The Examining Life

Episode 12: Thucydides and Herodotus

Welcome to "The Examining Life," a podcast of the Arts of Liberty Project. Hosted by Drs. Jeffrey Lehman and Andrew Seeley, the podcast covers both works from the Western tradition and contemporary events of interest. Lively, personal, and timely, "The Examining Life" contributes to the renewal of liberal education.

Why do we study history? How do ancient and modern historians approach the study? In this episode, Dr. Andrew J. Zwerneman, president and founder of Cana Academy, joins Dr. Seeley to learn from the thoughts of Thucydides and Herodotus. They reveal differences between these historians and compare classical and modern ideas of history.

About our guest - Andrew J. Zwerneman

Our guest for this episode is Andrew J. Zwerneman, founder and president of Cana Academy. He wrote History Forgotten and Remembered (2020) and The Life We Have Together: A Case for Humane Studies, A Vision for Renewal (2022).

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Podcast Colloquy Excerpt

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, excerpt from the introduction

The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever. The general Athenian public fancy that Hipparchus was tyrant when he fell by the hands of Harmodius and Aristogiton, not knowing that Hippias, the eldest of the sons of Pisistratus, was really supreme, and that Hipparchus and Thessalus were his brothers; and that Harmodius and Aristogiton suspecting, on the very day, nay at the very moment fixed on for the deed, that information had been conveyed to Hippias by their accomplices, concluded that he had been warned, and did not attack him, yet, not liking to be apprehended and risk their lives for nothing, fell upon Hipparchus near the temple of the daughters of Leos, and slew him as he was arranging the Panathenaic procession.

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. Turning from these, we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity. To come to this war: despite the known disposition of the actors in a struggle to overrate its importance, and when it is over to return to their admiration of earlier events, yet an examination of the facts will show that it was much greater than the wars which preceded it.

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

Herodotus’ The History, excerpt from the beginning:

This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including, among others, what was the cause of their waging war on each other.

Podcast Resources

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Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War

Read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War online for free here. Or purchase the excellent Landmark Thucydides, which is filled with maps, and helpful summaries

Herodotus’ The History

Read Herodotus’ The History online for free here. Or purchase the excellent Landmark Herodotus, which is filled with maps, and helpful summaries

Aristotle’s Poetics

Although Aristotle did not write extensively on history, he recorded some insights into history in his Poetics. Read the Poetics for free online here.

Narrative Histories

Dr. Zwerneman recommended the American narrative histories of three authors. Learn about them and find their work at these links: Gordon Wood, James Macpherson, and David McCullough.

History Textbooks

Dr. Zwerneman recommended The Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred McClay and  The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan.

Lincoln’s Second Annual Message

Lincoln called the American congress the “last best hope of earth.” This is in the final paragraph of his Second Annual Message to Congress.

National Symposium for Classical Education

The annual National Symposium for Classical Education brings together over 600 school leaders to deepen their understanding of liberal education.