previous chapter
Truest Causes and Thucydidean Realisms
next sub-section

The Realisms of Thucydides

Thucydides’ History exhibits four characteristics common to many “realist” schools of thought—not only political, but literary, artistic, and scientific. These four realisms are “procedural” (getting the facts straight), “scientific” (believing that there really are objective facts out there somewhere that can be gotten straight), “ideological” (using your claim to privileged knowledge as a stick to beat your opponents), and “paradigmatic” (seeing some phenomena more clearly and perhaps gaining a better view of the whole, but at the expense of simultaneously minimizing or ignoring other factors on which your predecessors had laid great emphasis). This list is hardly exhaustive, but, like the varying forces that interact with any object, these elements, though complementary and intertwined, need to be distinguished.

First, and above all, Thucydides was a realist insofar as he insisted upon a high level of observational accuracy—I will, for present purposes, call this his “procedural realism.” One can argue about how successful Thucydides was in this regard,[8] and since Thucydides never finished the History, there are plenty of loose ends in the text. Nevertheless, Thucydides is famous for his insistence upon the importance of careful observation and precise reporting. Consider, for example, one famous passage in which Thucydides sheds some light on his methodological expectations. After he has sketched his own idiosyncratic vision of ancient times, Thucydides castigates the slovenliness of his predecessors:

[1] Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most people deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever. [2] The general Athenian public fancy that Hipparchus was tyrant when he fell by the hands of Harmodios and Aristogeiton, not knowing that Hippias, the eldest of the sons of Peisistratos, was really supreme, and that Hipparchos and Thessalos were his brothers, and that Harmodios and Aristogeiton, suspecting, on the very day, nay at the very moment fixed on for the deed, that information had been conveyed to Hippias by their accomplices, concluded that he had been warned, and did not attack him, yet, not liking to be apprehended and risk their lives for nothing, fell upon Hipparchos near the temple of the daughters of Leos and slew him as he was arranging the Panathenaic procession.

The Athenians are so uncritical that they have utterly misconstrued a central event in their own history, the ouster of the Peisistratids. Thucydides would later return to the Peisistratids and his own reconstruction of their departure in a famous digression in book 6, but here he does not content himself with public opinion. He continues by criticizing the understanding of contemporary history and citing as mistaken two specific beliefs:

[3] There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Spartan kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a Pitanate division, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

Thucydides probably has in mind Herodotus, whose history mentions both the double votes of the Spartan kings and the Pitanate division.[9]

The statesman also bases his authority on such procedural realism. Perikles does not so much criticize individual opponents as stress his own unparalleled ability “to recognize and articulate those things which are necessary” (Thuc. 2.60.5). For Thucydides he is a model of accuracy: when the historian chooses to detail Athenian resources at the beginning of the war, he does not do so in an excursus (such as the Archaeology or the Pentekontaeteia) but puts the detailed list of facts and figures in Perikles’ mouth (2.13).

It is, however, always easy for a second generation worker such as Thucydides to criticize the weaknesses of the pioneers. Mark Twain’s famous 1895 essays that pilloried the earlier American novelist James Fenimore Cooper for his “inadequacy as an observer” were both justified and pusillanimous, in that Cooper largely invented the American novel, laying the foundations upon which Twain would build, just as Herodotus did for Thucydides.[10] And, of course, Thucydides’ procedural realism is, in some ways, as disingenuous as that of Twain, for both Perikles’ Funeral Oration and the Thucydidean Perikles himself are as romanticized as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Observational accuracy depends upon the existence of a stable, objective reality separate from, and in theory identical to, observers. If equally accurate observers of the same phenomenon produce different results, then procedural realism becomes problematic.

The term “scientific realism,” popular among philosophers of science, describes Thucydides’ second realism. In the twentieth century, even the physicists—champions of observation, analysis, and prediction—have had to abandon their implicit confidence in a deterministic, predictable world. Einstein showed that time was not absolute but relative to the speed and position of the observer, while quantum mechanics—which Einstein helped to establish—scandalized Einstein himself by suggesting that it was impossible to predict the position and velocity of particles on a very small scale. The label “scientific realist” has been developed for those who retain their confidence in an objective world independent of the observer.[11]

The objectivity of human experience was, however, as contested in the fifth century as it is now. Parmenides and Herakleitos had each in his very different way challenged the validity of our perceptions and posited that the ultimate reality was hidden from our view. Experience with alien cultures brought with it the recognition that at least some common assumptions were simply conventions that had no inherent truth. Herodotus, conservative as he may in some ways have been, was acutely aware that people of differing cultures extracted different meanings from the same events.[12] Fifth-century thinkers like Herodotus began to contrast “nature” (phusis) and “culture” (nomos).[13] Protagoras’s most famous saying—“Man is the measure of all things”—was used by some to undercut the authority of traditional ideas and beliefs. Nor was the argument confined solely to such obviously subjective (to us, at any rate) areas as religion and culture: Demokritos, Thucydides’ contemporary, questioned the validity of any observation (frag. 9 DK): “sweet by convention (nomos), bitter by convention, hot by convention, cold by convention.” Demokritos (frag. 11 DK) labeled all sensory information—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch—“illegitimate.” Not all fifth-century thinkers shared this degree of skepticism—Empedocles, for example, urged that we exploit our senses to the full (frag. 3 DK)—but no one familiar with the mainstream intellectual controversies of the fifth century could take for granted the “commonsense” view that careful observation uncovered an unproblematic “real world.”

