Wednesday November 25th, 2009

Thucydides by Donald Kagan

thucydidesIt’s not just any hack who can thoughtfully review a reassessment of Thucydides, the author of The History of the Peloponnesian War. So some big intellectual guns have been hired to consider Donald Kagan’s Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. Three esteemed critics have praised the book, though the third offers a caveat. At the Barnes & Noble Review, A. C. Grayling writes, “Few historians are in a better position than Donald Kagan to evaluate Thucydides’ merits and achievement,” with which everyone seems to agree. Grayling says the book sets out to “[revise] our view — not of the war but of Thucydides himself; not to impugn him, but to set the record straight by revealing the great historian’s bias and aim, and rescuing those he unfairly attacked.” And his conclusion is a blurb to die for: “Kagan’s book, fascinating and characteristically lucid, is one of those little masterpieces that permanently reconfigure intellectual landscapes. Thucydides will not be the same after this, though neither diminished as a historian nor less significant as a teacher for all time.” In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Stothard argues that while Kagan is “not the first skeptic” about Thucydides, “[he] has produced what reads like the last word on the man.”

Like Grayling and Stothard, Anthony Grafton, writing at Slate, offers many words of praise. He calls the book “[p]owerfully argued and beautifully written.” But he also notes that, “After 9/11, [Kagan] ardently supported plans for the invasion of Iraq, talking as tough as Alcibiades and disparaging unpatriotic ‘defeatists’ who criticized the invasion or doubted its positive effects.” Combining Kagan’s recent political stances with some key passages from Thucydides that his new book elides, Grafton offers a note of disapproval:

Through the whole fever dream that is human history, no one has ever written more cogently of the disasters of war than this retired general, who saw war as the natural condition of states. No one has ever dissected more meticulously the character of a great democratic state, or revealed more vividly the moral corruption that war brings with it. Of that Thucydides—who was every bit as real as Kagan’s consummately political historian, and who speaks to us every bit as powerfully—the reader will find few traces in this book.

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan
Viking, 272 pp., $26.95