The Significance and Implications of Assumptions

June 29, 2018 Theology

Herodotus, the so called ‘father of history’, has stark contrast to Thucydides, the so called ‘father of Realpolitik’, on the way of how they interpret the historical causation. In general, Herodotus involves an extensive amount of theology to manifest his moral pedagogy; in contrast, Thucydides contempts on the unreasonable exaggeration of the function of the gods, and sticks to the scientific facts and forms the model of truthful history. Herodotus emphasizes the significance of three aspects – human hubris, fate, and the Gods — which he assumes to be the causation of the historic event.

This belief is given substance by the Croesus’s downfall which caused by the mixture of the above aspects. First of all, the failure of Croesus’s invasion of Persia is a doomed fate, because the priestess of the Shrine added that the Heraclids would have their revenge on Gyges in the fifth generation (I. 14). Secondly, the greedy and the insolent nature of Croesus caused him to misinterpret the Delphic Oracle by the lacking of further inquiry and prodded him to expand his territory by the military invasion.

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Lastly, the Gods also wielded power to punish Croesus by dooming the early death of his son, probably because what as Solon said – Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him. (I . 32) So then, the collapse of Lydia is due to the doomed fate of Croesus, the human hubris, and the involvement of the gods. By emphasizing the doomed fate of Croesus, Herodotus represents a theme of compensation and retribution that means those violations of custom and justice will be paid at once, or in the future.

This moral lesson permeates through his work. For instance, the immoral behavior of the usurper Gyges, the used bodyguard of the Lydian King Candaules, led his descendant King Croesus to pay the retribution. This retributive injustice stimulates the progression of history. To some extent, the Gods are considered as agents who will preside and maintain the secular order. It is more likely when someone commits a crime, the balance between evil and good will be destroyed, and then the god will punish him, force him or his consanguinity to pay back.

This assumption also sustains the significance of the existence of the Gods. Meanwhile, men’s reaction to the oracle may also lead to the occurrence of certain events. This belief is supported by the example of Astyages. Astyages, the King of Mede, tried to prevent his grandson to usurp his throne, which was told by dreams, by sending his trustful kinsman Harpagus to kill the child. Unfortunately, the child escaped and survived as a herdsman’s son. After he knew the truth, his wrath and grudge led him towards revenge and finally destroy Lydia.

In fact, Astyages’s reaction to the oracle leads him to ruin his future step by step. The first mistake he made was to marry his daughter to a Persian, who he thought was in the lower-rank of Lydia and thus powerless to run riot. However, this decent eventually provided his grandson (later named Cyrus) the qualification to command the Persian army. Astyages, though, made all efforts to avoid the fate, a fate that is somehow unchangeable. This is a direct instance of how the fate powerfully exerts its influence on the movement of history.

Herodotus views history as a source of moral education, and perceives the gods as effective agents in human history. On the contrary, Thucydides refers the existence of the divine merely to the needs of political life. The gods are seen as existing only in the minds of men, adjusting to their own motivations. In The Melian Dialogue, the Athenian demonstrate their will to conquer Melos in the name of the gods. They say ‘our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule wherever one can. (Book Five 102) The Athenian consider the principle of the gods gives right to every powerful state to expand its land, and they use it to persuade the weaker island, such as Melos, to surrender. Moreover, Thucydides likewise diminishes the function of oracles, and investigates it as a case of people adapting their memories to conform their misfortune. For example, in The Plague, Thucydides mentions the controversy of the use of the word in the old oracle, which said: War with the Dorians comes, and a death will come at the same time.

He states that the word ‘death’ may also be ‘dearth’ which cannot be verified owing to the loss of documents. And only because the plague falls upon the Athenian, then they tend to adjust the oracle to suit what they suffered. Thucydides’ cautious attitude towards the adoption of oracles indicates his historical method is constrained to factual reports of contemporary events, based on eyewitness accounts. Since The Peloponnesian War is focused on the wartime politics, Thucydides has a deeper understanding of the causes of war. This understanding seems to eliminate customary sentiment and morality.

In The Melian Dialogue, when it comes to the reason behind the military invasion of Melos, the Athenian insist the failure to attack the neutral country would be the sign of weakness to the Athenian’s enemy; rather, its hatred will be the evidence of their power. Meanwhile, the Melos’s alliance with the Spartan is unstable because of every state is seeking self-interest. And the self-interest follows the natural instinct to maintain safety, whereas the pursuit of justice and honor involves one in danger; therefore, once the danger is concerned, the Spartan won’t be so reckless to support someone who is too weak to be considered as fragile.

In short, the causation of war in Thucydides’ s opinion is not justice but the balance of power. Once one nation is weak, it will be conquered by a state stronger than him, and be exploited to as a resource to combat with other powerful nations. It is wild contended that Herodotus’ writing is too theological to become an imaginative novel. But even this level of religious explanation, and the involvement of fate or nemesis, cannot substitute human motivation.

Instead, the human motivation composes the psychological stimulation of certain momentous actions. Turning to Thucydides’s work, it is easy to find a grand-scale amalgamation of the deepest reason for war, which explains why the Athenian keeps strengthening their rival by forcing neutral country to become their enemy. The Athenian’s lacking emphasis on morality and tolerance led them to lose the dominant state when combating with the Spartan. The scientific and reasonable investigation of Thucydides brings a new method of finding historical causation.


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