Do We Really Know Our History?

Thucydides | The Core Curriculum

Thucydides (an honest historian admits his limitations)

This reflection by Thucydides (b. 460 B.C.) has been much on my mind lately.

Thucydides wrote a history of the great war between Athens and Sparta. He was uniquely qualified to write it: he served as a general in Athens’ army, had survived the plague that struck Athens during the war, and had many contacts in other cities’ armies. After the war, he traveled around Greece, interviewing men who’d played a role in the war. He did everything a modern historian would do. His only purpose was to find out what had really happened. Really.

But at the end of all his labor, he had to admit that the history he’d written was nothing more than his own best effort, and certainly not the full story of the war. He confesses to his readers that his own memory, and the memories of others, was not a 100% reliable guide to events. What he has, he tells us, is no more than the best that he could do: there are bound to be errors in it, and holes.

When some, er, scholar tells us he’s got the whole story locked down, he knows what really happened long ago, he knows what it meant…

Don’t believe him. Thucydides wouldn’t.

3 comments on “Do We Really Know Our History?

  1. Humility is a powerful thing. Ron Chernow does a good job in his history books because he has access to original writings and letters of those he is writing about. I highly recommend his books.

    1. Thucydides always tried to get first-hand information. He found that people don’t always tell the truth, or remember accurately.

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