previous sub-section
Truest Causes and Thucydidean Realisms
next section

Thucydides and Political Realism

If historians, ancient and modern alike, have generally found that their work, however rigorous and “scientific” in method, does not consitute a science, Thucydides’ aspirations have taken root in the “social” or “human sciences.” In particular, Thucydides has earned a remarkable position as an acknowledged creator of the paradigm for political realism. Although more recently “postmodernist” and feminist scholars have subjected realism to searching new analyses,[49] the quest to establish a scientific discipline has remained strong.[50] Although Thucydides did not work with the categories of late twentieth-century criticism and although I believe that his work has close affinities with the project of social science, nevertheless the History is remarkable in that it both anticipates a number of elements widely shared by realists and reflects a sense, however imperfectly conceptualized at times, of the weaknesses in political realism. Much of the rest of this book will be devoted to probing these inconsistencies. Here I would like to establish points of connection between Thucydides and the later tradition.

Thucydides’ direct influence on modern political thought begins already with Thomas Hobbes, whose first major work was a translation of Thucydides, and on whose thought Thucydidean influence was substantial. The famous “Athenian thesis” of Thucydides 1.76—that “honour, fear, and profit” (as Hobbes translates timê, deos, and ôphelia) drive all human beings—reappears in the most influential passage that Hobbes ever wrote. The thirteenth chapter of Leviathan varies the language, but not the substance, of Thucydides, citing “competition,” “diffidence,” and “glory” as the three primary human motivations. Hobbes attributes to this triad his famous “warre…of every man, against every man,” which is the natural state of humanity. If anything, however, Hobbes oversimplifies the picture that we find in Thucydides, presenting us with a much more mechanistic and less nuanced model of human behavior.[51]

In the twentieth century, Thucydides’ History enjoys a firm position, for better and for worse, as an exemplary analysis of power politics. The struggle between “the expedient” (to sumpheron) and “the just” (to dikaion), which plays itself out from the opening debate of the History (on which, see chapter 3), anticipates such later concepts as the raison d’ état of Richelieu, the Realpolitik of Bismarck, the “big stick” of Theodore Roosevelt, and the cold-war balance of power of which George Marshall was a primary architect.[52] Robert Tucker, writing in the 1960s, explicitly compared Kennedy’s July 1961 address to the nation with Perikles’ first speech in Thucydides.[53] Thucydides’ analysis of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, despite the criticisms of classicists, has remained compelling to many students of international affairs as “the prototype statement of how we usually express the causes of war.” [54] Another recent history of international relations theory stresses Thucydides’ crucial position for this field: “Thucydides depicts a condition in which power wields the ultimate authority in relations among states, so that ‘the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.’” [55] At the same time, the ancient historian Donald Kagan, who published a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, used his decades of experience with Thucydides as a foundation for broader work. His 1995 book, On the Origins of War, which moves from the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides to the Cuban missile crisis, drew advance praise from, among others, George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state.

Thucydides has, however, not only attracted considerable attention as a general analyst. He has also become recognized as the first representative of a specific “realist” paradigm for international relations.[56] Realists tend to fall into two groups. The “classical realists,” such as E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and John Herz, emerged when fascism, the Second World War, and the subsequent confrontation with the Soviet Union made the harsh Thucydidean outlook particularly attractive. These writers, like Hobbes, used constants of human nature to explain state behavior. Subsequently, “neorealists,” including Robert Gilpin, Kenneth Waltz, and Robert Keohane, shifted the focus from human nature toward the overall structure of the international system. They argued that “unit level factors” (such as individual states) were less important than the overall system, and that the overall system of interstate relations defined the constraints that individual states had to follow. More recently, scholars such as Richard Ashley, James Der Derian, Jean Bethke Elshtain, J. Ann Tickner, and Alexander Wendt have begun to subject realism to a searching critique from a variety of theoretical perspectives,[57] but even in this revisionist debate Thucydides continues to play a role.[58]

Laurie Johnson (now Johnson-Bagby) has recently dealt at length with the relationship between Thucydides and later political realists;[59] thus I will concentrate on some of the most important assumptions that inspire classical realists and neorealists alike to adopt Thucydides. Writers within and about political realism take pleasure in determining which assumptions define realist thought. These assumptions, though varying slightly, remain reasonably consistent from author to author, and those that I select are fairly standard.[60] These assumptions are important both because they help contemporary realists focus their own intellectual practice and because Thucydides is often cited as a source for one or more of them.[61]

