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1imgres-11imgres-1Now is the season for thousands of first-year college students—including communication students—who believe in studying the past to understand the present to revisit classics, including Thucydides and his history of the war in Peloponnesus (431-404 BCE).

His aim was to produce the best account of that war, and an account that would last because it was best. His was not today’s big history of millennia and more, but his attempt to write an accurate and even-handed account of what happened in his own lifetime. He pursued the moral virtues of truthfulness and fairness.

He looked twice or more at every word about the past, and wrote:

For instance, there is the notion that the Spartan kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a military company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting the first story that comes to hand.

He offered his conclusions as reliable because they were neither exaggerated nor sensationalized.

On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied upon. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the verses of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat being out of reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend.

He did not trust fully his own eyewitness accounts.

And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe tests possible.

He drew conclusions from a combination of eyewitness accounts.

My conclusions have cost me some labor from want of coincidence between accounts of the same events by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.

Note that he seemed to think that it was not possible to escape partiality entirely, but only to temper one partiality with another.

He did not offer the lure of romance in his stories, favoring instead an exact version of the past as a guide to the future.

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.

He saw that events do not repeat themselves exactly, and that some events nevertheless resemble others.

He wrote not for today’s applause, but for all time.

In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

He succeeded not only because his work is held as a model for writing contemporary history, but also because his insights are taught in technology-rich military academies.

The Spartans voted that the treaty (with the Athenians) had been broken, and that war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them.

Today’s reporters and editors are not expected to be contemporary historians, yet their chances to produce work of lasting value are improved by keeping in mind what Thucydides wrote as they write accurate and even-handed accounts of what is happening in their own lifetimes.

 

Note

All quotations are from The Landmark Thucydides, A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, A Newly Revised Edition of the Richard Crawley Translation, with Maps, Annotations, Appendices, and Encyclopedic Index. Edited by Robert B. Strassler, with an Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson (New York: Touchstone, 1998), Book One, sections 1.20-1.22, and 1.88.