Thucydides as Science (c) Russell McNeil, Malaspina University-College, 1996 Had Thucydides been born a century later (he was born about 460) it is entirely possible he would have contributed more to Greek mathematics and science than to history. The strength and influence Thucydides exerts on the Greek mind draws in part from it's detached vantage. Euclid, and all the mathematical thinking that laid the groundwork for Euclid flourished in large part because it constituted a logically consistent system with explicit rules and assumptions in which all rational observers had to draw identical conclusions. This "impulse" exerted a strong influence on the Greek mind and is clearly evident in the work of Thucydides. Thucydides' explanation for the Peloponnesian War focuses on empire and power. War arises when power begins to shift. In fact, Thucydides provided the basis for the so-called "balance of power" politics which the Western tradition has used and still uses to underpin its thinking for over two millennia. Because this amoral explanation of political "reality" emerges from what appears to be a scientific framework, we tend to buy into the idea more readily than if we understood it more for what it is, the carefully contrived opinion of a clever thinker. Thucydides "detached vantage" as an objective observer (we can argue whether it really was detached in seminar) allows him to probe beneath the surface reasons for war to reveal those hidden forces (power, fear, and self interest) that are really responsible for events. I think many of are impressed and persuaded that Thucydides really has uncovered some truths about human nature and war because of his "detached vantage" and because this account unfolds for us as "systematic and formulated knowledge," which in very general terms is how we define science. First, he convinces us that he has "gotten the facts straight." Second, he persuades us that there really are "objective" facts about the war that can be gotten straight. In other words, if science is systematic and formulated knowledge, there must be a body of things "out there" that we can systematize and formulate! And third, he filters these "properly gotten objective facts" through a "model" of political "reality" he is persuaded is "right." Thucydides takes great pain to assure us that he has gotten his facts straight: Thuc. 1.22.2-3 And as for the real action of the war, I did not think it right to set down either what I heard from people I happened to meet or what I merely believed to be true. Even for events at which I was present myself, I tracked down detailed information from other sources as far as I could. It was hard work to find out what happened, because those who were present at each event gave different reports, depending on what side they favored and how well they remembered. This passage is often used to document the pains Thucydides used to ensure observational accuracy. It implies that Thucydides' facts are independent of his subjectivity: that there are objective facts separate from, and in theory identical for all observers. This incidentally is the "attitude" all "good" journalists assume when reporting on the world in their, "detached," "objective," "thorough," and "unbiased" reportage. If equally endowed observers of the same phenomena ever produced different results, we would have a problem. We know of course that objective reporting does always produce agreement--members of a Liberal Studies teaching team, for example, rarely disagree about the interpretation of a collection of facts. Do you understand the underlying basis for my argument here? I mentioned the three elements in Thucydidean process: getting facts straight, believing in objective facts, and the filtering of objective facts through a correct "model of political reality." This political "vision" is the engine that works on the facts; orders them; prioritizes them; classifies them; does relational operations on them; and generally synthesizes higher order relationships. It is a complex intellectual device. The "model of political reality" is used to determine not only which facts are relevant but to determine how Thucydides reports the various speeches. It is here I think that Thucydides is most creative: Thuc. 1.22.1 What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker say what I thought his situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said. This gives the historian license to re configure ideas to conform to a particular argumentative opinion, ideological position, or vision of human nature. There were speeches. What was said in those speeches most likely included what was reported here. But, much was left out, and much was de-emphasized. The ordering, presentation and wording conform to Thucydides' vision of political reality and human nature. An important example of this is the speech of the Athenians during the Spartan debate, in response to the charges of Athenian injustice namely: Athens' siege of Potidaea, Athens' decision to help defend the island of Corcyra against Corinth, and Athens' decree restricting trade with Megara. It is here, in this response, that Thucydides "understanding of political reality" emerges. The Athenians in this speech do not deny "injustice," they simply notice that the concept has no real meaning in the world of empire. In the world of empire, nature and necessity