Welcome to the first of a new set of a posts, which I’m calling A Trip Through the Classics. This won’t be a series so much as a new format we’ll have sometimes (like the kit reviews). For each trip through, I’m going to pull a key passage from a historical author – mostly ancient authors to start out – which sets out some novel, interesting or enduring ideas. We’ll discuss the author’s background, where known or relevant, explain the passage itself (key concepts and ideas), and then discuss its enduring relevance.
Most of all, in these trips through authors I want to extol the continuing value of reading these works and engaging with the deep thinkers of the past to develop a deeper view of our own world. Some of the authors in this series will be the traditional ‘great books’ sorts – like Thucydides here today – others will (I hope) be more obscure. While I’ve called this A Trip Through the Classics, I do not intend to limit myself either to classical antiquity or to any particular canon. We may also visit the same author more than once – I have no doubt will will come back to our subject for this week in the future.
So, without further ado, A Trip Through Thucydides.
The Author: Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) was an Athenian general, politician and historian who lived through the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) – the war between Athens and Sparta – and chronicled much of it (his history breaks off in 411, but was clearly composed after the war ended in 404; Xenophon’s Hellenica is intentionally positioned as the companion ‘second half’ of Thucydides’ work). Thucydides was – briefly and largely unsuccessfully – a commander in the war, appearing in his own work (4.104-107). He was punished for his failure to save Amphipolis with exile, which he spent traveling and recording details for his history.
Thucydides was thus a well-connected and well-to-do Greek. Like many elite Greek men, his training will have been directed towards a career in politics (his training in rhetoric is evident throughout his history) and he clearly thought about politics – especially matters of peace and war – very deeply.
The Passage: The passage here is a short part of a set of dueling speeches offered in the first book of Thucydies’ history. The essential background is this: the two greatest powers in Greece are Athens (which holds about a third of the Greek cities as subjects, having converted the Delian League – a mutual defense league against Persia – into its own private empire) and Sparta (which is allied with about a third of the Greek cities through the Peloponnesian League, its own – and older – mutual defense league, which Sparta dominates).
Corinth – a Spartan ally and one of the major Greek states (Athens and Sparta were the greatest of the Greek states, with Thebes and Corinth as weaker, but still significant, major states) – outraged at a sequence of Athenian provocations we need not get into here, has come to Sparta demanding that Sparta and the Peloponnesian League take action to stop Athens’ behavior and also to halt the steady rise of Athenian power. Sparta is considering the arguments.
Each of the speeches – which are probably not those which were given in the event, but rather later compositions by Thucydides expressing the ‘gist’ of what he thought was said – is a masterclass of rhetoric and shrewd political thinking. Keep in mind, the audience for all four speeches is the Spartan assembly, which must decide if it will go to war or not. They run thusly:
- The Corinthian Speech lays out the case against Athens, as well as Sparta’s obligations to their allies (1.68-1.71)
- The Athenian Speech – given by Athenian envoys who happened only by chance to be present – defends both Athenian contributions to collective Greek liberty and the acquisition and continued defense of the Athenian empire. The longest of the four, it is a section of this speech we’ll look at in a moment (1.73-1.78)
- The Speech of Archidamus, one of Sparta’s two heredtiary kings, which cautions the Spartans against a hasty rush to war. The second longest speaker of the four, Thucydides presents Archidamus very much as the wise course not followed by the Spartans – his predictions are largely borne out by the war (1.80-1.85)
- Finally, the Speech of Sthenelaidas, one of Sparta’s ephors, offers a short and devastating retort to the Athenians and a call for war; the Spartans vote with Sthenelaidas (though by a narrow margin) and the war begins (1.86).
The following translation is by Richard Crawley (1910), with a few modifications by me; I went with this translation because it is out of copyright and freely available online. That said, I strongly recommend, for anyone interested in studying Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, ed. R. B. Stassler (1996), mostly for its excellent explanatory notes. Emphasis below is mine.
1.75: Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the readiness that we displayed at that crisis [the Persian Wars], nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire.  For, that empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian [the Persian Empire], and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command.  And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.  And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you.  And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest.
