[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in LBST 301, on Wednesday, November 15, 1995 at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released May 1999. Last revision, December 2000. For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston.]




We have already read a number of narratives which have included depictions of war. So we should be ready for what Thucydides is attempting in his famous book. However, it quickly becomes clear when we read the opening of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War that the author is very consciously attempting something different. Thucydides goes to some length to insist upon this point: his narrative account of contemporary events is going to be something much better than similar accounts delivered by his predecessors, and he wants his readers to understand up front just why that is so.


This discussion raises a number of interesting questions, not just about Thucydides, but also about the work of his predecessors, and these questions we can usefully approach by considering just what Thucydides is doing here in the way of clarifying a new conception of what we call history. In setting out his method and his critique of earlier narrative accounts of past events, that is, Thucydides is making a proud defence of a new method of telling such stories. And this defence, some have argued, marks the beginning of a new form of enquiry, history, as distinguished from, say, myth, romance, epic poetry, and so forth, other forms of narrative story telling about the past.


In this lecture I would like to explore some of the implications of the issues raised by Thucydides in the opening of his famous book. My purpose in so doing is to call attention to a number of things, in particular, to how Thucydides is trying to revolutionize the way in which we understand events by putting them into narrative form and some of the ways this method is significantly different from other narrative accounts we have dealt with, for example, in Homer and in the Old Testament. Thucydides clearly feels that his method is preferable to earlier ones (I am not suggesting he was familiar with the Old Testament, by the way) because it will bring human beings closer to an understanding of the truth of things, rather than deceiving them about the past. And, for reasons which will emerge later, Thucydides is moved to insist upon this because he clearly believes that telling a “true” account of the past events serves a vital moral purpose.




Thucydides has great contempt for his predecessors’ work (and here he is aiming primarily at Herodotus and Homer) for a number of reasons. One important factor I would like to focus upon first is the notion that that earlier work is suspect or “untrue” because the facts of the story are unverified and unverifiable. His account, by contrast, is based upon firm evidence, which he has made considerable effort to check. As he puts it:


But if the evidence cited leads a reader to think that things were mostly as I have described them, he would not go wrong, as he would if he believed what the poets have sung about them, which they have much embellished, or what the prose-writers have strung together, which aims more to delight the ear than to be true. Their accounts cannot be tested, you see, and many are not credible, as they have achieved the status of myth over time. (12)


What Thucydides is insisting upon here is something new and important: namely, that the truth of an account has to answer to the empirical facts, has to have some observable validity. It is not enough simply that the writer thinks the event happened or that tradition insists that it happened. There must exist some evidence independent of the writer to “prove” the veracity of the event. He does not, it is true, use anything like a modern convention of references to underscore the validity of every point he makes, but his opening assurance that he has gone to the trouble of checking events against observation sets out the criterion that is going eventually to lead to that modern convention.


We might observe here, parenthetically, that, at least so far as Herodotus (Thucydides’ great predecessor) is concerned, Thucydides is not the first to insist upon empirical verification, for Herodotus tells us a great deal about how he traveled to check his facts, and he obviously feels that it is important to mention the sources of his information much of the time. However, Herodotus is generally satisfied to report what people believe (that they believe something is an interesting fact for him), without always checking the validity of the belief he is reporting. Hence, he has been called “the father of lies.”


But, setting Herodotus to one side, it will be clear from what we have read in the Old Testament and in Homer, that this is a radically new demand. Nowhere in Homer or in the Old Testament selections we have read do the writers call our attention to the evidence they possess for asserting that such an event really took place, and we have been wondering ever since to what extent stories like the Exodus or the Trojan War might have really happened. A lot of energy has gone into the search for empirical evidence, since for us, the inheritors of Thucydides’ conception of history, the existence of such evidence is an essential factor in determining how we react to the story, how we classify it. But the writers of those narratives evidently did not believe that such things mattered very much. The fact that the story was old, that people believed it, and that it was emotionally satisfying (that is, it embodied certain permanent emotional truths) rendered the narrative account true.


