Be Spartans!

James Romm

  • Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present by Geoffrey Hawthorn
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £21.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 107 61200 6

Thucydides may well have been the first Western author to address himself to posterity. His forerunners – Homer and Herodotus, principally – show no awareness of a readership extending beyond their own time. But Thucydides called his work ‘a possession for eternity’, and spoke of the chaos of civil war as something ‘that is and always will be, as long as human nature remains the same’. Most strikingly, he imagined that, in ages to come, the physical remains of Athens would make its power and wealth seem greater than it was, those of Sparta, less. Visitors to modern Greece can attest to his sure-sightedness.

Unlike other classical Greek authors, Thucydides gives us information that we lack but his contemporaries didn’t. ‘Epidamnus is a city on one’s right as one sails into the Ionian Sea’ are the words with which he launches his account of the 27-year pan-Hellenic conflict that has come to be known as the Peloponnesian War. I suspect that few fifth-century Greeks needed to be told this, though it’s enormously helpful for modern readers, at least after the Ionian Sea has been identified as the Adriatic. Similarly, when Thucydides records that, at the start of the war, public opinion was far more on the side of the Spartans and their allies than on that of the Athenians, he is not speaking, primarily, to the public that made up that opinion.

But if Thucydides was talking to us, what was he trying to tell us? Why did he think it essential that we know, in fantastic detail, what occurred in Greece between the years 432 bc and 410, the year his history comes to a sudden stop, mid-sentence, though the war it relates continued for another six years? These questions have proved extremely difficult to answer. Some scholars have suggested that the lessons of Thucydides’ work – often today given the Athenocentric title The Peloponnesian War, though the recent translation by Jeremy Mynott for the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series hews closer to Thucydides’ own language by calling it The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians – would have become clearer had its author completed it. But what prevented him, or how he would have framed Athens’s ultimate defeat, or why the final book has such a markedly different character from the seven that precede it, are unknown and, quite likely, unknowable.

Over the centuries, many lessons have been drawn from Thucydides’ writings. Often, his text can be used to support radically opposing theses. Some foreign policy analysts have seen his tale of the downfall of imperial Athens as a warning against overreaching; others have taken it as a caution against the undercommitment of force. Statesmen and political theorists have pointed to its descriptions of shifting, divided assembly meetings at Athens as harsh indictments of pure democracy, but they have also held up Pericles’ funeral oration, delivered in 430 bc over the graves of the first casualties of the war, as a eulogy to the civic virtues of the ancient world’s most democratic society.

Thucydides seems to anticipate this sort of debate by salting his work with antilogies, paired speeches (in one case, an exchange of dialogue) in which opposing positions are argued before the judges or voters who will choose between them. He gives no indication of where he himself stands on the issues being argued, or whether he regards the decision reached as a just one. In one notable case – a debate at Athens over how to handle a revolt in the subject city of Mytilene, which centres on the age-old question of whether an imperial power should strive to be feared or loved, as well as on the efficacy of the death penalty – he seems more concerned with the difficulty of making and sticking to any decision. He passes quickly over an initial assembly meeting, in which the Athenians voted to deal harshly with the Mytilenaeans, in order to focus on a follow-up meeting the next day, in which that vote was narrowly overturned.

The pattern of paired speeches is not maintained throughout. In the first stretch of the work, Pericles and Archidamus, the senior statesmen of Athens and Sparta respectively, are given ‘solos’, the former on three different occasions. The book that concludes the extant work, Book 8, contains no speeches at all. It used to be thought that Thucydides meant to add these later, but scholarly consensus today supports the idea that he was moving to a new style of historiography and deliberately excluded them. However that may be, the speech-free eighth book has received far less attention than the preceding seven, in part because the events it tracks – a complex quadrille of diplomacy and subterfuge involving Spartans, Athenians at home, Athenian sailors stationed at Samos, and the western satraps of the Persian empire, whose vast reserves of wealth could decide whether Athens or Sparta was victorious – are so fluid and mutable. The conflict that had for so long been an entrenched endurance contest had by this time changed in character, with Spartan and Athenian navies now chasing each other about the Aegean.

It is in this anomalous eighth book that Geoffrey Hawthorn, until his death at the end of last year an emeritus professor of international politics at Cambridge, finds the truest and most revealing aspects of Thucydides’ thought. Here more than elsewhere, Hawthorn writes, one sees

shifting alliances, antagonisms and suspicions between those who were notionally on the same side as well as not; their assumptions, fantasies, ostensible interests, declared intentions and apparent motives; their mutual appreciations, enmities, confusions, loyalties and deceptions; the combinations and collisions of reflection, risk, caution, courage, cowardice, cunning and stupidity; not to mention the distribution of good luck and bad … the stuff of success and failure in politics and war.

Only in the eighth book, Hawthorn argues, did both parties in the conflict adopt clear and coherent strategies; before that, they circled each other like wary boxers, looking for openings but lacking any long-term plan for achieving victory. Thus the topic that principally interests him, ‘practical politics’ with its determined pursuit of goals, comes most strongly to the fore there.

