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.
This leads us to Herodotus, the historian of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, which preceded the war among the Greek city-states that Thucydides chronicled. Thucydides wrote some decades after Herodotus. Rather than recount, in the manner of his predecessor, stories of remote events based on secondhand and thirdhand sources—accounts that have, as a consequence, transmogrified into myths—Thucydides tends to write about contemporary history through firsthand sources. As a historian, then, Thucydides is more trustworthy. He is also more limited. Thucydides gives us a distilled rendition of the facts, Herodotus a sparkling impression of what lies just beyond them.