Thucydides, by contrast, is asserting that that is not enough. Old stores, no matter how famous and beloved can lie, can deceive. Hence, the need for some rational check on their credibility, and that rational check is a basic test for their empirical truth. Thucydides is not the first to make this demand, but he is the first to insist upon applying it so rigorously. And in making this demand he is drawing a firm line between what we call myth or poetry and something new, history. For an account to be considered true, to be considered history, the facts of the story must meet this criterion. Hence, in Thucydides we meet for the first time a very firm insistence that there are two kinds of narratives about the past: myths (which are unreliable, fanciful, untrue) and accounts like his which are, properly speaking, history, because they are, in an important new way, true.


To this empirical demand for verification of the facts, he adds one important stylistic innovation as well, something which is not so obvious in this text as in the full account, namely, a scrupulous attention to the temporal sequence of events. Lacking a coherent and consistent calendar or method for indicating the passing of time, year by year, Thucydides establishes a clear time sequence of events with constant reference to the particular year of the war in which the events took place. This, too, is a feature of his style of which he is very proud, conscious of its novelty.


It’s important to remember that for Thucydides history did not exist as a separate discipline with a carefully worked out traditional methodology and examples. Beyond Herodotus and a few others, there was no major tradition to inform him how history (of the sort he required) should or should not be written. So there were no conventions for that most elementary of historical narrative techniques, delivering a precise time framework. Even the (for us) very elementary principle of telling events by reference to a standard chronology of months and years did not exist for Thucydides, since there was no standard calendar in Greece. And thus Thucydides had to invent his own time scheme (as he himself tells us).


Once again, if we reflect upon the earlier narratives we read, we can see that this scrupulous attention to the time sequence is of little account before Thucydides. Homer and the Old Testament writers may stress the sequence of events, but we are never all that aware of just how many days or years particular events took, except occasionally. We have grave doubts at times about the veracity of the times given to us (like the ages of the patriarchs). But we can see, upon reflection, that for the effect of these stories, such a careful attention to time is irrelevant. What’s important is the story itself. Whether it is factually or chronologically credible or coherent is a distant concern; what makes the stories credible are their emotional impact, their characters, relationships, conflicts, and outcomes and how these embody a vision of the world. Whether that narrative actually happened, or happened in exactly that way, is not a key factor upon which the meaning or the importance of the story necessarily depends. That is one reason why in the world of myth, there might be two or three or four versions of the same story, all equally “true” (e.g., the stories about Helen of Troy, some of which factually contradict others).




In making these demands, then, Thucydides is driving a large rational wedge between an old and a new way of telling stories about past events. He is insisting that “poetic” stories do not meet the most important criteria of truth. He is, in other words, delineating an essential difference between what we call myth, saga, folk tale, epic and what we call history.


Now, the word history has an interesting double meaning. On the one hand, it simply means a story, as, for example, in the phrase “the history of my family” or “the history of the Trojan War.” On the other hand, the term history also refers to a certain form of rational disciplined enquiry, a way of studying and evaluating such stories, or determining which stories are worthy of attention because they are true and which are simply romance or fancy. Before Thucydides, so far as we can tell, there was little attention paid to making a distinction between these two. An old, famous, story which people liked was history; its truth was determined by the belief it generated, by the insights it revealed. Hence, the truth of something was independent of any checks on whether there was evidence to support the description of the facts.


Thucydides is insisting that there is an important distinction to be drawn between real history, that is, a narrative which meets the criteria he sets down and earlier histories, which he does not consider to be the proper form of historical enquiry. Such earlier accounts may be popular, but they are not the real thing, because they do not subject their historical accounts to the studied discipline of empirical enquiry.


He is aware, in making this demand, that he is removing from history one of its most popular ingredients. But in the name of truth, such demands have to be made:


This history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it. But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past . . . those readers will find this History valuable enough. . . . (13)


This hard-headed facticity (to use a horrible-sounding but accurate Germanism) is the quality which has made Thucydides, for many people the first real historian in the Western tradition, the first for whom accounts of the past did not count unless they satisfied rational criteria by which the facts were evaluated. It’s that quality that enables the eighteenth century philosopher Hume to observe the following:


. . . the first page of Thucydides is, in my opinion, the commencement of real history. All preceding narrations are so intermixed with fable, that philosophers ought to abandon them, to the embellishments of poets and orators. (Hume, Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations)


Parenthetically, one might observe here that this requirement for facticity in history has often been seen as a limitation on its power. Aristotle, for example, felt that history was less philosophical than tragedy (i.e., further from the truth), because the historian is not, like the dramatist, free to shape the narrative exactly in accordance with his inspiration; for the historian has to respect the facts of the case. Dr Johnson has a similar opinion, seeing in the work of the historian something that is not an exercise of the most creative powers of the mind.