First, political realists, even if they concede to civic life a measure of order and morality, tend to stress the amoral nature of interstate relations.[62] Whatever the religious or political ideology of the time, when nations compete with one another, the powerful dominate the weak. Expressions such as raison d’état and Realpolitik serve to describe the harsh decisions that actors make when they place the interests of the state over conventional morality. The Melian Dialogue and the “Athenian thesis” propounded at Thucydides 1.76 are commonly cited as examples of this brutal Hobbesian war of all against all. Whatever Thucydides’ personal preferences may have been,[63] he makes clear in his analysis of early Greek history that fear (deos), honor (timê), and advantage (ôfelia) (the three qualities that the Athenians cite twice at 1.76) are fundamental, even dominant, forces that drive international affairs.[64] Even some ancient historians who express frustration with Thucydides admire him for this: as Paul Cartledge remarks, “Thucydides has a claim to both originality of thought and permanency of value in his unswerving insistence, for purposes of historical interpretation, on the amorality of interstate relations.” [65] Even asThucydides’ History brings out the brutality of such behavior and does not endorse it,[66] it stresses the gap between conventional morality and actual practice. Thucydides’ insistent demystification of motives and rejection of conventional pieties are major leitmotivs of this book.

Second, the quest for power—power with which to provide security and power for its own sake, as a good in and of itself—drives this international free-for-all. For Thucydides, money and power are closely linked. Thus he represents the accumulation of wealth as a fundamental engine for the growth of power and prosperity alike. Writing of Greek experiences under the domination of Minos, Thucydides outlines his model for the development of power and power relations:

The coast populations now began to apply themselves more closely to the acquisition of wealth (chrêmata), and their life became more settled; some even began to build themselves walls since they had become richer (plousiôteroi). For the love of profits (kerdos, pl.) would reconcile the weaker (hoi hêssous) to the dominion of the stronger (hoi kreissous), and the more powerful (dunatôteroi), because they possessed a surplus of wealth (periousia chrêmatôn), were able to reduce the smaller towns to subjection.

Here Thucydides retrojects into the distant past an association of money with power that had gained particular force in his own time. When Perikles analyzes Athenian strength at the opening of the war, he locates Athens’s primary strength in its financial reserves and in the continuing revenues from its empire (Thuc. 1.141; 2.13). In the Mytilenean debate, Kleon and Diodotos each stress the importance of keeping the allied cities in good condition lest they become unable to pay tribute and thus useless to Athens (3.39.8, 3.46).

Other figures in Thucydides express a sophisticated awareness that power involves perception as well as material force. Thus Perikles insists that the Athenians must never “yield to the Peloponnesians” on any point (Thuc. 1.140.1). The particular dispute is less important than the act of yielding:

This trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you accommodate them, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having obeyed because of intimidation (phobos) in the first instance; while a firm refusal will make them clearly understand that they must treat you more as equals.

The famous Mytilenean debate turns upon the question of how Athens can best use its material force to make the allies fulfill its own needs. Diodotos, whose opinion carries the day, argues that if the Athenians spare most of the Mytileneans and thus do not exploit their material force to the fullest, they will immediately gain access to more tribute from Mytilene and will in the future waste less of their resources in putting down revolts (3.46). Melos was a small island with negligible resources, but the Athenians insisted on subduing it, because domination of all the islands would have a powerful symbolic effect upon the rest of the allies (5.95, 97). The Thucydidean Alkibiades owes much of his reputation for brilliance to his understanding of the relationship between the appearance and the reality of material power (e.g., 6.15.2).

But if all states and all individuals pursue power to some extent, ambition consumes the Athenians far more intensely than any other group. The qualitatively distinct thirst for power that shapes Athenian character is, in fact, crucial to the History. It terrifies the Corinthians, leading them to badger the Spartans into war (Thuc. 1.68–71), and provides Alkibiades with a psychological argument for the Sicilian expedition (6.18). Thucydides even inserts power in the one idealizing vision of Athens that the History contains: during the Funeral Oration, Perikles urges his fellow Athenians to gaze upon the power (dunamis) of, and thus become infatuated with, Athens (2.43.1). I will return to the ambiguities of this quest for power as Perikles, its most sympathetic exponent, expresses it.

