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Monday, July 9, 2012

“The Peloponnesian War”, by Donald Kagan


511 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670032112

Donald Kagan is the foremost authority on the Peloponnesian War, having authored a comprehensive four-volume history on the subject. But perhaps more importantly, Professor Kagan is also a wonderful storyteller. Do not be intimidated by the length of the book, or its topic. The subject matter is extremely rich and interesting – just because something happened 2,500 years ago doesn't mean it's boring. On the contrary, one of Prof. Kagan's strengths, both as a teacher and a writer, is his ability to make relevant the events of the past, not through strained parallels and comparisons, but through a deep understanding of human nature.

The Peloponnesian War reminds many of the major conflicts of the 20th Century, and some of those comparisons are quite illuminating. For example, the showdown between the two “superpowers” of the era, Athens and Sparta, reminds many of the Cold War, and there are indeed many intriguing similarities. Professor Kagan, who has written about such comparisons at length (see On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace), understands these parallels as clearly as anyone. But focusing on these parallels to make distant events appear relevant is, to him, unnecessary. His view, which I share, is that the Peloponnesian War does not need to be made relevant; it IS relevant, because of the unchanging character of human nature and human problems. If you expect this book to be filled with statements like “President Bush is just like Pericles because…” you will be disappointed. What you will get, however, is much more valuable.

Observing how people have dealt with the crises of the past makes us more intelligent observers of the present, not because all situations are exactly the same in their details, but because human hopes, fears, and needs are fairly constant across history. It is this insight that Prof. Kagan brings to bear so effectively in his work. One of Prof. Kagan's favorite quotes from Thucydides states that nations (or city-states, as the case may be) are motivated by three things: “fear, honor, and interest.” It is Prof. Kagan's view that this assertion is as true today as it was in 431 B.C. Nations have always sought to protect themselves from those they fear, maintain their national pride, and further their interests. In the process, of course, they must contend with internal and external forces – internal dissent, military rivalries, reluctant allies - forcing the leadership to make crucial choices about which path to pursue as they seek the optimal outcome for their nation. To any observer of recent events, this process would seem very familiar. And that is as it should be, for it is from this process that history unfolds.

Understanding how nations and their leaders pursue their goals, make their decisions, and perceive the world around them is what makes reading history interesting. By choosing the Peloponnesian War as your case-study, and Donald Kagan as your guide, you will have one of the most interesting reading experiences you are ever likely to have.

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