What if Lincoln didn't abolish slavery? What if an assassin succeeded in killing FDR in 1933? This volume presents 25 intriguing "what if..." scenarios by some of today's greatest historical minds-including James Bradley, Caleb Carr, James Chace, Theodore F. Cook, Jr., Carlos M.N. Eire, George Feifer, Thomas Fleming, Richard B. Frank, Victor Davis Hanson, Cecelia Holland, Alistair Horne, David Kahn, Robert Katz, John Lukacs, William H. McNeill, Lance Morrow, Williamson Murray, Josiah Ober, Robert L. O'Connell, Geoffrey Parker, Theodore K. Rabb, Andrew Roberts, Roger Spiller, Geoffrey C. Ward, and Tom Wicker.
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October 10, 2002
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Excerpt from WHAT IF? 2 by Robert Cowley
The consequences of a single battle casualty
That the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition may rest on a military moment is a notion that some may find unsettling; its potential consequences are even more so. According to Victor Davis Hanson, philosophy as we know it was "nearly aborted"--his verb is hardly too strong--one late autumn afternoon in 424 B.C., in "an accidental battle in a failed campaign in a backwater theater of the Peloponnesian War," the twenty-seven-year-long struggle between Athens and Sparta. At the Battle of Delium, a ragtag Athenian contingent confronted a larger force from Thebes, an ally of the Spartan confederacy. One middle-aged infantryman from Athens was Socrates, a philosopher whose reputation was as yet uncertain. Service in war was an obligation of citizenship, and Greek men from the ages of eighteen to sixty could expect to experience in their lifetimes at least two or three episodes of concentrated terror; Socrates had already fought in two campaigns. What if he, like several hundred of the men he fought with at Delium, had been ridden down and skewered as he tried to flee to Athens? What if Socrates had not lived another quarter of a century, the period of his greatest influence? Or if he had not been alive to meet, and teach, the young Plato--who, without Socrates, might have become a politician or a poet and not a philosopher? Beyond leaving an excessive number of corpses to rot, that encounter at Delium may have decided nothing. Still, if it had counted one more Athenian victim, as Hanson says, "the entire course of Western philosophical and political thought would have been radically changed."
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON is a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and the author of eleven books on subjects ranging from Greek military and rural history to the history of warfare and contemporary agriculture. His most recent books are The Land Was Everything, The Soul of Battle, and Carnage and Culture.