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On Rereading Thucydides
by [?]

For Sparta, on the other hand, life was nothing but endless work, an incessant strain, having no other objective than war. She was gloomy, austere, strict, morose, almost ascetic, an enemy to everything that excuses man’s presence on this earth, a nation of spoilers, looters, incendiaries and devastators, a nest of wasps beside a swarm of bees, a perpetual menace and danger to everything around her, as hard upon herself as upon others and boasting an ideal which may appear lofty, if it can be man’s ideal to be unhappy and the contented slave of unrelenting discipline. On the other hand, she differed entirely from those whom we are now fighting in that she was generally honest, loyal and upright and showed a certain respect for the gods and their temples, for treaties and for international law. It is none the less true that, if she had from the beginning reigned alone or without encountering a long resistance, Hellas would never have been the Hellas that we know. She would have left in history but a precarious trace of useless warlike virtues and of minor combats without glory; and mankind would not have possessed that centre of light towards which it turns to this day.

What was to be the issue of this war? Here begins the lesson which it were well to study thoroughly. It would seem indeed as if, with the first encounters in that conflict, as in our own, the inexplicable will that governs nations was favourable to the less civilized; and in fact Lacedaemon gained the upper hand, at least temporarily and sufficiently to abuse her victory to such a degree that she soon lost its fruits. But Athens held the evil will in check for seven-and-twenty years; for twenty-seven summers and twenty-seven winters, to use Thucydides’ reckoning, she proved to us that it is possible, in defiance of probability, to fight against what seems written in the book of heaven and hell. Nay more, at a time when Sparta, whose sole industry, whose sole training, whose only reason for existence and whose only ideal was war, was hugging the thought of crushing in a few weeks, under the weight of her formidable hoplites, a frivolous, careless and ill-organized city, Athens, notwithstanding the treacherous blow which fate dealt her by sending a plague that carried off a third of her civil population and a quarter of her army, Athens for seventeen years definitely held victory in her grasp.

During this period, she more than once had Lacedaemon at her mercy and did not begin to descend the stony path of ruin and defeat until after the disastrous expedition to Sicily, in which, carried away by her rhetoricians and bitten with inconceivable folly, she hurled all her fleet, all her soldiers and all her wealth into a remote, unprofitable, unknown and desperate adventure. She resisted the decline of her fortunes for yet another ten years, heaping up her sins against wisdom and simple common sense and with her own hands drawing tighter the knot that was to strangle her, as though to show us that destiny is for the most part but our own madness and that what we call unavoidable fatality has its root only in mistakes that might easily be avoided.

To point this moral was again not my real object. In these days when we have so many sorrows to assuage and so many deaths to honour, I wished merely to recall a page written over two thousand years ago, to the glory of the Athenian heroes who fell for their country in the first battles of that war. According to the custom of the Greeks, the bones of the dead that had been burnt on the battlefield were solemnly brought back to Athens at the end of the year; and the people chose the greatest speaker in the city to deliver the funeral oration. This honour fell to Pericles, son of Xanthippus, the Pericles of the golden age of human beauty. After pronouncing a well-merited and magnificent eulogium on the Athenian nation and institutions, he concluded with the following words: