The normally cheerful Air Force pilot came into my office, brow furrowed, blue eyes clouded: “Dr. Cohen, we have to talk. I’m really troubled about something.”
“By all means. Come on in.”
“I’ve been worrying about this a lot. Last night I walked three blocks past my apartment, I was thinking so much about it.”
“That sounds serious. What’s the problem?”
“It’s Pericles. I’ve decided I don’t like him.”
A teacher lives for moments like these: I, or rather Thucydides, had him where I (perhaps we?) wanted him.
For years one of my favorite courses to teach at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has included a good seven or eight weeks of carefully reading The Peloponnesian War with perhaps twenty graduate students. These students usually range from 22-year-old recent Ivy League graduates to Marine lieutenant colonels just off battalion command to mysterious middle-aged “diplomats” who seem unusually fit and alert for their profession. Each year I delight as many of them come to terms with Thucydides for the first time, and each year I find something new along with them.
Inevitably one reads The Peloponnesian War with some kind of an eye on the present. This last time, for example, a passage from a speech given by the wily leader of Syracuse to his fellow Sicilians caught my eye. Syracuse led the resistance of the free cities of Sicily against the invasion of the Athenians and their allies; and as in all coalitions, the weaker had their suspicions of the stronger.
As for him who envies or even fears us (and envied and feared great powers must always be), and who on this account wishes Syracuse to be humbled to teach us a lesson, but would still have her survive in the interest of his own security, the wish that he indulges is not humanly possible. A man can control his own desires but he cannot likewise control circumstances; and in the event of his calculations proving mistaken, he may live to bewail his own misfortune, and wish to be again envying my prosperity. An idle wish, if he now sacrifice us and refuse to take his share of perils which are the same in reality, though not in name, for him as for us; what is nominally the preservation of our power being really his own salvation.
Would that an American politician had quoted that in European capitals a few years back.
Thucydides is often accounted the father of international relations realism, that school of thought associated in the middle of the last century with figures like Hans Morgenthau and more recently Kenneth Waltz. It is the school of thought which holds that states lie at the center of international politics, that the world is a nasty place in which those “cold beasts”, as de Gaulle called them, pursue their own interests (or seek to guard against their own fears), with scant regard for morality or benevolence. It can be not only positive theory, a description of the world as it is, but normative theory, a guide to behavior. The realist’s ideal is a Talleyrand or a Metternich or more latterly a de Gaulle; a cold-eyed, pragmatic, ruthless pursuer of hard national interest. A Woodrow Wilson or, in more recent times, a neoconservative, is a subject of loathing, contempt, disgust.
It is a doctrine very appealing to a certain kind of academic mind, from undergraduate to full professor, because a few simple rules explain the operations of a vast sphere of politics. With such rules in hand, one may, with rather little intellectual effort, indulge in a feeling of being so much cleverer than the mushy simpletons of Left and Right, with their cranky notions of rights or ideal forms of government. It tells the man or woman whose life has been spent grading papers—or the student who has done very little more than write the papers to be graded—that they understand the world better than the haggard-looking, rather incoherent or inconsistent bureaucrats or politicians with skimpy salaries who arrive home at night with bulging briefcases often long after their children have finished their homework. And to be fair, there are plenty of practical people as well—soldiers in particular, but in general, those who have seen a lot of the nastier side of human nature—who take comfort in the world-weariness of realism, or what they conceive realism to be. Unworldly academic or all-too-worldly practitioner alike often tip their hats to Thucydides and take grim satisfaction in the words of the Athenians to the hapless would-be neutrals of Melos: “In the world as we know it, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” That’s the real deal, as they say.
The problem, however, is that Thucydides’ message is not nearly so clear as that. His book has lasted as a living thing these two and a half millennia precisely because its lessons are so ambiguous. He ascribes the origins of this war—a greater “movement” as he calls it than the epic Trojan War—to the kind of deep, underlying causes beloved of realists: the rise of Athenian power and the anxiety that caused in Sparta. But then Thucydides spends a great deal of time explaining the immediate crises that led to the outbreak of war, and he does it in such a manner as to suggest that the way they played out really did shape the eventual conflict. He cunningly gives some of the best lines to the cynical Athenians at Melos, but few come away from reading the Melian dialogue without a sense of foreboding that the generous Athens of a few books earlier has given way to something darker, crueler and less controlled. The debacle of the Sicilian expedition seems to many if not most readers a kind of cosmic retribution for the cynicism of what the Athenians do to the would-be neutrals of Melos.