Third, realists have traditionally viewed interstate affairs as an anarchic system in which hegemony or domination alone can bring order. The quest for power, for all its problems, is at least ambiguous, because success in this quest can bring order to a chaotic world.[67] Realism thus brings with it a certain bias toward supranational structures, even empires, as a constructive thing, and for those with more liberal values this can lead to an intellectual tension. The United Nations is only the most prominent example of the compromises that can result from the tug-of-war between the realist fear of anarchy and the liberal respect for multiple sovereignty and decentralized power. Thucydides fits squarely within this tradition: where Perikles’ Funeral Oration articulates an almost heroic vision of individual freedom, Thucydides clearly (as I will argue in chapter 5) represents human society as anarchic, almost Hobbesian: without strong imperial superstructures such as those imposed by Minos in the past or Athens in the present, individual prosperity has little chance. Even Perikles, when plague ravages the city and Athenian society starts to come unglued, shifts his focus in his final speech, stressing the primacy of state over individual and reflecting the fear that anarchy is the “state of nature” within, as well as between, city-states.

Fourth, realists generally view the group as the standard unit of analysis. Because for three hundred years the modern nation-state has dominated international relations (by convention, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), it provides the focus for most realist work, but virtually all realists acknowledge the nation-state to be a special case—tribes, empires, fiefdoms, virtually any other organized group (such as city-states), would do just as well.[68] This attitude corresponds closely to Thucydides’ practice, especially in the early books, which tend to lump together “the Athenians,” “the Corinthians,” and “the Spartans,” representing each as speaking with a single, undifferentiated voice.

Nevertheless, individual actors exercise an increasing influence on events in the later books, and the integrity of the individual city-states grows weaker. I will have more to say about this phenomenon in the conclusion, for I believe not only that Thucydides’ attitude genuinely shifts, but also that his attitude does more than reflect what he sees. The fragmented nature of events in book 8 reflects two failures of Thucydides’ intellectual expectations. First, the Periklean model of leadership ceases to function, as Thucydides himself points out (Thuc. 2.65.10–11). Even talented men such as Alkibiades and Phrynichos simply cannot place the welfare of the state above their own, and they fail to provide the kind of leadership that Thucydides attributes to Perikles. But there was a second factor at work that Thucydides does not recognize, for it occupies a blind spot in his vision. Thucydides represents the weak leadership that followed Perikles as a decline from a previous state of affairs, but this is only partially correct, for, with the possible exception of Themistokles (cf. 1.138), Perikles towered over his predecessors as well. The politics of Alkibiades, Phrynichos, and the other figures who dominate the end of the History are not so much a new phenomenon as a throwback to the traditional politics of the archaic and classical periods, with their emphasis on the connections and alliances of individuals. Thucydides does not make this connection, because he has resolutely excluded from this narrative virtually all of the mechanics that normally governed such behavior. Here his paradigmatic vision is at its weakest, for, as I will argue later, he excludes and underestimates crucial aspects of this system. The reversal of traditional standards thus appears as a decline from Periklean standards.

Thucydides’ “tragic vision” of Athenian decline has both an objective and a subjective dimension. On the one hand, there was, as Adam Parry, among others, has argued,[69] the terrible contradiction between Athens’s greatness and its fall. Even Perikles in his final speech treats the ultimate fall of Athens as inevitable. I will stress as well the distance that separates the “heroic” Athens of Marathon and Salamis from the ruthless Athens of Melos and the Sicilian expedition. The object of Thucydides’ History is thus tragic.

But Thucydides’ vision is also itself tragic, because it is incomplete, and because this incompleteness, which blinds Thucydides to many crucial elements of history, is also intimately linked to those very strengths that define him. Thucydides has established himself as the first realist because he refused to pay court to sentimentalities and pious fictions. His Athenians in particular exhibit an extraordinary candor about their purposes and goals, and although even this candor is at times deceptive and manipulative, the degree of honesty and “self-knowledge” that these Athenians exhibit is at times astonishing. Nevertheless, that very ruthlessness of analysis and refusal to accept surface appearances—the refusal, as he puts it at 1.10.3, to “scrutinize appearances rather than powers” (tas opseis…mallon skopein ê tas dunameis)—which so characterize his work also rendered many factors difficult for him to assess. It is clear that appearances often are important, actors do not always cast aside their pious fictions, and the bonds of loyalty and friendship do not always break under pressure.

