A painting of a scene from Thucydides' History, depicting Pericles delivering his funeral oration to the crowd.

Wisdom and Courage

Of the many pleasures that fill my life at Saint Constantine, not the least of them is the opportunity to work through Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War with our thoughtful and inquisitive college students. This time around we made a connection that I had never considered before.

Every time we read the History, students are inevitably intrigued to learn that Thucydides himself was a general in the Athenian army. And they are often stunned to learn that he was put on trial and eventually exiled by the citizens of Athens for his role in the fall of Amphipolis, where he commanded the Athenian garrison. The mood swings of the Athenian mob, in fact, weigh significantly on the events of the war, as depicted in the book. Athenian commanders are often looking over their shoulders, lest the “democracy” back home should end up second-guessing their battlefield decisions and punish the officers.

Perhaps even more striking is the fact that Socrates, a few years later, served as a soldier at the second Battle of Amphipolis in the same war. The Athenian mob does not seem to have learned much in the intervening generation, as they famously voted to condemn and execute the greatest thinker their city would ever know.

Both Thucydides and Socrates remind us that wisdom does not stand alone. To be meaningful, wisdom must be accompanied by courage. Athens was not the only population to react poorly when wise men expressed views they did not want to hear. Even today, wise and prudent men and women sometimes encounter opposition from “the mob.” We rarely force people to drink hemlock these days, but all of us know people whose jobs, happiness, and even safety have been threatened simply because they acted as the voice of reason in an unpopular context.

None of this is cause for despair, however. Wisdom when coupled with courage often changes the world. Thucydides gave us one of the greatest works of history ever written. Who even remembers his accusers? Socrates helped create Western Civilization. What did his adversaries accomplish? The wisest man of all, Jesus Christ, had lots of enemies, but they could not prevent have conquering sin and establishing His Church.

As we study the big questions and the Great Books of the West, we can take heart from these and plenty of other examples. In the words of Joshua son of Nun,

“Be strong, therefore, and courageous to guard yourself and to do as Moses My servant commanded you; then you will not turn away from them, to the right nor to the left. In this way you will have understanding in whatever you do.” (Joshua 1:7)

The header image for this post is a painting by Phillip Foltz (1852), titled “Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede)”