Bloomsbury (2020) h/b 256pp £76.50 (ISBN 9781350123724)
Is there a ‘Thucydides trap’ that is about to engulf us all? The phrase was invented in 2012 by the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, and has attracted interest, discussion, and worry. It refers to the pattern whereby established powers are drawn into conflict with their rising competitors, just as Sparta was moved by fear to confront the growing threat of Athens. It is not hard to see who are the current equivalents. How then is America to deal with China? Can it end in anything but a massive conflict with unimaginable consequences? Allison himself thinks there might be no inevitability about this, but of the sixteen modern parallels that he has identified the result in twelve was war. That is not reassuring. Wisdom from our leaders is clearly needed: we need no Thucydides speaking from the grave to tell us that. Nor would a reading of Thucydides encourage trust in the demagogue or the blusterer, even if it might at least suggest that plagues, however devastating and demoralising, need not have lasting consequences. But are there other ways in which a thoughtful reading of Thucydides might help?
E.’s The Thucydidean Turn explores the twentieth-century origin of such contemporary perspectives on Thucydides, not Allison’s particular analysis but rather the thoughtful exploration of parallels with the writers’ own times. He concentrates on Britain, and stops with the Second World War when, he plausibly argues, this ‘political reception’ of the author shifted more to the United States. The Great War of course figures largely in that contemporary experience: how could it not? Both the power plays that contributed to its genesis and the moral upheaval that it caused were inevitably scarring. But E. does not allow its vastness to eclipse the earlier importance of the Boer War, troubling as that was to humane liberal sensibilities. Nazi ideology is also becoming clear by the end of the period, and doubtless Fascist too, though Mussolini does not figure in discussion here.
E. organises the discussion around great individuals: Frances Cornford, Alfred Zimmern, G. F. Abbott, Arnold Toynbee, and interestingly Enoch Powell (in Powell’s case the relevant works remained unpublished and were consulted in the Churchill College archive). It is an interesting choice. It is not a question of their influence, as Powell’s unpublished work had none: Zimmern is important as the world’s first professor of International Relations, appointed first at Aberystwyth and then at Oxford after a pre-1914 background teaching ancient history in Oxford, but is seldom quoted now; Abbott is still quoted in International Relations but rarely in Thucydidean scholarship; Toynbee’s Study of History excites more interest as a landmark of intellectual history than in classical scholarship. It is Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus, the earliest to feature here, that now enjoys most respect, probably more now than at any other time since its publication in 1907.
What E.’s selection does very well is illustrate some of the contours of discussion that were later developed in various directions, for good or ill, in International Relations discussion and debate. A strand of ‘realism’ runs through the different approaches, emphasising the domination of force and self-interest in inter-state dealings over any considerations of ethical value, but realism can come in different forms. How far is it a matter of ‘is’ and how far of ‘ought’? Is it simply a matter of tracing how humans in fact behave, with no eye to moral judgement at all? Or is there some sort of guide here to how they should act, a ‘manual for statesmen’? If the second, is it a commendation of Realpolitik—go thou and do likewise, and so much the worse for any Mytilene or Melos that happens to be in the way—or an implicit condemnation? If the second, is the condemnation on purely moral grounds or is it practical, tracing how Realpolitiker are often really not very good at gauging their long-term interests after all?
E. neatly labels his subjects. ‘For Cornford, [Thucydides] was a tragedian; for Zimmern, a psychologist; for Toynbee, a contemporary; for Cochrane [his Thucydides and the Science of History is not given a chapter but often pops up], a scientist; and for Abbott, a realist’ (141), while for Powell he is a Realpolitiker of the ‘is’ stamp more than the ‘ought’. Cornford’s emphasis fell on the way that deeply embedded Greek assumptions of e.g. atē, hybris, and nemesis are reinterpreted by Thucydides in ways that shed their religious aura but still answer to underlying human realities. Cornford thought that the Greek language did not yet offer Thucydides the resources to present those realities with adequate clarity, and posed the challenging question whether our own analytic tools might similarly be linguistically constrained.
