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Larry Arnn Begins In Thucydides

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HH: Welcome back, America, it’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College,, or You can find all of our Hillsdale dialogues which absorb the last hour of our radio week, growing with a cult-like ferocity, and I’m a little afraid of it, actually, the kind of emails I get about finally, something I can listen to on the radio. And I say what do you think I’ve been doing all these years. Dr. Arnn, I’ve got to give you a little background. When I first arrived in Cambridge, in Harvard, in 1974, in my very first semester, I read two books in four courses that I thought were amazing. One was the Confessions by Augustine. I can’t even remember the professor who taught that. It was in the humanities. And then in Gov 40, Stanley Hoffman taught the History of the Peloponnesian War, except he taught it like Stanley Hoffman would teach it, with an excerpt here and an excerpt there, and I never quite figured it out. And it’s always been a wonder to me, and I’m intimidated by it, because I can’t pronounce anything in it. And I’m terrible at that. But I’m looking, today, we’re going to open up the first chapter, actually, only the first 50 paragraphs or so, and ask you, you know, give me a sense of how long you spend in the History of the Peloponnesian War with the Hillsdale students, and how you go about doing it, because it’s such a magnificent book.

LA: Well, it’s one of the greatest works in history, and probably the second work of history. And you, Hugh, were guilty of giving too little shrift to the first one, Herodotus, but you have a fondness, I can tell, for Thucydides, so we’ll figure him out. And the History of the Peloponnesian War, you want me to sort of locate where it is?

HH: Yes.

LA: What happens, the book opens with Thucydides giving a history of Greece. And it goes back to the Mycenaean times, which are ancient times, and the record of them is poor. And Homer is a big part of the record. Thucydides seems to be somewhat critical of Homer, but he sort of develops the history of the Greek people. And these great people, the Greeks, who are the greatest people on Earth at the time of Thucydides, and he explains in the book why that is so. And so it begins with a long history, and if you want, we’ll go through it of what happened that led to the current day. And the immediate proximate history is the part that’s covered in Herodotus, and he spends some time on that.

HH: Well, let’s pause for a second. Why does he even bother, because he is a bit disdainful of the poet’s license in Homer, and he says a lot of this you can’t tell, but he spends quite a lot of time saying hey, pirates are pirates, and the Greeks had to be pirates, and there was no particular opprobrium attached to that. Why does he bother doing this?

LA: Well, he thinks that, first of all, he thinks it’s formative of the Greeks, these stories, which probably refer to events, almost certainly do, and that they come to be what they are because of this story. For example, Agamemnon, a great king, is the father of the Peloponnese, which is the place in Greece where the Spartans are. And can I stick in something about geography?

HH: You bet.

LA: Because it’s a great idea to know where we are. Greece is in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it sticks down a peninsula into the Mediterranean. It’s of vast strategic importance today, as it was in the Second World War. And down at the bottom of Greece, there are two very significant places – Attica, and that’s where, and they’re both over on the Eastern side, and Attica, and that’s where Athens is, and Athens is naval power, energetic, imperial, traveling the world. I mean, not the whole world, but the world as they knew it then, also, the father and the mother of the poets of Socrates, of the great sculptors of the arts. And south, and a bit west of them, is a peninsula sticking down off this isthmus or this protrusion down into the Mediterranean, and that’s the Peloponnese, and this is the Peloponnesian War. And at the heart of this Peloponnese, a land power, Sparta, the greatest infantry nation in human history. And the Spartans are insular and solid, and hierarchical, and a slave society. All of the adults who are free citizens, a minority, spend from 7 years old until they’re 60-some entirely in the profession of arms. And all of the rest, all of the work is done by slaves, who work for these guys, who are the best warriors on Earth, and hold down a slave population at home while they defend the city.

HH: So great are they that we talked…

LA: And that’s the picture of Greece. Now on the left hand side is the Ionian Sea, leading up to the Adriatic, and on beyond that is Sicily and Italy, where there are Greek colonies. And in the main city of Sicily, Syracuse, much happens of vital importance in this war. So on to the left is what will become Rome, which is now much Greek, and settled by Greeks. On the right is the Aegean Sea, and that’s where Persia starts, because the Persian war starts over a lot of things, but one of them is colonies that the Greeks have in Turkey and south of there, and on the land toward Persia. And so this war sort of encompasses those three realms – Greece in the middle, Sicily and Italy to the left, and Turkey and Persia, or what we call Turkey today, Persia to the right.

HH: And last week…

LA: So the war becomes, and at the moment, when the war starts, the Greeks have defeated the Persians.

HH: Yup.

