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September 13, 2006

Why Thucydides? William Charles explains why Thucydides' Histories are so important to neoconservatives and how they have been misinterpreted by neoconservatism's opponents

Posted by William Charles

Leading neoconservative Irving Kristol has described Thucyides' Histories as:

the favourite neoconservative text on foreign affairs.
William Charles explains why the Histories are so important to neoconservatives - and how they have been misinterpreted by neoconservatism's opponents.

The Neocons and the Ancients
The influence of the classical world on neoconservative beliefs is well attested by exponents and critics alike. In his 2003 essay "the Neoconservative Persuasion", Irving Kristol named the work of the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides as,

the favourite neoconservative text on foreign affairs.
Kristol has also emphasized the influence of Leo Strauss, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Chicago, whose work focused on the political thought of Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides and Xenophon.

Writing in Neoconservatism: the Autobiography of an Idea, he describes the impact of Strauss' approach:

Instead of our looking down at them from the high vantage point of our more "advanced" era, he trained his students to look at modernity through the eyes of the "ancients" and the pre-moderns, accepting the premise that they were wiser and more insightful than we.
And one of the most eminent Thucydidean scholars of his generation, Donald Kagan, a professor of classics and history at Yale, has co-authored While America Sleeps: published in 2000, this work draws from the complacency of Great Britain after the First World War a warning to America to abandon her post-Cold War lethargy and to adopt an explicitly neoconservative foreign policy.

The Critics and the Ancients
More often, however, this association with the ancients is used as a weapon in the armoury of the neoconservatives' opponents. The favoured practice of critics is to select one idea from the work of, for instance, Plato, Aristotle or Thucydides, and to portray it as a neocon axiom, with little or no reference to the context or intentions of the writer, or the original text itself.

Just such a case appeared in a 2004 article in the Daily Telegraph. Mary Wakefield wrote:

Perhaps, like Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives, he [Tony Blair] is a disciple of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss was champion of the "noble lie" - the idea that it is practically a duty to lie to the masses because only a small elite is intellectually fit to know the truth.
This "noble lie", however, which is referred to in Books III and IV of Plato's Republic, is not a weapon of mass stupefaction but a means of educating the soldier class in Plato's imagined utopia. These "Guardians" ought to be encouraged not only to act selflessly and courageously but to believe that the philosopher's ideal state is the best and most natural form of society for men.

Plato also thinks that this perfect soldier would have many qualities unwelcome in the rest of his ideal society (III.375b). Therefore, one result of educating the Guardians with suitable myths is that the rest of this hypothetical society does not have to be taught in the same way. In any case, the question as to whether Plato believes his ideal state is at all practical or possible will always remain open. But the idea that a prime component of neoconservative thought is this "noble lie" remains an enduring myth, especially after it was explored and exaggerated by the BBC in its 2004 series, The Power of Nightmares.

Plato was invoked again in a 2003 attack on "Straussians" (for which, we may read "neoconservatives") by Shadia Drury, a professor of political theory at the University of Calgary in an interview of 2003. Her argument came down to simplest of reductions:

How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat?
Speculation on Plato's politics were he alive today is certainly otiose; and Strauss has answered for himself in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern:
we are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of liberal democracy.
Anne Norton, in Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, reduces the monumental Histories of Thucydides to a simple tale of the consequences of imperial overstretch. Writing in a chapter entitled "The Sicilian Expedition" - a reference to the disastrous attempt by Athens to subjugate Sicily in 415 BC, although the chapter is concerned with Iraq - her interpretation of Thucydides is obvious: Athens (read "America") comes to ruin through her immoral pursuit of empire. Norton also states that "Straussians", in particular Professor Kagan, misconstrue Thucydides to conclude that:
the Athenians failed only in not quite being imperial enough.
Norton draws this conclusion without once going to the text and omits any reflection on the complex judgment of Thucydides on Athens and her empire.

But since, as Norton evidently agrees, it is in the field of foreign policy that neoconservatism has made the most impact, and since Strauss, Kristol, Kagan and others have affirmed the powerful influence of Thucydides, it is his great history of the Peloponnesian War that demands the closest examination.