1.76: You, at all events, Lacedaemonians, have used your supremacy to settle the states in Peloponnese as is agreeable to you. And if at the period of which we were speaking you had persevered to the end of the matter, and had incurred hatred in your command, we are sure that you would have made yourselves just as galling to the allies, and would have been forced to choose between a strong government and danger to yourselves.  It follows that it was not a very wonderful action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the greatest motives, fear, honor, and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been set down that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Besides, we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice—a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.  And praise is due to all who, if not so superior to human nature as to refuse dominion, yet respect justice more than their position compels them to do.  We imagine that our moderation would be best demonstrated by the conduct of others who should be placed in our position; but even our equity has very unreasonably subjected us to condemnation instead of approval.
The Athenian Argument
Let’s start by quickly breaking down the Athenian argument in these passages into plain language. The core Athenian argument in this passage is that Athens has done nothing wrong which would thus justify punitive action by Sparta. This is a tricky argument in the context: while Athens did assume leadership of the Delian League without violence, by this point Athens is extracting tribute from a large number of Greek cities which (it is increasingly evident by this point) are held to Athens by cold force of arms. Efforts by Athens’ subjects to avoid paying tribute have been met with sharp military force. The Greeks had a sense that an independent city – a polis – ought to be free and unbothered by other powers, a sense summed up in two kinds of freedom, autonomia (lit: self-laws, in practice the right of the community to govern itself internally) and eleutheria (literally freedom – as in the state of not being a slave – but in practice meaning independence). Athens’ empire, by this point historically, has clearly run afoul of both.
In the face of that problem, the Athenians resort to a fairly bold plan – rather than a simple tu quoque (lit: “you also”), asserting that the Spartans would have done as they did (though they do that), they leap to a far grander premise: that Athens has acted as any state would have, and indeed more justly than some states might. Since Athens’ behavior isn’t exceptional – it hasn’t transgressed beyond the “common practice of mankind” (τοῦ ἀνθρωπείου τρόπου) – it cannot be worthy of exceptional response, like war. What makes this fascinating is that Thucydides has now put his Athenian diplomats in the position of positing a universal rule of foreign relations to which Athens has held, and thus to a degree turning them into a mouthpiece whereby Thucydides can present some of his own thinking on the topic.
Again, to follow the argument, the Athenians are asserting first that there is a set of rules which govern the behavior of states (fear, honor, interest) which may be observed to exist and that second no state may thus be faulted for behaving in accordance with these rules. There is thus both an ‘positive’ (or objective/fact-based; ‘what is’) observation and a normative (or value-judgment; ‘what we ought to do’) based conclusion; the former serves as the foundation for the latter. It is important not to merge those two steps; the core of this argument is about what is, which is only then used to explain what ought to be.
Core Idea: Fear, Honor and Interest
The Athenians claim that what influenced them in their decision making are three key motives, which appear both in the acquisition and maintenance of their empire: fear (δέος), honor (τιμή) and interest (ὠφέλεια). Consequently, these are asserted to be three of the greatest motives in foreign relations generally, which govern – and according to the Athenians, must, inescapably govern – the behavior of all states (and thus, consequently, no state may be faulted for following them). Let’s break those down, because they are sometimes, I think, misunderstood.
Greek has a few words for fear, of which phobos (φόβος; the root of our word ‘phobia’) is the most familiar to English speakers; but Thucydides here uses deos (δέος). Where phobos is an unreasoning terrified panic (the fear of the sudden onset of battle, for instance), deos is a more general word – more a dread of or a desire to avoid a thing to come in the future. It has a greater sense of reality and reason – deos can be a reasoning, well-informed fear about future events, even quite distant ones. Thucydides is thus not asserting a ‘right to panic’ but a right to look forward to future dangers and act in advance to preempt them. In this sense, the motive of fear means that states will try to – and have a right to – proactively avert negative future outcomes for themselves. In particular, fear comes first because the primary concern of all states is survival. We might sum up fear by then saying that Thucydides contends states will fight to exist.
The word here translated as interest, ophelia (ὠφέλεια) has a number of meanings, such as ‘help’ or ‘aid’ (which is why it is sometimes used as a given name, as in Hamlet), but also ‘profit, advantage, gain’ or even ‘loot’ or ‘spoils’ (as in, stuff seized in war). Ophelia is a thing you get – by any means – which renders you better off. Thus interest, in this context, means that states will pursue their own gain or profit – or that of their citizens – at the expense of other states. Naturally, the ophelia of one state must often interfere with the deos of another – my greedy eyes looking over your resources may cause you to fear me.
