Tensions continue to rise between Russia and Nato, while Ukraine edges closer to civil war; the question of the best way for the West to deal with Iran returns after a period of relative calm and quiet; looking further into the future, the possibility of confrontation between a rising China and a declining United States looms large. Little wonder that people, and especially politicians, look nervously around for guidance in the midst of all this uncertainty, and International Relations specialists rush to give it to them. Little wonder, perhaps, that the latter return time and again to Thucydides, long established as the original and still relevant authority on relations between states and the origins of war, to ground their claims to offer an authoritative account of the likely or inevitable course of events.
One key theme in Thucydides’ account of the War between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians is the balance between inevitability and contingency. On the one hand, events move forward with inexorable momentum: we see this in the outbreak of hostilities, the doom of Plataea, the collapse of civic society in Corcyra and Athens’ imperial overreach. We know how the story ends, in the Athenians’ disastrous expedition to Sicily and the subsequent oligarchic coup in Athens, and Thucydides foreshadows it all so that everything seems to be leading towards its ghastly conclusion. On the other hand, we are constantly shown the way that things might have turned out differently, and the role of individuals or chance events at decisive moments – this is how things did end up, but Thucydides nudges us into considering whether it was necessarily preordained.
Perhaps this duality is the reason, or one of the reasons, why Thucydides has been understood quite differently by readers from different disciplines, who come to his work with different expectations and interests. Both historians and political theorists recognise the role of the writer in shaping and presenting his account, the deep intelligence that conceals itself behind an apparently objective narrative, and both invoke his stated methodological precepts (1.20-2) – but emphasising different ones. For the historians, what matters is Thucydides’ commitment to uncovering the truth of events and offering a reliable account of them; this, they claim, is what will be useful to future readers, who will then come to understand the messiness and contingency of history. For the political theorists, it is Thucydides’ insistence on the ‘human thing’ that causes events to repeat themselves in more or less the same way; future readers must therefore discern the general principles that Thucydides develops and presents through his account of individual events, as these can equally well be applied to the present.
The general principles that are identified in Thucydides’ account generally reflect the inevitability dimension of his narrative; insofar as events appear to develop inexorably and unavoidably, we endeavour to isolate the factors that made their outcome inevitable. The fact that current intellectual fashions favour the metaphor of the ‘trap’ – not a phrase that Thucydides himself used – simply makes this tendency manifest. The world is revealed to be quite simple after all, once one recognises its underlying dynamics. There is a fundamental principle of inter-state relations, namely the ability of the strong to do what they wish, which we either recognise and accept or try to ignore. There are three simple motives that always govern the behaviour of states, whether they or we recognise them or not. Periods of power transition are always governed by a straightforward dynamic between the rising and the declining power, imperial powers in crisis always suffer from a degeneration of political discourse that excludes pragmatic debate, and so forth. In other words, individuals and states are seen to be always caught in the trap of having their freedom of choice constrained or even determined by the principles that the modern reader discerns in Thucydides’ account of events.
Among the things neglected in such approaches are the specificity of the events – if Thucydides was interested only in the underlying principles, why did he not state these explicitly, and why does he do to such lengths to set out the details and idiosyncrasies of each situation? – and the dimension of contingency. It is not clear that war between Sparta and Athens was inevitable – it was likely, undoubtedly, but it depended on specific circumstances and a specific chain of events – let alone that Corcyra would fall into civil war, the Athenians would vote to invade Sicily or any of the other things that happened. In many cases, the event that appears to establish a general principle (the power of the stronger, for example) is then controverted by another – or, it’s a one-off, in which case drawing a general principle from it appears a risky procedure, based solely on the belief that Thucydides is an irreproachable authority who had a specific goal in mind. Corcyra is explicitly presented as an paradigm of the collapse of civic order within the polis – but that is not to say that it establishes a universal principle that all polities are inevitably doomed to such dissolution, or that political rhetoric is inevitably debased and undermined under conditions of stress, nor that it was Thucydides’ intention to put forward such universal principles as the lesson to be drawn from his account. Likewise, the Melian Dialogue offers not a universalising claim about the nature of the world that we are supposed to accept at face value, but a universalising claim put forward by an inherently unreliable and morally corrupt source, that we are (arguably, anyway) supposed to take as a symptom of moral corruption while also weighing up how far there may be some truth in it.
Now, this line of argument – all of which will be pretty familiar to most thoughtful readers of Thucydides and his place in contemporary International Relations theory – is not offered as the conventional historian’s historicising argument that insists on the absolute importance of context and historical specificity against any attempt at offering more general conclusions. The past is certainly of interest in itself, but the main justification for devoting time and resources to its study has to be that it can tell us something that reaches beyond itself, that the past is not completely and absolutely past. Thucydides’ emphasis on historical accuracy and criticism is not based on the assumption that these are virtues in themselves, as historians have tended to understand him, but driven by the idea that this is what will make his account genuinely useful; if the account of events is reliable, the lessons we draw from that account of events will be reliable and thus useful. The real question is not whether lessons can or should be drawn from Thucydides’ account, but what kinds of lessons he intended his readers to draw.
Thucydides’ focus was, I would suggest, less on the events themselves than on the processes of deliberation and decision-making that partially but crucially shaped those events. Events tend to repeat themselves not because of any universal principles inherent in the world but precisely because of ‘the human thing’, that humans tend to think in similar ways. Now, one might interpret that idea in a conventional IR manner as a matter of universal motives: individuals (and hence states) are driven by the three forces of fear, honour and interest, hence behave rationally in their relations with one another according to these motives, and hence effectively we can still talk in terms of basic principles that govern inter-state relations (or, indeed, internal political relations). But actually Thucydides has a much broader interest in the way decisions are made; it’s not just about these supposedly universal motives, but the way that they operate in practice: the ways that different individuals and states interpret and prioritise their interests, evaluate their own situations (which shapes the extent to which fear or ambition may influence their decisions), imagine that they can predict the future and so forth.
In other words, to put this in modern terminology, the lessons Thucydides intends us to draw from his account are about cognitive bias and bounded rationality: how humans tend to over-estimate their knowledge, understanding and control of events, how their interpretations and decisions are shaped by unconscious prejudices and assumptions, how they are really terrible at estimating risk and coping with uncertainty, how they tend to be swayed by different sorts of emotions (one of the inspirations for this ramble is Joel Schlosser’s meditation on Hope, Danger’s Comforter, and one could trace other themes like anger and fear through the different case studies Thucydides offers) and so forth. Some decisions turned out well, some badly, but in almost all cases the narrative emphasises the limits of actors’ understanding of the past, grasp of the present and ability to anticipate the future – they persistently make poor decisions, even if sometimes the consequences are quite positive, in a relatively consistent and predictable way. Set-piece events like the Corcyrean stasis, the Melian Dialogue, the expedition to Sicily and so forth are thus not in themselves exemplary, showing how events repeat themselves (since each of them is unique and specific to its historical context); rather, they illustrate the different consequences (shaped by particular circumstances) of persistent patterns of inadequate analysis and poor judgement, which, because of the human thing, are likely to be repeated in future.
Moreover, Thucydides makes it quite clear that this is an issue for his readers as well, hence the warnings in his opening section about the failure of most people to enquire properly into the past. We are the ones who are prone to accept the first story we hear, to fail to ask enough questions, to be beguiled by rhetoric; we also have a persistent habit of identifying spurious historical analogies, mistaking theoretical propositions for properties of reality and reducing the complexity of a work of historical and psychological analysis to a few snappy principles that sound good in an op-ed piece. This is the real Thucydides trap.