take precedence. Here is the curious response of the Athenian delegation. Thuc. 2.76.1 We have not done anything in this that should cause surprise, and we have not deviated from normal human behavior: we simply accepted an empire that was offered us and then refused to surrender it. If we have been overcome by three of the strongest motives--ambition (power), fear, and our own advantage (self interest)--we have not been the first to do this. It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger (shades of Thrasymachus??) Besides we took this upon ourselves because we thought we were worthy of it, and you thought so too, until now that you are reckoning up your own advantage and appealing to justice--which no one has ever preferred to force, if he had a chance to achieve something by that to gain an advantage. If people follow their natural human inclination to rule over others they deserve to be praised if they use more justice than they have to, in view of their power. This then is the core of Thucydides' "model of political reality," his "political science." Power, fear, and self-interest are primary forces on the international stage. This understanding presents us with a "framework" for politics, in effect, a "political science." It is however, just that, a "model," some would call it a "paradigm." It accounts for many of the observed facts--in particular those Thucydides chooses to include in his narrative. And to some extent the model can be applied to new situations. That is to say it has some predictive power. The label "scientific realist" has been used to characterize Thucydides' approach here. It is called scientific because it purports to report on an objective world independent of the observer. Perhaps the best example of a Thucydidean success in observation and application of his scientific model and particularly its predictive power is his analysis of the aftermath of the civil war in Corcyra: Thuc. 5.82.1 Civil war brought many hardships to the cities, such as happen and will always happen as long as human nature is the same, although they may be more or less violent or take different forms, depending on the circumstances in each case. In peace and prosperity, cities and private individuals alike are better minded because they are not plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their will; but war is a violent teacher... This events in Corcyra serve as a case study for civil conflict. Thucydides describes the event as a general phenomenon. Human beings will in similar circumstances respond in similar ways. And they did, and they do, from the US. civil war right on down to the present day in Bosnia, or Rwanda, and hypothetically even in Quebec, if civil conflicts ever emerge there. But, Thucydides goes on: Thuc. 5.82.2 Civil war ran through the cities; those it struck later heard what the first cities had done and far exceeded them in inventing artful means for attack and bizarre forms of revenge. And they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor... If there is a problem with Thucydidean history as "science," it is right here. Thucydides greatest predictive triumph reveals what might be his model's greatest flaw. If words are reversed, they can have no stable meaning, and communication breaks down. Thucydides was painfully aware that the same events can have very different meanings for different observers. Where words reverse their meanings, a phenomenon known as incommensurability takes shape. Incommensurate means, "no common measure." In the extreme speech loses its force. The ideas that common words refer to are no longer held in common. In situations such as these communication is virtually impossible. The interlocutors in an argument no longer engage, they talk through each other. As a detached observer, Thucydides might be in a position to decide or choose where, when, or who is using speech with twisted, distorted or reversed meanings, but the task seems Herculean. The phenomenon is more than a matter of mere disassembly, in which speakers deliberately deceive--incommensurate word reversal is something much more--the speakers have adopted and believe in the truth of these new meanings and use them with as much sincerity and honesty as they did before the reversals occur. So before we become seduced by Thucydidean thought, and generations of power politicians have, from Bismarck to Nixon, we need to appreciate that among the various problems facing the historian, incommensurability will color whatever claim might be made to having obtained objective data. It works like this. There is an imaginary universe, a Thucydidean universe, in which power, fear, and self interest are the forces that govern relationships between factions and cultures. Players in that imaginary idealized universe relate to one another in the ways documented in this book. The real universe can often give the appearance of conforming to the imaginary universe especially if I am selective in my choice of observations and facts. If I actually believe in the reality of this imaginary universe, my objectivity is unquestioned. I will select, report, and order events to conform with what I "know" to be true. I could say the same thing about Euclidean geometry. There is an imaginary universe populated by points, lines and figures. If I believe in the reality of points, lines and figures, my propositions