The Relevance of Thucydides: History as Personal

Christopher Bruell’s essay “Thucydides’ view of Athenian Imperialism” is what is quoted repeatedly and responded to below.

Bruell begins by saying that a historian could be thought “concerned above all with what belongs to the past.” Is Thucydides, who wrote about the past, to be considered an historian?

Thucydides is not properly classified as an historian. He never calls himself an historian, and he claims that the war which he “put together in writing” is of such a size and character that it is able to reveal to him and to those for whom he writes the comprehensive and therewith eternal truth of human or political life (Bruell 11).

That phrase, “put together in writing,” has a significance which cannot be overstated. When Bruell starts talking about how Thucydides considers his audience –

The problem is not merely the unwillingness of the many to toil at the search for truth (I, 20), but rather something which affects even the well-disposed few. For all of us, he seems to feel, are born and bred to certain convictions and to a certain comprehensive outlook which shape our understanding of the great matters that he deals with and which perhaps reflect the truth but remain nevertheless at a certain remove from it. Those convictions, further, answer to concerns more powerful than our concern for truth; our attachment to them defies attempts, by dedication to the truth, to loosen its bonds (Bruell 11).

– we see that any attempt to literally recite events would hide our own biases. Things must be “put together in writing” and must be assumed to tell the truth about humanity, for that is a truth each of us feels he has. No one says “I want to be ignorant” – any saying of such a phrase is really the statement I know better already, nothing you could say would move me.

I suppose we need a proof that scientific rigor applied to the study of history does not destroy this argument. After all, if we can carbon date a pot we know belonged to the Assyrians, we have objectively recounted history.

Or have we? The question is what one wants out of history. The facts will always be there and in dispute. Sometimes we’ll get a theory that brings them all together and makes good sense out of them. But does such a “science of history” put an end to philosophical considerations history raises?

What makes history personal in Thucydides is something Bruell does not talk about explicitly until the end of his essay, and even then it’s hard to see (I don’t think Bruell ever talks about anything explicitly. I hate reading his work). I am speaking of the link between the arrogance of an age and the arrogance of those trying to make sense of the age. In other words, the conflict on the surface is Athens and Sparta. The question of what sorts of people there are and who is in a position to assess them is right underneath. What does Empire – the will to rule – tell us about thought?

An Athenian delegation at Sparta speaks on behalf of Athens at the beginning of the Pelopennesian War. They are not at Sparta to answer the charges that occasion their speaking, charges leveled by Corinth and other cities regarding Athens’ overt injustice in pursuing empire:

They declined to answer the charges brought against Athens by the various cities (I, 73), but their words amount at least to a statement of the Athenian view of Athenian imperialism. They can say that the allies themselves asked them to assume the leadership after the Spartans withdrew. But they must then explain the transformation of the voluntarily offered hegemony into an empire over unwilling subjects. They say therefore that they were compelled to bring their rule into this form, above all by fear, then by honor as well, later by profit as well (i.e., by desire for honor and desire for profit). Subsequently, they seem to take the necessary further step of extending this “compulsion” to the original act of accepting the leadership: in accepting (and not abandoning) the empire, they were overcome by the greatest things, honor, fear, and profit; nor were they the first to do such a thing, but it is forever laid down that the weaker is kept down by the stronger (I, 75). (Bruell 12-3)

The means to rule involve using fear primarily, and also incentives such as “honor” and “profit.” Fear is one’s most powerful weapon, but it is a weapon of last resort if there are things to be had by right. The origin of rule seems to involve “honor,” a desire for a glory that is everlasting. To be honored is to be in a state beyond fear; one’s monuments cannot be disputed if one’s legacy is respected through all time. And there is a coincidence between honor and fear that seems to indicate that honor is just as powerful a motive as fear: the stronger, who are feared and do not fear, are indeed honored. The weaker/stronger logic seems to give honor and fear equal priority.

Of course, when the Athenians are a bit less brash and begging for allies later, they will only invoke fear as their motive, not just as their means. To rule an Empire is to be perpetually fearful, and small losses can quickly turn into large ones when everyone gets on the “let’s revolt” bandwagon.

What does all of this have to do with thought? Athens and Sparta are both empires, but Athens is frank about what it is doing, and Sparta is utterly brutal even as it is quiet. Sparta doesn’t expand like Athens because it has more slaves than anyone else in Greece; Athens is frank and constantly moving about in imperial enterprises because its citizens believe themselves free. Thought about how the war is conducted is shaped heavily by the conceptions citizens on each side hold. The Spartans are late to develop a navy because their rigidity in thinking emphasizes discipline first, not more mobile boats. Athenian empire stems from the need to keep the allies safe and Persia out, a responsibility that Sparta is unwilling to undertake.

Those opinions which block truth, being greater than the truth, do not merely extend to the combatants, who spiral downward with the narrative. We’re of the same flesh and blood they are. Do our traditions – the past, properly speaking – bind us in such a way that we are incapable of seeing how things really are?

It seems so, but who wants to see the world in terms of fear, honor, profit and relative strength? Who wants to see “honor” attempt to be greater than “fear” and inevitably fail? Why must human right give way to necessity? It doesn’t always end up so. We still read authors from thousands of years past, after all.

The only solution to the problem lies in the necessity of the truth being covered up. If I were to confront the truth in my own life right now, it is possible I could be unloved, never getting a job I liked, never having an intellectual legacy of any sort. Truth means being open to possibility, and wouldn’t you know it, but possibility can be a very, very dark thing. It seems that despite all the Athenian bragging and brutality, they’re taking on a role that is necessary, and that Sparta – no less brutal in their indolence! – had to take on.

The link between the individual and Empire is not that each of us wants to conquer the world and secure our own glory. There’s actually too much to be scared of, and we need a narrowing of perspective in order to be able to deal with truths one at a time, on our own terms. When the natural order of things comes to the surface, and the divine, the ultimate legacy of the ancestral, is wholly denied, that’s when we know an age is over. We’ve lost the untruths at that point – the untruths perhaps being a way of thinking about history – that made us possible.


Bruell, Christopher. “Thucydides’ View of Athenian Imperialism.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 68, No. 1. (Mar., 1974), pp. 11-17.

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