Two brilliant papers on the second day of the conferences, by Gerry Mara (Georgetown) and Christine Lee (Bristol), engaged with the idea of Thucydides as a democratic theorist, or at any rate as a theorist of democracy. This is an unfamiliar role for him, for a number of different reasons. For the historiographical tradition, the idea of Thucydides as a ‘theorist’ of any kind, as opposed to a historian of a more or less familiar sort (whether an ideal, objective-scientific historian or a cunning mythographer), is pretty well anathema. Those who do want to see him in a tradition of political thought, meanwhile, tend to focus on reading him in terms of international relations and world order; insofar as he is seen to comment on civic society, or as his narrative of events is seen to encode political ideas, his views are interpreted as thoroughly anti-democratic, with his praise of Pericles and his portrait of Cleon and post-Periclean Athens serving equally to undermine any optimism about a democratic system. It is striking that George Grote and John Stuart Mill, who both saw Athens as a positive model for present-day society, were forced to rework or ignore Thucydides when it came to this theme, despite the fact that his account was so central to the rest of their reconstruction of ancient Greece. In brief, if Thucydides appears to offer any sort of political theory, it seems to be a pessimistic and elitist one.Both speakers offered instead a view of Thucydides as a writer passionately committed to understanding the operations of the civic community and its future prospects – albeit a writer who tends to emphasise how far democracy is constantly at risk of failure and collapse. Gerry characterised the Mytilene debate, the locus classicus for reading Thucydides as offering an indictment of Athenian democracy, as a study in different versions of the role of the citizen in deliberation, as each speaker seeks to invent an audience for his own style of political rhetoric. Neither version of the role of citizen is wholly satisfactory or reassuring, just as each speaker, Cleon and Diodotus, is disturbing and morally compromised. The aim of the account is not to offer an answer or a blueprint for politics, but to impress upon the reader the need to pay attention; it shows the many barriers to successful deliberation, and the constant challenges to any deliberative democracy – but it does not reject it as a possibility. The Mytilene debate does not show the inevitable decay of democracy, but rather a specific example of what can happen to a democracy if its citizens cease to pay proper attention.
Christine, meanwhile, surveyed twentieth-century readings of Thucydides as a political theorist, from Strauss to Orwin and Saxonhouse, to reach similar conclusions. On the basis of their readings, each of these scholars ends up conceding (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) the inevitability of democratic corruption and the impossibility of a successful deliberative democracy except under the strictest of conditions – pervasive piety and religion, for example, or Periclean leadership – which effectively undermine the openness and freedom of society. Thucydides thus establishes and legitimises a pessimistic, elitist view of civic society, just as he had done so for Hobbes. But this is the result of reading Thucydides in a particular way, of trying to extract a simple political judgement (for or against democracy) from his complex and ambiguous narrative, and of interpreting all the speeches and set-pieces as mere dramatisations of his personal view. Rather, Thucydides is deliberately complex and ambiguous, as befits his subject matter: he stages the problems of democracy, insisting that his readers must confront these and think them through. His work militates against democratic self-congratulation, but its message is not that democracy should therefore be abandoned; rather, democracy needs to guard against being insufficiently democratic, against people allowing themselves to be spoken for, against passivity and the abdication of responsibility.
In both cases – and at this point the influence of these two papers on my embryonic Thinking Through Thucydides project will be very clear – Thucydides appears as a writer who wants to instruct and warn, by compelling his readers to think through events and weigh different arguments. Even if he himself was not a democrat, he is a theorist of democracy and citizenship, who in important respects anticipated Aristotle’s Politics.