“War is a Stern Teacher”: The Academy According to Thucydides

Where To Begin?

When tracing the origins of today’s academic chaos, many point to the social upheaval that rocked America in the 1960s and ‘70s. Others go a bit further back, detailing the rise of the Frankfurt School in 1930s Germany and the ensuing tidal wave of critical theory that has since engulfed much of the academy. Still more highlight the undeniable influence of Karl Marx on today’s ivory-tower revolutionaries, one that forces all of reality into a strained oppressor–oppressed framework. And who can forget the French Revolution, during which the seemingly noble ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité led to massive bloodshed and societal unrest?

While all of these are important landmarks in the academic Left’s storied lineage, the roots of our present predicament go back much, much further than the 18th century. In fact, what if I told you that we can see them unambiguously in the 5th century BC? That’s right—even the ancient Greeks, who we properly admire in many ways, suffered from the very same ills that plague modern American higher education.

This struck me as I was reading Thucydides’ seminal work, History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s my first time reading the book (I was supposed to read it during college, but my priorities were out of whack), and while the detailed descriptions of battle after battle can be a slog, Thucydides’ lucid social commentary expressed through his own observations and through recounted speeches has rightly stood the test of time. His penetrating analyses catalog universal truths about human nature and, as I found, provide an almost prophetic description of today’s academy. The relevant quotes are too many to list—I’ll present a few that struck me as especially prescient.

Setting the Stage

But first, a little context: The Peloponnesian War was, of course, the epic conflict between the Delian League, led by Athens, and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, from 431–404 BC. Thucydides himself was an Athenian general and is considered to be the father of so-called “scientific history,” that is, history that does not appeal to divine intervention and other supernatural occurrences as does the work of his predecessor, Herodotus. The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides argues, was the greatest war in Greek history to date, even greater than the two major wars—the Trojan War and the Persian War—which preceded it.

By Book III, from which I will quote, the war is well underway, with both sides enjoying significant victories and suffering major losses. Neither side has a clear advantage at this point (spoiler alert: Sparta wins), so the battles are essentially tit-for-tat, my-turn-your-turn encounters.

With the war in its fifth year, the subjugated states of Athens and Sparta were growing weary of the conflict. This led to a series of social revolutions sparked by Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), an Athenian ally that experienced a civil war between the democrats, who favored sticking with Athens, and the oligarchs, who wanted to turn tail and join the Peloponnesian League. Many more states went on to endure similar revolutions, which in turn brought about a deterioration of the social order and of, as we will see, the Greek character itself.

The Anatomy of a Revolution

We see in Thucydides’ account the anatomy of a revolution. These parts, when put together, will destroy higher education (and the nation) in no time. First, civility is worn down by the necessities of war:

In the various cities these revolutions were the cause of many calamities—as happens and always will happen while human nature is what it is, though there may be different degrees of savagery, and, as different circumstances arise, the general rules will admit of some variety. In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher … (3.82)

A time of peace, prosperity, and higher standards. Sound familiar? American academia has never been perfect, to be sure, but I’d say that describes the first 300 years or so of its history, ever since Harvard was founded in 1636. As I recently wrote, these first schools were expressly Christian institutions, so there was a solid foundation upon which rigorous scholarship could be pursued. Come the 20th century, though, that would begin to crumble.

[Related: “Reading Franklin in the Revolution”]

Next, Thucydides explains, the revolution spreads like wildfire:

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. (Ibid.)

I’m not sure if anyone can pinpoint which academic institution or which field, if any, was the first to succumb to the siren song of progressivism. But surely, once it began, would-be revolutionaries at other universities felt emboldened by the brave comrades who came before them. Even now, it seems that leftist faculty and students are trying to outdo each other in who can be the most zealous and who can cancel the fastest—in other words, who can commit the latest “unheard-of atrocities of revenge.”

Thucydides then keys in on the war of the words that always accompanies these sorts of revolutions:

To fit with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. (Ibid.)

Today’s academic insurgents similarly treat language like Silly Putty, molding it to serve whatever ends they wish. Ruining a man’s career and taking away his livelihood is now called “accountability.” Mainstream conservative views are now “hate speech” and “literal white supremacy,” but staying silent is “violence.” Maiming and sterilizing young women through puberty blockers and mastectomies is now “gender-affirming care.” I could go on, but I’m starting to feel queasy—I think you get the point.

