Thucydides Had It Right

In last week’s message I mentioned how I am working my way through the book written by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. When I say that I am working my way through this book you can understand that to mean that it is not an easy read. Maybe that’s just an admission that I lack the intellectual power of these two Harvard dons, but in all honesty, I think they could have benefitted from a better editor.

Of course my assumption is that they intended to be understood by their readers. There are too many casual asides and oblique insertions into the middle of sentences, which could have enhanced the text by being omitted. Such an excision would likely have reduced the book by a third and in that estimation you can easily see how I view needless excess as obscuring needed content. Still, I like what they have to say about how to properly use history in current decision making. One simply must endure the miasma of sentence structure to reap the benefits of their and one’s own efforts.

I am near the end of the book and the chapter in which they summarize their strategy for using history begins with a quote from Thucydides, the Athenian general and historian. They do this to underscore their belief, which I do share, that history has value. The quote they include from the great man and thinker is but a fragment of his introduction to his account of the internal Greek conflict known as the Peloponnesian War. He wrote in part … those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future.

Now, having said all I said about the two authors being needlessly verbose in their writing, I am forced to say that here is a case where they said too little. Less is definitely not more. In fact they quoted too little. By eliminating the first part of what Thucydides said, we miss the full value of his own point about the uses of history in decision making.

What preceded his affirmation that we will find ourselves facing the same types of situations as those who lived before us is that 1) his account is factual, lacking any fanciful myths and speculations, and 2) as such we may find the truth unpleasant. In other words human behavior can really suck, but the value in the telling is to do it honestly so that we will be better prepared to respond in a more constructive way and not repeat past mistakes.

These are troubling times. They are made all the harder by the plethora of commentary, which has supplanted the news being broadcast these days. We the people would be better served if the rule of Thucydides prevailed with his modern day counterparts in the media. Facts, however unpleasant to ponder, are prerequisites for solving one’s problems. We get, it seems, fragments of true information, which is buffered by personal and sometimes wild speculations on what those chosen fragments mean.

If the great man were present he would tell us that this type of reporting is not new. We are, in fact, simply witnessing history repeating itself in terms of how events are reported and shaded to serve the reporter’s interest and not our own.

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