Thucydides at first glance
At first glance, and it will become apparent that many critics look no further, Thucydides appears a problematic member of the neoconservatives' literary pantheon. For one thing, many commentators, such as Gilpin in The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism (1986) and Keohane in Man, the State and War (1959), consider him the founder of the realist school of foreign policy analysis. Realism emphasizes the illusory nature of justice and the irrelevance of moral considerations in inter-state dealings, whereas neocons tend to assess the national interest on more value-driven and ideological lines, particularly where democracy is concerned.

Worse than this, as Norton's work illustrates, Thucydides may appear to offer an open goal to critics. After all, at the centre of the Histories is the imperial democracy of Athens. Her empire began as an alliance of free states (the Delian League), formed to defend Greece against the Persian Empire.

Over time most of these states were subordinated to Athens and compelled to provide tribute either in gold or in ships and manpower. The reality of empire was made plain when attempts to leave the League, for example that of Samos in 441-439 BC, were crushed. Moreover, Athens tended to install and support democracies in these subject states and in her imperial acquisitions, while the anti-Athenian factions tended to favour oligarchy as the form of government.

The Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 BC, pitted her against Sparta, a state which, despite being the closest the ancient world came to a totalitarian society, claimed to be fighting for the liberation of the Greeks from Athens. Finally, the empire and the democracy disintegrated under the weight of imperial misadventures, exhaustion of resources, internal rivalries between radical politicians and the sheer number of enemies which Athens' policies had united against her.

It is at this point that most of the critics of the neocons stop and congratulate themselves for having spotted that America is the new Athens: an imperial democracy, en route to disaster through ill-advised military campaigns overseas, radical, war-mongering politicians and her own arrogance.

So simplistic an account is to misjudge a work as subtle as Thucydides' Histories. It was not for nothing that Thomas Hobbes called him:

the most politic historiographer that ever writ.
Nor that Leo Strauss named Thucydides a political philosopher as well as an historian. And it is Strauss who provides the starting point for looking at Thucydides' influence on neoconservatives:
Thucydides sympathizes with and makes us sympathize with political greatness as displayed in fighting for freedom and in the founding, ruling and expanding of empires.
The first reason for Thucydides' influence is indicated by Strauss' statement: it lies in the portrayal of Athens as an heroic democracy and great power. Secondly, it is clear from a close reading of the text that, contrary to the views of many commentators, the historian offers a subtle critique of amoral realism and realpolitik in foreign policy.

Heroic Athens
Just as the idea of the hero is central to the art and literature of the ancient Greeks, so its influence is apparent also in history. Athens very much fulfils the role of a classical hero in Thucydides. Of course, ancient heroes are not the comfortable and comprehensible figures of modern art, where the word has come to mean little more than the central character. Ancient heroes are notable not only for their superior abilities but also for their intransigence and unwillingness to compromise on matters of personal honour: think of Achilles' withdrawal from the Trojan War, or Ajax' suicide. Ancient heroes were awesome characters who could not sit comfortably in the everyday world. Their actions and ambitions were considered to offend against the lot of ordinary mortals, and punishment, or nemesis, ever to wait upon them.

In the light of this cultural background, the historian's treatment of Athens alerts us to the fact that he is not describing an ordinary state at all. When he portrays her at her zenith, at the very outset of the war, we cannot help but find ourselves awestruck: Athens, it is made clear, is unique to Greece and to the world; within her city walls alone are men capable of the great achievements that political freedom makes possible. Democratic ideology and constitutional freedom are inextricably linked with power and empire. Thucydides at 2.65 associates this fleeting golden age at Athens with the statesman Pericles, who was in many ways the architect of Athenian pre-eminence:

it was under him that Athens reached the height of her greatness.
Pericles was the most influential democratic politician at Athens during the fifteen years or so leading up to the outbreak of hostilities and for the first two years of the war. He was elected and re-elected to the position of Strategos, or general, an executive and military office, for almost all of these years. Thucydides does acknowledge that Pericles' ascendancy meant that:
in what was in name a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.
However, he clearly believes that Pericles deserved his primacy:
because of his authority, his intelligence, and his known incorruptibility, he could respect the liberty of the people while restraining them. It was he who led them, rather than be led by them.
Thucydides contrasts this with the policies of his successors, who "adopted methods of demagogy", which resulted in their surrendering policy to the whims of the mob.

