Donald Kagan's Thucydides: The Reinvention of History.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 19 2009 10:57 AM

Did Thucydides Really Tell the Truth?

The hidden agenda of the pioneering historian.

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Thucydides' narrative, Kagan argues, was an effort to clear the Athenian elite of blame for multiple errors and to put the blame on Athenian democracy: Thucydides wanted his readers to believe that Pericles, the statesman and general who dominated Athenian politics at the start of the war, had had a viable plan to defeat the Spartans. But after he died of the plague, demagogues gained control of the city. One of them, Alcibiades, persuaded the Athenians to send an armada to Sicily. It failed catastrophically. But Thucydides insisted that the disaster wasn't the fault of the aristocratic general Nicias, who led the campaign. The decay of Athenian politics, itself largely caused by the death of Pericles and the pressures of warfare, led to the Sicilian disaster. In fact, the campaign could have worked if Nicias hadn't made crucial mistakes. For all Thucydides' careful research and for all the dry precision of much of his prose, he didn't just give the facts; he mounted a highly successful campaign to shape posterity's view of the great events of his time.

Powerfully argued and beautifully written, Kagan's book has a paradox at its core. Thucydides, according to Kagan, invented the project of objective political history. He analyzed what Machiavelli would call "the effective truth of things"—the granular, ugly facts of political life. And yet his work distorted the events in vital ways. The great revisionist who removed the gods from history played tricks of his own on the past. But no one could see through them until another great revisionist, Donald Kagan, pulled the magician's curtain to the side and revealed him at work.

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All historians write in part about themselves. Kagan wants to be the heir of Thucydides, the tough-minded historian who thought the past could illuminate the future. A liberal turned conservative activist, he has used historical analogies to argue that America needs more muscular policies and stronger armed forces. But Kagan also wants to be the heir of the Athenian democratic politicians who fearlessly invaded far-off Sicily: After 9/11, he ardently supported plans for the invasion of Iraq, talking as tough as Alcibiades and disparaging unpatriotic "defeatists" who criticized the invasion or doubted its positive effects. These two ambitions are in tension, and they leave fault lines throughout Kagan's book.

Kagan has some right on his side: Thucydides did select his evidence, as all historians do, and he had firm views about the nature of the Athenian polity and much else. But his approach is only partly novel. Historians have made similar arguments for generations. Theodore Wade-Gery argued 60 years ago, in an article in a standard reference work, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, that Thucydides misrepresented major Periclean policies and actions. And the literary approach that Kagan largely rejects shows, in its own way, how Thucydides artfully shaped his material.

Thucydides also aimed at intellectual and literary targets that Kagan doesn't touch on. Kagan systematically avoids detailed discussion of passages like the Melian dialogue and Pericles' funeral oration for the Athenian dead—the set pieces that glow like literary constellations in the dark night sky of Thucydides' history, and that make it hard to use his work—even by reading it, as Kagan does, against the grain—as a warrant for imperialism.

In his account of the revolution in Corcyra, Thucydides tells his readers what happens to society, and even to language itself, in an age of civil war: "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any." Almost two and a half millennia before Orwell, Thucydides diagnosed the diseases of language caused by war and faction. He admitted that men could live by lofty sentiments in peacetime. But "war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes." Hence the corruption of character and language, which "have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same."

Through the whole fever dream that is human history, no one has ever written more cogently of the disasters of war than this retired general, who saw war as the natural condition of states. No one has ever dissected more meticulously the character of a great democratic state, or revealed more vividly the moral corruption that war brings with it. Of that Thucydides—who was every bit as real as Kagan's consummately political historian, and who speaks to us every bit as powerfully—the reader will find few traces in this book.

Anthony Grafton teaches European history at Princeton. His recent books include What Was History? and Worlds Made With Words.

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