Even when Thucydides explicitly stresses the importance of observational accuracy, his goals presuppose considerable confidence in the validity of observation. Thus Thucydides describes the care with which he constructed his idealized accounts of events:

[2] And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. [3] My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.

Thucydides is acutely sensitive to the problems of observational inadequacy and error: he thus insists that he took nothing for granted, refusing even to trust his own observations without corroboration and stressing the time and labor that he lavished on clearing up problems. But when Thucydides deplores the inconsistent descriptions of his informants and promises, without qualification, to deliver in writing an accurate report, he implies that a single, true account of events is possible.[14] The major obstacle to such accuracy is human weakness. Thus Thucydides defends his conclusion that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest in Greek history by contrasting his reasoning with the fickle judgments of others:

To come to this war; despite the known disposition of the actors in a struggle to overrate its importance, and when it is over to return to their admiration of earlier events, yet an examination of the facts themselves (auta ta erga) will show that it was much greater than the wars that preceded it.

If observers can rise above the pressures of the moment and observe “the facts themselves” (auta ta erga), a true picture of events will emerge. Our intellectual powers are limited, our expectations biased, but if the disciplined observer can rise above such limitations, a single truth does exist.

But for Thucydides, undisturbed observation is not just a historian’s attribute. The first words that he gives to Perikles indicate that it is also an attribute of a statesman:

I always hold fast to the same intellectual resolve (gnômê), Athenians, and that is the principle of no concession to the Peloponnesians. I know that the spirit that inspires people while they are being persuaded to make war is not always retained in action; that as circumstances change, resolutions change. Yet I see that now as before the same, almost literally the same, counsel is demanded of me; and I put it to those of you, who are allowing yourselves to be persuaded, to support the national resolves even in the case of reverses, or to forfeit all credit for their wisdom in the event of success. For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as human plans; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected.

Perikles boasts that whatever the circumstances, he maintains the same gnômê, a complex term that implies both an intellectual decision and moral resolve.[15] This proves to be no idle boast: even after the plague has devastated Athens and undermined the moral structure of Athenian society, Perikles fearlessly repeats this claim:

I am the same man and do not alter; it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt and waited for misfortune to repent of it; and the apparent error of my policy lies in the infirmity of your intellectual resolve (gnômê), since the suffering that it entails is being felt by everyone among you, while its advantage is still remote and obscure to all, and a great and sudden reverse having befallen you, your mind is too much depressed to persevere in your resolves.

A few chapters later, Thucydides, writing in propria persona about the career of Perikles, gives further emphasis to Perikles’ unflappable intellectual resolve. The Athenians first fine Perikles but then soon restore him to power, changing their minds quickly. These Athenians thus prove Perikles’ charge (Thuc. 1.140) that his fellow Athenians are unable to maintain a single course of action. Thucydides too says that such fickle behavior is “what the masses (ho homilos) are wont to do” (2.65.4). Thucydides designates Perikles’ “public esteem” (2.65.8: axiôma) and his “intellectual power” (gnômê) as the two foundations of his authority. He never flattered the people (2.65.8). Above all, he had the power to dampen their gross swings of mood, instilling fear in them when they had become too elated and restoring their confidence when they gave way to despair (2.65.9). At the center of it all stood Perikles, motionless, beyond passion and personal concerns.[16]

It is almost impossible to stress too much the fascinations that such a detached vantage point offered in the classical period. Ultimately, geometry flourished in large part because it constituted a logically consistent system with explicit rules and assumptions in which all rational observers had to draw identical conclusions. “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world,” Archimedes is reported to have said,[17] and it is toward such an idealized position, separate from the world and its passions, that Thucydides and his Perikles strive. The achievements in mathematics were immense. Archimedes continues to be considered one of the great mathematicians of all time.[18] Euclid’s Elements includes almost five hundred theorems that Greek mathematicians had proved with great rigor in little more than a century, a task that the Greeks of Thucydides’ generation had begun in earnest. The Euclidean geometry remained unchallenged until the nineteenth century, and it continues to occupy a solid position in the teaching of mathematics. Had Thucydides been born thirty years later, the great strides in the field of mathematics might have attracted him in that direction rather than toward history.

The importance of scientific realism emerges when Thucydides describes the collapse of society at Corcyra. One of the most terrible consequences of this warfare was, according to Thucydides, the shift in the meanings of words:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence.

