The End of a Civilization: What Moderns Might Learn from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War
Authors: G. A. McBrayer
Abstract: Thucydides self-consciously presents the Peloponnesian War as the greatest war the world had ever seen to that point in history, insofar as it was a contest between the two greatest Greek powers—Athens and Sparta—at the peak of Greek Civilization. The war, however, would mark the beginning of the end of this great civilization. Although Thucydides does not unequivocally blame Athens for the war that ultimately leads to the destruction of Greece, it is clear that he thinks Athenian devotion to motion, or to the perpetual pursuit of progress, spurred it on. Thucydides appears to lament the great expansion of education, in particular the sophistic education that became prevalent in Greece and contributed heavily to the theoretical justification behind the Athenian Empire. Even or especially education at its highest—Socratic philosophy—seems to bear some culpability for, or is at least symptomatic of, Athens’ decline, and ultimately Greece’s decline as well, in Thucydides’ view. This paper will examine Thucydides' teaching regarding the decline of civilization to see if it can offer any guidance to the current crisis of civilization in the West.
Keywords: Thucydides, Pericles, Diodotus, Alcibiades, Civilization, Athens, Empire, Sophistry, Philosophy
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