…restraint impresses men most. Or so it has been said: by Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State and before that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on many occasions; by President Lyndon B. Johnson, some thirty years earlier, in a speech at the Annual Swedish Day Picnic in Minneapolis; by a number of writers and scholars, at least some of whom should have known better; and by an alarmingly large number of websites. By Thucydides, however, not at all, although the line is attributed to him in the majority of cases. Since 2004, it has been reasonably well established that the quote is not to be found in any extant English translation (see Shifra Sharlin, ‘Thucydides and the Powell doctrine’, Raritan 24.1 (2004), pp. 12-28), and so is unlikely to be genuine (though several reputable classicists have suggested that it could be a reasonable paraphrase of one or other line in Thucydides); but its actual origins, and the means by which it came to be associated with Thucydides, have remained in darkness. Until now, or to be exact until a couple of weeks ago.
I wonder if the fact that I’ve known this stuff for at least six months – partly through my own researches, partly through connecting up the diligent researches of others* – but have held off advertising it so as not to pre-empt the proper peer review process counts as the sort of impressive, praise-worthy restrain that will impress people, or is just slightly irritating. I’m not sure exactly when my full article is going to appear, giving not only the full detail of the tangled history of the Powell quote but lots more examples of quotations and misquotations of Thucydides (it does seem to be a remarkably widespread phenomenon, given the supposed irrelevance of classical knowledge to most people) and my thoughts on the nature and significance of the whole thing. But appear it will, in Arion some time this year, and I don’t want to discourage people from reading the whole thing (which will, I’ve been promised, be available for open access) by going into too much detail here. However, I was pre-empted slightly by the news that Tim Rood was planning to talk about this issue in a review for the TLS, and it seemed rather mean to let him go ahead and do that on partial information that my article would then dramatically question or undercut as I cackled madly behind my cloak – and so I sent him a copy of the article, and the cat is now out of the bag (see TLS some time in early February; I don’t actually have a copy so can’t give exact date…).
In brief, as Tim notes in his review, the first verifiable appearance of the line was in 1886, in F.B. Jevons’ A History of Greek Literature, describing Thucydides’ writing style – without any suggestion that this is a quote from Thucydides himself. It reappears in a lecture by Charles Forster Smith in 1903, and in Smith’s Introduction to his Loeb edition of Thucydides in 1921: in both cases still referring to style, in both cases now in quote marks, but without any footnote or attribution to Jevons (which seems to have been a habit of Smith’s). It’s understandable, then, why someone reading Smith’s Introduction might have assumed that the line actually came from Thucydides – but not why they would mistake its frame of reference, changing it from a literary judgement to a political-military dictum. Blame for that goes to a journalist called Walter Lippman in 1944, and one can only assume that he must simply have noted it down at some point as a nice quote, and remembered the supposed author but not the context. Lippman was the quoted source when the line appeared in The Practical Cogitator (1945), a popular collection of quotations that was in its third edition by 1962, and that is likely to have been the source for Johnson and Powell (or rather their advisors or speech-writers).
To be fair to Colin Powell, then, sarky remarks to the effect that he should have been equally sceptical of his favourite Thucydides quote and of the evidence for WMD in Iraq are a little wide of the mark. He doubtless relied on an aide, who relied on a perfectly respectable reference book, and I and others can vouch for the fact that it’s actually extremely difficult to prove that the quotation didn’t come from Thucydides – above all because of the language issue: there was always the theoretical possibility that the line might actually be from some unknown translation, albeit dodgy but not actually fake. This actually raises an interesting question about the identification of classical influences in writings in modern languages; fine if the author clearly identifies the influence themselves, pretty straightforward if s/he uses a known translation, but otherwise distinctly tricky.
This becomes clear if we try to establish where F.B. Jevons might have got the line from – since his phrase (“Of all manifestations of power, self-restraint impresses men most, partly because it is the form which power least often takes”) does seem to be riffing on a well-known idea, even if he doesn’t put the line in quotation marks. The problem is that there are simply too many possible candidates in classical literature, lines expressing similar sentiments – but never with identical phrasing. If Jevons was relying on someone else’s translation, we might one day hope to identify it, but what if it was his own? Might the line come from Quintilian discussing rhetoric, or an earlier Greek treatise on the same topic? Or from a fragment of Menander (Georgos frag.3)? Or from the Christian discussions of makrothumia, an idea deriving originally from Proverbs 16.32 (“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty”)? What do we do with the similar but not identical remark by the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda in 1895, that “It is the greatest manifestation of power–this tremendous restraint; self-restraint is a manifestation of greater power than all outgoing action”: had he read but misremembered Jevons (he had studied some classical philosophy in Calcutta, but graduated in 1884), or was this a different version of the same (classical?) line that Jevons was using, or the product of a quite different tradition?
The optimistic view is that we’ve established more or less solidly that the line doesn’t come from Thucydides, and traced it back at least to 1886, which must count as an advance in our knowledge. The bad news is widening the field of possible sources to the whole of classical literature apart from Thucydides may not really count as progress. Perhaps we can now only hope that someone researching classical reception in early-mid nineteenth century Britain will simply stumble across an earlier version of the line, this time with proper attribution to its ancient source – assuming, of course, that it’s classical at all. What this does demonstrate is the power of certain ideas, and of particular versions of those ideas, to catch the imagination and propagate themselves through the memories and writings of humans, regardless of their historical credentials; a piece like this, let alone an academic article, offers only a weak innoculation against the spread of fake ideas, suitable only for those who already have strong immune systems…
* Special thanks are due to John Dodds, who contacted me with his studies on the theme and inspired me to investigate it, to Judge Douglas Woodlock of the District of Massachusetts, who included some very useful and detailed information on the topic in a footnote to a written judgement, and to Ben Earley for his excellent web search skills.