But there’s another very marked feature of Thucydides’ style that also contributes to making his writing distinctly new. And that is that he brings the causative forces in the historical process firmly into the sphere of human behaviour.


Let me explain this point in a little more detail. From historians we moderns expect more than just a verification of the facts and a comprehensible time scale. We also expect some explanation for why things happen, some attention to the motive forces of historical events. Why did the Peloponnesian War occur? Why did the Athenians behave the way they did? Why didn’t they behave in other ways? And so on.
Now, almost all narratives pay some attention to this, and Homer and the Old Testament are no exception. But in those texts, the major motive forces of the narrative generally lie outside the sphere of human behaviour; they are driven by divine forces external to human agents (Zeus, the fates, Dike, Yahweh); moreover, these forces are for the most part thoroughly irrational—they do not appear to operate by consistent rational principles. In other words, the historical process, in the last resort, lies beyond human understanding and control. We can describe what the gods do, we can occasionally speculate about the possible motives, but because we are dealing with gods and not human beings our understanding of the principles or patterns behind such actions is limited.


With all of this Thucydides will have nothing whatsoever to do. For him, as he announces very early in the book, understanding the driving events of history does not require appeals to divine inscrutability or (as in Herodotus) some divine pattern of moral meaning stamped on events and everything; by contrast, history requires an understanding human nature. Hence, his narrative forces us to confront the way in which the historical process is driven, not by some divine plan or divine emotion, but by decisions and actions human beings undertake for their own very human reasons. This is, in other words, a total secularization of our understanding of the past. What Thucydides is clearly saying from the opening of this book is something like the following: “From my book, by paying close attention to what human beings really did in the past and their very human reasons for acting in this way, you will come to understand something about the permanent features of human nature, including your own.”


This sometimes contemptuous dismissal of an appeal to oracular, divine, or otherwise non-human reasons for the motive forces of history gives to Thucydides’ analysis a profoundly modern tone. Understanding the past is a matter of understanding how human beings behave for their very human reasons. If oracles and prophecies play a role in history, that is not because they have any inherent truth, any pipeline to the way things really are; they matter only because of the construction human beings put on their utterances for very human reasons.


From Homer, the tragedians, and Herodotus, Thucydides could learn about the importance of divine interference in human affairs and about the important moral lessons to be derived from past stories. But Thucydides, very much in the rational spirit of the new age of the mid-century, will have nothing to do with such irrational theories of causation. For him, if we are to understand history, we begin and end with a study of what motivates human beings in action. History, in other words, is to be understood in terms of the eternal well springs of human conduct, unattractive as they may be.


And what are these human reasons? Well, about that Thucydides has no doubt. The great motive forces in human history are an ineradicable love of power and an inescapable fear of other people’s power. These are the touchstones of human conduct, and if we want to understand the historical process, we have to understand that no matter how narratives of the past have presented the events, the realities were either a quest for power or a fear of someone else’s power.


Power, of course, means the power to get one’s own way, the power to instill fear in other people. Hence, if we want to understand why Agamemnon was the leader of the expedition to Troy, we must abandon all notions that the myths provide about promises to Helen’s father or whatever: he was the leader because he had the most power, the most ships. To find out the truth of the past, we need to look at the size of the different navies, the numbers of troops available, the economic resources of a community and forget about all such things as the favour of the gods or divine punishment for sin or oracular prophecy. Those cities with large navies, impressive economic resources, and a lot of troops are going to drive the historical process far more than cities with few power resources.