Most of all through the speeches of Pericles, Athens is presented as the one state where men are most free and where, because of this freedom, most able to fulfill their potential. The most significant speeches are the Funeral Oration in honour of the Athenians who had fallen in the first year of the war, and Pericles' last speech, given shortly before his death and delivered in response to a wave of defeatism that had swept Athens in 430 BC, as she was assailed by both war and a virulent plague.

It is necessary here to say something about the historian's peculiar method for the speeches in the Histories, which he outlines in Book I:

my method has been, while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.
There is no getting away from the dichotomy between "what was actually said" and "what, in my opinion, was called for". In other words, it is in the speeches that Thucydides' own ideas become apparent. His accuracy in reporting the words of others is not a question for the present.

The few other surviving Funeral Orations, for instance those of Demosthenes, Lysias and Gorgias, show that Thucydides departs radically from the traditional approach. The others concentrate on the valour of the fallen and the lessons of their sacrifice for the survivors. They tend to begin with the heroic myths of Athens' foundation. Then, following the historical tradition, they celebrate her vital contribution in the Persian Wars, when all Greece nearly succumbed to foreign invasion. Athens is consistently portrayed either as the champion of the free Greeks against barbarian oppressors, or, when she fights other Greeks, as waging war in self-defence or on behalf of those unjustly attacked. Thucydides largely ignores these comforting half-truths and alone gives an extended eulogy to contemporary Athens; his words for the fallen are secondary to his judgment on the state itself.

In keeping with this more hard-headed approach, Pericles passes over the mythic origins of Athens, saying merely that, unlike most other Greek states, the Athenians had always inhabited the same region. He says that the Athenians help their allies, and so win further allies and influence, not so much from a calculation of their own advantage as:

in the fearless confidence of freedom.
The trajectory of his speech is clear: something about the internal nature of Athens has led to her greatness. Other funeral orations suggest that Athens was entitled to her great power because she had liberated so many Greeks from the Persians. In other words it was a just reward.

The thesis of Pericles' speech is that the Athenians deserve their power because of their arete, a word difficult to convey in English, but "excellence" will do. They show their "excellence" through their courage, enterprise and devotion to their free city. Later on we hear that even the empire's subjects acknowledge she is worthy of empire. And what is the origin of this arete? Pericles states explicitly at 2.36.4 that it is:our constitution and way of life that has made us great. Now he moves on to an encomium of the Athenian state itself.

"Freedom" is at the centre of this Athenian democratic ideology, as Thucydides presents it:

just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.
Pericles does not commend democracy for its own sake, but because it is the system that allows men most of all to approach arete, and therefore because it is the basis of Athens' imperial strength. When he speaks of the products of the Athenians' freedom, the festivals and great works of art and architecture, Pericles does not praise them for their artistic and intellectual merit, but for the way they inspire the citizens. And whereas the Spartans are reared almost from birth to adulthood by the state in order to inculcate the martial virtues of discipline and fearlessness, the Athenians live free and are no less courageous in war. Pericles' conception of individual liberty is no anarchic license, but a source of love for one's country and, in any case, loving Athens entails taking up the heavy burden of defending her.

As an institution, democracy is assessed not for its enlightened ideals per se, but for the excellence of the achievements it inspires in its citizens. Athens at this time excelled the rest of Greece not only in political freedoms but also in art, architecture, philosophy and literature. From this point Pericles draws the conclusion that Athens' laws and customs are superior to all others and justify his city's achievements:

