Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work

"Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides' Work," Interpretation, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter 1974).  Reprinted in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.


For Thucydides the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians was, as he expected from the beginning, the most noteworthy motion so to speak, the greatest motion of all times which affected all human beings. He gives a two-fold proof of his contention. The first and by far the most extensive (1.1-19) proves it by laying bare the weakness of the ancients and therewith the strength, the surpassing strength, of the men, especially the Greeks, of the present. Apart from a seemingly casual reference to the Delian Apollon (13.6), the first proof is silent regarding gods; this silence seems to be connected with the fact that the most famous speakers about antiquity are the poets, and the poets are in the habit of adorning their subjects by magnifying them (10.3): tracing happenings to the gods means precisely adorning the happenings by magnifying them. The second proof concentrates on the greatness of the sufferings brought on by the Peloponnesian War as contrasted especially with the sufferings due to the Persian War (23.1-3). Thucydides tacitly distinguishes the sufferings which human beings inflicted upon one another and those which were inflicted upon them by earthquakes, eclipses of the sun, drought, famine, and last but not least the plague. Following the guidance supplied by Thucydides’ Perikles addressing the Athenians, we may call the second kind of happening or suffering “daimonic” (II.64.2), leaving it open whether the word always signifies, within the work, happenings of non-human or super-human origin (such as omens) or whether it is best understood as synonymous with”natural.”

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