It is not the case that Thucydides was a cynical intellectual, always determined to reduce human nature to its lowest common denominator. Indeed, an important theme running through the book is the way in which war, and particularly civil war, creates conditions in which what is most worthwhile in human life is placed inexorably in jeopardy because in warfare the most selfish and brutal elements of human life become the ruling principles. The ruling tone in Thucydides is not cynicism, therefore, but a deep and abiding tragic pessimism: human nature being what it is, the finest achievements of civilization will again and again inevitably destroy themselves. He is, if you like, a realist, if by that we mean someone who wants to explain events by the practical realities of life all around us. He is, no doubt, reductive, powerfully forcing our understanding of events into his scheme of self-interest, fear, and power. But so acute is this perception, we may complain about important things being left out, but it is difficult for us to deny the truth of what is there.




Given this view of history, that the historical process is deeply rooted in the psychology of human beings and their inevitable acquiescence to the human realities of power and fear, Thucydides can see in his history an eternal lesson for all his readers. Since human nature is not going to change and since there is no such thing as a metaphysical interference in the historical process, the details of his account are going to repeat themselves. This point gives him the confidence to make what, on the face of it, may appear the most arrogant statement ever written by a historian:


But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past--which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so--those readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of a contest. (13)


Now, I want to focus on this point for a moment, because it calls attention to a third quality we demand of the historian, in addition to a verification of the facts and some account of the motive forces in history, namely, some sense of the shape or direction of the historical narrative.


For an important part of the historian’s task has traditionally been not merely to present and confirm exactly what happened and to suggest the immediate causal forces. We also have expected the historian to fit what he or she has to say into a very much larger framework, a sense of the direction or purpose or shape to the historical process itself. Put another way, we want to see how this particular narrative fits in relation to a much wider overall perspective of the unfolding of human history.


By way of clarifying this point, let us consider for a moment the stories we read in the Old Testament. It is clear that the events there we are encouraged to see as part of an overall historical scheme, a driving forward of the narrative events towards a final purpose, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, the promised land of God’s chosen people, the Israelites. There is, in other words, a very strong sense of linear purpose in those Old Testament stories, a push that is picked up, as we shall see, in the New Testament and reaches its most fervent expression in the last text of the Bible, the Book of Revelations. History is linear in the sense that we are moving ahead, into different places, different events. If we look back, we will see a clear sense of a forward-thrusting direction.


In this conception history is strongly linear and it has a destination, an end point where history, in effect, ceases. An even though we might dismiss much of the Old Testament as history, on the ground that there is no verification of events and that the time sequence is often unclear, we still can see that it gives a very powerful shape to the overall process, a progressive hope that history is, for all the trials and tribulations, leading us eventually to the promised land, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This sense of a forward thrusting direction to history becomes extremely important in our culture, both in its Biblical form and later when it gets secularized. One of the great sources of the aggressiveness of Western Culture, nowhere more so than in North America, has been our faith that our historical success, especially over nature or others, in short, over anything that gets in the way of our “mission,” was both evidence for and to be explained in terms of the progressive triumph of certain ways of life, a means of bringing us closer to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.


Now, it is clear that Thucydides’ notion of history is not like this. He regards history and the things that matter most in history as more or less static. Human nature does not change. Power relations do, and thus there will always be winners and losers. But there is no gradual transformation of that process manifesting itself event by event. What has happened in the past will largely repeat itself. That for him is the shape of the process, and that is why he thinks what he has to say really matters, because we can perhaps learn from the events of the war what we are (and what will inevitably happen again).


So for Thucydides, as for other Greek thinkers, if we are going to talk about a direction to history, that direction is not, as it is in the Old Testament, a strongly forward thrusting, divinely inspired force. It is something repetitive, perhaps, in some writers, marked even by a sense of slow decline or even circularity. The past thus matters, not because it will help us, by some imaginative extrapolation figure out how far we have come so that we can rededicate ourselves to the transforming future, but rather because, with conditions basically unchanged, we can recognize ourselves and our present situation in the old events.




At the risk of digressing somewhat, I’d like to expand a bit on this contrast between the Old Testament view of history and what we find in Thucydides (and in other Greek writers) because it goes to the heart of a powerful ambiguity we in the West have inherited from our Hebrew and Greek origins. It has to do with conflicting notions of what lies at the heart of the way we understand the world around us, including our history.


At the risk of making this too over simple, I can repeat a very old observation: that the Hebrew imagination was overwhelmingly dynamic and temporal, whereas the Greek imagination was overwhelmingly spatial. Like all generalizations, this is dangerous, but it might serve to offer some illumination and coordinate a bit some of the reading we have done in Liberal Studies this semester.