Fifth, realists treat human behavior, at least insofar as it governs the relations between states, as rational. If behavior is rational, then we can expect to determine, through disciplined observation, rules with which to predict what choices actors will pursue in the future. Neorealists differ somewhat in that they push the source of rationality one level up from the “unitary actors” into the international system, and classical realists look to the psychology of the individual actors or the sociology of individual states. The assumption of rationality, to a greater or lesser extent, underlies all serious inquiry—even research into psychoses assumes that scientific analysis can isolate and lay bare the causes for actions that seem bizarre and inexplicable. Nevertheless, both neorealists and classical realists lay particular stress on rationality, because they specifically intend to place the study of international relations on a sounder, more “scientific” basis. E. H. Carr, for example, horrified at the rise of fascism and the breakdown of international order in the 1930s, entitled the opening chapter of The Twenty Years’ Crisis “The Science of International Relations.” Hans Morgenthau published Scientific Man vs. Power Politics in 1946. In 1951 John Herz wrote his Political Realism and Political Idealism specifically because he wished to help political theory move beyond its “‘pre-scientific’ stage.” Almost thirty years later, Kenneth Waltz offered his Theory of International Politics with the same goal. Frank Wayman and Paul Diehl published the collection of essays Reconstructing Realpolitik in 1994 to give realism the most solid foundation that the social sciences could provide.

Sixth, modern realists share Thucydides’ desire for a scientific outlook that will provide tangible benefits to those who make decisions in the future. The phrase “utopian realists,” recently applied to E. H. Carr, captures a general outlook animating many of the best members of this school.[70] By confronting the realities of human nature, we can, it is argued, learn how to control them and thus avoid the greatest misfortunes. This is the underlying idea behind Hobbes’s Leviathan (itself influenced by Thucydides) and much of the recent work on political realism. As Robert Gilpin puts it, “Political realism is, of course, the very embodiment of this faith in reason and science. An offspring of modern science and the Enlightenment, realism holds that through calculations of power and national interest statesmen create order out of anarchy and thereby moderate the inevitable conflicts of autonomous, self-centered, and competitive states.” [71]

Thucydides, as we have already seen above, is ambivalent about the progress of humankind and the possibilities of reason. He reveals in his Archaeology, the thematic and methodological introduction to his work as a whole, an almost Hegelian sense of history as an ongoing process of development. Early humanity was primitive; life nasty, brutish, and short. Basic human responses, such as greed and fear, have provided a foundation for political structures, and these political structures have, as they have grown in size and power, brought increasing order and prosperity.[72] Against the brutalization of war, Thucydides’ Diodotos attempts to provide a rationalized basis for a relatively humane perspective.

But, naturally, events proved almost as problematic for the wary humanism of Diodotos as for the more open idealizations of Perikles’ Funeral Oration. Just as the plague undercuts Perikles’ bold claims, the Athenians would a decade later use the argument of expediency to justify massacre at Melos. At the same time, no new Perikles or even Diodotos would arise. Instead, the problematic Alkibiades would emerge as the most striking personality in the latter part of the History. The tensions between public and private interest would not be resolved, and Athens, the modern sea power, would ultimately fall to its clumsy Spartan adversaries. Thucydides’ History breaks off in midstream, its tensions unresolved.

Seventh, realists have drawn criticism for their unconsciously gendered view of the world: realist thinkers have conceptualized international relations in terms of masculine aggression, reflecting the overwhelming predominance of men even now and especially in the governing of state behavior.[73] To a very large extent, this bias toward the masculine and the creation of a world in which men, and men alone, are primary actors were, in fact, something that Thucydides helped fashion: if we move from Herodotus to Thucydides, the frequency of references to women drops by an order of magnitude.[74] I have pursued this particular phenomenon in detail elsewhere;[75] it reflects more than simple misogyny. Women disappear from Thucydides’ narrative along with families and households, as Thucydides tries to create a discursive world in which individual citizens and city-states are the sole actors.

To sum up, Thucydides easily meets the rather broad criteria by which political realists define themselves, and he clearly deserves his position as the honorary forerunner of a fluid paradigm for studying groups interacting together. At the same time, Thucydides presents a far darker view of the world than any of his modern academic counterparts, and his work manages to maintain the tensions that he could not resolve, without flattening them or glossing them over. I pursue Thucydides’ views at greater length, but first I wish to situate him more firmly in the tradition of Greek thought. Thucydides is hardly the first extant Greek author to give expression to the notion “Might makes right.” His Athenians at Sparta or Melos had their own antecedents, whom students of realism need to consider. At the same time, the assumptions of the world into which Thucydides was born—Greece of c. 460 B.C.E.—were clearly different from those that prevailed as he wrote about the war’s end some time after 404 B.C.E. The changes were in some ways as momentous as those that separate American society of the 1930s from that of the 1990s. A generation of warfare as well as many individuals—Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Perikles, Kritias, and Sokrates, to name a few—contributed to this process. But Thucydides, the failed general, who mixed with his aristocratic connections from all sides and brooded upon Athens over years of exile, contributed to as well as mirrored the changing times. It is these changes that I will take up next.

previous sub-section
Truest Causes and Thucydidean Realisms
next section