The revelation of Thucydides

October 17 2006

The unconscious attitude of the Victorian Englishman towards history was that of someone living outside history altogether. He took it for granted – without warrant – that he himself was standing on terra firma, secure against being engulfed in that ever-rolling stream in which Time had borne all his less privileged sons away. In his own privileged state of being emancipated, as he supposed, from history, the Victorian Englishman gazed with curiosity, condescension, and a touch of pity, but altogether without apprehension, at the spectacle of less fortunate denizens of other places and periods struggling and foundering in history’s flood – in much the same way as, in a mediaeval Italian picture, the saved lean over the balustrade of Heaven to look down complacently at the torments of the damned in Hell.

Is he thinking of manuscripts? Mantegna, not quite medieval, was the first to paint this kind of illusion on a ceiling. Is his balustrade in the Ducal Palace in Mantua that of heaven?

Charles the First – worse luck for him – had been in history, but Sir Robert Walpole, though threatened with impeachment, had just managed to scramble out of the surf, while we ourselves were well beyond high-water mark in a snug coign of vantage where nothing could happen to us. Our more backward contemporaries might, perhaps, still be waist-high in the now receding tide, but what was that to us?

I remember, at the beginning of a university term during the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9, Professor L. B. Namier, then an undergraduate at Balliol and back from spending a vacation at his family home just inside the Galician frontier of Austria, saying to us other Balliol men, with (it seemed to us) a portentous air: “Well, the Austrian army is mobilized on my father’s estate and the Russian army is just across the frontier, half-an-hour away.” It sounded to us like a scene from The Chocolate Soldier, but the lack of comprehension was mutual, for a lynx-eyed Central European observer of international affairs found it hardly credible that these English undergraduates should not realize that a stone’s-throw away, in Galicia, their own goose, too, was being cooked.

Hiking round Greece three years later on the trail of Epaminondas and Philopoemen and listening to the talk in the village cafés, I learnt for the first time of the existence of something called the foreign policy of Sir Edward Grey. Yet, even then, I did not realize that we too were still in history after all. I remember feeling acutely homesick for the historic Mediterranean as I walked, one day in 1913, along the Suffolk coast of a grey and uneventful North Sea. The general war of 1914 overtook me expounding Thucydides to Balliol undergraduates reading for Literae Humaniores, and then suddenly my understanding was illuminated. The experience that we were having in our world now had been experienced by Thucydides in his world already. I was re-reading him now with a new perception – perceiving meanings in his words, and feelings behind his phrases, to which I had been insensible until I, in my turn, had run into that historical crisis that had inspired him to write his work. Thucydides, it now appeared, had been over this ground before. He and his generation had been ahead of me and mine in the stage of historical experience that we had respectively reached; in fact, his present had been my future. But this made nonsense of the chronological notation which registered my world as “modern” and Thucydides’ world as “ancient.” Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides’ world and my world had now proved to be philosophically contemporary. And, if this were the true relation between the Graeco-Roman and the Western civilizations, might not the relation between all the civilizations known to us turn out to be the same?

And so you have Toynbee. And that electrifying moment in 1914, after Europe and its chocolate soldiers had been sleep-marching towards the greatest catastrophe in their history, is easy to imagine when you read the ominous opening of Thucydides’ work. Crawley’s translation (1874).

“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world – I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.”

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948

17 Responses to “The revelation of Thucydides”


  1. […] And David’s gloss: And so you have Toynbee. And that electrifying moment in 1914, after Europe and its chocolate soldiers had been sleep-marching towards the greatest catastrophe in their history, is easy to imagine when you read the ominous opening of Thucydides’ work. […]


  2. […] March 15th, 2007 The Western general war of A.D. 1914-18 (“World War One”) opened my eyes to the historical and at the same time philosophic truth that my world in my generation was […]


  3. […] nearly a thousand years apart and in very different places. We have met Lewis Namier already, in The revelation of Thucydides – the single post so far, I think, which best explains the kind of historian Toynbee […]


  4. […] have seen the adult Toynbee having no conception of the reality of […]


  5. […] But Toynbee and Russell had a life-transforming experience in common: the First World War, though neither fought in it. Russell was too old; Toynbee did office-bound war work. The war turned Russell into an activist and campaigner in ways shown in the last post and changed Toynbee’s view of humanity and history in ways I have described. For example, here. […]


  6. […] Toynbee on being “outside history”.) […]