Of course, the change in language reinforces the brutalization of life, and Thucydides clearly invites his audience to see this phenomenon in moral terms (although he does not explicitly suggest that they do so).[19] Yet the degeneration of language has purely practical consequences as well. If words have no stable meaning, then communication breaks down, and with it the tasks of historian and statesmen alike become impossible.

It was the undisturbed observer in the ideal, “Archimedean” position from which the fullness of an event can be seen and appreciated—the “scientific” Thucydides—whom Charles Cochrane explored in his 1929 book, Thucydides and the Science of History.[20] We are, of course, a good deal more skeptical about the possibility for such detached observation now than we were some sixty years ago—the rejection of such “objectivity” has evolved into a dominant theme of late twentieth-century academic thought. Virginia Hunter’s first book on Thucydides focused on the consequences of the author’s perspective and labeled him “the artful reporter.” [21] Robert Connor stressed the importance of the active reader, who is not simply passive but must endow Thucydides’ text with meaning.[22] Nevertheless, objectivity, at least of a particular kind, was a goal for Thucydides, and Jacqueline de Romilly’s recent essay, “The View from On High: Discovery of the Sciences of Man,” gives proper weight to the success that Thucydides did enjoy.[23]

Furthermore, Thucydides was himself painfully aware that the same events may have very different meanings for different observers. A sudden wind, for example, begins to blow during a naval engagement, throwing the Peloponnesian ships into disorder and providing the Athenians with an opportunity to attack (Thuc. 2.84.3). This represents an “objective” phenomenon—all careful observers on both sides would have detected the same wind from the same quarter at the same time—but each side endows the same event with a very different meaning. Phormio, the Athenian commander, knew that this wind regularly began to blow shortly after dawn, and he delayed battle as he waited for the wind to disturb the Peloponnesian ships (2.84.2). The Peloponnesians, however, did not know Phormio’s plans and did not understand that they had been maneuvered into an adverse position: when their commanders attribute their poor showing to “chance” (2.87.2: ta apo tês tuchês), they seem to interpret as accidental the wind on which Phormio had counted.[24]

In this case, the differing interpretations reflect differing levels of knowledge: the Spartan commanders, if they could have read Phormio’s mind, might have changed their view of that unfortunate wind. But the meaning of this Athenian battle as a whole is contested. Thucydides clearly sees in Athenian superior naval skill the decisive factor, but the Spartans at home find the whole thing “inexplicable” (Thuc. 2.85.2: paralogos) and assume that “some weakness” (tis malakia) must have caused the defeat. The Spartans clearly misread the situation (at least as Thucydides sees it), but it is not clear whether more information about the battle would have changed their mind. They were not yet prepared to accept technical matters as an explanation for military events.

Even if Thucydides successfully described who led what force to a particular place, how many men died in the subsequent battle, and what the immediate consequences were, he knew that such data did not, in themselves, necessarily mean the same thing to all parties. Rather, his History provides accurate data to serve the interpretations of readers in the future. Thucydides is more than a simple materialist, for he understands the impact of ideas upon events. Adam Parry’s 1957 dissertation, “ Logos and Ergon in Thucydides,” showed how Thucydides belonged to that tradition of Greek thought that stressed the importance of both words and deeds.[25] Thucydides includes speeches in his History (despite the fact that he cannot even pretend to have more than general sources for them) at least in part because they dramatize the degree to which a subject’s position shapes perception.

Thucydides’ scientific realism had an enormous impact upon his practice as a historian. Thucydides’ predecessor, Herodotus, had cultivated an ambivalent relationship toward events that actually took place. Although he seems to have provided us with a reasonably accurate account of the Persian Wars and other fairly recent events, he frequently expresses an agnosticism toward the events he relates. The verb form legetai, “it is said,” is, for example, a favorite Herodotean term and crops up more than a hundred times in the Histories. Herodotus uses the term to distance himself from many reports, ranging from those of Kroisos’s behavior on the pyre (Hdt. 1.87.1) and Delphi’s self-exculpation (1.91.1) to the reports of Pausanias’s clever remarks after Plataia (9.82.3) and dried fish miraculously returning to life as they were being cooked (9.120.1). Herodotus, however, does not simply refuse to endorse many of the stories. He seems to relish elaborating events that never took place. Herodotus surely realized that the meeting of Kroisos and Solon, which forms the centerpiece of book 1 and offers in brief an introduction to ideas that shape the history as a whole, was chronologically impossible (Solon’s travels would have taken place at least twenty years before Kroisos became king). The conversation between Solon and Kroisos is “true” not because it took place (which it didn’t) but because it lets us understand better the parabolic careers that Kroisos, Kyros, Kambyses, Dareios, and Xerxes will all pursue, as each in turn rises and falls. Herodotus refused to let the details of what actually happened distract him from the larger picture. He was an “idealist” for whom stories of the past constituted a means by which to study higher truths.

