A few days ago I interviewed a young woman who is about to graduate with a university degree. Looking back on her education she had one regret. For all the theories and sciences required for graduation, she hadn’t learned much history. Here she was, modern and scientific enough, lacking a clear idea of the forces and persons that shaped our civilization.
She was right to feel that something was missing. We should all feel this way. Not knowing history we do not fully know ourselves. All the possibilities of human life, the variations of word and deed, appear in history.
It says in Ecclesiastes, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.”
In other words, to know the past is also to know something of the future. But getting to know the past is difficult today, because history has become confused with the ideological obsessions of the moment. As Julien Benda once said, ours is an age of the organization of political hatreds. Writers today specialize in fomenting in extending grievances — in pitting women against men, blacks against whites, the poor against the rich.
To escape from the taint of our up-to-date hatreds, one might turn to antiquity, to writers who know nothing of our modern political opinions. Go to ages far removed from ours and see the world for the first time — stripped of its modern baggage.
The first great prose work of European literature was written by Herodotus, a Greek from Asia Minor who was born around 485 B.C. His book is available in paperback and it is fun to read. He describes the world as it was known in his time. He gives us background information on Greece, Egypt and Persia. He tells the story of the musician Arion, who was saved by a dolphin. He relates details from Egypt about the building of the pyramids.
Herodotus is so much fun to read that scholars and intellectuals have denounced him as unreliable. Even so, Herodotus’s achievement is nonetheless remarkable. Perhaps even more interesting, it involves a heroic struggle against eastern despotism.
The Greek people believed in liberty, though differently conceived than our own. This liberty was threatened not only by would-be tyrants from within, but by the Persian Empire. The Greek struggle against eastern aggression is famous and reminds us of our own time. As the story is told, the vastly outnumbered free peoples of Greece defeated the armies and navies of Persia. Freedom was vindicated in the Greek mind, even as despotism was shown to be rotten and weak. War was the basis of this vindication. In keeping with the ancient view, Herodotus observed that, “War is the father of all things.”
The next great historian of antiquity to follow in Herodotus’ footsteps was Thucydides. He also focused on war as his theme. But his method of reporting was not fanciful. He proposed to write a scientific history, in which the events described would be based on eye-witness accounts. Thucydides reports that he began “to write as soon as the war was on foot, with expectation it should prove a great one and most worthy the relation of all that had been before it.”
To those unused to real events, the book may seem a bit dull at first. Marches and counter-marches, sieges and the devastation of crops fill page after page. But the dedicated reader is rewarded for his perseverance. The revolutionary politics of the time, a civil war between democrats and oligarchs, is carefully described. With alarm we notice certain patterns of radicalism known to our own age. And we see how much destruction is brought once this pattern comes fully into play.
The most memorable parts of Thucydides’ history include the Athenian debate between Cleon and Diodotus over the fate of Mitylene, the Melian Dialogue and the disastrous Sicilian expedition of Athens.
In the debate over Mitylene, which was held in Athens, a ship was sent out with orders to butcher a city, but the Athenians overturned their decision and another ship was dispatched with countermanding orders. Everything depended on the ability of the second ship to overtake the first.
The Melian Dialogue offers important insights into the nature of power. Here Thucydides takes us behind the scenes, to a discussion between the powerful and the weak. Not too surprisingly, the weak argue their case from justice and the powerful argue from expediency. This section of his history alone would make Thucydides’ work a classic. The Melian Dialogue is psychologically interesting and offers deep political insights.
Perhaps the most memorable part of Thucydides’ history concerns the Sicilian expedition. It was the turning point in the Peloponnesian War, when the naval power of Athens was broken.
I offer these details as a sample of what is contained and what is most valuable in these ancient historical works. From Thucydides the reader can branch out to Xenophon and the Greek philosophers and playwrights, and then to the writers of Roman histories.
Of the Greeks who wrote about Rome’s great achievements, Polybius survives to us. He was no armchair historian but was military adviser to Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C.
Polybius offered insights into how the ancients constructed successful republican governments. Our Founding Fathers learned from Polybius, who outlined the basis for the Spartan, Roman and Carthaginian constitutions — the most successful known in the ancient world. Polybius explained that the ancients sought to prevent upheavals and revolutions by stabilizing opposing political forces through a system of checks and balances. This system is also known as “mixed government,” in which elements of monarchy, democracy and aristocracy are combined.
After reading Polybius you might take up Titus Livius (a.k.a., Livy), a first century author who wrote the history of Rome from its founding. His purpose was to “romanticize” the past and offer a better model to his own decadent time. At the beginning of his history, Livy writes, “I invite the reader’s attention to … the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline. …”
After Livy, you might read Tacitus whose “Annals of Imperial Rome” gives us a vivid history of the Caesars, that sinister dynasty whose achievement it was to make an end of the Roman Republic, bringing degradation and tyranny after it. Here we read of the sexual depravity of Tiberius, the insanity of Caligula, the feebleness of Claudius and the moral rottenness of Nero. It is the story of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Ancient history gives us the human story stripped of modern blinders. The reader of history learns that the dangers and the follies that confront us today are the same as those of yesterday. This is the sort of history Americans are in need of. If we can possess this history for ourselves we will have new eyes with which to see and old memories to fall back on.
If you are tired of watching television, if you think the political rant from the left or the right is increasingly stupid and unbearable, pick up Herodotus and start from the beginning. Get some perspective and enjoy a good book.