22 Life Lessons From Thucydides


Life lessons from the Greek Historian, Thucydides — who actually fought in the Peloponesian war (between the Athenians and Spartans) then wrote a history on it.

Here are some personal notes and lessons I’ve learned for myself, which I hope also help you:

Why study Thucydides?

I feel I can learn more from history than present-day examples. Thucydides wrote his history over 2,500 years ago. If his words have existed until today; there must be great wisdom within.

Also admirable– he actually fought in the war. He had skin in the game.

Nice quote from Nietzsche on Thucydides:

“Plato is a coward in the face of reality – consequently he takes refuge in the ideal: Thucydides is a master of himself – consequently he is able to master life.” – Nietzsche

I like that idea– I want to become a master of myself.

1. History is philosophy teaching by examples

Pericles' Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)[1]
Pericles‘ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)
The big takeaway from Thucydides — history isn’t just remembering facts from the past. Rather, to study philosophy— via real-world examples

“History is philosophy teaching by examples.”

Takeaway: What examples can I learn from the past, and remember them— to change my future behavior?

2. Write for future generations

I have written my work not as an essay to win the applause of the moment; but as a possession for all time.

To write for the applause for the moment, and today’s generation is short-lived. Rather, seek to create works for future generations— for humanity to possess your ideas “for all time.”

Keep up the hustle for future humanity.

3. Tyrannies are born from love of wealth

As the power of Hellas grew; and the acquisition of wealth become more an objective; the revenues of the state increasing; tyrannies were established almost everywhere.

As our power grows, we want to acquire more wealth. And as we increase our revenues, we establish more tyrannies.

4. Don’t do injustice to those who are weaker to you

Abstain from doing injustice to those weaker than you. It will show your true power:

Abstinence from all injustice to other first-rate powers is a greater tower of strength than anything that can be gained by the sacrifice of permanent tranquility for an apparent temporary advantage.

Never sacrifice your ‘permanent tranquility’ in life, for a short-lived advantage.

5. Self-control

How do we learn to control ourselves?

The first step is to be brave. Bravery leads to honor. Then honor leads to self-control:

Self control contains honor as a chief constituent; and honor — bravery.

If we want to control our actions in life, we must live an honorable life. To live a life full of virtue, not vice.

And in order to be honorable in life, we need to disregard what others think — and follow our own conscience. Having bravery and courage will help us pursue our honor.

So to recap, the intended outcome is for us to learn more self-control and self-restraint. And the first step is bravery.

Bravery -> Self-control

6. The past will help us today

The point of studying history is to study the past, in order to help our present lives:

There is no advantage in reflections on the past further than (what) may be of service to the present.

Don’t study history or the past for the sake of it. Learn valuable lessons from the past in history, and learn how not to make the same mistakes today.

For example, what I’ve learned:

  • All those who are power-hungry, will eventually die, and their memory fades from history.
  • No matter how much money, power, or influence you have— you can never be happy.
  • Vice will stick with you forever; Virtue will live on forever.

So as a note: study history from the past, to better inform my today’s actions.

What can I do in my power today to be a better person, and to do more virtuous work?

7. Double-down on our hustle

To hustle, work hard.

If we want to keep being prosperous into the future— we must maintain what the present has given us. We must also ‘redouble our efforts’ to hold onto our prosperity:

For the future we must provide by maintaining what the present gives us and redoubling our efforts;

Also, the harder we work, the ‘fruit of our labor’ will lead to virtue:

it is hereditary to us to win virtue as the fruit of labor

Don’t change the habit of the fruit of labor— even when i have a ‘slight advantage in wealth and resources’

In prosperity; don’t lose my hustle:

it is not right that what was won in want should be lost in plenty

Keep hustling x2.

8. Don’t just say ‘yes’ without thinking

People will put greater demands on me; if I just accept their offers. Learn how to say ‘no’:

If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance.

Don’t allow myself to be easily ‘frightened into obedience’ by others.

Think longer before saying ‘yes’ blindly.

9. Learn how to give others firm refusals

Benefit of firm refusal; they will treat you as an equal:

A firm refusal will make them clearly understand that they may treat you more as equals.

Learn how to say “no” in a firm, clear way. And people will treat you with more respect.

As a practical tip; learn to delay, then you can say a firm ‘no’ easier.

10. Don’t be too rash; nor should I reflect too much:

Ignorance produces rashness; too much reflection leads to timidity

Don’t make decisions too quickly, and also don’t reflect too much before making a decision— or I will lose the fire in my belly.

11. Bravery

The brave should be rational. We should understand the risks of danger, and what glory holds for us. And we must rationally go and meet our challenges:

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them; glory and danger alike; and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

Don’t be irrationally brave. Have a ‘clear vision’ of the difficulties what is ahead of me; but don’t be afraid.