Thucydides was just as determined as Herodotus to extract the general from the particular, but their methods moved in opposite directions. Rather than rearranging the past so that the data would better reflect his understanding of the world, Thucydides stressed greater rigor and subordination to the facts of the case. Thucydides felt that once he had worked his way through the evidence, he could provide clean and well-digested descriptions of many events. On the level of individual campaigns or episodes, Thucydides seems to have been confident in his method. Nevertheless, this method did not “scale up.” On the macroscopic level, contradictions and unresolved tensions pull at Thucydides’ history. Herodotus’ world is, for all its willfulness, a far more ordered place—almost Newtonian in its predictability—than the messy picture that we find in Thucydides. In Thucydides the plague, Melos, and the Sicilian expedition all undermine the vision offered by Perikles in his Funeral Oration; in Herodotus, by contrast, Solon’s analysis of prosperity, which contradicts present phenomena (such as the then good fortune of Kroisos), is validated throughout the Histories, as not only Kroisos, but Kyros, Kambyses, Dareios, and Xerxes—all the most powerful figures in the text—all to some extent fit the same Herodotean parabolic curve of rise and decline (cf. Hdt. 1.5.4). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Francis Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus brilliantly showed that Thucydides’ view of the rise and fall of Athens was very similar to that of Herodotus and even Aeschylus—at some level, Herodotean forces operate in Thucydides’ History, just as Newtonian mechanics work perfectly well in virtually all day-to-day circumstances. Nevertheless, it is equally true that if we follow Thucydides’ own historical logic as it plays out in the opening of book 1, Sparta was an archaic, obsolescent power that should have given way to Athens, with its sea power, its money, and its dynamism. The accuracy and precision that Thucydides demanded made it impossible for his work to approach the intellectual or moral closure of Herodotus’s Histories. Perhaps this is why Thucydides’ work is, at least in contrast to that of Herodotus, so humorless, its ironies so harsh.[26] Herodotus could poke fun at his subjects as well as himself (as he does, for example, when he draws attention to the implausibility of the constitutional debate at 3.80.1), because his world, for all its vagaries and contingencies, ultimately made sense.

Third, both Thucydides and Perikles exploit their procedural accuracy to further a third, subtle, often insidious, project, which I will call “ideological realism.” On this point, Mark Twain’s remarks on James Fenimore Cooper are helpful, for they make explicit a point that neither Thucydides nor his Perikles had any motivation to highlight. Twain castigated Cooper’s inaccuracies for purely practical reasons:

If Cooper had been an observer, his inventive faculty would have worked better, not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was spendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course, a man who cannot see the commonest little everyday matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” [27]

Twain goes on to develop his famous critique of a scene from Cooper’s Deerslayer, in which five Indians in succession, attempting to jump from a overhanging tree toward a very slowly moving barge a few feet below, all manage to fall into the water astern. The reason for Twain’s outrage is clear: his Huckleberry Finn and “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” fantastic as they may be taken as a whole, were believable because Twain labored to construct them out of smaller details that were in themselves plausible, and because, to the extent that Twain departed from such a strict canon of objective plausibility, he knew precisely what he was doing. He understood the Hesiodic trick of mixing true things with false (cf. Hes. Theog. 26–28), so that he could blur the realistic and the fantastic, making each reinforce the other. His procedural realism was fundamental to his success at creating idealized characters or situations that were at once incredible and convincing, and hence powerful.

Twain’s realism is, for the most part, an explicit literary device. It lends power to his prose, but then Huckleberry Finn and “The Jumping Frog” are manifestly literary creations. Thucydides wrote a history that purported to be a true account, and the Thucydidean Perikles claimed always to have the best advice for the state. Ideological realism claims for itself a monopoly on truth and opposes itself to “idealism,” the pursuit of an attractive, but ultimately ill-founded, vision of the world. This ideological realism has two dimensions. It is, or more properly represents itself as being, emotionally detached. Not only does Thucydides assume that a single objective reality exists and that he is the man to observe it, but he uses these two assumptions to help assert a special authority for himself and his text. Consider the following disclaimer:

On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense, the subjects they treat being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. Turning from these, we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity.

As the careful observer, Thucydides claims impartiality and the moral authority that comes with it.