The realist has a large problem here. His theory of international politics systematically deprecates the importance of ideas and of individuals: it’s only power that matters, and it’s only states that wield it. In any realist’s normal life, however, he is as likely to rail against the follies of the administration in power as the next citizen, and to act and speak as though individuals matter a great deal. He often cares passionately about domestic politics, ascribing malign power to groups with whom he disagrees, and thinking that it makes a substantial difference who lives in the White House, which party controls Congress, or which group of experts sweeps into political appointee slots in Washington.
Thucydidean realism is different because the Greek historian believed that domestic politics has a lot to do with how states behave internationally. Athens generally (not always) succeeded when, as a democracy, it allied with the demos, or people: its biggest error in the Melian debate was allowing that city’s fate to be decided by the oligarchs there rather than by the more sympathetic and prudent masses. The Athenian and Spartan regimes bred characters that shaped diplomatic and military behavior—Athenian tactlessness and energy in the former case, Spartan superstition and excessive caution in the latter. Where today’s realists think of states as homogeneous billiard balls bouncing predictably around the pool table of international politics, Thucydides knew better.
He believed that statesmen, and therefore statesmanship, mattered enormously. Even the minor characters, such as the Spartan general Gylippus, who rallies the wavering Syracusans with his sturdy willingness to accept responsibility for a failed battle, count a lot. Far larger loom Thucydides’ personal enemy (who still gets great lines), the demagogue Cleon; Nicias, a pious general with excellent excuses—the Athenian Colin Powell; or the fascinating, capable Alcibiades—a kind of Pericles-with-a-cocaine-habit, whose brilliance might have made the Sicilian campaign work, and whose treachery may have doomed Athens to defeat. And, of course, Athens’ greatest leader, Pericles himself, whom Thucydides thought the most able man of his time, the Athenian statesman who seems to have foreseen everything except the most important event of all: his own untimely death in the plague that swept Athens in the first years of the war.
These individuals figure prominently in the narrative, and Thucydides devotes the best parts of the book to speeches that illuminate not only the problems of politics but the personalities of the speakers. The most cynical speeches are not, in his rendering, the truest; and the most memorable speech of the book—Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which formed one of the models for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—is as noble a statement about what freedom means as one can find in any literature, modern or ancient. Thucydides, failed and exiled general that he was, loved his city. Sparta had its good sides: its stability, its moderation (with citizens, not the oppressed helots), and its courage. But it is Athens that a modern can love for its openness, its cultivation of thought and the arts, its eagerness to achieve and build and explore.
That dark realities surround us Thucydides knew very well. During the plague, for example, “men now did just what they pleased, coolly venturing on what they had formerly done only in a corner”, which, of course, implies that they were doing nasty things in the corner before the plague as well. In the ghastly Corcyrean civil war “the ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared. . . . Human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion.” The Peloponnesian War is soaked with the blood of casually murdered prisoners, reels with the calculated massacres of civilian populations, and echoes with harsh croakings for vengeance that drown out voices of moderation and compassion.
Yet here, too, Thucydides diverges from the realists who take sophisticated pleasure in the clinking of cocktail glasses with the architects of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but studiously avoid thinking overmuch, or at all, about the butchery those hard-faced men had wrought. Thucydides knew that violence is rarely controlled, that passion and fury often rule when they are unleashed, and that shrugging off the decencies has consequences that go far beyond a salutary shedding of illusions about how nice a place the world could be if we just agreed to a few common rules of behavior.
Thucydides may not have been a cunning general, but he was a wily writer. My Air Force officer found himself, like my other students (and their teacher), caught up in the great questions that he implicitly poses to any student of international affairs. Should politicians be candid in wartime? Should one advocate a policy on its own terms without reference to the character of the politicians and generals who will have to execute it? Are empires really born of “fear, honor and interest”, as the Athenians put it? Can democracies that rule others do so without corrupting their own characters?
At a time when the foreign policy experts, such as they are, revel in their certainties stated with the belligerent dogmatism that is the favored style of discourse in blogs, lecture halls, conference rooms and television studios, my uncertain students will learn more about our world from contemplating, with awe and sometimes revulsion, the eloquence of the first citizen of Athens, the cut and thrust of a debate whose stake is the life of a small city and, alas, the horrors of the Athenian soldiers trapped in the quarries at Syracuse, too. ?