to sum up, I say that this city taken collectively is an education for Greece, and that each of our citizens could himself with the utmost grace and versatility, prove himself self-sufficient in the most varied forms of activity.
In his last speech, with the people despairing over their losses, Pericles sets out another reason for confidence:
know that freedom, if we hold fast to it and preserve it, will easily replace these losses, but let men once submit to others and even what has been won in the past has a way of being brought to nothing.
But a new and harsher tone of realism has also entered the speech, a reflection both of the exigencies of war and of the arguments of his opponents to reach some form of settlement with the Spartans. The Athenians must not, he says, delude themselves that their greatness has won them friends abroad: their empire is "like a tyranny". This fight is not merely "for freedom or slavery": defeat will mean the loss of the empire, which will open the Athenians to attack from all those who hate and envy them. And Pericles declares of this,
It is not appropriate in an imperial state, but only in a servile nation, to seek safety in submission.
What then, apart from patriotic rhetoric, is there to inspire the neoconservatives? Kristol writes:
large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.
Athens had become just such an ideological state, merging freedom, democracy and empire. These two speeches, which are given such extended and significant treatment by Thucydides, are not intended merely to offer an approximation of what Pericles actually said. Through the eulogy to Athens, we understand that there is something remarkable about this state, the first democracy ever to exist. We begin to appreciate that her intransigence, like that of the Homeric heroes, is not merely the result of arrogance, but that her very nature demands it. Such a state could never be content to shrink back into the second rank of powers in the face of intimidation from nations she knows to be her inferiors, far less enlightened and advanced in their constitutions, laws, intellectual life and culture. But it was as clear to Thucydides as it is to many today, that great power engenders hatred and envy, and Pericles answers this point too:
he who has the greatest aims in mind is well advised to accept the hatred.
Yet, the Histories pose a dilemma for the reader: given that we know that heroic Athens is defeated, we feel the temptation to repudiate Pericles and his policies. We, distanced by time from the heroic age, think to ourselves, "Athens should have sought a negotiated settlement; they should have ended this war to defend their empire". And we are aware that Thucydides himself strongly criticized the increasingly radical and popular style of democracy that prevailed under Pericles' successors.

To yield, however, means the loss of Athens' heroic status; it is something she can only do if she is content to become a quiescent city, happy not to contend with others. And this Athens cannot do. Her greatness, her arete, of which Thucydides persuades us in the speeches of Pericles, has led to a city where men are freer than anywhere else in the world, and consequently can explore the potentialities of existence. Such activities are denied to the people of a Sparta or a Corinth, who remain the servants of kings and oligarchies. And Pericles answers the faint-hearted saying:

Know that Athens has the greatest fame among all men because she does not yield to misfortune, because she has expended the greatest casualties and efforts in war, because she possesses the greatest power yet acquired, the memory of which will endure through subsequent generations unto eternity.
The real point, therefore, is not whether America is the new Athens and whether she risks a similar defeat. The real point has to do with the possibility of the heroic in politics and the kinds of societies that are worthy of our celebration, loyalty and even sacrifice. Pericles' speeches clearly tell us that democracy, freedom under the law and enlightened institutions make a state worthy of a special measure of respect and of the most unflinching defence. And Pericles was invoked on this very point by Douglas Murray, in his speech to the Pym Fortuyn Memorial Conference this year.

Thucydides makes us, as Strauss pointed out, feel sympathy for the democratic state engaged in a war to the death. It is this idea that exerts a strong influence over neoconservative attitudes: that some kinds of societies, more enlightened than their opponents, are worthy not only of being resolutely defended but also of being celebrated, encouraged and, sometimes, extended.

A Realistic Critique of Realism
Irving Kristol, as we have seen, makes clear that democratic ideology and judgments about the internal character of other states must be significant determinants in a neoconservative foreign policy. The national interest cannot begin and end for great nations with their borders:

Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces, external or internal.
In an article included in Irwin Stelzer's reader, Neoconservatism (2005), William Kristol and Robert Kagan, both the sons of authors mentioned above, called on America to abandon:
some post-Cold War version of the Nixon doctrine, whereby the United States hangs back and keeps its powder dry.
America, they argue, must realize that a global power has different priorities to a national or regional power:
it would act as if threats to the interests of our allies are threats to us, which indeed they are. It would act as if instability in important regions of the world, and the flouting of civilized rules of conduct in those regions, are threats that affect us with almost the same immediacy as if they were occurring on our doorstep.
A neoconservative foreign policy, therefore, entails arguing for the moral case for democracy and choosing friends and allies, not so much from calculations of expediency, but from judgments about their internal character. It goes far beyond the narrowly construed "national interest" foreign policy of the realist school, which is based on largely amoral assessments of the relative power of different states and alliances, and the pursuit of "balance".

A number of foreign policy commentators view Thucydides as the originator of the school of foreign policy realism and realpolitik, which is at odds with the neoconservative position. However, a close reading of the text suggests that, while he diagnoses many of the same problems as the realists, he does not advocate their approach.