  7. […] intellectual procedure has always been the sudden flash of insight such as that which, on his own account, launched him originally on A Study of History. The experience of suddenly seeing some new […]


  8. […] world of sentiment. Perhaps he would have sympathised with Anthony Blanche/Harold Acton. He writes of “feeling acutely homesick for the historic Mediterranean” while walking on the Suffolk coast […]


  9. […] British Empire, would (or at least ought to) prevail.” But the outbreak of that war had already changed his view of […]


  10. […] Then and now August 1, 2010 The revelation of Thucydides […]


  11. […] English middle-class Conservatives for whom the Millennium had already arrived, and English middle-class Liberals for whom it lay only just round the corner, were, of course, aware that the English working class’s share in the middle class’s economic prosperity was shockingly small, and that British subjects in most of the colonies and dependencies of the United Kingdom were not enjoying a self-government that was the privilege of their fellow subjects in the United Kingdom itself and in a few other dominions of the British Crown; but these political and economic inequalities were discounted by Liberals as being something remediable and by Conservatives as being something inevitable. Citizens of the United States at the North were similarly aware, for their part, that their own economic prosperity was not shared by their fellow-citizens at the South, and that the fathers of these Southern contemporaries of theirs had seceded from the Union and had been brought back into it only by the force majeure of the North’s crushing victory over the South in a terrible civil war. Citizens of the German Reich were aware that the inhabitants of a “Reichsland” annexed from France after her crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of A.D. 1870-1 were still French at heart and that the rest of a French nation which had not yet ceased to be a Great Power was still unreconciled to the amputation of the ceded departments. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries France was still entertaining thoughts of a revanche, and the subject population in Alsace-Lorraine was still dreaming the same dream of an eventual liberation as other subject populations in Slesvik, Poland, Macedonia, and Ireland. These dissatisfied contemporaries of a sated German, British, and North American bourgeoisie were nursing national grievances and national aspirations which did not permit them to acquiesce in a comfortable belief that “History” was “at an end”; indeed they could not have continued, as they did continue, to keep alight the flickering flame of a forlorn hope if they had succumbed to a Weltanschauung which, for them, would have spelled, not security, but despair. Yet their unwavering confidence that a, to them, intolerable established régime must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s “ever rolling stream” made little impression on the torpid imagination of “the Ascendancy”. “As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth”; [footnote: Isa. liii. 7.] and, though “the Ascendancy” was under a delusion in mistaking for an intimation of consent a silence that was inspired by the watchword “N’en parlons jamais, y pensons toujours”, [footnote: The watchword suggested for the guidance of members of the rising generation in France, on the morrow of her loss of Alsace-Lorraine in A.D. 1871, by a French statesman of an older generation (? Paul Déroulède).] [unusual question-mark … it seems to have been Gambetta who said this] there was in A.D. 1897 no living man or woman, even among the most sanguine-minded prophets of a nationalist or a socialist revolution, who dreamed that a demand for national self-determination was going to break up the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov empires and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland within the next twenty-five years, and going to spread, within another twenty-five years, from a few sore spots in Western Europe and in Orthodox Christendom to the uttermost parts of the Old World, or that a demand for social democracy was going to spread from the urban working class in a few precociously industrialized provinces of the Western World to the peasantry of Mexico and China. Gandhi (natus A.D. 1869) and Lenin (natus A.D. 1870) were then still unknown names; and the word “Communism” then commemorated a lurid event in the past that had been the last eruption of History’s now extinct volcano. This ominous outbreak of savagery in a Parisian underworld in A.D. 1871 was written off by optimistic post-Modern Western minds as an abnormal atavistic reaction to the shock of a startling military disaster, and there was no discernible fear of the recrudescence of a conflagration that had been smothered now for longer than a quarter of a century under a bourgeois Third Republic’s wet blanket. In 1897 a Western bourgeois gentilhomme’s sleep was not being seriously disturbed by prophetic nightmares. The revelation of Thucydides […]

  12. k53 learners Says:

    I am genuinely thankful to the owner of this web site who has shared this wonderful article at this place.

  13. davidderrick Says:

    The Foreign Policy of Sir Edward Grey, 1906-1915 was the name of a book by Toynbee’s father-in-law Gilbert Murray. OUP, 1915.


  14. […] could not comprehend the scale of what was happening, but The Economist sounded like Thucydides. August […]


  15. […] They did before 1914. But this isn’t a historical law either. Did Athenian artists have the jitters before the Peloponnesian War, which is Toynbee’s Hellenic First World War? […]


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