Thucydides does Tragic Ethics

Warning: I am not a classicist. I am not a specialist in IR ( though I have studied it.) These are my reflections from reading and teaching Thucydides at the undergraduate and senior PME levels as a philosopher and ethicist. If you are a realist, you likely want to stop NOW. Also I repent of any missed grammatical etc sins.

In a former life, I taught an undergraduate honors course called Experience of War where the second book (after our friend Uncle Carl vC) was Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. This was an interdisciplinary class that included ethics of war, art (including paintings, music, film, poetry) and literature, Sun Tzu and Uncle Carl, journalistic accounts of My Lai, a philosophical reflection on the nature of war and warriors, and of course, historical accounts of specific conflicts. What always struck me about Thucydides was the attention to speeches rooted in the role of rhetoric and, not surprisingly as an ethicist, the moral erosion and tragedy of war. In particular, the ways in which Athens failed to live up the values one might have expected always struck me and resonated with my students – both military and civilians.

Right about now my realist friends are observing, “Thank goodness she went to teach at the War College so she can be disabused of such sloppy, emotional thinking!” Well, sort of. (And we need to talk about the role of proper, moral emotion but I digress.) I did teach Strategy and Policy (properly supervised by a very good Navy helicopter pilot) where Thucydides is taught as a core theorist and in properly realist fashion. Despite their best efforts, I cannot get down. In good academic fashion, I wanted to think about why. So here are three options I thought about in terms of reading Thucydides – and my realist friends may well want to stop reading and go have a nice Scotch or Rye.

Option A: ‘Classical’ realism – Thucydides is describing how Athens and Sparta (and their cheeky allies and other actors) behaved. The characters here followed Fear, Honor, Interest, which then can that be extrapolated to a more general claim about how states and other related actors behave. This is how states just DO operate and so if you are going to be successful you need to understand this descriptive fact. Just how it is. This seems the most common way of reading our friend, and certainly the one that was threaded through the course. Now I think the real blame for this view is to be laid at the feet of Machiavelli and especially Hobbes, but that is another blog post.

Option B: With apologies to the field of realism in international relations for making up my own definition here and likely misusing a term, I will label this normative realism: Thucydides is arguing how based on Athens’ and Sparta’s experiences, states ought to act to be successful; so Fear, Honor and Interest are norms to be observed in international relations. My students seemed to slide between this view and Option A quite a bit and I would be interested to see if this view is, in fact, held by any scholars in IR. (I am guessing it is, but I am philosopher….) This seems really weird to me since many of the outcomes were arguably bad, unless you are Persia or one of the cheeky allies. But I think even that is a stretch. Like, where is the happy ending?

But what about a counter-argument? (In true S and P/philosophy form, I must.) Maybe the relevant norm is interest, not so much the other two? States ought to follow their interests. This seems plausible since as we shall see in a minute, Fear and Honor really seem to be the trouble makers in this trinity.

Option C: At the end of the day, I kept coming back to another option: Thucydides is an ‘ethicist’ (one who reflections upon moral claims and ideas) in the tradition of Greek tragedy arguing that if states follow Fear, Honor and Interest as Athens and Sparta did, what follows is the fall thanks to hubris. This may well mean that Athens and Sparta are the analogues to the tragic hero/heroine who suffer from hubris and their downfall is a result of this. The Melian Dialogue would then be seen as a condemnation of Athenian hubris (with the Melians as the chorus), followed by moral erosion, war crimes, loss of empire and their own identity as a result (not mention all the deaths, property destruction and political and social chaos.) Arguably (and I am not a scholar on ancient Greece here – which I suppose I ought to have qualified earlier!) Sparta didn’t do so well either.

So where does this leave us? It might seem that this above reading is consistent with the realist who wants to argue that one ought to follow interest. But its more complicated that than. First, the problem here is that Fear (as Thucydides makes clear) tends to cause miscalculations about interests, what they really are and to what degree one can achieve them. It may cause over or under estimations about risk, it may cause one to take allies’ problems as more or less serious than they are or ought to be and it can cause your own people to freak out in ways that obscure true interest and make (or pressure you as the leader to make) bad decisions. This seems a really obvious point, but its also important for Just War Thinking because neither fear nor interest on their own necessarily constitute a Just Cause (and there are other criteria to fulfill for good reason!)

Second, Honor is really problematic – how problematic depends on how you see what honor is and to what extent moral values and/or identity/reputation/prestige are part of it. With honor, it seems we have a much more existential virtue (or trait for those who persist in arguing that morality has no place in international affairs – y’all know where I sit on that…) where it is very hard negotiate with or come to terms on; it creates impasses rooted in reputation, emotion, prestige, vanity, moral commitments and hubris….see Antigone. Interests seem like the kind of things that one could compromise or negotiate on without trading away who you are or what you are morally committed to; honor seems like a different kind of beast. (A point that Shakespeare seems to keep coming back to…)

The above two points and the ways in which Fear and Honor seem to play out (against Interest and sometimes against good phronesis/prudence) keep pushing me toward Thucydides and the lesson for the ages of his book being thus: DON’T act this way! Or you will end up like Athens and Sparta! The message of tragedy is not to go beyond the bounds of human reason, not to usurp the place and power of the gods – to avoid hubris.

In conclusion, I still do find Thucydides interesting (particularly so for my War College students) for the attention he pays to moral questions and the role of morality in war, especially relative to how it erodes over time and how we can turn brutal to other human beings. And to ourselves. DON’T act this way!

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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