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Herodotus vs. Thucydides


I think that Thomas Geogeghan is a bit unfair to Thucydides:

The strong will crush the weak. If ever there’s a case for pre-emptive war, it is all there in Thucydides. It’s a world in which there is no world opinion, or international law. That kind of thing’s for sissies, the neocon’s would say Set up those prisons in Guantanamo. They don’t cry over these things in Thucydides. You focus on being strong.


First, he was writing in Fifth Century B.C. There was no such thing as world opinion. There was no mass media. There was no CNN, or UN, or anything like the Hague. We were not wired up to each other. And there were no roadside bombs. What the neocons miss is that things that the Spartans could get away with in The Peloponessian Wars, they wouldn’t even try to get away with now. It’s not that we’re “soft” in the twenty-first century. But our hard power is so dependent on our soft power that there are things a “realist” would have done once that anyone with a sense of reality wouldn’t do now.

Right; I suppose that someone could have that interpretation of Thucydides if they only thing they read was the Melian Dialogue. In the context of the rest of the book, it makes no sense whatsoever. Thucydides makes quite clear, over and over and over again, that the Athenians and Spartans do not live in a purely anarchical international system. Norms matter even to the Athenians; there are even multiple ways of reading the Melian Dialogue. Certainly, we are supposed to understand that the Spartans took the general guidelines of international conduct more seriously than the Athenians, even if they were often just as ruthless. And the Spartans won, after all…

Part of the problem is that neoconservative readings of Thucydides tend to be relentlessly terrible. Once you convince yourself that Thucydides thought that they Sicilian Expedition was a good idea, I guess invading Iraq looks downright sensible…

I’ll confess, also, that I’m unsympathetic with Geogeghan’s argument (that we need to read more Herodotus and less Thucydides) because I simply loathe Herodotus. He may have travelled a lot, but it’s clear that he simply made up a lot of stuff from questionable second hand accounts.

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