My favourite book of all time is Herodotus’s Histories. It is the first historical narrative ever written and tells the story of how our way of life was preserved in the face of a Persian invasion in the fifth century BC.
What brings this to mind is Tim Blair’s discussion of our Prime Minister in a post Tim has titled, AUSTRALIA’S LEADING THUCYDIOT. I have also read Thucydides but it’s not as pleasant a story since the wrong side won. Nevertheless, I had taught my children this one sentence from Thucydides almost from the time they could talk: “What made war inevitable was the growing power of Athens and the fear this caused in Sparta”. From Tim we find a sequence of Malcolm quotes about (not from) Thucydides of which this was the last:
“White reminds us that Thucydides, considering the several incidents that led to the Peloponnesian War, concluded that the real reason was Sparta’s growing anxiety about the rise of Athenian wealth and power.”
I’m not sure what the Prime Minister wishes us to learn from these quotes, but I will tell you one I have learned from reading the book. No matter how rich and powerful a civilisation is, it can lose everything if it is not capable of defending itself and is willing to do so.
Herodotus tells an earlier story about the defence of the West. Had the Persians defeated the Greeks all those 2500 years ago our Western civilisation, with its rational, philosophical and scientific approach to the world, would have disappeared there and then.
The question that really comes to mind is whether our PM, even as he quotes Thucydides, understands what the issues are in the war in the Middle East that we are in the midst of right now. The point about reading history is to give you insights into the permanent struggles of humans to preserve their way of life in the face of dangers that inevitably confront them. Here is the Western leader who decided not to increase Australia’s commitment in fighting the Islamic State even when asked to do so by the most relentlessly useless leader in American history:
“The Peloponnesian war lives on in our imagination, inspiring (and misleading) generations of statesmen and generals simply because of the quality of Thucydides’ history.”
The one thought that would never come to my mind from reading Thucydides is “inspiring”. It might fascinate you, or educate you, or terrify you. It might get you to spend a lot more time on building national defences, and in working out who our enemies are and how to deal with them. There is nothing about how the PM goes about his business that makes me think he has the slightest idea about any of the things that the Peloponnesian war ought to teach a national leader. Meantime he should go and read Herodotus and find out what a close run thing it was the first time our civilisation was confronted with an existential enemy and what had to be done to maintain our way of life.
UPDATE: From the local paper, perhaps of enduring interest:
Scientists have found grisly evidence of a massacre in Kenya about 10,000 years ago, providing rare evidence of violence between groups in ancient hunter-gatherer societies.
Researchers said the discovery casts light on the poorly understood roots of warfare.
Evidence of violence appeared in 10 of 12 relatively complete fossil skeletons the scientists found by what used to be the edge of a lagoon. That included five or six cases of apparent arrow wounds to the head or neck, and five cases where the head was smashed with something like a club. One skull had a sharpened stone still embedded.
The researchers said the wounds would have been fatal immediately or soon thereafter.
Two skeletons didn’t show evidence of violence but the position of the hands suggested they might have been tied up at the time of death. One was a woman who was pregnant or had recently given birth.
The 12 bodies were adults, and at least four were female. The site also revealed partial remains of at least 15 other people.
The 2012 discovery, made west of Lake Turkana, was reported by scientists at Cambridge University and elsewhere. Writing in a paper released Wednesday by the journal Nature, they said it’s one of the clearest cases of violence between groups among prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
The reason for the violence is not clear. The victims may have been raided for resources, like territory or food stored in pots, the researchers said. Or the violence may have resulted from antagonism between two groups, they said.
I love that last para, about a massacre that occurred 10,000 years ago. I won’t say that they had been attacked by ISIS, but near enough if you can see how human nature continues to play out.