flow precisely from my beliefs. The real universe is not Euclidean, as we now know, and any attempt to match the real universe to Euclid's imaginary one, is at best only an approximation. At worst, and this is the scary part, the fit between the imaginary Euclidean universe and the real universe is a complete mismatch because in the real universe points, lines and figures have completely different meanings. We use the same words to refer to points, lines and figures, but they contain totally different ideas. For example, for Euclid a "point" is "that which has no part." In non-Euclidean geometries a "point" might "look" the same, but, like the point that situates the position of a black hole, a point contains "many parts," in fact, a valid non-Euclidean definition of a point might be, "that which has all parts." So, is Thucydidean history science or is it art? If it is science does it describe an imaginary universe or a real one? As a science the history falls short on many counts. Thucydides admits this himself. The objective facts of the war are difficult if not impossible to document for the very reason that words and ideas change their meanings most during the course of war. In other words the data is suspect because the observations are contaminated. In other words there is no way we can ever know if Thucydides has gotten the facts straight because by his own admission objective facts are nearly impossible to collect. As a science the history falters too with respect to its main engine--the underlying assertion that power, fear and self-interest govern the affairs of men at the international level when cultures or ideological factions clash in a certain way as for example when one party, Athens, overreaches (out of necessity) and the other, Sparta, responds (in necessity) out of fear. Thucydides reveals this vision of conflicting necessities in the speeches he uses--the selection and construction of which are governed by the model of political reality he adheres to. I won't deny that power, fear and self-interest govern the affairs of men at the international level at least some of the time. But that this is the way events are governed by necessity, because human nature works this way in the realm of real politics, is hard to accept. Sparta did not have to go to war. It could have gone to arbitration. Athens could have responded to the Spartan appeal to justice. It did not. If it had events might have been otherwise. Power, fear, self interest and necessity would have been secondary to other influences--and Thucydides might have pursued geometry. Although Thucydides' history falters as science in the real world--it might still qualify as a science in an imaginary world characterized by facts which are objective in the imagination of the author. That events evolved the way they did can just as easily be characterized as a manifestation of injustice--a consequence of power politics. Both sides saw necessity in how they acted. What both sides failed to see was the obvious contradiction in this conflict of necessities. Justice in the soul requires the non interference of and independence of the parts of soul. Justice in the city requires the non-interference of and independence of its various divisions. Justice then in the larger human community requires the non-interference of and independence of its various republics. But rather than this as a starting point, Thucydides seems in several places to side with the idea that, "it is fitting for the stronger to rule," by nature. Thucydides does not reject the traditional notion of justice or deny its importance. He simply shows that under stress, and of necessity, traditional ideas of justice yield to harsher realities. Plato I think would disagree. Justice for him was an idealized reality-- rationally determined and realizable through right education and hanging out with the right crowd. The danger of accepting the rather pessimistic consequences of Thucydidean analysis is the temptation to accept that what is true for human nature on the grand scale is true also for human nature on the smaller scale. People who read Thucydides take it to heart--literally. There is a tendency in the West to buy into this amoral paradigm as a formula for human success. This I think is the cruelest legacy of Thucydides. Outside of their very personal space (and in many cases even there) people actually believe that power, fear and self-interest govern their political lives at every political level, from their behavior on the job (office politics) to their attitudes and behavior to the city, state and even the environment. As a consequence people can and do behave in wretched ways in their political lives. Justice and morality have no place in the political life of many people. Plato saw that people often behaved badly, but argued that there were real moral ideals which we could emulate and adhere to given the right education. But Thucydides was not Plato, and Plato did not take the Republic into the sphere of international events and he could never have written anything quite like this because he rejected empirical evidence as a basis for obtaining knowledge. Empirical evidence for Plato was nothing like the real thing. This great shining scientifically determined reality Thucydides shapes, shines and sculpts for us here would seem to Plato as nothing more than mere "opinion.