There is a significant risk that being so focused on a single author and his modern influence, as I am with Thucydides, one starts to see him everywhere. I’m pretty well resigned to the fact that I now have a Pavlovian reaction to more or less any mention of Thucydides in the media, either rushing off to write a blog post or planning an article (or sometimes both), but I now seem to be imagining his influence even when there is no explicit reference or even subtle hint to be found that Thucydides has anything to do with it. It’s a little bit like the portrayal of the mentality of conspiracy theory in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: if you assume that there must be a connection between apparently disparate things, then you can always find one with a bit of thought; if you assume that “the Templars have something to do with everything” (or in this case, that Thucydides is a pervasive influence on the whole of modern culture), then you tend to find evidence to support the theory. From the outside, and even in one’s own reflective moments, this starts to look like paranoid delusion – but then another hint of evidence turns up to suggest that there really is a vast conspiracy…
This morning’s case in point. A few days ago, Corey Robin published an article in The Nation called ‘Nietzsche’s Marginal Children’, suggesting the existence of an affinity between Nietzsche’s diagnosis of a crisis of values in modernity and advocacy of a new aristocracy and the ‘marginal revolution’ in economics, led by Austrian economists in late-C19 Vienna, that laid the intellectual foundations for market fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek. In a post on Crooked Timber yesterday, ‘Nietzsche and the Marginalists’, Henry Farrell suggested that there might be a less indirect link via Max Weber, who was heavily influenced by Nietzsche (albeit sometimes negatively) and was engaged in debates with and about contemporary economic theory, and who developed his own conception of aristocracy and its role in contemporary society; this might represent a bridge, or a vector of contagion. This also threw up a link to a piece by Rafael Khachaturian, ‘Nietzsche, Hayek and the Marginalists…and Max Weber?’, responding to Robin’s piece in a similar vein but also bringing in the name of Hobbes as a possible longer-term influence on some of these ideas.
Mention of the German Historical School, key opponents of the Austrian marginalists, led me to think of Wilhelm Roscher, if only because he’s the only one of them I’ve studied in any depth – and at that point the paranoid delusions kick in. Roscher of course wrote a major work on Thucydides before he embarked properly on his career as a historical economist, presenting him as a model for a truly modern critical history; this was read by Nietzsche while he was developing ideas on history and historicism, and by Weber, who focused on the Thucydides book to a remarkable degree in his essay on Roscher’s historical economics. And Hobbes was of course the translator of Thucydides, as well as drawing on many of his ideas in Leviathan. Could there be a connection..?
If there is – I’m trying to keep an open mind, honestly – then it may not lie in the field of values that is the focus of Robin and Farrell. Of course Thucydides does offer two important discussions of the way that communal values and agreed meanings collapse under pressure, in the descriptions of the Athenian Plague and the stasis at Corcyra; these, particularly the latter, have reappeared persistently in political thought since the Renaissance, but they were not, as far as I can recall, especially important for Roscher, Nietzsche or Weber in their readings. Maybe they find their way into modern conservative thought at a later date, with the Thucydidean takeover of Straussian political theory and/or international relations after WWII, or by a different route, e.g. via Burke’s account of the French Revolution in Thucydidean terms. It’s certainly easy to see how they could be fully compatible with the conservative agenda, if one reads these episodes in a Hobbesian manner: they show the awful consequences, the reversion to the state of nature, if social order is not rigorously established and controlled, and meanings fixed in stone, and the masses kept in their place.
I am thinking rather of one of the other key themes in the triumph of Austrian economics, namely the rejection of history and historicism in favour of supposedly universal and eternal principles of economic behaviour founded on a universal self-interest (even if formally presented as a theoretical assumption rather than a statement about reality, the latter is how it tends to be understood). Here, Thucydides can be seen as a critical text, in precisely the period in question. Yes, on the face of it he’s a historian and so assumed to be on the side of the historicists versus the universalists; but in his claims that history is useful because it can uncover the underlying regularities in human behaviour (not the only way of interpreting what he says, but it’s a common reading), he looks more like a nascent social scientist, committed to generalisation and drawing wider lessons from the past rather than establishing the detail of past events as an end in itself, and this is one of the reasons he increasingly falls out of favour with historians.
Roscher tries to read him as a historian like himself (and even claims that Th. has important things to say about economics, which is pushing it), equally committed to historical truth and generalisable conclusions, echoing (unconsciously?) Hobbes’ presentation of Th as a ‘most politic historiographer’, combining both particular and general truths in his account. It’s arguable how far it is ever possible to maintain this balance, rather than the historical overwhelming the general (as historians tend to read Th) or the general overwhelming or ignoring the historical (as tends to happen in realist IR), and certainly Roscher’s approach didn’t persuade anyone. The defeat of German historical economics could be seen as a defeat for Thucydides’ influence, in the same way as the rise of economic and social history led to a rejection of Th as being too narrowly political and too Rankean; but one might see it instead as a defeat for that version of Thucydides, overcome by readings that claim him as a forerunner of normative social science, the founder of history who is actually batting for the anti-historicists (as Strauss read him…), the man who offers the founding statement of the principle that, ‘according to human nature’, events tend to repeat themselves in a predictable way, driven by eternal motives of honour, fear and interest (all to be subsumed within a general heading of ‘self-interest’, the realist view that claims about the existence of other motives are either delusions or deceptions).
Difficult to know how to take these vague speculations any further without some intensive re-reading of the debate about historical economics, proper study of Hayek, Schumpeter et al, and so forth, to see if there’s any trace of Thucydides to be found, and at the moment I wonder whether life isn’t simply a bit too short. Still, we can at least pencil it in on the charge sheet; blame Thucydides for Hayek, neoliberalism and libertarianism as well as for the neocons…