Cracking the Thucydides Code

By Jackson, Michael W. | The Antioch Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Cracking the Thucydides Code


Jackson, Michael W., The Antioch Review


There are those who suppose that there is secret knowledge. The conspiracy theorists, the Rosicrucians, UFOlogists, Scientologists, the esoteric knowledge adherents are all examples. Who can forget Mel Gibson as the bug-eyed conspiracy theorist in Conspiracy Theory! And at a remove there are also the many thousands who have devoured Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and its many precursors and imitators. In the 1990s Fox television aired the "X-Files," which was based on the same premise: that the real explanation for unexplained phenomenon was known and secreted away. Like the very arguments that these believers condemn as cover-ups, their own assumption is exactly wrong. The truth is that the explanation for most things is before our eyes but we see it not. The truth is not out there, hidden; it is right before our eyes most of the time. The secret is that there is no secret. In these pages I want to make that point by considering an ancient text. It is a star that is 2,500 years way from us and yet its light reaches us and reveals something of our reality.

When diplomats negotiate and generals array arms, when ambassadors fly home in anticipation of conflict and soldiers take leave of families, when patrols clash on the Golan Heights, along the Demilitarized Zone of Korea, in Londonderry, on the Green Line in Nicosia, and in Iraq, it is not hidden forces that cause conflict. It is us. The truth is so simple that it is hardly satisfying to those conspiracy theorists who seek a larger meaning, and also for those who wish to deny their responsibility.

Thucydides knew all of this and passed the word in his book the History of the Peloponnesian War. It is an X-file that explains much of what happened in that war and does so in a way that sheds light on our wars, too. As Thucydides tells us how men acted under pressure, so he tells how we will act under like pressure. One of the best ways to predict the future is to study the past.

Who was Thucydides and what war did he examine? He wrote about the famous war between Athens and Sparta. In fact, his book made that war famous. Athens and Sparta had a long history of conflict before 431 B.C.E., and it continued after the Peloponnesian War. One of Thucydides' greatest accomplishments was to see a single conflict in the period 431-404 B.C.E., A lesser mind would have chronicled the campaigns of each season and reported the political to-ing and fro-ing, but Thucydides stepped back from the detail to conceive of it as a whole. A comparison with modern history makes the point. We take for granted that World War II began at one point on 1 September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, and ended at another point, 8 August 1945, with the Japanese capitulation, but that concept excludes the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a lot of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Winter War between Finland and Russia (1939-1940), the Greek Civil War (1942-1949), and more. The conventional dates for World War II are just that, conventions. A Thucydides studying twentieth-century conflict might see that war differently and include some or all of the other conflicts named above, the better to identify the larger forces of fascism, communism, and capitalism at work.

Thucydides was an Athenian. That simple fact needs to be stressed, as will become clear below. Active in Athenian politics, he served as a general officer in the war, leading a failed campaign at Amphipolis, and he accepted banishment rather than return to Athens where failed generals were always excoriated and sometimes executed. Exile made him no less Athenian. Unlike the most famous exile of that war, Alcibiades, who readily changed sides from Athenian to Spartan and back to Athenian, and then Persian, Thucydides was always on the side of Athens, despite his many reservations, qualifications, and criticisms of Athenians.

Thucydides tried to write history avant le mot; so restrained is he that he speaks in his own voice about eight times in 500-plus pages of the book. …

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