Here we go again? As plenty of people have already observed, the debate around whether or not the United Kingdom should join the bombing campaign in Syria feel terribly familiar. For most, this suggests 2003 all over again; in today’s Grauniad, for example, Martin Kettle notes the resemblances but claims that MPs have clearly learnt important lessons from last time, while Ewen MacAskill‘s analysis of Cameron’s case offers clear evidence that the government, at least, hasn’t (or doesn’t care). For ancient historians, and international relations theorists who have fallen under the spell of Thucydides, it is tempting to identify a much longer and more inexorable cycle of repetition, one that is inherent in human affairs.
Thucydides’ work could be characterised in part as a series of arguments for war, or at least for military intervention and the exercise of violence: multiple variations on a single theme. The Corcyreans urge the Athenians to intervene in their local dispute as a source of strategic advantage in the greater struggle for hegemony. The Corinthians urge the Spartans to make war on the Athenians while there is still time to curtail their ambitions and limit their sphere of influence. Pericles urges the Athenians not to give in to the Spartan ultimatum, because this is a war they will win. Cleon insists that the Athenians must massacre the people of Mytilene in order to protect their empire; Alcibiades offers the prospect of glory and overwhelming victory in Sicily; and so forth. Even those who speak against aggression – Diodotus in the Mytilene debate, Nicias in the debate about the expedition to Syracuse – argue on the basis of timing and circumstances, not principle: this may not be the right moment for war, but that is certainly not ruled out on a permanent basis.
Prompted by Thucydides’ own claim that his readers will learn to understand and anticipate future events, which will follow more or less the same patterns as the events he describes, it is tempting to read these episodes as applying to war in general. The arguments he recounts establish the nature of the world in which we still find ourselves: international anarchy, the power of the stronger to determine events, and pervasive aggression, so that we have no choice at times but to fight – or face the fates of Melos and Plataea. They identify the universal tendencies of states and individuals, the unavoidable trinity of motives of interest, honour and fear that can be recognised but never negotiated or changed, and which clearly make a resort to war more likely than not in the long term; and hence show the inexorable tendency of certain situations (an established power confronting a rising power, for example) to escalate, regardless of the intentions of the individuals or the states involved. We are confronted with the inevitability of conflict and the futility of simply hoping that we can avoid it; with the many reasons why we should be afraid, or at least aware of external and internal threats, and so should act against them; and with the necessity and indeed glory of fighting to defend our values against those who hate and despise them. It does not seem to be a coincidence that internet citations of 43.4 – the secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage, or words to that effect – have taken an upswing over the last week or so, even if (thankfully) the House of Commons remains a Thucydides-free zone.
These are the arguments that are presented to us in Thucydides’ work, and they are widely assumed to be his own arguments. They are certainly his arguments in the sense that they’re the words that he puts in the mouths of his characters, as the things it was appropriate for them to say in that situation – but it’s a fairly big leap of interpretation to assume that he is is using these sockpuppets as a means of conveying his own beliefs, rather than using them to characterise (if not caricature) the beliefs that drove these different actors. One important question is whether Thucydides intended us to be persuaded by such arguments – or rather wanted us to recognise how others may seek to persuade us. Are we supposed to accept the claims of Cleon or the Athenians at Melos about the necessity of ruthless and violent action to maintain one’s place in world and avoid loss of face – or to experience the insidious power of arguments from necessity, grounded in contestable claims about the world? Did Thucydides mean for us to fall for the idealistic claims of Pericles’ funeral oration and so blindly accept the need to obey orders and head into battle – or to spot the ways it works its charms on decent, well-meaning people? The exuberant optimism of Alcibiades is set against the ineffectual opposition of Nicias in deciding whether to go ahead with a military expedition that, we know, will turn out disastrously; the point is to help us understand why the decision went the way it did, to recognise the attractions of Alcibiades’ arguments even while we know they’re wrong, and to perceive the human tendency to make decisions on the basis of limited information, to over-estimate one’s own strength and ability to remain in control of events, to assume that unknown factors (ability to win allies, for example) will simply fall into place.
