John Lewis Gaddis Quote

The future we can’t know, other than that it will originate in the past but then depart from it. Thucydides’ distinction between resemblance and reflection—between patterns surviving across time and repetitions degraded by time—aligns the asymmetry, for it suggests that the past prepares us for the future only when, however imperfectly, it transfers. Just as capabilities restrict aspirations to what circumstances will allow. To know one big thing or many little ones is, therefore, not enough: resemblances, which Thucydides insists must happen, can occur anywhere along the spectrum from hedgehogs to foxes and back again. So is he one or the other? It’s as useless to ask as it would be, of an accomplished athlete, to try to say. Thucydides’ first-rate intelligence accommodates opposing ideas so effortlessly that he entrusts us with hundreds in his history. He does so within time and space but also across scale: only Tolstoy rivals him, I think, in sensing significance where it seems not to be. It’s no stretch to say, then, that Thucydides coaches all who read him. For as his greatest modern interpreter (himself a sometime coach) has gently reminded us, the Greeks, despite their antiquity, may have believed things we have either forgotten or never known; and we must keep open the possibility that in some respects, at least, they were wiser than we. 10

John Lewis Gaddis

The future we can’t know, other than that it will originate in the past but then depart from it. Thucydides’ distinction between resemblance and reflection—between patterns surviving across time and repetitions degraded by time—aligns the asymmetry, for it suggests that the past prepares us for the future only when, however imperfectly, it transfers. Just as capabilities restrict aspirations to what circumstances will allow. To know one big thing or many little ones is, therefore, not enough: resemblances, which Thucydides insists must happen, can occur anywhere along the spectrum from hedgehogs to foxes and back again. So is he one or the other? It’s as useless to ask as it would be, of an accomplished athlete, to try to say. Thucydides’ first-rate intelligence accommodates opposing ideas so effortlessly that he entrusts us with hundreds in his history. He does so within time and space but also across scale: only Tolstoy rivals him, I think, in sensing significance where it seems not to be. It’s no stretch to say, then, that Thucydides coaches all who read him. For as his greatest modern interpreter (himself a sometime coach) has gently reminded us, the Greeks, despite their antiquity, may have believed things we have either forgotten or never known; and we must keep open the possibility that in some respects, at least, they were wiser than we. 10

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About John Lewis Gaddis

John Lewis Gaddis (born 1941) is an American international relations scholar, military historian, and writer. He is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University. He is best known for his work on the Cold War and grand strategy, and he has been hailed as the "Dean of Cold War Historians" by The New York Times. Gaddis is also the official biographer of the seminal 20th-century American statesman George F. Kennan. George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011), his biography of Kennan, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.