Eight Lessons on Human Nature from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

We’ve got it all figured out, right? Humanity is smarter now than during any other time in history. It’s obvious.

Obviously garbage.

Nothing we do is any different than what has been done before, save for the technology. And even our gadgets are just modern spins on old ideas.

Not that there’s anything wrong with modernity. Far from it. In my opinion, by every metric, there has never been a better time to be alive. Things are great today, and I firmly believe that they will continue to get even better.

But we ignore the past at our own peril, as George Santayana warned 100 years ago.

George Santayana Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It

Recently, I wrote a guest post at one of my favorite sites, Neil White’s This Dad Does, about the classic works of literature and history that have helped me become a better man and a better father. Among the works was History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War

Here’s my brief overview of the History from Neil’s site and why I think it’s so important:

The Godfather of history, Thucydides, penned his chronicle of the twenty-year war between Athens and Sparta in a way that seems familiar to us now: Through interviews with those who fought and debated, the examination of primary sources, and from his own experience as a combatant on the Athenian side.

Where appropriate, Thucydides paraphrases important speeches, but his prose is so eloquent the original speakers likely wish they sounded so good!But historiographical methodology aside, what struck me about Thucydides’s account of the war were his observations into the motivations of the varying factions, the hubris and the miscalculations, and ultimately Athens’ fatal overreach and arrogance that lead them to undertake their ill-fated war against Sicily–in true Greek fashion, it is a fatal flaw that proves to be the Athenian undoing.

Action, adventure, political intrigue, and keen insights into human nature. You’ll never think the same way about war and politics.

Thucydides’ account of the war is filled with so many memorable vignettes and lessons about human nature that I’d like to delve deeper and share a few passages that resonated with me, and how this history book written millennia ago relates to the world today:

In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way–even when these stories concern their own native countries.

The Lesson: Be skeptical of all history, even when it pertains to national myths. Ask questions and use your own judgment and common sense. This can be applied to reading the news as well.

“People . . . seem to feel more strongly about their legal wrongs than about the wrongs inflicted on them by violence. In the first case, they think they are being outdone by an equal, in the second case they are being compelled by a superior.”

–From the Corinthians’ first speech to the Spartans

The Lesson: Perception is everything, and humans tend to submit to force and strength more readily than to the law. Also, lawyers ruin everything, but that’s a post for another day.

“Wise men certainly choose a quiet life, so long as they are not being attacked; but brave men, when an attack is made on them, will reject peace and will go to war, though they will be perfectly ready to to come to terms in the course of the war. In fact they will neither become over-confident because of their successes in war, nor, because of the charms and blessings of peace, will they put up with acts of aggression. He who thinks of his own pleasures and shrinks from fighting is very likely, because of his irresolution, to lose those very delights which caused him hesitation; while he who goes too far because of a success in war fails to realize that the confidence in which he goes forward is a hollow thing. Many badly planned enterprises have had the luck to be successful because the enemy has shown an even smaller degree of intelligence; and even more frequently has it happened that what seemed to be an excellent plan has ended not in victory, but in disaster. No one can alike conceive and dare in the same spirit of confidence; we are in perfect security when we make our estimates; but in the test of action, when the element of fear is present, we fall short of our ideal.”

–From the Corinthians’ second speech to the Spartans (emphasis added)

The Lesson: When taking action, make sure you know why you are acting, be resolute, and do not succumb to overconfidence. Comfort and decadence will cause you to lose everything you hold dear. And your plans might look great on paper, and like Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

“Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in the face of the perils of the war. The people who have the most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate, who have no hope of doing well for themselves, but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives, and who would feel the difference most intensely, if things went wrong for them. Any intelligent man would find a humiliation caused by his own slackness more painful to bear than death, when death comes to him unperceived, in battle, and in the confidence of his patriotism.”

–Pericles, from his  Funeral Speech

The Lesson: When you have something to fight for and much to lose–as in, citizens living in a democracy like Athens–you will fight more intensely to maintain what it is that let them reach their position: Their freedom. This is the same lesson the Japanese failed to understand about the Americans in World War II.

“So a state of affairs has been reached where a good proposal honestly put forward is just as suspect as something thoroughly bad, and the result is that just as the speaker who advocates some monstrous measure has to win over the people by deceiving them, so also a man with good advice to give has to tell lies if he expects to be believed.”

–Diodotus in the Debate on Mytilene

The Lesson: Cynicism forces good men to lie about their intentions as much as bad men, since nobody believes anyone in power. But this doesn’t occur for no reason: Excessive reliance and importance placed on rhetorical skills and empty words over intelligent argument leads to the state of affairs lamented by Diodotus. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

As it was, their judgment was based more on wishful thinking than on sound calculation of probabilities; for the usual thing among men is that when they want something they will, without any reflection, leave that to hope, while they will employ the full force of reason in rejecting what they find unpalatable.

The Lesson: Human beings are not nearly as rational as we pretend to be. Beware of cognitive traps like confirmation bias.

It is at the beginning . . . that every army inspires most fear; but if time is allowed to pass before it shows itself, men’s spirits revive and, when they actually do see it, they are less impressed than they would have been.

The Lesson: In war, as in life, we are scared by the unknown.

“One cannot regulate fortune to fit in with what one has decided one wants to happen.”

–Hermocrates the Syracusan, from the Debate at Camerina

The Lesson: Deal with reality instead of wishing it were different. Straightforward, but the context is instructive. The Syracusans and the Athenians were each attempting to get the Camerinaeans to join their side in the battle over Sicily. In making his appeal, Hermocrates pointed out all possible outcomes and urged the Camerinaeans to base their decision on the actual facts instead of what they hoped to gain. All sides of an issue must be critically examined.

So there you have it. Eight lessons from a book written over 2,000 years ago about a war that helped shape the modern world–the Athenians and the other Greek city states, so weakened from their constant fighting, were easy pickings for the hungry Romans, after all . . .

Who says old books are useless and irrelevant? People who’ve never bother to read them, that’s who.

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