The Thucydidean Perikles plays the same game in his three speeches on the war (Thuc. 1.140–144, 2.60–64, and especially the account of Athenian resources at 2.13), where he claims a more detailed vision of the situation than any of his (unquoted) rivals. The same assumptions of direct knowledge shape the Funeral Oration, where an idealized Athens exploits the tension between the state and the individual, drawing on every strength inherent in Athenian democracy. Of course, the Athens of the Funeral Oration never existed; nevertheless, while such a rosy view of the community belongs to the genre of state funeral orations, the Athens that the Thucydidean Perikles conjures up is an extraordinary creation that maintains a place for the Funeral Oration in the general curriculum to this day.[28] Plato’s Menexenus parodies the genre and derives its strength from the conventional predictability of Athenian funeral orations. The funeral oration of Demosthenes, by contrast, is so insipid that many have doubted its authenticity.[29] The funeral orations of Gorgias (of which only a portion survives), Lysias, and Hyperides have commanded little attention for themselves except as examples of a particular genre and its conventions. The oration of the Thucydidean Perikles has been more successful in part because it dismisses many conventions of the genre (giving, for example, short shrift to Athens’s ancient history and even the Persian Wars), basing itself on several of the more compelling traits that shape Thucydides’ Athenians. The energy that Perikles attributes to the Athenians (see, for example, 2.39, 40.2, and 41.1) helps account for, and give depth to, the horrified Corinthian vision of Athenian dynamism that preceded the war (1.68–71). At the same time, the energy and dynamism of the Funeral Oration give Alkibiades his opening when he urges the risky Sicilian expedition, which ran against Perikles’ strategy (1.144.1, 2.65.11). Above all, the Thucydidean Perikles bases Athenian patriotism on the one motivation that Thucydides always acknowledges: Perikles calls upon the Athenians to gaze upon the “power” (dunamis) of their city and thus let themselves be carried away with passion, becoming “lovers” of the city (2.43.1). The admiration for power—whether hypostasized as profit (1.8.3) or as empire (e.g., 6.31.1)—is, with fear (its complement), the only factor that can reliably inspire Thucydides’ humans.[30] (Of course, placing the love of power in such a central position raises problems for Thucydides, to which I will return later.)

The plague follows immediately after the idealistic Funeral Oration, and the implied contrast is harsh: Athenian democracy wilts before this disease, and the social virtues that Perikles praises collapse (Thuc. 2.53) as the corpses begin literally to pile up (see 2.52.4). Nevertheless, Funeral Oration and plague are not a self-contained doublet but the opening sections of a three-part sequence: shortly after the plague account, Thucydides brings Perikles back into the narrative so that the statesman can deliver his response to events. Perikles thus speaks before and after the plague. He has the last word, and events, terrible as they may be, do not cow him. His speech at 2.60–64 brilliantly synthesizes his own “realistic” assessment of the situation (which Thucydides endorses at 2.65) with the “idealizing” heroic values of the old Greek elite. This final speech is a masterpiece of ideological realism.

On the one hand, Perikles appeals to the pride of his listeners. They inhabit a “great city” and thus constitute a collective aristocracy that must live up to its status (Thuc. 2.61.4). The Athenians have achieved so much, and they are so much superior to their enemies, that they deserve to feel disdain (2.62.4: kataphronêsis) for their adversaries. Athens has earned the “greatest name” (2.64.3: onoma megiston) because it would not yield to misfortunes (tais sumphorais mê eikein). Even if Athens should fall now (as, Perikles concedes, it surely will sooner or later), the achievements of the present will ensure that “memory” of their deeds will survive. Perikles thus appeals to the same “eternal fame” as does Achilles—except that, of course, Athenian fame will rest upon genuine achievements, for which the mendacious poets are unnecessary (2.41.4)—and to which, of course, the plainspoken Thucydides is ideally suited (1.22.4).

At the same time, the heroic exhortation rests upon an appeal to cool judgment and a sound appreciation of the world as it really is. Perikles demands respect on the grounds that he “is second to none at recognizing what things need doing and at explaining these things” (Thuc. 2.60.5). If the Athenians have lost confidence in his strategy for the war, then they have only their own “infirmity of intellect” (2.61.2: to humeteron asthenes tês gnômês) to blame. Pain afflicts the Athenians, but their intellects fail to perceive the advantage that is not immediately before them. Their intellect is prostrate (tapeinê hê dianoia). Fears about the ultimate outcome of the war are groundless and arise only because the Athenians do not see things as they really are (2.61). “Rational analysis based on what really exists” (2.62.5: gnômê apo tôn huparchontôn), which provides the most secure foundation for “foresight” (pronoia), justifies Athenian confidence. If the Athenians will only concentrate their minds upon “the future good and present honor” (2.64.6), they will hold out. The speech goes back and forth, playing the “real” and the “ideal” off one another, so that cold calculation appears to call for the pursuit of glory.

Yet the historian Thucydides is a good deal less disingenuous than the author and essayist Twain. Twain makes it clear that procedural realism is important because it lends a text greater credibility. Thucydides even turns the difficult and quirky nature of his text to his own advantage. Readers may find the history slow going or at times somewhat dry in comparison to Homer or (presumably) the unnamed Herodotus, but only because Thucydides has subjected himself to strict intellectual discipline and refused to compromise truth for charm. If Thucydides loses readers in the present, the greater purity of his account will nevertheless strengthen his case in the long run:

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 course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work not as an essay that is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (ktêma es aiei).

Although Thucydides concedes that his history may not win any prizes at first or enjoy wide popularity, he argues that it will nevertheless constitute a permanent heirloom that will be treasured and will even increase in value over time. Of course, such disclaimers are self-serving. While directing our attention to his concessions about charm, Thucydides invites us to concede the far greater point of accuracy and even practical value.