We also see the roots of intellectual conformity when Thucydides describes the hazards of seeking to “understand a question from all sides.” Everyone does this to an extent, but especially on the far left, even a pinky toe over the party line is enough to get you canceled for good. Just ask Kathleen Lowrey and other leftist feminists who dare to question the transgenders within their ranks.

Indeed, it’s not just conservatives that find themselves on the academic chopping block. Anyone right of far left is in trouble—the revolutionaries police the speech of both their foes and their so-called allies. As Thucydides describes,

Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man … Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. (Ibid.)

Preemptively punishing someone who was going to do wrong—can someone say red flag laws? This distortion of justice is alive and well in higher education, in which measures such as DEI statements on job applications, mandatory implicit bias trainings, and “Days of Absence” for white people help ensure that certain professors don’t even get in the door, or if they do, that they’ll be constantly reminded that they’re not welcome.

[Related: “Political Insanity on Campus”]

Next, Thucydides explains, comes utter lawlessness:

The parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime … In their [the leaders’] struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment … (Ibid.)

Neither justice nor the interests of the state, but power and pleasure for its own sake. If that doesn’t describe the ideologues running our universities, I don’t know what does. As I wrote a few months ago, “the academic Left’s behavior is perfectly consistent with its true standard: gain power, crush resistance, and destroy the West by any means necessary.” Indeed, it’s not just that their actions are unconcerned with justice and the state; they are wholly antithetical to them, and that’s the point.

The inevitable consequence of all this is not only the breakdown of political order but also of individual character. Thucydides concludes,

As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. (3.83)

As many have written, Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not a manual. The same could be said for History of the Peloponnesian War, which was written some 2,400 years earlier. Though I doubt that our academic revolutionaries have so much as touched Thucydides—after all, he’s just another dead old white man. Rather, I think he honed in on the fundamental aspects shared by all revolutions: a decline in civility, a mutually reinforcing revolutionary zeal, a redefinition of language, an immediate distrust of all dissenters, and a lawlessness that destroys the polis and the individual alike. War is a stern teacher indeed. What the Left may have forgotten, however, is that revolutions don’t last forever. Someone did win the Peloponnesian War and restore order to the land. So to my fellow Spartans, I say: let’s get to work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

David Acevedo

David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

3 thoughts on ““War is a Stern Teacher”: The Academy According to Thucydides

  1. I thought this analogy with an ancient Greek war was far-fetched, until I read

    “To fit with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.”

    Yes, that’s remarkably like academia.

  2. Excellent article. And I do think (although perhaps 20 years off), the current radical leftism in academia will die out. Why? Not because of some war between conservatives and marxists. No, it will be due to lack of money. College enrollments are dropping, and that means less money for academia. That trend is not likely to reverse for two reasons: demographics and cynicism about the value of a college education.

    Lower birth rates mean there are fewer 18 year olds to attend college. The birth rates in some segments of society are increasing, but those groups don’t tend to emphasize a college education.

    Reality has a funny way of culling foolish ideas. Gone are the days of claiming people with a BA will earn millions of dollars more than those with just a high school diploma over a lifetime. Too many graduates found out the hard way that a women’s studies or an ethnic studies degree simply doesn’t translate into high income employment. (Nowhere will you find a job advertisement saying ‘bachelors in black studies required; masters preferred’.) It has to be sobering to wake up one morning, with one of those degrees in hand, and realize you’re getting dressed to go to work—as a barista at the local Starbucks. Moreover, with tens of thousands in student loan debt, and practically no conceivable way of ever paying it off, that women’s studies degree is likely to produce a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by a high school graduate with no student loan debt.

    Declining enrollments results in less state taxpayer money coming in. It also means fewer federal dollars can be expected. When black studies or women’s studies degree programs can’t attract many students, they become economically unviable. The vast majority of this foolishness, absurd claims of racism or white supremacy or studies on some completely asinine topics no sane person cares about are coming from so-called professors in faux academic disciplines which live solely to promote victimhood. Universities won’t fund programs with few students. (Due to state funding cuts, my public university will be cutting tenured positions in selected departments—none of them STEM or business—this upcoming academic year.) These faux fields will wither away due to lack of funding. And with it, the radical leftism so prevalent today.

    1. “It has to be sobering to wake up one morning, with one of those degrees in hand, and realize you’re getting dressed to go to work—as a barista at the local Starbucks.”

      No, you get over $100K p.a. as a Diversity consultant. A recent article on one of these college anti-woke sites listed dozens of jobs with “Diversity” in their titles at one uni.

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