Donald Kagan, one of the big names in the study of Thucydides over the past few decades and certainly the key Thucydidean scholar as far as the general English-speaking public is concerned, has finally retired at the age of 80, and marked this with a characteristically trenchant lecture and interview in the Wall Street Journal (my laptop is currently refusing to do cut’n’paste for no very good reason, so can’t simply post the link, but it was posted online on April 26 and on p. A11 of the April 27 edition). I have never met him, as he politely declined an invitation to come across to Bristol to speak on the grounds of health, and was away from Yale when I gave a lecture on Thucydides and the idea of history there (or, as I prefer to imagine, decided to boycott such subversive post-modern European nonsense). However, I owe him a great deal; quite simply, I suspect that I would not have got funding for my Thucydides research project if I had not been able to emphasise in the proposal the fact that a leading Thucydides scholar was also writing militaristic polemics like While America Sleeps, invoking Thucydidean tropes to legitimise a turn to a more aggressive, if not downright imperialistic, US foreign policy; behold, I was able to say, the contemporary relevance of Thucydides and hence the importance of understanding how this text has been co-opted for political ends! (At any rate in the US; if I’d been running this project on the other side of the Atlantic, I imagine that by now I’d have negotiated a few deals with foreign policy think-tanks and military education establishments and would have the whole Impact thing sewn up by now, rather than desperately trying to persuade one or two schools that it would be really good for their teaching of Citizenship to take account of some Thucydides, hitherto with little success. But that’s a side issue).If the quotes from the interview are anything to go by, the lecture will be well worth reading once I can get hold of a copy; as you would expect, plenty of despair over the marginalisation of Western Civilization, the dominance of politically correct postmodernism and the silencing of alternative voices in the academy, and the decay of freedom and democracy in the US as a whole, all in the noble tradition of Allan Bloom and copiously illustrated with references to ancient authority. It’s difficult to escape the impression that at least some of it is deliberately engineered to send people like me into fits of muttering “yes, but if you consider that line in its original context…”. One could even see this as a continuing project to associate Thucydides so closely with a particular political agenda that all the pusillanimous liberals will simply steer clear of the text, on the assumption that it does pursue exactly the same agenda as readers like Kagan claim that it does and is therefore a thoroughly dodgy screed, rather than trying to offer alternative interpretations that reclaim it for a less reactionary and belligerent politics. Certainly there’s no doubting his own conviction that the ideas he finds in Thucydides are the ideas of Thucydides himself, which then lends them added authority.
One throwaway comment particularly caught my eye, for obvious reasons:
Another enduring lesson from [Thucydides], says Mr Kagan, is “that you can expect people, whatever they may be, to seek to maximize their power” – then a slight pause – “unless they’re Europeans and have checked their brains at the door, so mortified are they, understandably, by what happened to them in the 20th century. They can’t be taken seriously.”
Hmm. Okay, it’s just a quip and so perhaps shouldn’t be subjected to excessive analysis – but, rather like Niall Ferguson’s recent comments on Keynes, perhaps it is more revealing than it intends to be (we could at this point evoke Freud…). The conventional reading of Thucydides, which Kagan has in the past shown every sign of following, is that he identified eternal principles in the behaviour of individuals and of states; whatever claims may be made about justice, ethics etc., and even if the people making such claims genuinely believe what they’re saying, what’s really going on is the pursuit of power and the fundamental drives of honour, fear and interest.
A state that resolutely refuses to behave in this way (that is, refuses to sign up to US military adventures with sufficient enthusiasm; I honestly don’t know if Kagan counts the UK as European in this context or not) is clearly a bit of a problem. The obvious response – leaving aside the notion that Thucydides might be wrong, which is of course unthinkable – is to conclude that European states have a different notion of how to maximise their power and a different sense of what will best serve their interests, calm their fears, realise their hopes etc. For Kagan, however, there is only one sort of power (none of that ‘soft power’ nonsense) and only one way of achieving and/or manifesting it, namely through military action, which therefore has normative force; the Europeans are wrong in eschewing military action, and deluded in imagining that others might do the same.
But this is to present Thucydides’ conception not as a claim about motivation but as a claim about the nature of the world: it is not that all states are driven by these motivations, whether they admit this or not, but that the world is such that the only rational approach would be to be driven by these motivations, even if some states fail to recognise this – the pursuit of self-interest is here presented as a choice rather than as an inevitable, if sometimes concealed or unconscious, motivation. The usual reading of Thucydides in realist IR depends on taking the words of speakers in the narrative as expressing Thucydides’ own theoretical principles, fleshing out his idea of ‘human nature’ or ‘the human thing’ that means events will tend to repeat themselves because people tend to behave in much the same way every time. This new Kaganian reading implicitly rejects the notion of a more or less constant human nature, since people do not (contra Thucydides) behave in more or less the same way every time, and instead takes the words of speakers in the narrative as expressing Thucydides’ understanding of what the world really is like.
In what way can the world be of such a nature that the only rational form of behaviour is aggressive military action in the pursuit of power? The obvious answer is a world in which everyone else will be pursuing power through aggressive military action so one must respond or go under – but that shifts everything back to the assumption of a uniform and predictable human nature that Kagan has implicitly rejected. It seems uncertain whether, in a world in which motivation and behaviour are not so uniform and predictable, there is any other force or condition that can make aggressive military action the only rational course of action, as opposed to an opportunistic attempt at seizing the opportunity to establish dominion over others and then rustling up some alleged legitimation, viz to anthropinon made me do it, guv. It is as if Kagan has concluded, not that war is sometimes the rational course and therefore sometimes the right course, but that war is always the only rational course and therefore always the only right course, and anyone who fails to recognise this has “checked their brain in at the door”. Which seems an astonishing conclusion to draw from Thucydides, even if we take no account at all of more recent events…