His esteem for Book 8 is only one of many ways in which Hawthorn differs from the classical philologists who have usually been Thucydides’ explicators. The patterning of significant words and phrases – verbal motifs Thucydides varies and develops as his work evolves – does not concern him; indeed he hardly ever pauses over the meaning of Thucydides’ difficult Greek, or adds nuance to the Mynott translation on which he relies. Nor does the structure of the work, with its significant juxtapositions, dilations and contractions of episodes, interest him much. His focus is almost entirely on events and action, so that often he seems to be explicating the war itself, and the political manoeuvrings that surrounded it, rather than Thucydides’ narrative of it. This is not a bad thing, since Hawthorn has an expert eye for strategy, even if it’s a bit disconcerting, at least initially, to come across sentences that begin ‘One might ask, as Thucydides does not,’ or otherwise redirect us from the book’s ostensible task of textual analysis into the larger sphere of geopolitics and international relations.

Indeed Hawthorn seems at many points to be debating with or emending Thucydides as much as explicating him. In examining Book 1, for example, ‘the only one of the eight in which Thucydides presses a consistent thesis,’ Hawthorn contests that thesis – namely, that the Spartan fear of growing Athenian power was the principal, though unstated, cause of the war. ‘The Spartans would not appear to have had anything … materially to fear’ from the Athenians he writes, and then devotes two chapters to contrasting the ‘stated reasons’ for the start of hostilities (including those stated by Thucydides) with the ‘true reasons’. Here he introduces the concept of ‘necessary identity’, borrowed from Bernard Williams, to explain Spartan aggression: ‘an identity such that someone who has it feels bound to act in ways that maintain their identity in the eyes of others’. Sparta’s allies, in particular the Corinthians, demanded that they ‘be Spartans’ in their response to minor Athenian encroachments on the terms of a standing treaty; Sparta acted less out of fear of Athens than fear of disappointing Corinth. ‘The de facto balance of power that had been formalised in 446-445 seems not to have been seriously disturbed,’ Hawthorn writes, further discrediting the idea that Sparta feared Athens. ‘That Thucydides gives no sign of seeing things in this way might after all be because no one else did so.’

It is a tricky matter, to say the least, to find motives for political action that differ both from those stated by the actors themselves and those given by a contemporary analyst as the true but unstated motives. Yet Hawthorn, by bringing to bear his sure sense of human nature – which Thucydides himself, after all, claimed was constant across time – manages to pull it off. Though he dismisses Spartan fear as the explanation of the war’s origins, he is alive to other emotional and characterological factors that prompt a nation towards one course of action or another, often without the nation itself being aware of them. ‘It is impulses and commitments of a pre-reflective kind … that determine what people care about and direct their intentions, and these commitments and what people derive from them are most reliably – one might say most truly – expressed in what they do.’ Action is final truth; from it, Hawthorn believes, one must trace one’s way back through the opacities of speech and apparent intention. ‘What one might describe as an “external” reason to act will provide a motive only if it fits an “internal” reason for doing so, and such “true” reasons, as Thucydides called them, often turn out to be pre-commitments that are not reasoned at all.’

‘Pre-reflective’ or ‘pre-rational commitment’ is a phrase often used here, one borrowed from recent work on Nietzschean philosophy, especially that of Robert Pippin. ‘In fashioning our arguments and forming intentions from these commitments,’ Hawthorn writes, summarising Pippin’s summary of Nietzsche, ‘we more often than not embellish, qualify or transmute them and so hide them from ourselves and each other; which is why it can follow that the best evidence on why we do what we do may lie not in what we say or think but in how we act.’ Diplomatic speeches, in this analysis, are to be read as actions springing out of these pre-reflective impulses, just as much as invasions and alliances. Hawthorn often claims that speakers in Thucydides are making arguments they know to be unsound, a view with which many others who’ve written on the subject would agree. But he is unique, to my knowledge, in claiming that the votes or decisions taken after these speeches have been delivered have little to do with their content: ‘Few if any moves in the long war, I have been suggesting, turned on an argument in debate.’

Hawthorn prefers Book 8, in which the feints, smokescreens and self-deceptions of rhetoric have been cleared away and pure politics, the pursuit of goals through power, takes centre stage. It is here that he finds the work’s highest degree of ‘unillusion’, its most clear-eyed assessment of ‘the stuff of success and failure in politics and war’. This clarity is, in the end, the only ‘meaning’ (the quotes are his) Hawthorn is willing to assign to Thucydides’ text: the idea

that politics, as politics, is more likely than not to be agonistic … that the intentions in human action are not always reasoned and that, when they are, the reasoning will usually have an unreasoned premise; that although all events have causes, these are many and varied, and they and their effects often occur in unexpected conjunctions with others; and that, except when subjected to the unassailable power of another, and sometimes even when they are, people are not bound to act in just one way.

What Thucydides has given us, in other words, is not a work of tragedy or philosophy, but ‘a case study’ – a chance to ‘look at human nature and the ever changing complexities of the political world in the eye’.

Is this enough to explain the enduring power of Thucydides, to account for his uncanny ability to take us ‘back to the present’ (as Hawthorn’s subtitle puts it)? Many specialists will think not. Yet this book is not easily dismissed. One of the ‘connoisseurs of the political game’, a scholar of uncommon insight and long experience, and a writer who possessed an exceptionally eloquent prose style (frequently marred here by typographic and proofreading errors), Hawthorn deserves to be heard, and not only by classicists. His book, though it provides some help to newcomers – a chronology, a set of maps and a textual summary – will really only make sense to those who have read Thucydides’ text or studied the Peloponnesian War. They will undoubtedly feel that, on previous encounters with that text or that war, there was a great deal they missed.