Zimmern’s ‘psychology’ focused on the differences in national mentalities that clashed so catastrophically: what Thucydides offered was an approach for grasping these so that one could erect the most moral international structure possible for managing them, one that might require an energetic scepticism from people of higher ideals when confronting the power-hungry politicians. It is such ‘idealism’, E. suggests, that explains why Zimmern has fallen out of fashion with more recent ‘realists’; it is still a vision to which many of us less hard-headed types might be drawn.
Abbott wrote more explicitly for students of politics and politicians themselves, presenting a rawly straightforward view of self-interest driving bigger states, driven in those Thucydidean terms by ‘honour, advantage, and fear’ (Thuc. 1.75.3: he often took the speeches as representing Thucydides’ own thought). For him, unlike Zimmern, national differences were purely ‘surface diversities’; the important constant was human nature, with close parallels with modern Europe as sovereign states worried about power imbalances and pulled what levers they could.
For Toynbee the distinctive aspect was his broadening to see Thucydides in the broader sweep of Greek civilisation—for him, a very broad sweep indeed, extending from Minoan civilisation to the seventh century AD—and fitting this into his vision of the recurring life-cycle, Spengler-like, of ‘civilisations’. E. relates this pattern to a ‘tragic’ vision of rise and inevitable decay, heavily influenced by Cornford but expanded to incorporate the whole culture. There is more to be said about Toynbee; it would be interesting, for instance, to explore how this view of cyclical history relates to Toynbee’s equal insistence on how very different global history might have been, with a delight in playing with the counterfactual: what if Alexander had died old? Toynbee’s essay on the subject is fascinating, posing as a retrospect written in the world-centre Alexandria under the reign of Alexander LXXXVI, and musing for instance on whatever happened to that monotheistic religion a millennium or so ago in Judaea, so much stranger than the enlightened Buddhism that now prevailed. If that is a might-have-been variation of the same cycle, some rather large spokes would seem to have been inserted in its wheel.
The chapter on Powell addresses two works, firstly his address to the Classical Association in 1936 on the influence of the Great War on Thucydidean scholarship, and secondly the fellowship dissertation that he submitted to Trinity College Cambridge in the same year. The lecture is particularly interesting, delivering a thoughtful and penetrating account of the impact on French and German as well as English language scholarship. The fellowship dissertation is far-reaching. For Powell there is no idea of implicit moral commentary even on the Mytilenean debate or the Melian dialogue; in an idiosyncratic view Powell takes the programme in the speeches as to present the speakers’ honest thinking, and their frankness shows politics as they really worked. Powell pursued few specific parallels with the contemporary world, though he did find particular resonance for British readers in the depiction of Athens’ empire, and seems to have detected an implication that unless disobedience is treated harshly the imperial state will always suffer. It is a pity that Powell’s work was not published at the time; had it been, it might well have fulfilled the role of a foundational general book on Thucydides that was in fact played in different ways by J.H. Finley’s Thucydides of 1942 and de Romilly’s Thucydide et l’impérialisme athénien of 1947. It is now, I gather, to be published as a Histos supplement, edited by Ivan Matijašić. A grim fascination for readers will now be to search for any clues of Powell’s later politics. One can certainly see a relentless logic in which he accepts the consequences of the axioms he adopted, in this case a dubious interpretation of what Thucydides says about his speeches. That, at least, is relatively harmless.
There is much of interest in this book, not least the occasional side-glances at the views of the less scholarly: ‘is not Lloyd George Cleon?’ exclaimed a certain Mr Maynard of Birmingham. It has its flaws too. French and German scholarship barely feature except through the filter of Powell, and Italian not at all: the Great War affected those cultures too, and if the impact was different one might wonder why. There are rather too many typos and minor blemishes, and it gets off to a bad start by mentioning ‘Kathleen’, not Katherine, Harloe on the first page of the preface. But much is perceptive, and E. certainly demonstrates that ‘each generation, each reader even, invents his or his own Thucydides’ (p. 173): a truism no doubt, and one that would apply just as well to Sophocles or Tacitus. But Thucydides might have been particularly gratified, reassured that later events had duly proved ‘the same or similar, the human condition being what it is’ (1.22) and that his work might be some help in understanding them, a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί indeed.