The impact of Thucydides’ claim to an austere but authentic account would be immense, for it helped lay the foundations for that rhetorical posture by which so-called technocrats justify their position in society. At the same time, Thucydides is simply varying the hackneyed courtroom persona familiar to all contemporary Athenians. Just as speakers regularly contrast their own inexperience with rhetoric and necessary reliance on the plain, unpolished truth, Thucydides distinguishes himself from others.[31] The protestations of stylistic simplicity culminate a few sentences later when Thucydides provides his explanation for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 1.23.5–6). Everything that precedes in the History is calculated to lend this judgment greater weight, and much of Thucydides’ subsequent narrative inevitably serves to reinforce this initial judgment.[32] Thucydides exploits to the full the ideological dimension implicit in the very term “realism,” for he claims to portray the “real” world while his counterparts struggle to provoke pleasing but potentially mendacious effects.[33]

Thucydides’ ideological realism extends, however, beyond the claims of scientific accuracy. It includes an extra dimension that appeals more openly to the emotions and bullies its audience into submission. The following famous passage from Thucydides’ analysis of civil war and its horrifying moral consequences on Corcyra contains an illustration of ideological realism at its most brutal and its consequences:

[1] Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and annihilated; and society became divided into camps in which no person trusted the next. [2] To put an end to this, there was neither promise to be depended upon nor oath that could command respect; but all parties, dwelling rather on the unlikelihood of a permanent state of things, were more intent upon self-defence than capable of confidence. [3] In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action, [4] while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they should know in time, and that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy afforded, often fell victims to their want of precaution.

Thucydides makes little attempt to conceal his dismay at the collapse of moral society. The breakdown in trust not only poisons human relations but creates a nightmarish world in which “blunter wits” cut down their cleverer fellows. The practices of intelligence—calm observation and rational analysis—become liabilities, and thus the very conditions necessary for Thucydides as historian disappear. When the “ancient simplicity was laughed down and annihilated,” it took with it anyone who shared Thucydides’ intellectual values and left behind a world antithetical to those values that Thucydides championed.

But if Thucydides invites his readers to share in his horror at this debased condition, he nevertheless contributes to this corrosive process as well. Thucydides’ History, like Machiavelli’s Prince and Hobbes’s Leviathan, does much to undermine conventional pieties. Thucydides’ Athenians regularly subordinate power to justice, and their example has ever since served to justify hard-nosed power politics. Perikles’ Funeral Oration remains one of the great visions of democratic freedom, but Thucydides’ account of the plague, which inverts Perikles’ values, undercuts his idealization of Athens and forces him to construct a new argument at 2.60–64. Thucydides allows “the ancient simplicity” to appear in his text only when it can cast discredit upon someone or when events show the weakness of such traditional values. Even as Thucydides’ History champions the rational analysis that became untenable at Corcyra, it adopts the cynicism that helped cause the very condition he deplores.

This cynicism constitutes a second ideological element commonly claimed by realists. Not only does realism claim for itself the “real world,” but it adds an emotional charge to this claim and implies that those who do not share its vision are naive. Realism of this kind relies for much of its effect upon intimidation, but it is both effective and self-fulfilling, for it justifies in the name of self-defence the most ruthless measures. Thus Machiavelli expresses the “realist” position in a celebrated passage of The Prince:

I shall depart from the methods of other people. It being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth (verità effetuale) of a matter than the imagination (imaginazione) of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of goodness (professione di buono) soon meets with what destroys him among so many who are not good (che non sono buoni). Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how not to be good (essere non buono), and to make use of it or not according to necessity.[34]

According to Machiavelli, because not all men are good, the ruler, who is responsible for the fate of others, must learn how not to be good. Machiavelli cleverly plays upon the responsibility of the prince, asserting a moral imperative to amorality and espousing an altruism of power politics, whereby the individual gives up something of his personal goodness to further the good of the community. Machiavelli goes on to repeat his distinction between the “real” world and the “imaginary” one: he will speak of those “issues with regard to which an imaginary prince” (le cose circa uno principe imaginate) might be praised, and concentrate on those issues that are “real” (vere).[35] In this way, “realists,” from Thucydides to Machiavelli and Hobbes and on to modern academic theorists such as Hans Morgenthau, John Herz, Kenneth Waltz, and Robert Gilpin, traditionally claim not only for themselves a superior perspective and proprietary vision of the world “as it really is.” They undermine the authority of their intellectual adversaries, in modern times applying to them the dismissive label “idealists.”

