Ask Herb 11 – Thucydides’s Maxim: History of, More Than, the Peloponnesian War

by | July 18, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about peace, war, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: History remains wrought with wars of human beings – mostly men – murdering and slaughtering one another through bludgeoning of skulls with blunt instruments of combat, crushing of limbs, slashing of flesh, maiming and mutilation of bodies, trampling of soldiers by horseback, and piercing, puncturing, and mangling of internal vital organs with projectiles, and so on.

Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC. Also, some claim a maxim for him, where Thucydides said, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Active involvement in the struggle for a more fair and just society involves similar sentiments, even acts with bloody labour wars and violence.

In American history, how true is this maxim from the struggles for labour rights with the factory girls of Lowell, universal suffrage rather than particular suffrage for land-owning white aristocratic men, rights to equal access to education and the world of work, and modern ongoing battles for reproductive rights and procurement of a decent life? What is the silver lining here, too, though?

Herb Silverman: True, the history of humankind must include the history of warfare. Even our prehistory, through archeological findings, shows that there have always been wars. From our hunter-gatherer past, through the Middle Ages and approaching fairly modern times, the norm across many societies included mutilation of the enemy, murder of enemy infants, routine rape, routine torture of prisoners, and other hideous, cruel and unusual punishments. Public executions for the amusement and instruction of the populace were also common. There is a long list in both time and practice of man’s inhumanity to man.  

Today, more than ever, humans have the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction to do away with just about all other humans, as well as the ability to affect climate change that could devastate human life on our planet.

So why am I cautiously optimistic about our future? Because the world has actually become more peaceful than ever before, despite the violence we see repeatedly on the evening news.

About ten thousand years ago, approximately one person in four died of violence. Today, worldwide, it is more like one person in 10,000.

I suggest reading Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker presents a large amount of data (and statistical analysis) to demonstrate that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. By the way, the book’s title was taken from the ending of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Pinker uses “better angels” as a metaphor for four human motivations — empathy, self-control, the moral sense, and reason that can orient us away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism.

In my own lifetime, there have been tremendous advances in human rights. As we become more civilized, our world is getting more peaceful in nearly every way that can be measured, including instances of war, murder, child abuse, spousal abuse, racism, hatred of gays, animal cruelty, and other inflictions. A lot of these changes occurred in the 1960s when authoritarian and conservative religions lost some of their influence on society, and more individual rights emerged. Perhaps we have also become more peaceful because of the increased participation of women in the public domain. After all, violence is primarily (though certainly not exclusively) a male phenomenon.

And then there’s the influence of religion. Whatever you believe about the accuracy of the Bible, its authors, who were a product of their times, condoned the kind of violence that would sicken most of us today. The Bible promotes stoning people to death for heresy, blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and other imaginary crimes. Genocides are required by God. Child sacrifice and slavery are permitted. The punishment for rape is for the rapist to marry his victim and pay her father 50 sheckles because his daughter has become spoiled goods (Deut. 22:28). The 10th Commandment orders us not covet a neighbour’s wife, slaves, oxen, or other property of the neighbour.

The Christian Bible does have some nice words, like loving your neighbour and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, Christianity was a bizarre cult of sacrifice and crucifixion that led to the killing of millions in the name of Christianity, most notably by the Crusades, the Inquisition and the European Religious Wars of the 17th century. Adolph Hitler picked up on the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther as inspiration to promote a Holocaust, committed mostly by Christians.

The invention of the printing press enabled the spread of ideas about the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, with their sense of the basic equality for all human beings. This led to more widespread education and an ability for people to free themselves from parochial, prejudicial values. Different groups have successfully fought for their rights, nonviolently. Knowledge and education are primary to becoming a world where we can all be safe from violence. That’s just one of the reasons I promote secular humanism.

There are obvious advantages of modern existence, with its lower rates of death in childbirth, modern medicine, longer human lifespan, and modern agriculture. Violence is much less socially acceptable than it used to be, and that unacceptability has come about as humans have developed civilization and sought ways to live together more peacefully. I’m hopeful that we can continue to rise above violence and find nonviolent solutions.

We live in a world more peaceful than at any previous time in human history, and the trend continues to point in an optimistic direction. That doesn’t mean there won’t be downward blips. There is no inevitability about peace. The Middle East is problematic and our current administration is not promoting world peace. But if we understand the mechanisms that tend to promote peaceful coexistence, then we can consciously choose courses of action that are more peace-promoting than peace-harming.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Herb.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

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