Realism is characterized by the pursuit of a strict construction of the national interest and disdain for wider moral and ideological considerations. The realists, most notably Morgenthau and Kennan, observe from international relations that justice is irrelevant and that the fundamental character of all states is self-interested. The corollary of these observations is that states must apply amoral reason to their foreign policy, for otherwise they would not be able to make a correct assessment either of their own national interest, or of the relative power of other, similarly self-interested and reason-applying states.

Thucydides repeatedly notes evidence in support of these observations; but he does not share the realists' confidence that nations can apply reason and calm logic to their affairs. Rather, he shows that moral passions, unreasonable hopes, fear and over-confidence are indelible parts of any human society. More than this, he shows that attempts to exclude moral considerations are destructive, since the state that follows such a course becomes unable to sustain any belief in the rightness of its cause.

The party most in thrall to realism is Athens, and the tendency increases as the war goes on. On the eve of the war, Athenian envoys at Sparta argue that the they deserve praise for their empire because Athens is both more restrained and more generous in her treatment of the subjects than other imperial states, even though such restraint sometimes harms her interests. In other words, these envoys suggest that it is precisely because the Athenians show a noble superiority to calculations of self-interest in the way they rule that they deserve their power.

More than a year into the war and with Athens having the worst of it, Pericles admits that the Athenians' empire is "like a tyranny". Two years later the demagogue Cleon, the most influential politician of his day, declares to the Athenians, "your empire is a tyranny". Any idea that Athens deserves the empire for her noble history or by the excellence of her democracy is thus abandoned before the naked fact of her power.

The trend towards increasing realism comes to fruition in 416 BC when an Athenian embassy is sent to the island state of Melos, a colony of the Spartans, to demand her surrender. Thus begins the Melian Dialogue, both a notorious atrocity and the most notorious passage from Thucydides: as a Princeton professor of classics has said about this passage:

it attracts us by its unsentimental clarity in the analysis of power.
When Melos refuses to yield, Athens lays siege to her. After they take the city, the Athenians punish the recalcitrant islanders, killing all the men of military age and selling all the women and children into slavery.

A number of stylistic peculiarities set this passage - the Melian Dialogue - apart from any other group of speeches in Thucydides. For instance, the speakers are strangely anonymous: they are simply "the Athenians" or "the Melians". And there is an air of unreality about the exchanges: the complex constructions, the subtle diction and the zeal of the Athenians for their brutally amoral world-view make it clear that no embassy in real life would have spoken in this way. All propaganda, subterfuge, hypocrisy and moral justifications have been amputated from their speeches.

It is clear, therefore, that Thucydides is using the passage to examine something beyond the simple events.

The Athenians begin the dialogue by ordering the exclusion of all "fine phrases", by which they mean references to hope or to the gods; they will discuss the bare facts alone. They themselves will not use the old arguments that paint their city in a good light: that Athens twice saved Greece from the Persians, once alone in 490 and once in coalition in 480/79 BC. They even concede that Melos has done them no wrong. The last exclusion they demand is justice itself:

the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and [we know] that, in reality, the strong do what they have the power to do, while the weak suffer what they must.
Justice, in the classic realist formulation, can have no existence unless negotiating parties are equal in strength, and even then it is just a euphemism for the balance of power.

The Melians counter with the view that some conception of justice is vital when states get into difficulties, and that the Athenians most of all should accept this:

this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.
The Athenians do not offer a cogent answer to this, saying merely that they are less frightened of being conquered by a great power like Sparta, than that their own subjects secede and attack them. It is almost a concession that "might is right", that if anyone manages to prove stronger than Athens, then Athens deserves her subjugation. And we remember how, at the very end of the war, Athens will appear just as Melos does now, resorting to the very arguments she has here excluded, pleading for a measure of clemency from her conquerors.

The Melians ask whether there is not some nobility in holding out even against a superior enemy, and also some hope, given that the unexpected frequently occurs in war. It is a highly significant question since these are the very qualities which first gave Athens her power, when she resisted the vast Persian Empire single-handedly at the Battle of Marathon, then with her allies ten years later. These acts of unreasonable hope and faith in the justice of their cause led directly to the growth of Athenian naval power, the development of her industries and the acquisition of her empire. But the Athenians at Melos have forgotten all this; indeed, they seek to exclude any consideration of such things and inform the Melians that there is no honour in fighting a superior foe.

