Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's all Greek to me.

While at one of America's mega-monopolizing book stores today I picked up some new brain food:

Closeup of Vase
Image Source
Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.
Man, sounds like they had some real Tea-Partiers on their hands in the days of "hallowed antiquity". 

Yes, I'm going to read Thucidydes' History of the Peloponnesian War.  I'm actually doing a good bit more.  I'm embarking on a personal study of the war based upon three books:

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan, widely considered the definitive, single-volume source for the "general reader" looking to understand the event.  It is still around 500 pages -  a decent chunk by anyone's standards.  From it I hope to get a reasonable understanding of the conditions that led to the war between Athens and Sparta and, as the book boldly promises, lessons and insights that are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago.

The next book I plan to read is A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson.  Definitely a controversial author for his conservative views and support for the war in Iraq, Hanson is nonetheless one of the foremost military historians in the country.  This book examines how both sides fought - on land and on sea, weapons, organization, tactics, etc. - within a somewhat disjointed (he admits as much in the preface) accounting of the history itself.  

Finally, there is The Landmark Thucydides edited by R. B. Strassler, apparently the only amateur of the bunch.  Unlike other translations, this has additional notes and appendices by classical scholars that will help put the text into context for the "uninitiated" reader.  I used a similar annotated text when I read Clausewitz last year, and On War is only 150 years old, so I figure if I'm going back to Greece in the 5th Century B.C., I'll need much the same.  My plan, in reading the above two books (which reference Thucydides extensively) is to refer to Strassler as a primary source to go back to and do all the extensive digging and thinking when I feel the need to do so.

I know I'm getting it backwards, I should probably read the primary source first.  But as many academics will tell you, you smash your brain against the primary source only to finish it wondering "What the fuck did I just read?" until your secondary sources shed light.  I'm not in school anymore, so I'm running straight for the light.

Why am I subjecting myself to this?  Because Daniel Drezner told me I should.  Well, not exactly.  I have, however, deepened my interest in history in the year I was away from the blogosphere, and also gained a new interest in strategy, policy and decision-making, both historic and current.  And to tell you the truth, in much of what I studied over the past year (unfortunately I did not get to study the Peloponnesian War) does echo still today.

In fact, my interest in these topics has expanded so much that I'm planning on writing about them more often, as part of a new policy think-tank.  I think I'll call it:

The R'lyeh Institute for Policy, Strategy and Highly Incomplete Thinking, or RIPSHIT.  Look for it, coming soon...

4 comments:

Beach Bum said...

Was able to audit a course at the University of South Carolina not too long ago on Mycenaean Greece,it was fascinating but I found myself hooked less on the Trojan War and Homer than on the civilization's collapse.

Did read a little about later periods including the Peloponnesian but never got very deep. Will have to pick up Kagan's book though, always looking for something to read that might help my understanding of the current cluster fu@k.

Just wondering, did you ever read "Dreadnought" By Robert Massie?

Chef Cthulhu said...

BB - Wow - you went waaaaaaay back.

I am remiss in not having read Massie's book yet and I need to get it on my list.

briwei said...

I can think. And I like tanks! Can I join?

Chef Cthulhu said...

@Briwei help is always good and you, my old friend, would be most welcome!