The best and worst of times

In January I began the great five-year adventure of reading through the Great Books—the classic writings of Western Civilization from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This being mid-March, I have just finished Herodotus’ historic description of the Greek war with Persia and have begun the equally famous Peloponnesian Wars.

Looking once again at the political adventures and battles that set the poleis, or city-states, in conflict with one another, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ famous opening to his novel of the French Revolution. Everyone knows how the novel begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness….” Likewise, everyone knows the closing line of the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done….” Probably not so many people can summarize the plot that fills four hundred pages between those lines or can remember any other memorable quotes from that novel. But I wander from my point, which is that for Greece in the years of the Peloponnesian Wars it also was the best of times and the worst of times.

Against all odds, the Greeks had withstood two invasions from the mighty Persian Empire. They had overcome both the massive land army raised by Persia and also its mighty navy. Now Athens was being rebuilt, fashioning the remarkable structures that still draw tourists today. The great Greek dramatists were writing the great timeless plays that are still read and studied today. Greek science and mathematics were reaching new and amazing heights, and for the first time philosophy was being developed in the European continent.

Yet at the same time, the Greeks were destroying themselves with constant warfare against one another. Men lost their lives on the battlefield in the prime of their life, sacrificing themselves nobly for petty squabbles that were unworthy of the price they demanded. Armies leveled the crops and orchards of their opponents. Money was wasted on military equipment—money that could have further advanced the architecture, drama, science, and philosophy of the age. Crowding into their cities to escape the battles, citizens spread plague that cost the Greeks more lives and more sorrow. Wisdom and foolishness, Light and Darkness: all these contrasts can be seen in the ancient Greek wars as clearly as in the French Revolution or any other modern conflict.

One of the lessons of classic literature is this: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Centuries have come and gone, and people continue to make the same mistakes. We study the past, but we fail to learn from it. Indeed, the history of the Peloponnesian wars is, without doubt, a tale of Thucydides. J.