Thucydides encourages us carefully to consider the Persian Wars in this context. When the Melians suggest there is something noble in holding out, his Athenian readership might well recall a passage from the Histories of Herodotus, who had chronicled the Persian Wars. There, the Athenians answer with defiance the Persian Emperor's demands for submission:

We know, as well as you do, that the power of the Mede [Persia] is many times greater than our own Nevertheless we cling so to freedom that we shall offer what resistance we may Nay we shall oppose him unceasingly, trusting in the aid of those gods and heroes whom he has lightly esteemed, whose houses and whose images he had burnt with fire.
The final answer of the Melians recalls this passage:
we are not prepared to give up in a short moment the liberty which our city has enjoyed since its foundation for 700 years. We put our trust in the fortune that the gods will send and in the help of men - the Spartans.
There are more significant echoes from Herodotus when the Athenians restate the law of the stronger:
Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one has the power to. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us.
Before the decision to invade Greece in 480 BC, the Persian Emperor Xerxes declares in council that expansion is a most ancient custom of his people and one he has inherited from his ancestors. The Emperor says:
This [the pursuit of conquest] is God's guidance, and it is by following it that we have gained our great prosperity.
In this way, as the talks end in impasse, Thucydides suggests that Athenian policy has become so distorted that the city now appears as the heir to Persia, the epitome of despotism in Greek thought.

We wonder, therefore, at this apparent distortion of the Periclean ideal of Athens. What is clear is that a state which embraces amoral realism, as illustrated in the Melian Dialogue, must renounce any belief in its own moral superiority. This is something which Pericles had always resisted. As we have seen, he went so far as to tell the Athenians their empire was "like a tyranny", but he also went to great lengths to inculcate the belief that Athens represented what was best, what was most civilized, free and advanced in Greece.

Now, the embassy to the Melians suggests that none of this matters. Pure strength is the only criterion of right and Athens deserves obedience for no better reason than that her military capacity exceeds that of others. A realist state is also a relativistic state, since policies based on moral considerations are anathema; indeed, such a state denies itself the consolation of believing that it is just or honourable at all.

This radical realism then, quite apart from enhancing, actually distorts the Athenians' ability to judge policy. As a naval empire, any islands remaining non-aligned are a perceived threat. And there will always be more islands to subdue. Thucydides juxtaposes to the Melian dialogue the disastrous decision to invade Sicily, an island about which the Athenians, for all their over-confidence, have only incomplete information. This decision is prelude to Athens' greatest defeat.

On the eve of the departure for Sicily of the vast invasion force, a religious crime is perpetrated in Athens when some statues of Hermes are desecrated. Alcibiades, the leading proponent of the invasion and the only commander who could possibly have succeeded there, is blamed. He is recalled from his command to be tried for mocking the city's religion and the Athenians entrust the expedition to the pious Nikias, who had spoken out against the invasion in the first place. Thucydides tells us that the whole affair was regarded as an "omen" for the expedition - this from the same Athenians who at Melos claimed to be beyond such irrational responses.

In other words, despite their professed realism, the Athenians are unable to throw off the unreasonable hopes and fears they had mocked in the Melians. Again and again, they act for reasons which cannot be justified by reason and self-interest: Nikias, an inferior and reluctant general, is appointed in the hope that his piety will expiate Athens' guilt for the religious "crime"; and it is after this appointment, along with the execution of some other suspect citizens, that Thucydides says the Athenians had the "greatest hope" for the expedition's success. Later, in Sicily, after a number of setbacks, the army witnesses an eclipse of the moon. Nikias and the majority of the soldiers are so convinced that this is another omen that they heed their soothsayers and delay the withdrawal by "thrice nine days", a decision which proves catastrophic as the army is all but wiped out.

