Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Victor Davis Hanson on Thucydides: Understanding the Peloponnesian War

On October 8th [2008], Victor Davis Hanson spoke at Biola University on Thucydides: Understanding the Pelopenessian War and the principles which translate from a study of this ancient Greek historian to the modern political-cultural sphere.

I meant to listen to this before I read Thucydides. Failing that, I meant to listen to Hanson’s talk while I read Thucydides. Well, better late than never. What follows are some notes I made—they are not meant to be inclusive but just some of the highlights. More of an overview from someone that was there can be found at this blog post by Fred Sanders.

Hanson opens by asking how many people have read Thucydides—it sounds like most people raised their hand. Then he asked how many people had read other accounts of the Peloponnesian War by Diodorus, Xenophon, Plutarch (life of Nicias), or Theopompus’ fragments—very few people responded. Then the obvious question—why do people prefer Thucydides when wanting to learn about the Peloponnesian War? Hanson lays out three great ambitions in Thucydides’ history that helps explain the preference:

1) Thucydides tells about the war itself—he promises it is the greatest war. This covers the “what” about the war.

2) The theme of the rise and fall of Athens over three generations. First generation: defeat of the Persian invations, public spiritedness (Themistocles and others). Second generation: creation of wealth and empire, developed institutions, arts flourishing (Pericles and others). Third generation: squandered their legacy (the actors during the Peloponnesian War). This is the “morality tale” about the war.

3) Study of human nature—Thucydides is the anti-Rousseau. Man is animalistic—selfish, governed by elemental passions. What saves man from behaving badly? The elements of civilization—religion, government, family, etc.

A few notes on the remaining talk and Hanson’s responses to questions:

Thucydides does not report everything—he picks specific examples to represent the whole. For example, he only goes into detail on the first outbreak of the plague in Athens but there were other occurrences. The reader can “fill in the gaps” with the other outbreaks mentioned (and in other cities) from the detail provided in the first example.

Thucydides relates his scientific methods (and non-scientific) and in his history he looks at symptoms, diagnosis, and provides a prognosis—civilization and its institutions are necessary for controlling human nature.

The source of Athens’ power: use of sea power (in both war and commerce), money. Sparta has neither.

Thucydides contradicts the Greek outlook that there was a golden age and man was somehow greater in an earlier period. He posits that man has always been this way. (My follow-up comment to this would be how this point meshes with the second and third points of the ambitions—if man is unchanging, Thucydides wants to show why there is a rise, and why there is a fall.)

Athens essentially got what they wanted with the peace of Nicias but things spiral out of control when they invade Sicily. Athens starts a land war with Thebes and then Persia commits to the war, helping Sparta build an effective fleet.

Athens ties in well with American self- and re-generation. Athens continues to bounce back from defeats, whether from outside forces or self-generated. Hanson: “Thucydides is very relevant because he tells us something about ourselves [America]. We are radically democratic, radically egalitarian, radically mercurial, radically dangerous.”

The role of rhetoric: Thucydides is critical of sophistic rhetoric by using it in some of the speeches. Thucydides was worried about the power of words while, at the same time, being captivated by them. The novelty of prose plays a part in this—many concepts he was trying to articulate had not been expressed outside of meter/poetry. In addition, Thucydides displays the Greek idea that intellectual progress comes with moral regress.

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