The great problem in reading Thucydides as a source of understanding of general principles of politics and international relations has always been his irritating failure to state what those general principles are; he rarely speaks openly in his own voice, which is why so many political interpreters have assumed that he uses the direct speech of characters as a form of ventriloquism. This might seem especially surprising, given that on one of the few occasions when Thucydides does offer a broader overview and analysis, explicitly signalled as having wider relevance than the specific events he’s been describing, this includes explicit warnings about the dangers of a corrosive and corroding political rhetoric. The stasis at Corcyra is presented as the exemplar of the civil wars that broke out in many other Greek cities – and it is not too great a stretch of the imagination to extend this to the ‘civil war’ convulsing the whole Greek world. Under conditions of stress and fraying social bonds, rhetoric becomes ever more extreme, and words and values are reinterpreted and redefined: moderation and caution become cowardice, recklessness becomes appropriate courage, the abandonment of values and morality becomes a sign of pragmatic realism. You are for us, or against us; vote for violence or give succour to the terrorists.
This sends us back to the Mytilenian Debate earlier in Book 3, above all Cleon’s masterfully rhetorical and manipulative critique of manipulative rhetoric, and it gives us a template for understanding subsequent political speeches – Melos, the Sicilian debate, the House of Commons, the media. Thucydides reveals to us the underlying pathology of power and the techniques that it deploys – but we also learn to recognise our own susceptibility to such techniques, our tendency to irrational optimism or fear (or both at once), our vulnerability to confirmation bias and other cognitive traps, and even even – it’s Diodotus who points this out in another brilliantly cunning piece of manipulation, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong – how far we compel our leaders to pander to us and tell us the lies we want to hear, and then condemn them for it. De te fabula narratur; know thyself.
Does this help? It’s about understanding rather than action, about recognising our own habit of falling into the same problematic, self-destructive patterns of thought, as well as the habit of others to do the same. I’m reminded of a piece in this week’s Die Zeit about the way that reactions to the Paris attacks so often presented them as confirming existing views: this shows I was right about refugees, this shows I was right about Western foreign policy, or as Chris Brooke put it, #whytheattacksinParismeanweshouldsupportmypolitics. If our response to events is only ever to slot them into our fixed world-view, we cannot recognise novelty – and, while that can certainly lead to a knee-jerk rush to action regardless of circumstances and consequences, it can equally lead to pessimism and ennui, the sense that nothing can ever be done. That’s certainly a risk with reading Thucydides, that the sense of history as endless, unavoidable repetition of the same horrors, built on the same tragically flawed and unchanging human nature, leaves the thoughtful and self-aware person with no option but withdrawal into a self-satisfied, impotent quietism. The fate of the moderates in Corcyra could be taken as a warning; rational argument and common sense aren’t going to save you, so keep your head down. And they may come for you anyway.
It’s perfectly possible that this was Thucydides’ position: cast out of his expected career path by external events and bad luck, forced to settle for a life of contemplation instead of action, watching his world tear itself apart and developing a strong sense of his own superior understanding. We cannot know; all we have, besides some fairly worthless biographical titbits, is his work, and different ways of reading it. I’d be inclined to take a different view, that a real quietist could simply have taken up the ancient Greek equivalent of stamp-collecting; Thucydides, however, cannot let things go, he strives obsessively to make sense of events in their wider context, to understand the war and war in general; he recreates the experience, not in order to contemplate it from a comfortable distance (Hegel’s characterisation of history as watching a distant shipwreck from the safety of the beach) but in order to push his readers into the centre of the action, to be pushed about by decisions of the men with power, brow-beaten by political rhetoric and trampled by events. Why? Because this is the route to real understanding – not a few glib principles of inter-state behaviour, but a full vicarious experience of the complex messiness of things. And this understanding may not actually help you make the world a better place, or lead a happy life, but without it you have no chance at all.
Indeed, the choice between action and contemplation, between active involvement in (or at least acquiescence to) violence and a solipsistic quietism, is precisely the sort of false dichotomy that Thucydides warned us against. Bomb ISIS in Syria or sing Kum ba yah while the terrorists slaughter hard-working British families? Are you with us, or in favour of murderous fanatics? We ought to do something, we can do something, so we must do something. It could be Cleon, or Alcibiades, or – more palatably, but perhaps even more insidiously – Pericles. Thucydides doesn’t offer us answers, but questions, or at least a series of reasons for mistrusting easy answers (including our own); a series of arguments in favour of war that, taken together, constitute an argument against it, or at the least a hefty dose of caution, reason and cold water.