“Master, what gnaws at them so hideously their lamentation stuns the very air?”
“They have no hope of death,” he answered me…”
- Dante Alighieri, “The Inferno”
“Thucydides in the Underworld”
by J. R. Nyquist
“The shade of Thucydides, formerly an Athenian general and historian, languished in Hades for 24 centuries; and having intercourse with other spirits, was perturbed by an influx into the underworld of self-described historians professing to admire his History of the Peloponnesian War. They burdened him with their writings, priding themselves on the imitation of his method, tracing the various patterns of human nature in politics and war. He was, they said, the greatest historian; and his approval of their works held the promise that their purgatory was no prologue to oblivion.
As the centuries rolled on, the flow of historians into Hades became a torrent. The later historians were no longer imitators, but most were admirers. It seemed to Thucydides that these were a miserable crowd, unable to discern between the significant and the trivial, being obsessed with tedious doctrines. Unembarrassed by their inward poverty, they ascribed an opposite meaning to things: thinking themselves more “evolved” than the spirits of antiquity. Some even imagined that the universe was creating God. They supposed that the “most evolved” among men would assume God’s office; and further, that they themselves were among the “most evolved.”
Thucydides longed for the peace of his grave, which posthumous fame had deprived him. As with many souls at rest, he took no further interest in history. He had passed through existence and was done. He had seen everything. What was bound to follow, he knew, would be more of the same; but after more than 23 centuries of growing enthusiasm for his work, there occurred a sudden falling off. Of the newly deceased, fewer broke in upon him. Quite clearly, something had happened. He began to realize that the character of man had changed because of the rottenness of modern ideas. Among the worst of these, for Thucydides, was that barbarians and civilized peoples were considered equal; that art could transmit sacrilege; that paper could be money; that sexual and cultural differences were of no account; that meanness was rated noble, and nobility mean.
Awakened from the sleep of death, Thucydides remembered what he had written about his own time. The watchwords then, as now, were “revolution” and “democracy.” There had been upheaval on all sides. “As the result of these revolutions,” he had written, “there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.”
Thucydides saw that democracy, once again, imagined itself victorious. Once again traditions were questioned as men became enamored of their own prowess. It was no wonder they were deluded. They landed men on the moon. They had harnessed the power of the atom. It was no wonder that the arrogance of man had grown so monstrous, that expectations of the future were so unrealistic. Deluded by recent successes, they could not see that dangers were multiplying in plain view. Men built new engines of war, capable of wiping out entire cities, but few took this danger seriously. Why were men so determined to build such weapons? The leading country, of course, was willing to put its weapons aside. Other countries pretended to put their weapons aside. Still others said they weren’t building weapons at all, even though they were.
Would the new engines of destruction be used? Would cities and nations be wiped off the face of the earth? Thucydides knew the answer. In his own day, during an interval of unstable peace, the Athenians had exterminated the male population of the island of Melos. Before doing this the Athenian commanders had came to Melos and said, “We on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us – a great mass of words that nobody would believe.” The Athenians demanded the submission of Melos, without regard to right or wrong. As the Athenian representative explained, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
The Melians were shocked by this brazen admission. They could not believe that anyone would dare to destroy them without just cause. In the first place, the Melians threatened no one. In the second place, they imagined that the world would be shocked and would avenge any atrocity committed against them. And so the Melians told the Athenians: “in our view it is useful that you should not destroy a principle that is to the general good of all men – namely, that in the case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing. And this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.”
The Athenians were not moved by the argument of Melos; for they knew that the Spartans generally treated defeated foes with magnanimity. “Even assuming that our empire does come to an end,” the Athenians chuckled, “we are not despondent about what would happen next. One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power like Sparta.” And so the Athenians destroyed Melos, believing themselves safe – which they were. The Melians refused to submit, praying for the protection of gods and men. But these availed them nothing, neither immediate relief nor future vengeance. The Melians were wiped off the earth. They were not the first or the last to die in this manner.
There was one more trend that Thucydides noted. In every free and prosperous country he found a parade of monsters: human beings with oversized egos, with ambitions out of proportion to their ability, whose ideas rather belied their understanding than affirmed it. Whereas, there was one Alcibiades in his own day, there were now hundreds of the like: self-serving, cunning and profane; only they did not possess the skills, or the mental acuity, or beauty of Alcibiades. Instead of being exiled, they pushed men of good sense from the center of affairs. Instead of being right about strategy and tactics, they were always wrong. And they were weak, he thought, because they had learned to be bad by the example of others. There was nothing novel about them, although they believed themselves to be original in all things.
Thucydides reflected that human beings are subject to certain behavioral patterns. Again and again they repeat the same actions, unable to stop themselves. Society is slowly built up, then wars come and put all to ruin. Those who promise a solution to this are charlatans, only adding to the destruction, because the only solution to man is the eradication of man. In the final analysis the philanthropist and the misanthrope are two sides of the same coin. While man exists he follows his nature. Thucydides taught this truth, and went to his grave. His history was written, as he said, “for all time.” And it is a kind of law of history that the generations most like his own are bound to ignore the significance of what he wrote; for otherwise they would not re-enact the history of Thucydides. But as they become ignorant of his teaching, they fall into disaster spontaneously and without thinking. Seeing that time was short, and realizing that a massive number of new souls would soon be entering the underworld, the shade of Thucydides fell back to rest.”
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