Finally, the most easily misunderstood of the three, honor, timē (τιμή, pronounced ‘te-may’ not like time). We tend to think of ‘preserving the national honor’ as consisting of acting ‘honorably’ which in turn means acting in accord with some rule of moral conduct. ‘She is an honorable person’ is roughly synonymous with ‘She is a good person.’ This is not what Thucydides means here. Timē is honor in the sense that it is the dignity or respect paid to a thing; it can even mean the value or price of something for sale. There is no moral component in timē – timē is about the respect paid, not about being worthy of respect.
What Thucydides is signalling here is the need to retain a certain reputation – for effectiveness, trustworthiness, ruthlessness, vengefulness – for a state, all of which gets neatly summed up by timē (and often goes by the term ‘credibility’ in modern policy debates). Consider modern nuclear deterrence theory as an extreme example – deterrence is maintained not by launching nuclear weapons, nor by being willing to to do, but by the belief of other states that you will – a point made by Bernard Brodie in The Absolute Weapon (1946), as he writes, “the prediction is more important than the fact.” Timē is how you generate that prediction – that you will be a strong ally and a dangerous enemy – by establishing a reputation, through a strong record, of being just that. In turn, that means that a great power cannot afford to be nice, because it has to maintain the kind of reputation that deters enemies and convinces friends that they will be defended. That means brutal, tit-for-tat retaliation.
I should note that this sort of reputation which is summed up here by timē was, if anything, more important in the pre-industrial world than it is now. Today, it is possible for one state to get a pretty good sense of the military power of another because the information is often readily available. But pre-modern states often struggled to have a good sense of their own manpower or resources, much less the resources of others (there are exceptions, of course, and ‘struggle’ here does not mean ‘fail’). Thus in deterring, for instance, a Germanic tribe on the Roman frontier, the Roman reputation could be far more real and valuable than, say, three Roman legions several hundred miles away. The German tribal leaders cannot see or even potentially know about those legions – but they can hear rumors of the brutal vengeance of Rome.
I think this is often missed in international-relations examinations of pre-modern diplomacy, because ideas like timē end up being treated as cultural values, rather than as utilitarian components of foreign relations. And, to be fair, the ancients themselves often group these ideas together and assign them great moral value. But if you look at the conduct of foreign relations, you can see the gloves come off – and every ancient diplomat seems to have known that an appeal to timē (or Roman fides, ‘keeping bargains’ – one of these days, we’re going to talk fides) was far stronger than an appeal to ‘justice’ or ‘mercy.’
These three motivations form a set of postulates in a proof which the Athenian envoys bring to its inevitable conclusion in the next sentence: “it has always been set down that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” This line is often translated as “it has always been the law” which is a fair translation – the verb here (καθίστημι) has the sense of ‘appointing’ or ‘setting down’ but in this context, it really has the sense of implying a law – not in the sense of a legal issue, but a law like the law of gravity or the laws of physics, a fundamental constraint of the universe we live in. The strong will dominate because of interest, they will hold their domination out of fear and honor, and the weak will submit out of fear themselves.
It is the inescapable conclusion of the initial supposition – hard to resist – that the actions of states are driven by those three greatest motives: fear, honor and interest. Interest will cause the stronger to seek resources and control at the expense of the weaker; fear will – as in the Athenian case – cause the state with empire to cling ever more tightly to it (the traditional modern metaphor is one riding a tiger – empire is dangerous to ride, but far, far more dangerous to get off); honor will ensure that no state feels it can back down from a threat or a promise once made.
What Thucydides has the Athenian envoys lay out then is a theoretical foundation – not the only one, of course – for understanding international relations. States guided by fear, honor and interest are fundamentally amoral, as the Athenians point out – the Spartans only cry ‘justice!’ now because it is in their interest (and Thucydides implies elsewhere, because they are touched by fear of Athens); when they were unafraid and had nothing to gain, the justice of Athens’ empire concerned them little.
Like many great ideas, this is one that seems obvious in retrospect, but it is hardly so. Most discussion of international relations in the ancient world – heck, in the pre-modern world writ large – was fundamentally moral in nature, primarily concerned with right action and the concepts of justice and injustice, along with conforming to certain religiously based rules of conduct or observance. I don’t want to sound like this kind of writing – ‘mirrors for princes’ as the genre is generally known – is simplistic or stupid; such works often display moral thinking of remarkable sophistication, realism and intelligence. But what Thucydides offers is something quite different.