Thucydides’ relationship to the bullying ideological realism that he alternately deplores and practices emerges with particular force in the Mytilenean debate. If Thucydides reserves his strongest praise for Perikles (Thuc. 2.65), Kleon, the would-be Perikles, receives equally explicit condemnation, receiving the term “most violent of the citizens” (3.36.6). Kleon opens his speech calling for the liquidation of the Mytileneans with an extended exercise in realist intimidation. When Kleon lashes out at speakers who indulge in intellectual virtuosity at the expense of practical considerations and to the tangible harm of the state (3.37–38), he anticipates countless realist condemnations of idealism. At the same time, in equating the cultivation of anger and the indulgence in retribution with sôphrosunê, the “self-control” or “restraint” that Greek aristocrats claimed for themselves (3.37.2–38.1), he illustrates the perversion of language that Thucydides would deplore at 3.82.4. At the same time, however, Kleon’s critique of specious intellectualism recalls the charges that Thucydides levels at his own specious predecessors, both poetic and prose.

Thucydides struggled to establish a synthesis that would answer the valid criticisms of Kleon while avoiding violence and brutality. He attempted to constitute the old aristocratic world view, but in such a way as to render it impervious to the charges of naiveté. Thus Thucydides gives to his Diodotos, an otherwise unknown figure who answers Kleon and argues for clemency, one of the most admired speeches in Greek literature. Faced with a bitter and venomous diatribe from Kleon, Diodotos concedes to his opponent the rules of debate. He refuses to seek mercy on the grounds of either justice or compassion. He argues instead that mercy is simply more expedient, and thus manages to give the restive Athenians justification to resist Kleon (Thuc. 3.44). But brilliant as Diodotos’s speech may be, the Athenians would show no such mercy a decade later when they annihilated the population of Melos. Plato understood the limits of this expediency clearly: in book 1 of the Republic, he accepts the same rules of debate as does Diodotos, restricting himself to arguments based upon advantage, but he introduces advantage only to set it aside. The real argument begins in book 2, when Plato’s interlocutors insist that justice be defended not because of the advantages it confers but because it is good in and of itself. Plato thus leapt beyond that logic of advantage in which Thucydides remained. But if Plato achieved an intellectual eminence that few thinkers in any culture could equal, Thucydides’ disciplined restraint has also attracted admiration.[36]

Finally, I wish to examine as a fourth trend what I will term “paradigmatic realism”: new ways of looking at the world may bring overall advantages, but the advance must often be balanced against its cost. Even in the sciences, new schemata that all agree are superior may have serious drawbacks: no one would dispute the superiority of Einsteinian relativity over Newtonian views of time and space, but the increase in understanding came at the price of an enormous increase in complexity, and even now no physicist uses general relativity when, as in most day-to-day circumstances, the old-fashioned view of time and space will do. In the humanities and social sciences, where intellectual progress is far more ambiguous, the benefits of a new realism are almost always problematic. If realists drag new phenomena into the light, they also push other phenomena back into the shadows. The disciplined observer learns not only what to see but also what to ignore—this is as true for painters, novelists, and experimental physicists as it is for political philosophers and historians. No outlook is ever neutral: scientists and scholars alike see what they expect to see. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn popularized the term “paradigm” as a label for the formalized perspectives of professional scientists,[37] but his concept arguably applies beyond the sciences. It certainly applies to Thucydides.

Kuhn, for example, distinguished “pre-paradigm” science from its more mature counterpart. “In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant. As a result, early fact-gathering is a far more nearly random activity than the one that subsequent scientific development makes familiar.” [38] Kuhn cites Pliny’s Natural History, with its wide scope and lack of precise focus, as typical of “pre-paradigm” science. Herodotus was no Pliny, nor did Thucydides shape history at all as decisively as did Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology, but the change that Thucydides imposed upon history—for better and for worse—reflects in some degree the sudden narrowing of focus that Kuhn identifies with the rise of a paradigm. Herodotus constructed a brilliant and heterogeneous book—in all probability, the first full-length prose work ever constructed[39]—but, although Herodotus was well known and widely read throughout antiquity, and although Herodotus was, in some ways, arguably more scientific than Thucydides,[40] it was Thucydides—willful, obscure, idiosyncratic but brilliant—who established the ideal canons of the historian. This influence was a mixed blessing, for Thucydides helped limit history to the political and military, while marginalizing social factors and oversimplifying events.[41] Thucydides excluded women from his work to a degree unmatched by virtually any classical Greek author:[42] his was a masculine vision, and he did much to establish the gendered vision that almost all realists would share for the subsequent two thousand years.[43] He did more than simply compose a history of the Peloponnesian War. He also established the starting point for ancient historians. And although few of those who followed lived up to the standards that Thucydides espoused, Thucydides did much more than Herodotus to define ancient historiography.[44]

This is not the place to go into Twain-like detail about Thucydides’ historical offences. In what follows I will examine those elements of traditional Greek culture that Thucydides disdained or that modern readers, going beyond even Thucydides, have overlooked. I will turn to political realism as a particular paradigm that Thucydides in some measure founded and that, in one form or another, seems destined to flourish. First, however, I wish to consider the degree to which Thucydides felt that he had established what historians of science might now term a scientific paradigm.

