reading history to understand now

The great James Brown at 72 years old. Inspiring to me in a few ways

After exercising this morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat outside and read Bernard Knox’s essay, “Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War: Politics and Power” in his Essays: Ancient and Modern.

Essays Ancient and Modern by Bernard Knox

This essay is actually the opening lecture for the Strategy Curriculum at the Naval War College in 1972. This institution is in Newport, Rhode Island. At least it is now.

The Greek historian, Thucydides, was also an admiral in the Peloponnesian War, the war he documents. Unlike his predecessor, Herodotus, he was not a bystander, observer of history but also a mover and shaker in events.

Knox’s reading of Thucydides sheds light on why it’s important to study history to understand the present. The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World (9780801859519): Vidal-Naquet, Pierre, Szegedy-Maszak, Andrew: Books

Pierre Vidal-Naquet writes in a footnote in his study, The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World, that “historicism is a sign of present concern.

Knox cites Thucydides (Chapter V). He says  “The Athenians bring overwhelming force against a small neutral island and then sit down at the negotiating table. They want no words wasted, [now quoting Thucydides] ‘If we have met here for any other purpose than to look facts in the face… there is no point going on with the discussion…’ {Knox again] And then in this terrible but true statement [back to Thucydides] ‘When these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on an equality of power to compel.'”

“The standard of justice depends on an equality of power to compel” is an artful way of saying that the powerful call the shots.

On the next page, Knox points out that Thucydides anticipated Orwell’s Newspeak. Knox and Thucydides could have been writing about the present moment: “The collapse of law and moral standards was accompanied by a process of corruption in the language men spoke: ‘To fit in with the change of events, words too had to change their usual meanings. A thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect  to find in a party member: any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character.’ ”

Finally, Knox quotes these words from the Greek historian/admiral: “[T]hose who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greatest powers of survival … They recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of the opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manoeuvered in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident… were the more easily destroyed.”

To recap:

Justice depends on the whims of those who hold power.

Events change the meaning of the language we try to use with each other.

The dull-witted who move swiftly destroy those who are over confident, even when the latter are in the right.

I can see why people read history to understand the present.

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