern politician. This does not mean that he treats Thucydides as if he lived in the present. On the contrary, he keeps Thucydides firmly based in the fifth century BCE, explaining his enthusiasm for Pericles, for example, as a kind of convert’s zeal: many of Thucydides’ relatives were in the anti-Pericles opposition, and by supporting him Thucydides was going against the grain. Hence his need to defend his hero at any cost.

The result of this dissection is not damaging, however, and Thucydides is not diminished at all by Kagan’s examination of his prejudices and hidden biases. On the contrary, his political views become clearer, and the scale of his achievement seems larger. Herodotus, his great predecessor (often called the first historian), described the events of the distant past, relied on old legends and stories, and was perfectly happy to explain events as the result of divine intervention. His writings were designed to be performed, like plays or poetry, in front of audiences. By contrast, Thucydides wrote about current events, and he wanted his writings to be of use to his contemporaries. He understood that the interpretation of the recent past mattered to the decision makers of the present. And he wanted to influence those decisions, even from exile.

Kagan, of course, does not put it so crudely, but in this sense Thucydides was not just the first political historian, but also the first political pundit. Among other things, Kagan shows that Thucydides favored a particular form of government—a limited form of democracy, one led either by a selfless, aristocratic, and virtuous leader or by a carefully chosen oligarchy—and he chose his facts selectively, to support that case. He also favored a particular version of history, a particular explanation of the Athenians’ disastrous Sicilian expedition, and a particular account of the exploits of the leaders and generals of his day. Kagan concludes that some of his versions of events are wrong. But, he adds, “This is not to say that Thucydides meant to deceive. He is determined that the reader will not be deceived, so he selects his material in such a way as to emphasize and clarify the truth.”

And Kagan also concludes that it doesn’t matter: “That we can study his History and come to conclusions different from his is far less important than his achievement in inventing a kind of history and a kind of questioning that have shaped and improved the quality of human thought and continue to do so today.”

He wasn’t dishonest, in other words, merely opinionated. Which makes him, perhaps, the perfect hero for our time. 

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