Harrison Middleton University

The Opinion of a Historian

The Opinion of a Historian

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


April 9, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Today’s post is a brief look at translation and word choice in Thucydides. Both small sections from The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book IV, Chapter XII, furnish a glimpse of the author’s opinion. Though Thucydides set out to write a history of the war, and very conscientiously presents two balanced sides of the story, he cannot avoid opinion.

For this reason, it is difficult to know how to read The History of the Peloponnesian War. I used to think that history was a collection of facts, and while this book contains facts, it also gives opinions. Merriam-Webster defines history as (among other things): “a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.” I find that understanding the explanations of the causes will likely differ depending on whose side you are on. Therefore, I ponder Thucydides’ opinions as places of value in the text.

Thucydides clearly wanted to document the Peloponnesian War, perhaps because of the nature of civil war. Therefore, many of the speeches that he describes are evenly matched. However, there are moments when Thucydides directs attention to an opinion. Is he writing this with a greater warning in mind? Are warnings such as these implicit in the study of history? Does he overreach the role of historian by interjecting his opinion, or is it perfectly reasonable to interject opinions?

These events are now so remote from us, that they can be difficult to follow. However, the more that I read, the more I realize that they are perfectly consistent with today’s human nature. We seem to be repeating the same mistakes. For that reason alone, reading Thucydides’ History is worth the effort. More than reading alone, however, I urge you to try to find a spot where he includes an opinion. Though it can be subtle, the two instances that follow provide an idea of how to read his History with this in mind.

I chose to incorporate more than one translation in order to confirm my opinion that these sections include Thucydides’ opinion, and not that of a translator. The first translation is by Thomas Hobbes in 1843. Some of the language is outdated (such as hither and spake, both subjects of a future blog on language), but still very readable. The second is a translation by Richard Crawley, also used in the Great Books of the Western World, and first published as a complete work in 1874.

The first group of quotations below concerns a speech by the Lacedaemonions to the Athenians upon the agreement of their truce. It warns the Athenians not to be overly proud of their recent good luck. Crawley translates Thucydides’ sentiment as “grasping,” which is used twice to underscore Thucydides’ point. Separated by about a page later, Thucydides confirms (with seeming frustration) that the Athenians disregarded the message and grasped ambitiously. Grasp is not a noble verb. It does not connote virtue or strength. Rather, Thucydides wants the reader to note that the Athenians acted in a manner opposed to virtue (and also opposed to long term success). Hobbes uses the phrase “hope to aspire to greater fortune,” instead of “grasp.” Looking for fortune alone, again, does not speak of nobility and virtue.

In the second set of quotations below, Thucydides laments Cleon’s power by claiming that “wiser” men (Hobbes) or “sensible” men (Crawley) hope to see Cleon lose the battle. In both cases, Thucydides claims that the wise see only folly in following Cleon.

1a] Thomas Hobbes’ translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 17. This contains a warning to the Athenians: “It is now in your power to assure your present good fortune with reputation, holding what you have, with the addition of honour and glory besides, and to avoid that which befalleth men upon extraordinary success, who through hope aspire to greater fortune because the fortune they have already came unhoped for. [5] Whereas they that have felt many changes of both fortunes ought indeed to be most suspicious of the good. So ought your city, and ours especially, upon experience in all reason to be.”

1b] Richard Crawley’s translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 17. This contains a warning to the Athenians: “You can now, if you choose, employ your present success to advantage, so as to keep what you have got and gain honour and reputation besides, and you can avoid the mistake of those who meet with an extraordinary piece of good fortune, and are led on by hope to grasp continually at something further, through having already succeeded without expecting it. While those who have known most vicissitudes of good and bad, have also justly least faith in their prosperity; and to teach your city and ours this lesson experience has not been wanting.”

2a] Thomas Hobbes’ translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 21. Thucydides laments the Athenians’ choice by reiterating the verb from the warning above.: “Thus spake the Lacedaemonians, thinking that in times past the Athenians had coveted peace and been hindered of it by them, and that being now offered, they would gladly accept of it. But they, having these men intercepted in the island, thought they might compound at pleasure and aspired to greater matters.”

2b] Richard Crawley’s translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 21. Thucydides laments the Athenians’ choice by reiterating the verb from the warning above.: “Such were the words of the Lacedaemonians, their idea being that the Athenians, already desirous of a truce and only kept back by their opposition, would joyfully accept a peace freely offered, and give back the men. The Athenians, however, having the men on the island, thought that the treaty would be ready for them whenever they chose to make it, and grasped at something further.”

3a] Thomas Hobbes’ translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 28: “This vain speech moved amongst the Athenians some laughter, and was heard with great content of the wiser sort. For of two benefits, the one must needs fall out: either to be rid of Cleon (which was their greatest hope) or, if they were deceived in that, then to get those Lacedaemonians into their hands.”

3b] Richard Crawley’s translation of Book IV, Chapter XII, section 28: “The Athenians could not help laughing at his fatuity, while sensible men comforted themselves with the reflection that they must gain in either circumstance; either they would be rid of Cleon, which they rather hoped, or if disappointed in this expectation, would reduce the Lacedaemonians.”

Opinions like these sneak into the text at random moments and are worth a little bit of time and attention. They anchor me to points in the text at which I can further investigate Thucydides’ argument. Often, they echo human nature today.

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