A Historian For Our Time

Thucydides may have been the more trustworthy historian, but Herodotus would have been more fun to share a wineskin with—and is a better guide to the god-filled geopolitics of the current era.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the greater Middle East constituted a world where circular boats, covered with skins, plied the Tigris; where Egyptians shaved their eyebrows in mourning for a beloved pet cat; and where Libyan tribesmen wore their hair long on one side and shorn on the other, and smeared their bodies with vermilion.

“Custom is king of all,” Herodotus, the fifth-century B.C. Greek traveler observes, quoting Pindar. He tells of the Massagetae, a people who lived east of the Caspian Sea in what is now Turkmenistan, among whom, when a man grows old, “his relatives come together and kill him, and sheep and goats along with him, and stew all the meat together and have a banquet of it.” There was a similar custom among the nearby Issedones, who would clean and gild the skull of the deceased for use as a sacred image. The breadth and complexity of Herodotus’s History sums up the romantic allure with which the word antiquity has been invested.

But Herodotus is now urgently useful for reasons that rise above mere entertainment and exotica. The state of the academy, the moral choices we face in our foreign policy, and in particular the fact that we must learn to think differently about parts of the world like the Middle East all argue for a better acquaintance with this ancient historian.

In the academy, specialization has become both a necessity and a curse. Too much narrow expertise is the inverse of wisdom. But the explosion of facts that need to be categorized demands a growing number of parochial subdivisions within any given field. We must fight against the tendency to become, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset feared we all would, “learned ignoramuses.”

Among the beneficiaries of this dilemma has been Herodotus’s near-contemporary Thucydides (460–400 B.C.), the Athenian general and historian of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ almost mathematical approach to history extracts clean philosophical principles from the complex reality of what was (by the geographical horizons of antiquity) a world war. By reducing history to war, diplomacy, politics, economics, and little else, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War boasts a formula that is appealing to specialists who, while mindful of the conceit of the term political science, are also leery of the sort of subjective, real-life experiences and captivating anecdotes that are problematic because their worth is difficult to measure. I do not mean to suggest that The Peloponnesian War is without riveting stories; it is jammed with them. I say only that, relative to the standards of its time, there is a structured self-editing mechanism at work in Thucydides—yet another reason why he is especially pleasing to modern academic sensibilities, and why he has become the favored Greek among today’s policy elites.

And not just today’s elites. Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, the historian Lord Macaulay in the nineteenth century, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall following World War II all stressed the primacy of Thucydides. Indeed, The Peloponnesian War may well be the seminal work on international relations, even as Thucydides is venerated in the West as the founder of enlightened pragmatism in political discourse. He embodies Greek classical values, in which beauty—whether in sculpture or in philosophy—is a consequence of artistic and emotional discipline that leads to proportion, discrimination, and perspective. Accordingly, nothing is worse than excess—of decoration, or of ardor.

And yet, as Thucydides would have been the first to note, reality cannot be reduced to neat equations, whether moral or analytical. The world as it exists often rejects rationality, spare narratives, even truth. If we have learned anything during this age of speedier and increasingly numerous interactions between peoples with different historical experiences, it is that facts matter less than perceptions, especially perceptions informed by raw emotions. It is what people believe that is crucial, not what they actually know. What is needed, therefore, beyond guiding philosophical principles, is a vivid appreciation of just what’s out there, in the form of the myths, passions, and irrationalities that in any age are central to decision making and, in a larger sense, to the human spirit itself. Romance, rather than being antithetical to realism, is a necessary component of it.

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Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic national correspondent and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. His latest book is Imperial Grunts.

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