Malaspina.com - Thucydides as Science SUBJECT: Thucydides as Science
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.