12. Happiness comes from courage

The more courageous we are, the more freedom we will have. The more freedom we have, the happier we will be:

The secret of happiness is freedom; and the secret of freedom is courage.

So in my life, don’t be scared or timid. Don’t be afraid of taking risks.

The more risks I take, the more freedom I will have in life.

The more freedom I have over my time, energy, resources, and money — the happier I’ll be in life.

So happiness is freedom.

Don’t seek to be ‘happy’ — seek to have FREEDOM!

Don’t trade freedom for anything. Don’t accept a ton of money, just to sell your freedom, time, or energy.

Seek to have more courage in life! To take more personal risks.

13. Glory

Work hard, to create glory for future generations:

Hatred is short lived; but that which makes the splendor of the present and the glory of the future remains forever unforgotten.

Any sort of hatred I get in the short-run will be short-lived, and forgotten.

Hustle hard for my future generations.

14. Difficulty

Dig deep in my heart and soul to have courage, strength, to draw upon. I need this to fight ‘tremendous odds’ in my life:

He who voluntarily confronts tremendous odds must have very great internal resources to draw upon.

If I try to start a business, I am against tremendous odds. Or try to do anything innovative.

So be brave, and draw from my inner-courage. Be strong.

15. Democracy

No empire in a democracy:

I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire.

If we see a democracy turning into an empire (America) — we aren’t living in a true democracy.

16. Good fortune is bad

Too much good fortune (unexpected) and without hard work will make us indolent, lazy, and weak.

The truth is that great good fortune coming suddenly and unexpectedly tends to make a people insolent; in most cases it is safer for mankind to have success in reason than out of reason; and it is easier for them to starve off adversity than to preserve prosperity.

Rather, it is better for us to have success from hard work.

Also, it is easier for us to ‘starve off adversity’ than to preserve prosperity. Easier to fight off poverty, than to hold onto riches (we inherit).

17. Hope

We need to have hope to go on adventures, and know that I will succeed!

Hope leads men to venture; and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design.

We need to have an ‘inward conviction’ that we can succeed in whatever we do.

And to truly believe in ourselves, is the first step to being more adventurous in life, and taking more risks.

18. Don’t grasp for more

You can now, if you choose, employ your present success to advantage, so as to keep what you have got and gain honor and reputation besides, and you can avoid the mistake of those who meet with an extraordinary piece of good fortune, and are led on by hope to grasp continually at something further, through having already succeeded without expecting it.

I have the power to count my blessings right now, and already appreciate what I have. To extract the maximum advantage out of my present situation in life, my present goods, money, etc.

I should not ‘grasp continually at something further’ — it will probably lead to my ruin.

It makes more sense to realize that I have already succeeded— to enjoy my success, and not grasp for more.

Be grateful for what I have.

19. Don’t lose what I already got

Many who have trusted in force to gain an advantage; instead of gaining anything more, have been doomed to lose what they had.

Those who try to gain even more advantages in life (beyond what are necessary) have been doomed to losing what they already had.

So if I already have all the basics and necessities of life— don’t vainly sail the treacherous seas. I might end up losing it all.

20. Treat everyone with respect

Bust of Pericles
Bust of Pericles // who Thucydides admired.

Those who succeed the best: those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and who are moderate towards their inferiors.

To succeed:
1. Don’t yield to my equals
2. Don’t look up to my superiors (see them as my equals)
3. Don’t look down on my inferiors (act equally, moderately towards them)

22. Having (some) money is advantageous

Having abundance of gold and silver; make war; like many other things, go smoothly.

Having some money in life will make my life go smoothly. But how much is enough?

23. Interpret history yourself

Statue of Herodotus and Thucydides; the two fathers of history.
Statue of Herodotus and Thucydides; the two fathers of history.

Thucydides didn’t repeat the words of others word-by-word (verbatim). Rather, he often put in words which he thought out to have been said; like this funeral speech by Pericles:

The whole earth is the [grave] of famous men; they are honoured not only by columns and inscriptions in their own land, but in foreign nations on memorials graven not on stone but in the hearts and minds of men.

After you die, seek to have memories not in stone; but in the hearts and minds of men.

24. Write useful history or information

The absence of romance in my history will; I fear; detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the courage of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it; I shall be content.

Rest content if the information I create is useful to future generations. Not romantic.


The ruins of Amphipolis as envisaged by E. Cousinéry in 1831: the bridge over the Strymon, the city fortifications, and the acropolis
The ruins of Amphipolis as envisaged by E. Cousinéry in 1831: the bridge over the Strymon, the city fortifications, and the acropolis

The big takeaway points for me include:

  1. Keep hustling and working hard for future generations
  2. Happiness comes from courage and bravery. To be happier, be more courageous and take more personal risks.
  3. Don’t grasp for more– appreciate what I (already) have.

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