What I mean by this, at a very general level, we can best understand from our reading. The Israelites, it should be clear, placed no great stress on the outward appearance of things or on understanding the world with the sort of spatial clarity we see in Euclid or in Greek art. For them what mattered was dynamic action: moving, making, fighting, transforming. There are very few external descriptions of people or places in the Old Testament, and when we do learn something about dimensions and design, such a passage tends to come, as in the latter part of Exodus, as part of an urgent instruction to build something (a blueprint for action).


Yahweh himself has no clearly defined outline, and the Israelites are expressly forbidden to think of him in visual terms. What matters about Yahweh is his voice. And when God speaks, things happen. What matters in life is our relationship with that commanding voice or its utterances, especially in relation to an ongoing dynamic plan to move the Israelites from place to place, from battle to battle, in the right direction, heading toward the promised land, in fulfillment of covenant.


In comparison with this enormously dynamic, time-driven sense of life and the divine, the Greek view, as we have experienced it in Homer, the tragedians, Plato, and Thucydides is far more static, visual, and spatial, much more, if you like, geometric. The spatial relations between things, the dimensions and appearance of heroes or the gods are vital indications of their importance, and in this matter the beauty of appearance is paramount (and often that is a matter of geometrical ratio). When we think of Greek religion, we immediately think of the spatial manifestations of that in statues and temples in which the influence of geometric proportions is very pronounced.


When we read Plato, we recognize the central desire for a reality, a truth beyond the dynamic uncertainty of change, a reality that lies outside the historical process, something which is eternally true. What changes cannot be true. When we read the Old Testament we recognize that the truth of something is confirmed by the historical process; in fact, the unrolling of history is our contact with the divine, our confirmation that the divine exists.


As Westerners, we are inheritors of both of these notions of historical reality, and in large part our understanding of ourselves has moved back and forth between the two of them. This may indeed have made our historical imaginations at times perplexed and contentious, but a good deal of what the West has become is understandable, at least in part, in the light of this divided legacy, summed up by Thorleif Boman as follows: “In that sense, Hebrew and Greek thinking are complementary; the Greeks describe reality as being, the Hebrews as movement. Reality is, however, both at the same time; this is logically impossible, and yet it is correct.”




A final important point to make about Thucydides’ great book has little to do with his vision of the historical process but a lot to do with how the author emphasizes for us the salient features of his vision. I refer here to the extremely dramatic nature of Thucydides’ style and the structure of his narrative, which, in many respects, bears unmistakable similarities to the narrative structure of some of the plays we have read, particular the tragedies.


For the Peloponnesian War, although it is unfinished, is very carefully structured. Thucydides does not simply catalogue the events and reduce each phase to the crassest workings of fear, power, and self-interest. For him, quite clearly, Athens, especially the city of Pericles, represented a magnificent achievement. This he celebrates in what is probably the most famous part of the book, the Funeral Oration of Pericles (39), which I hope the seminars are going to discuss in some detail. By the end of the book, the achievement which that great speech hails lies in ruins, not because the gods have intervened against Athens or because there is some ancient curse or because the oracles have foretold the disaster but rather because the people of Athens failed in some important way. The war took over their lives and unleashed the destructive forces latent in society which entirely compromised the ideals the city was allegedly defending. So the great tribute to Athens turns into the disastrous failure of the Sicilian Expedition--the most dramatic single disaster ever suffered by a Greek polis. The structure of the story is not unlike that of Oedipus, who begins supremely confident of his goodness, power, and wisdom as he moves to deal with a crisis and who ends staggering away blinded horribly by his own hands.