LA: And the Persians are a great and huge empire, much outnumbering the Greeks. And so the Greeks are at the peak of their power, and beginning the great philosophic and artistic flourishing that is one of the most famous things to happen in all of history, and one of the two strains that make Western civilization. And the two great powers within it, Athens and Sparta, who have led the Greeks to their tremendous triumph over the Persians, fall to quarreling. They can’t get on. And effectively, this 27 year war, which encompasses those three regions that I just described, east, central and west, this 27 year war destroys the preeminence of the Greeks in the world, and it is replaced by others, because they beat themselves to death.

HH: We have 30 seconds to the break. When we talked about Herodotus, he was describing when Sparta and Athens were allies against Persia, what period of time elapses between their alliance to defeat the Persians and the quarreling that becomes the destructive war?

LA: 30-40 years.

HH: Yeah, and so from a period, in the blink of an eye, actually, in history…

LA: Yeah, it’s a generation, right? And the big tale, when they negotiate with each other, you’ll see that the heart of Thucydides is the speeches that are in it. That’s where, I’ll describe that in a minute, a lot of the speeches in the beginning are about what part we, relative parts, we Sparta or we Athens played in the great victory over the Persians.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn is laying basic groundwork from which can be drawn from the first 50 paragraphs of the book. But before we even get into those first 50 paragraphs, you’re setting up the transition. Thucydides himself is living in the golden age, but he wasn’t alive, I don’t think, for the conclusion of the war with Persia, was he?

LA: Yes, he was.

HH: Oh, he made the end of it

LA: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, no, no. He was not.

HH: Okay.

LA: He comes right after that.

HH: But he is alive for this war.

LA: That’s right. He’s a general in this war. He’s an Athenian general in this war, and he loses a battle in this war. And when he describes that battle, he changes the person in which he tells the story. And to explain what that means, here’s the first person. I, Larry Arnn, am going to go and get on an airplane today… The second person is, let me get the persons right. He reverts to the third person. The third person is and then he went here, and then he went there, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: Talking about somebody else.

HH: Yup.

LA: So he is a figure in this war, and because he loses this battle, especially in Athens, one of the consequences of defeat is exile or execution. It’s better to win. The Athenian democracy is changeable, and that’s one of their advantages and disadvantages is that they’re a more popular system of rule, and very flexible. And their disadvantage is too flexible. So he is exiled for 20 years, and he thinks, they’re in this long war, he’s exiled for 20 years, and he thinks a lot. And he writes a lot. And he is a, he doesn’t describe himself very much in the thing, and we don’t know a lot about him. But we know that he was a highly educated and reflective man, and we know that he sets out with the explicit ambition to write a story that will last for the ages.

HH: And he makes claims about his abilities, and he sets himself above Homer, and certainly wants to be believed. I have written my work not as an essay, which is to win the applause of the moment but as a possession for all time, in paragraph 22. He’s not a modest man.

LA: Right, and he does that because he does think that, he wants to dismiss, in a way, he wants to build upon and capitalize upon the story of Homer, and the story of Herodotus, that is the great Trojan War, which also happens over there, as I said, to the east, towards Persia. That’s where Troy was. And he wants to build upon the Herodotus story, because it’s very important to this story. But he’s telling a different story. And it’s different because the nature of these is different, because his own abilities are different. The Athenians, we will discover in the book, are very given to praising themselves, and the Spartans much less so. But he does say good words about himself and his ability. In addition, the situation is different, because these are the greatest people on Earth now, and although very different when you compare them to the Persians, they are the same. And they are a talking and a rational people, and also a pious people, especially the Spartans. But they have a story to tell. And the story is well recorded. The facts are known, and he can dwell upon those. And he proceeds by a different method than Herodotus. And I myself am not ready to say that Thucydides is greater than Herodotus, and that’s a little bit heretical. But you wouldn’t call him less great. And he proceeds by a different method. Herodotus is a big traveler, and he goes and describes what he sees. I called it sort of like an early multicultural study, except with a standard of culture against which to describe all cultures, something we very much need today. Thucydides constructs speeches. There are, according to Victor Hanson in the introduction to the best edition of the Peloponnesian War, it’s called the Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler, a businessman who did a great thing by putting it together, lots of maps and headnotes and chronology, and very easy to follow. So it’s a tremendous book. You ought to buy it.

HH: The title again is?

LA: The Landmark Thucydides.

HH: All right.

LA: And Victor Hanson, the great man, writes the introduction to it, and he remarks that there are 141 speeches in the book, and those are mostly statesman speeches, people addressing assemblies of allies and enemies and friends, and telling them, and together, they stand often, and they analyze the situation.

HH: And stand there, because we must take a break.

— – –

HH: And Dr. Arnn has recommended The Landmark Thucydides by what’s his name again, Dr. Ann?

LA: Robert Strassler.

