Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History

"Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History," The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, Thomas L. Pangle, ed., University of Chicago Press, 1989.


This lecture forms part of a series: The Western Tradition–Its Great Ideas and Issues, The Western tradition is threatened today as it never was heretofore. For it is now threatened not only from without but from within as well. It is in a state of disintegration. Those among us who believe in the Western tradition, we Westerners–we Sapadniks , as Dostoevski and his friends used to call the Westerners among the Russians–must therefore rally around the flag of the Western tradition. But we must do it in a manner, if not worthy of that noble tradition, at least reminding of it: we must uphold the Western principles in a Western manner; we must not try to drown our doubts in a sea of tearful or noisy assent. We must be aware of the fact that the vitality and the glory of our Western tradition are inseparable from its problematic character. For that tradition has two roots. It consists of two heterogeneous elements, of two elements which are ultimately incompatible with each other-the Hebrew element and the Greek element. We speak, and we speak rightly; of the antagonism between Jerusalem and Athens, between faith an d philosophy. Both philosophy and the Bible assert that there is ultimately one thing. and one thing only; needful for man. But the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the very opposite of the one thing needful proclaimed by Greek philosophy. According t0 the  Bible, the one thing needful is obedient love; according to philosophy, the one thing needful is free inquiry, The whole history of the West can be viewed as an ever repeated attempt to achieve a compromise or a synthesis between these two antagonistic principles. But all these attempts have failed, and necessarily so; in every synthesis, however impressive, one element of the synthesis is sacrificed, however subtly; but nonetheless surely; t0 the other. Philosophy is made, against its meaning, the handmaid of theology, or faith is made, against its meaning, the  handmaid of philosophy. The Western tradition does not allow of a synthesis of its two element s, but only of their tension: this is the secret of the vitality of the West. The Western tradition does not allow a final solution of the fundamental contradiction, a society without contradiction. As long as there will be a Western world, there will be theologians who distrust philosophers, and there will be philosophers who are annoyed by theologians. While rallying around the flag of the Western tradition, let us beware of the danger that we be charmed or bullied into a conformism which would be the inglorious end of the Western tradition.

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