The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides an account at once remarkably insightful as well as deeply disturbing regarding the unchanging character of human nature. It is truly a work for the ages as he hoped it would be (while not flawless, it is the only surviving source for many events).
One of the advantages of reading a historian’s work from 2,500 years ago is that he cannot be accused of being a mouthpiece for any political camp in A.D. 2021. In the fifth century B.C. [and that’s not “Before Covid”], Thucydides, one of the earliest secular historians (predated slightly by Herodotus), chronicled the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 B.C. (in which he also served briefly as a general). In his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides an account at once remarkably insightful as well as deeply disturbing regarding the unchanging character of human nature. It is truly a work for the ages as he hoped it would be (while not flawless, it is the only surviving source for many events). Moreover, for thoughtful readers, Thucydides’ book suggests that the essence of America’s unceasing agitation today, including the forms of domestic totalitarianism making their presence known, is, first of all, not without precedent in human history; and, second, points to the unchanging scriptures of the Old and New Testament – and their subject, the only redeemer and dread champion, Jesus Christ – as the source of the only solution to the depravities of the human heart, which the author highlights with unvarnished eloquence.
The long-running conflict in Greece during the 5th-century B.C. included a dizzying array of city-states which were allied, at various times, with Athens or Sparta. One such city-state was Corcyra, an ally of Athens. Corcyra, a northern city-state situated on an island just west of the mainland, became one of the first cities in Greece to experience a revolution in that era, but others followed. Thucydides writes:
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. . . .
. . . To fit in with the change of events [revolutions in various cities], 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. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. . . . 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. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech [and the Greeks were all about making speeches, see Acts 17], the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.
Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils [the Bible reader may think of James’ epistle at this point]. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable – on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy – but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their 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, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.
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. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-[maneuvered] in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.
Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. . . . Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.
For the reader who has made it this far, please note the near-absence of “. . .” in the foregoing lengthy quotations – I have not cherry-picked and surely there is some wrongdoing or an ungodly attitude of heart to be owned by all (beginning with myself). As each one considers his or her role in “the hatreds of the hour” in 2021, may readers look in faith to the Word of God, where the only solution to such hatreds (even all our sin) is to be found, as in Jeremiah 17:5,7-8:
Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the LORD. . . .
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
And whose trust is the LORD.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit.
And as the apostle Peter writes, in these latter, and evil, days let us “. . . be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (I Peter 4:7).
Forrest Marion is a ruling elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.
 Rex Warner, trans., Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1972 [translation copyright, 1954], 242-45.