“History” (395 BC) by Thucydides, as put into English by Thomas Hobbes, is one of the books that has most affected me. It is a history of the war between Athens and Sparta some 400 years before Christ. Thucydides not only lived at that time, he fought in the war itself on the side of Athens.
Thucydides taught me that human nature is the same in all countries and all ages. That men are driven chiefly by self-interest, that they use morals and fine words to dress up their sins. That you have to read between the lines. That empire has a dark side.
Hobbes’s English, meanwhile, taught me that writing in English is not about using long words, that things can be said more powerfully and clearly with ordinary words – that, in fact, long words are used more to cover up the truth than to show it.
I read it cover-to-cover at about the same time I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”, a book about white rule in Antigua. This made many of the same points about the nature of power and how to use English, giving yet more force to those points.
Further, I learned from Thucydides, as from George Orwell and James Baldwin, that the duty of the writer is to write the truth as clearly as possible. The truth plainly stated is far more valuable than lies decorated.
I had never fought in a war or lived through one, thank God. Thucydides would probably mean something very different to me if I had. But at the time I was living in a violent part of New York at the height of the Crack Era in the days of Reagan and Bush the Elder. And I lived in a land where I was told that the colour of a man’s skin affects his character and intelligence. It was this book, more than any other, that helped me to make sense of that.
That might seem odd but it is not. Thucydides says flat out that he is writing for the ages – and yet he knows that the war he is writing about will be forgotten in a few hundred years. Because he is not so much writing about the war itself – like how Churchill wrote about the Second World War – but is using the war as an example to show what men are like deep down, of how they act and why.
Right near the beginning of the the book is a speech by Pericles about how wonderful Athens is. But as the war pushes on each of his pretty words break – because they were lies about the true nature of Athens, a heartless power machine.
What I saw on television and learned at school did not match the America I knew. Thucydides helped me to see through the self-serving lies. He taught me that I have to see with my own two eyes and think with my own brain, that received truths are most often received lies.