This gives to Thucydides’ history a strongly dramatic quality, which comes out in a number of different ways. Like so much of Homer, a great deal of the Peloponnesian War is taken up with dramatic confrontations in which the central issues of the war are presented to us as a debate, a confrontation between two speaking personalities. This technique raises at once the question about the legitimacy of this procedure in historical writing, since, as Thucydides himself admits, clearly he was not present at many of the arguments and, even if he was, he probably had no way of getting verbatim transcripts:


What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker say what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said. (13)


Given Thucydides’ contempt for romantic history and his statements about the importance of verified evidence, this practice would appear to be unacceptable. But Thucydides’ purpose is clear. He wants his narrative to be dramatically alive, to come to the reader with the vitality and force of a section of Homer or Euripides. Strictly speaking, the speeches are not necessary. He could easily have replaced them with passages analyzing motives and probable causes (as he does, for example, in dealing with the Civil War in Corcyra). But for Thucydides, as for so many Greek writers, the only way to bring an issue fully to the imagination of the reader was to dramatize it, even at the expense of historical veracity. This constant reference to human speech, argument, decision making is, of course, one very important way Thucydides constantly reminds us of the human dimension from which all the really important events originate And the enduring power of Thucydides’ work, and especially the most famous parts of it, the dialogues, are a testament to the fact that he was right, even if, by our much more stringent rules of permissible evidence, such use of invented speeches is quite inappropriate. We can imagine the work without the speeches, but we can also at once appreciate that it would not be the same.


Of course, from one perspective, Thucydides’ speeches do fit his criteria for verification. They did take place. People stood up and argued the different sides of an issue, and they reached a decision. So there is some factual basis for the event, even if the transcripts are not verbatim.


A second factor which really brings out the dramatic quality of Thucydides’ style is the overall structure of the narrative, which one can easily compare to the structure of a dramatic tragedy, starting with the hero (Athens) at the very pinnacle of success, fame, and confidence, and culminating in the last act, when inevitable disasters which originated in the very glory and success of the hero overcome him utterly. Books Six and Seven of the Peloponnesian War, those sections dealing with the Sicilian Expedition are obviously very carefully crafted to represent such an overwhelming catastrophe, bringing to nothing the noblest dreams of Pericles early on in the book. Of course, Thucydides’ narrative does not end at this point (nor did the war), but the final chapter of the Peloponnesian War is clearly not written with the same firm sense of style and purpose. To some extent, they suggest that the main artistic push is over.


And finally a third technique Thucydides characteristically uses is a set piece description or dialogue, in which he pauses in the often rather crammed narrative to offer an extended look at a particular event, often one far away, but always something that will bring out dramatically his principal themes.


The effect of these is to create a continuing sense that history is a matter of human beings in action, particular individuals making specific decisions for very human reasons, and in the course of a long war, losing touch with the best forces of communal life as one mistake follows another, a shattered illusion is replaced by another even more tenuous, and social life degenerates into an increasingly anarchic and internecine scramble for individual security.


The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles is a relatively insignificant event in the history of the war, but an essential part of Thucydides’ dramatic purpose: the clear definition of the self-image the hero possessed at the start of his story. And the immediate juxtaposition of this famous high point with the description of the plague makes clear just how important it is to Thucydides for his readers to see that the unfolding of this war represents an eternal human drama and not simply a specific historical event. For the plague in Thucydides is much more than simply a disastrous epidemic. It is a symbol for the war itself. And the effects of the plague, particularly the way in which it so quickly destroyed the ancient traditions which kept society functioning, are an early announcement of the effect of this war. Similarly, the graphic description of the Civil War in Corcyra takes on an importance far greater than the strategic event in the overall context of the war: the extended passage works as a vision of what warfare does to all forms of civilized life, to families, neighbours, language, customs, in short, to the entire fabric of peaceful living (what he has to say there about the corruption of language during wartime is something many of us are all too familiar with).


Thucydides is also aware that war is of all human endeavours the most unpredictable, not just because chance comes into play, but more importantly because war affects the way people behave. Once it gains momentum it alters people’s most important traditional priorities and thus renders problematic the very basis of social living. We may think we have learned a great deal about warfare and about human psychology in the time since Thucydides. We may occasionally be led into thinking that we have somehow “progressed” beyond the destructive concerns of ancient peoples. We may even be seduced into believing that modern enlightenment notion (from von Clauswitz onward) that war is simply policy by other means, that is, something we can turn off and on like a tap. As we contemplate the events of various modern wars (e.g., Vietnam or the present Balkan conflict), Thucydides is an eloquent reminder that in our zeal to think better of ourselves and to console ourselves with our rational control over ancient mysteries, we may have forgotten some eternal truths about why we behave the way we do and therefore about who we really are.