A couple of weeks ago I commented on the fact that Thucydides had been cited as part of a critique of German/EU policy towards Greece and its debt crisis, and made a disparaging comparison with the conviction of long-disregarded political economist and Thucydides worshipper Wilhelm Roscher that he’d learnt as much about economics from Thucydides as from any other author. I really must stop being so condescending; two references in one week to Thucydides on economics suggests that he may indeed be the authority on absolutely everything that many people assume.
The first is admittedly rather an old reference that I just happened to stumble across this week; International Relations theorist Robert Gilpin, writing about the ‘tradition of political realism’ in 1984.*
Everything – well, almost everything – that the new realists find intriguing in the interaction of international economics and politics can be found in the History of the Peloponnesian War… These and other economic factors enter into all aspects of Thucydides’ analysis of the war and its causes. In spirit and substance he may be said to have been a political economist – perhaps the first – and almost all realists have followed him in this appreciation of the intimate connection between international politics and international economics.
Context is important here: Gilpin is concerned to argue that he’s an old-fashioned ‘realist’ in IR terms rather than any sort of ‘neorealist’, and hence to demonstrate that every aspect of his approach is already found in the classics of the realist tradition – back to Carr, Machiavelli and of course Thucydides. By implication, if his work is a continuation of this tradition, then that of the critics who accuse him and others of pursuing a different agenda must itself represent a deviation from the true path of realism. If inscribing oneself into the tradition requires a reading of Thucydides as offering an analysis of the impact of a commercial revolution on the international system, then so be it. It’s another example of the slightly unusual attitude towards canonical texts in this area of thought, insisting that the subject has already long since been fully defined (if not exhausted), and that Thucydides’ analysis of his own time must have anticipated everything we might want to consider about our own, even the importance of economics.
The second reference comes from an op-ed piece in the LA Times: ‘What would Pericles do?’ Flog off the Parthenon treasures and melt down the gold on the statue of Athene to meet a budgetary shortfall, obviously.
Financial crises have a way of redefining what is sacred and what is profane, as modern Europe has learned. So too do long wars, which often lead to financial crises — as did the war Athens and Sparta began in 431 BC, the heyday of Pericles…
Pericles would no doubt admire modern Greeks for using cherished relics to bootstrap themselves out of crisis. So would Thucydides, Pericles’ great fan and chronicler. Both men were modernists and pragmatists, willing to regard even a sacred shrine as a revenue stream. In tough times, they understood, a brave nation does what must be done — even if that means shaking down the gods.
Well. We might query the idea of Thucydides as ‘Pericles’ great fan’, and then note that this ‘proposal’ to melt down the temple treasures comes when Pericles is reassuring the Athenians that they’ve made the right decision in going to war with Sparta, not least by pointing to their vast financial resources including, as a last resort, the gold and silver in the temples. Given that on Thucydides’ account the war was a disaster, this could be taken not as a serious proposal, still less one that Thucydides the modernist and pragmatist approved of, but as one more piece of evidence for the arrogance and over-weening expectations of the Athenians, persuaded by Pericles, that led to war in the first place.
The point of the anecdote in this article is to make a case for austerity: a noble classical precedent for doing whatever ‘must be done’ without any thought for sacred cows and certainly without any complaining. The Greeks are offered Hobson’s choice: betray your heritage by exploiting its financial potential in any way possible, or be accused of betraying it by failing to live up to the rigorous pragmatism of your ancestors.
It’s difficult not to be reminded again and again of the way that Thucydides is presented as the chief ideologue of a ‘realism’ that ostentatiously rejects all notions of justice, ethics or idealism in favour of a supposedly hard-headed engagement with the real world – in a way that just happens to suit certain modern agendas…
* Robert G.Gilpin, ‘The richness of the tradition of political realism’, International Organization 38 (1984) 287-304
Quick update: Maria Pretzler has offered a more historical take on the same LA Times article here, showing how Pericles’ proposal wasn’t nearly as radical as Romm implies.