Why Study Thucydides?
Written by: Geoffrey Hawthorn
The Shakespeare of Political Understanding
Geoffrey Hawthorn, author of Thucydides on Politics, discusses why reading Thucydides is essential to any study of modern politics.
In the 1990s I was becoming interested in international politics, but knew little about what had been written about the subject. I confessed my embarrassment to an acquaintance in the street. “Start with Thucydides,” she said and walked off. I did, and discovered the most profound and engaging book on politics I’d read.
Cambridge was about to start a full undergraduate degree in politics, and I was to teach for it. Texts in political thought were an obvious choice. Why not Thucydides on practical politics? There’s nothing like teaching something to get to grips with it.
It could have been a disaster. The class understandably wanted to hear about international affairs now. The ambitions, successes, failures and defeats of a large number of men with near-impossible names in the eastern Mediterranean two-and-a-half thousand years ago would not seem to signify anything beyond themselves. But students were as taken by the text as I was.
I urged them to concentrate on Thucydides himself. To help myself however, I read what others had said. The literature in politics aligned him with one or another modern preoccupation. Even a classicist declared that this was the start of “political science.” To some, from a speech he gives to Pericles, he was a moralist, a liberal and a democrat indeed, to others, in his account of the war and collapse of Athens, a conservative and a fierce expositor of Realpolitik. But I didn’t see him in these ways. Some of his protagonists did parade principles and all were concerned with power. But their reasoning was poor, they didn’t always know what they were doing, and no one achieved anything that would last.
If the text has a “lesson,” it might be that politics is always unavoidable but rarely admirable, owes less to reason than we might suppose, and allows no moral, constitutional or practical closure.
Thucydides on Politics arises from that teaching. He said that his own work would have served its purpose “well enough if it is judged useful by those who want to have a clear view of what happened in the past and what – the human condition being what it is – can be expected to happen some time in the future in similar or much the same ways.” He couldn’t have imagined what our time would be. But his protagonists are as politically capable (and incapable) as any modern, and are acting for a future they cannot know. He lets one see that beneath the configurations of any politics there’s a condition that all men (and women now too) find themselves in: one in which fear, pride, and rage are endemic, circumstances are at best partially understood, and reasoned principles and projects are subject to unreason and the unforeseen acts of other people. If the text has a “lesson,” it might be that politics is always unavoidable but rarely admirable, owes less to reason than we might suppose, and allows no moral, constitutional or practical closure.
Thucydides doesn’t explain the ups and downs in what we see and read about now at home or in Syria or Ukraine or wherever it may be. Any more than Richard II explains the agonies of rule in a modern state. But he lets one see these things more deeply. Not so much a forerunner of political science, more in his own way a Shakespeare of political understanding.