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Thucydides: Admonitions against war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Thucydides
From The Peloponnesian War
Translated by Richard Crawley

“Take time…in forming your resolution, as the matter is of great importance; and do not be persuaded by the opinions and complaints of others to bring trouble on yourselves, but consider the vast influence of accident in war, before you are engaged in it. As it continues, it generally becomes an affair of chances, chances from which neither of us is exempt, and whose event we must risk in the dark. It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter…

“I have not lived so long…without having had the experience of many wars, and I see those among you of the same age as myself who will not fall into the common misfortune of longing for war from inexperience or from belief in its advantage and its safety…”

“…To conceive extravagant pretensions from success in war is to forget how hollow is the confidence by which you are elated. For if many ill-conceived plans have succeeded through the still greater fatuity of an opponent, many more, apparently well laid, have on the contrary ended in disgrace…”

In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s character to a level with their fortunes…Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

“[If] great enmities are ever to be settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success, and by forcing an opponent to swear to a treaty to his disadvantage, but [by according] peace on more moderate conditions than he expected. From that moment, instead of the debt of revenge which violence must entail, [the] adversary owes a debt of generosity to be paid in kind, and is inclined by honour to stand to his agreement…”

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  1. September 22, 2011 at 5:23 am | #1

    Actually, only some of that is Thucydides talking to us – much of it is the Athenians and Spartan envoys talking to their counterparts or fellow citizens.

  2. richardrozoff
    September 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm | #2

    Correct. Comments by Athenians concerning the inadvisability of war with Lacedaemonia and its allies are in quotes, indicating that they are not the author’s.

  3. September 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm | #3

    Although of course the author paraphrased the speeches, and if he knew little of their content he used what he thought they should have said under the circumstances – so in that sense, a lot of this could indeed be his words.

  4. richardrozoff
    September 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm | #4

    You’re right. Writing after the event in an era with few written accounts to base his work on, Thucydides was reduced to portraying with the strict obligation to verisimilitude his writings seem always to be imbued with what was said on the eve of the war. Hence no one is made to speak out of character, no one-sided interpretations of statements are rendered and no “editorializing,” much less propagandistic overlays, appear in the work.
    Modern statesmen, analysts, academics and journalists would be well-advised to study his methods.

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