What we have here is the first – and one of the more eloquent – articulations of the international relations (IR) theory known as realism. Realism strips away the moral architecture we often apply to peace and war, and instead attempts to understand the actions of states by considering each state as a unitary, amoral actor pursuing its own interests in a situation where there is no other power – like a moral law or divine agency – which governs the actions of states. Consequently, states in that international system pursue power – often ruthlessly – in order to secure their own continued existence.
Thucydides’ realist views were picked up – in whole or in part – by later classical historians and from there made their way to Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes – in addition to his political treatise Leviathan, one of the founding works of realist political thinking in the modern period – also produced the first translation of Thucydides into English; the through-line from Thucydides’ realist thinking to the modern school of international relations is not hard to draw.
What I find striking is that while Thucydides presents this theory in his histories, he also seems to grapple with a number of its shortcomings. After all, the Athenian envoy’s realist appeal does not – in the event – succeed. While Archidamus – the Spartan king – also advises a realist caution, it is the ephor Sthenelaidas’ fundamentally moral appeal which wins over the Spartans. He declares – in a brief and sharp speech, “The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and the Peloponnese. And yet if they behaved well against the Persians then, but poorly towards us now, they deserve double punishment, for both having ceased to be good and for having also become bad.” Which, I feel it necessary to note, is what we might call – caution, technical term – a ‘sick burn.’ Realist analysis may be true, but it may not be persuasive.
But there’s more to it than the persuasiveness of realist appeals to naked power and interest. It is that fundamentally moral argument which drives the Spartans to act in a way that Thucydides clearly thinks is against their interest. It is quite obvious from the subsequent narrative that Thucydides sides with Archidamus – this is the wrong moment for Sparta to go to war (the right moment will come a couple of decades later). And yet Sparta unpredictably – and catastrophically – miscalculates anyway. The role of cultural and religious norms, along with interactions within states are often neglected in realist IR theory, to their detriment. Of course, one might well argue – as the Athenians do – that it was not the moral calculation, but fear and interest wish pushed the Spartans to act, but I think the presence of Sthenelaidas’ speech in the narrative speaks to Thucydides’ realization that moral arguments can sway states to act for reasons beyond pure fear, honor and interest (but cf. Thuc. 1.88.1, where he attributes the decision to fear of the growth of Athenian power).
I also want to address, briefly, the idea that this vision of Thucydides creates a ‘Thucydides Trap‘ – that a situation with a rising power and a dominant, but falling power must necessarily result in conflict. I think this view arises from an overly simplistic reading of Thucydides. If anything, the first book of Thucydides’ history stresses the number of ‘off-ramps’ not taken to avoid war as well as how the rising tensions between Athens and Sparta were not inevitable, but a consequence of a series of short-sighted decisions (often motivated more by values and moral arguments than by fear, honor and interest!). Almost nothing in Thucydides’ history is inevitable; indeed, I would argue that the contingent nature of events is, in fact, one of his most important ideas (in stark contrast to the divinely motivated fate of Herodotus or the semi-divine tyche of Polybius).
Likewise, I find the criticism of Thucydides that regards him as nothing but a heartless cynic simplifies his tale and its purpose. Unlike Machiavelli (who will no doubt make his own appearance in this space before too long), Thucydides does not part ways with systems of value entirely. His critiques of the Athenians ‘always grasping for more’ both as folly but also in some sense as a moral failing, of pig-headed Spartan shortsightedness and his keen interest in the extreme suffering brought about by the disastrous decision-making on all sides of war bespeak a thinker concerned with more than just power politics.
None of that is to discount the significance of Thucydides’ vision of international relations as expressed in this passage; realism remains one of the most dominant lines of IR thinking for a reason – because its predictive and explanatory value is quite high. States do seek to maximize their power in international systems – at the expense of their neighbors – much of the time. The rule that – as Thucydides will have the Athenians quip to the Melians later in his history – “you know as well as we do that right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thuc. 5.89; this argument, it must be added, doesn’t carry the day here either!) has been true more often than not in history, and is sadly true more often than not today.
Not only as a annalist of single – albeit quite important – conflict, but as a strikingly sophisticated political thinker laying out a clear and clear-headed political philosophy (one that is not only influential, but seemingly dominant in modern thought!), Thucydides is well worth your time to read in full.