Losing Touch With Thucydides

In the conflict between Athens and Sparta, the Melians tried in vain to maintain their neutrality. As Thucydides apprises us, the Athenians were rather blunt about the issue: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” As the Athenians succeeded in the siege of Melos, all Melian men were executed, the women and children sold to slavery.

That the “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” is one of the many nuggets of wisdom accessible in even a rudimentary reading of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. For a deeper reading, we might turn to renowned classicist Jacqueline de Romilly, who shows how and why Thucydides chose to write. But we don’t read Thucydides anymore, nor do we read someone like Romilly.

If an undergraduate encounters Thucydides today, it is through the prism of race and gender. Consider the case of a Princeton academic who the New York Times said “has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms.” The subtitle of that Times piece was “Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline.”

Destruction it is, all right. If a barbarian were to encounter the ruin of a Roman aqueduct, we may surmise that he felt some confusion, but also awe and wonder at the sight of it. Wokeism would demand taking that very same barbarian and teaching him to feel disgust for and moral superiority to the remains of that edifice. The last time Western academics developed a discipline that made people less and less knowledgeable about reality was eugenics, in the early 20th century.

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