Successful paradigms, at least within the sciences, allow their users to predict events with greater certainty. Certainly, Thucydides makes it clear that he looked for the ability to foresee future events in his statesmen. Consider, for example, his praise of Themistokles:

Themistokles was a man who exhibited most securely the power of his nature (phusis); indeed, in this particular he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled. By his own native capacity (oikeia xunesis), alike unformed and unsupplemented by study, he was at once the best judge in those sudden crises that admit of little or of no deliberation, and the best prophet of the future, even to its most distant possibilities. An able theoretical expositor of all that came within the sphere of his practice, he was not without the power of passing an adequate judgment in matters in which he had no experience. He could also excellently divine the good and evil that lay hid in the unseen future. Taken as a whole, whether we consider the extent of his natural powers (phuseôs dunamis), or the slightness of his training, this extraordinary man must be allowed to have surpassed all others in the faculty of intuitively meeting an emergency.

The fact that Themistokles himself ended his days as a wanted man, an exile from Athens and client of the Persian king (Thuc. 1.135–138) did not diminish Thucydides’ admiration for him. Similarly, Thucydides takes care to inscribe within the History his own judgment that Perikles’ strategy for Athens was correct. Perikles’ own mortality constituted the only flaw in his reasoning, for no one after Perikles’ death was able to provide the leadership necessary to keep Periklean strategy on track (2.65.7–12).

The idea that human intelligence could accurately manage the future did, in fact, find expression in the fifth century. Demokritos reportedly said that “human beings invented the image of chance (tuchê) as a pretext for their own foolishness, for only rarely does chance conflict with intelligence. Intelligent careful observation makes most things in life run smoothly” (frag. 119 DK). Other texts, such as Prometheus Bound 436–506 and the “Ode to Man” at Sophokles Antigone 332–375, attest that, in the fifth century, a certain pride in human achievements had at least leavened traditional archaic pessimism about the human condition. Some intellectuals gave full weight to the power of technology and emphasized the possibilities that human intelligence opened up. The optimism visible in the fifth century clearly influenced Thucydides: the Archaeology dismisses early human history and even the heroic age, stressing that modern society had progressed far and that untrustworthy poets such as Homer had grossly exaggerated events of the past (such as the magnitude of the Trojan War).[45]

Thucydides struggled to establish history as what we would now call a scientific discipline, and if he was unsuccessful in this, it is not clear how much farther we have really progressed in the intervening two thousand years. Nevertheless, if history is supposed to generate scientific laws by which we may accurately predict future events, Thucydides was not successful. I have already alluded to the unresolved problems within Thucydides’ analysis of the past (for example, “archaic” Sparta’s defeat of “modern” Athens). If Thucydides could not even “predict” the past, it is hardly surprising that his History ultimately presents a bleak picture of mortal capacity to cope with the future.[46] He begins his History with the boast that he wrote so that future generations could scrutinize his account and “judge it useful” (Thuc. 1.22.4), but this confidence seems to evaporate as the narrative progresses. He approaches his superb account of the plague at Athens with marked diffidence:

All speculation as to its origin and its causes, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do as I had the disease myself and watched its operation in the case of others.

Thucydides can claim a great deal of intellectual authority, since he lived through the plague and suffered from it himself, but his account, however accurate, has few pretentions. He can offer no treatment, much less explanations, for the plague. At most he hopes that others will recognize this disease from his account if it ever crops up again.[47]

By the time Thucydides describes civil war on Corcyra, knowledge of the past becomes even more problematic. On the one hand, he includes in this analysis perhaps his strongest assertion about the predictive power of good observation:

The sufferings that revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of humankind (phusis anthrôpôn) remains the same, though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.

Grim as the subject matter may be, the savagery of the Corcyraeans provides us with a case study in which we see human behavior that is typical for such circumstances. Given the conditions that obtain in Corcyra, human beings anywhere will pursue the same harsh measures. Indeed, Thucydides justifies his analysis of Corcyra as a “case study” on the grounds that what happened at Corcyra repeated itself throughout the Greek world and that Corcyra is a general, not a special, phenomenon. Certainly, every continent, including Europe and North America, has in the past decade produced its own Corcyras, and it would be all too easy to establish case studies eerily similar to Thucydides’ analysis of Corcyra.

And yet, even if the Corcyraean excursus constitutes a high-water mark for Thucydidean exposition, the triumph of accurate history proves double-edged. The memory of atrocities is not simply a neutral finding but, like the process of war,[48] takes on a life of its own and begins to exert its own force upon events:

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places that it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

The participants in civil war become students of factional fighting, and by learning of previous struggles they perfect and intensify their own ruthlessness. Memory becomes an incitement to murder and betrayal, as the reputation of past crimes undermines confidence for the future. The self-fulfilling nature of ideological realism finds its way into the History.

previous chapter
Truest Causes and Thucydidean Realisms
next sub-section