I’ve just finished writing my lecture for this evening on Thucydides and modern political theory; as ever, it was only at about halfway through that I worked out what I wanted to say, so the text switches from nicely polished and word-processed sentences to scribbled notes that may or may not turn into coherent sentences on the night. One of my starting-points builds on the work of Eddie Keene at Oxford (in his chapter for the forthcoming Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), noting that the conventional genealogy of ‘realism’ in International Relations theory, looking back to Hans Morgenthau and E.H.Carr, really doesn’t account for the importance of Thucydides in this tradition, as neither of them really discuss him (Carr, I think, ignores him completely; Morgenthau has at the most a couple of passing comments). Of course it is, as copious empirical evidence demonstrates, all too easy to interpret Thucydides’ account as a forerunner of neorealism, if you squint at it the right way and assume that e.g. the Mytilene Debate and Melian Dialogue are simply expressions of the historian’s analytical conclusions, but that doesn’t explain why it should be felt to be necessary to bring in Thucydides at all.
Keene argues that we should see a major role for Arnold J.Toynbee, the universal historian and theorist of history, whose work was increasingly derided by academic historians but sold impressive numbers of copies, esp. in the US, winning him a Time magazine cover in 1947; he was a long-standing foreign policy adviser in the UK, and an influence on the development of what became ‘international relations’ in the period after WWI. This makes lots of sense; I’d also chuck in a reference to Alfred Zimmern (at least, I don’t recall Keene mentioning Zimmern; maybe he did, in which case he deserves credit for this), a classical historian whose account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration was printed and distributed as propaganda during WWI, and who thereafter also turned to international politics with the goal of preventing such carnage ever happening again, holding the first ever chair in International Politics (at Aberystwyth) and later working at Cornell and Oxford. Both these men studied Thucydides extensively in their youth; both developed an understanding of him (and at this point I’m pretty sure that this is my argument rather than Keene’s) at odds with the conventional historical reading, above all in the drive to extract generalisable political principles from the study of the past rather than recording it as an end in itself – which was precisely what led them instead into the developing field of political theory, bringing with them an interest in Thucydides as a historically-minded political theorist that has persisted in the discipline to the present, even when scholars like David Welch suggest that perhaps International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, or at least stop reading him so badly.
If this intellectual genealogy is plausible, then one further figure seems likely to have played some role: Louis J.Halle. Halle worked as part of the policy planning staff in the State Department, and in 1952 published an article called ‘A Message from Thucydides’, developing an interpretation of the Cold War in terms of the Peloponnesian War; he reproduced this piece in a general book on Civilization and Foreign Policy: an inquiry for Americans (1955), and attributed the significance of Thucydides in this period directly to Toynbee and his response to the general war of 1914-18. I haven’t yet studied Halle’s subsequent career in detail – he certainly spent some time in academia, and so may have contributed more directly to the introduction of Thucydides as a key text for discussion – but I have come across a further example of his engagement with the work, in his 1967 The Cold War As History. In this he attempted to adopt a Thucydidean perspective on the events of his own time – which meant identifying the underlying order of development, beneath the apparent chaos and accident of events, and recognising the extent to which both sides felt equally compelled by their situation and their perception of the other side’s actions.
Halle mentions Thucydides several times in his narrative, not only to legitimise his own project but also to emphasise the way that certain events had happened before in more or less the same way. One example turns up in Washington in the period immediately after the Korean War:
As always happens when the military element becomes dominant in government, the thinking on which Washington based its policy would now become progressively coarsened. The men of sensitivity and insight would tend to be displaced by the rough commanders who see things in simpler terms. Thucydides had given the classic account of such a development twenty-four centuries earlier, observing that what had happened in his Athens during the long course of the Peloponnesian War would ‘according to human nature happen again in the same way’. It was inevitable that the Cold War, intensified and prolonged, would entail a degeneration of government.
Hmm. Truman as Pericles succeeded by Eisenhower as Cleon? Or are we to imagine the President as being the Athenian demos, initially open to persuasion by the sensitive and insightful types like Halle but increasingly falling under the rhetorical spell of the military? Other than the basic claim that post-Periclean leaders were inferior and led Athens into disaster, it’s difficult to see a terribly close parallel between Thucydides and the development of the US military-industrial complex; there seems to be a terrible vagueness here about where power actually lies and the nature of the process of advice, persuasion and decision-making, whereas Thucydides is very clear about why such things were able to happen in the Athenian democracy (and it isn’t at all clear that there is a general principle of the degeneration of government under conditions of prolonged conflict, since Sparta doesn’t seem to have had the same problem). But, as ever, that isn’t how such analogies work; rather this is yet another example of the capacity of Thucydides to inspire readers to cry out, as did Lorenzo Valla, the fifteenth-century translation of Thucydides, “All this very neatly fits the corruption of our own times as well.”