HH: I’ll have to go and get that this week to prepare for next, as I’m working off the Lightner translation, which is fairly common everywhere, and I’ll retool. But you were talking about speeches at the break, and in the very first chapter, we have the ambassadors from Corinth and Corcyra doing that, the first two big speeches, and if you’re not ready to read them the right way, I think they will intimidate. But in fact, 141 of these? What a course could be constructed from those speeches.

LA: Yeah, and they’re the heart of the book. Of course, Thucydides was not there for all but a few of these speeches, and there are not written records of them except in him, and he explains that they’re saying what they would have said given what they are. And that means that these speeches are an insight into the things that move these people. For all we know, they may not have been explicit as these speeches are. There’s a very dramatic one right at the beginning, the one you just referred to. And the Greeks are big talkers. And so they, and remember, when we spoke of Herodotus, I recounted, or I read to you a speech that Mardonius, the commanding general of the Persians, makes to Xerxes, and it’s so fawning and odd to the Western ear. And of course, if you have to fawn over the ultimate decision maker, it impedes reasoning. The Greeks are not like that at all. The Greeks walk in and state their case, and proclaim their virtues, and lay out and parse out the situation. And it’s my duty is this, and my right is this, and I’ve got this power, and you can’t stand up against it. And then the reply, okay, but we’re not going to give up just because you say that. We have a great free city ourselves, and we’re in the right here. And if you do this to us, then we’re going to go do this thing to you. And they reason like that, and they’re about to kill each other. But first, they talk, and they talk candidly. And this gives Thucydides, and for all we know, this is what they did, but it strikes us as very odd, but you know, to denounce and enemy and to state your own claims, and appeal to his good nature and self-interest, very common in these speeches. And they permit Thucydides to draw a picture of what is in the souls of these people, what makes them act the way they do.

HH: Next week, we’re going to have to come and dwell on these two ambassadors contending for the alliance with Athens. But before we run out of time this week, I have two specific questions early on. The first is Thucydides sort of condemns the Athenians as the first to lay aside their weapons and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life. And indeed it is only lately that their rich, old men led off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen. He contrasts that with the Spartans, who an example of contend naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with their gymnastic exercises. And then he goes on to talk about Agamemnon. I mean, he just goes way back and says Agamemnon couldn’t actually get the Greeks to follow him out of love. They did so out of fear. So even at the very beginning, though, is he telegraphing his punch that the Athenians lost because they were soft?

LA: Well, you know, they fought mighty well, and for a long time for a soft people, but yes.

HH: (laughing) I got a yes out of Larry Arnn. I’m happy.

LA: (laughing) It was, to be soft compared to the Spartans is not necessarily to be very soft. And the greatness of the Spartans is just awesome, and they do eventually win the war. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But it’s a tragedy, too. We’re studying here, let me make this point. One of the reasons that Thucydides thinks that this is the greatest story to be told, and he’s telling it in the greatest possible way, is because of the greatness of these peoples. They are the greatest people in the history of man, and look what they gave rise to, and we’re talking about them today on the radio.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And his argument is when you see them under stress against each other, especially in these speeches, they are telling you what they are, what makes them what they are. And the Athenians do not come across as soft. They come across as arrogant. And what they think is they begin a war in an unbeatable condition. That’s what they think. And the Spartans do not think that. And I can tell you, read Winston Churchill. You will never find him talking the way Pericles talks, or the Athenians customarily talk about the fact that they cannot be beaten.

HH: I have to ask you this. It’s the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Was there a little of Athens in America at the time?

LA: Well, I think the mistake, George Bush is a humble man, but both George Bush’s who invaded Iraq, but I think they didn’t know enough history, and I think they let themselves get carried away. I had a conversation with a high functionary in the Bush administration, in the White House one day, and he said do you believe in freedom for Iraq? And I said yes. And he said but? I said hard to do. He said but they want it, don’t they? I said, Lord, do you think that’s dispositive? First of all, it’s not clear that they want it in the same way we do, but have you read the beginning of the Federalist Papers? It’s all about the conditions that make an unusual opportunity for freedom in America. I think we thought that it was just going to be automatic.

HH: And the Athenians? Did they think it was going to be automatic?

LA: Oh, did they not? And about that, we can go on and on.

HH: Oh, we could. I don’t know how many weeks we will do this, but you’re right. I skipped over Herodotus, because I liked this book. But we will have fun. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you. The History Of The Peloponnesian War, the Landmark Thucydides is the one you want to go to and pick up as I will do right now if you want to read along with us. And all of our dialogues are available at, or And remember our first segment. Someone needs to build a chapel at Hillsdale. Someone needs to build a chapel as Sydney Poitier did for the nuns in the valley in Lilies Of The Field.

End of interview.


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