What are neoconservatives to take from this?
Thucydides appears to suggest that there are serious consequences for a state pursuing the realist view to its logical conclusion. A foreign policy devoid of values, reduced to the mere mathematics of weighing interests and the relative strength of different powers, is fundamentally flawed. The people of a country following such a course lose confidence in that policy because they are deprived of belief in the justice of their own country. For if the stronger is always right, then what does it matter whether Athens is free, constitutionally enlightened, cultured, philosophically advanced and beautiful? Relativism in foreign affairs, where simple power relationships dictate policy, creates either relativism at home or a backlash of irrational hopes and fears. And so, rather than being the original proponent of realism, Thucydides indicates that it is a psychologically nave theory, because a human concern for justice and morality is an inevitable factor in foreign affairs; and a state trying to ignore these concerns is impaired by the loss of faith in the rightness of its cause.

If realism, therefore, is flawed in the way Thucydides shows, what is a reasonable rationale for a foreign policy? The historian does not prescribe one, but we may infer that the application of values in some form to foreign policy is crucial. It is the psychologically accurate response. And the alternative is the view that morality is only relative to power. The logical end of that view is the nihilism of ever further conquest, regardless of the constitutional and civic qualities which first made Athens great, like the vast despotism of Persia she has started to emulate.

The naivety of pure realism and the unique worth and heroic possibilities of democracy are at the core of Thucydides' Histories - and at the root of his appeal to the neoconservatives
Why would neoconservatives regard Thucydides as so fundamental to foreign policy thinking? The Histories appear a difficult choice at first: the democratic empire of Athens comes to ruin in large part through arrogance and misjudgment; and the historian's observations about the reality of international relations appear to support the realist case in foreign policy.

But this reading of the text is a misinterpretation. Athens is not offered to us as an example of how democracies are betrayed and ruined by an activist foreign policy, much as Norton, Drury and others would like. The speeches of Pericles set out the kind of society that is worth fighting for, where everyday life is shaped by law, mutual respect, self-restraint and self-sacrifice. This is far more than mere propaganda: the ideal of Athens, portrayed in the speeches is offered as a paradigm of the greatness that could be achieved under enlightened governance, democracy and with the courage derived from having overcome insurmountable odds in the past.

Of course, the democracy in reality fell far short of these high ideals. In particular, it is clear that the Athenians' reason becomes distorted as the war continues. Athens' strength is misinterpreted as confirmation that might is right. And she tries to apply absolutely the amoral tenets of realism, which suggest that justice in foreign affairs is illusory, and that the best policy is that which, regardless of hope, fear, morality and other human weaknesses, pursues the immediate national interest. The intellectual and political energy of Athens becomes trapped in a philosophical dead-end, where power is justification enough, where there are no standards of morality.

Thucydides shows the futility of this approach: it is psychologically nave, since it is impossible for men to compute their self-interest solely by the application of reason. As the realist thinker Morgenthau declared in Truth and Power, late in his life:

justice, immortality, freedom, power, and love - those are the poles that attract and thereby shape the thoughts and actions of men.
Similarly, Henry Kissinger once conceded:
it is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality.
And Morgenthau praises what he refers to as
a self-confident pragmatism, which, in the best British tradition, combines moral assurance with political advantage.
This may also be the judgment of Thucydides.

In a similar way, the neoconservatives reject balance of power politics and the amoral pursuit of immediate national security as nave and short-term. Kristol argues for paying attention to the internal nature of states and their standards of behaviour as a guide to whether, ultimately, they are a friend to the West or a foe. Moral clarity is another mark of neoconservative foreign policy attitudes. Such clarity cannot exist in a state which pursues a realist foreign policy, since it places no value on, for example, moral or ideological considerations.

And, if pursued to its logical extreme, this realism, which we may now discern as the corollary of political relativism, is self-destructive: it robs a people, as it robbed the Athenians, of confidence in the intrinsic value of their way of life and advanced form of government. The speeches of Pericles, on the other hand, affirm the value of the Athenian democracy at its zenith, in its enlightened constitution and uniquely free way of life, which far surpassed the constitutions of her opponents.

These attitudes then, the naivety of pure realism and the unique worth and heroic possibilities of democracy, are at the core of Thucydides' Histories and at the root of his appeal to the neoconservatives.

William Charles read Classics at Oxford where he was awarded a double-first. His particular areas of interest were Thucydides, rhetoric and Athenians democracy. He is currently training as lawyer in the City.


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