Abstract: Collective Emotion in Thucydides

Thucydides’ well-known endorsement of Pericles praises his ability to perceive the fears of the Athenian demos and steer them in the direction that benefits the affairs of the state. This endorsement reflects a preoccupation that permeates his History: the role that individual and collective emotion plays in political decision-making and action. This paper examines Thucydides’ depiction of the nature, characteristics, and effects of emotions primarily as collective responses.

The Mytilenean debate and the narrative of the Sicilian expedition bring together the issues that pervade Thucydides’ presentation of collective emotion: the relationship between emotion and reason; and how participation in a group shapes emotional, and consequently, social and political experience and action. Through an analysis of these two narratives, this paper argues that Thucydides’ depiction of collective emotion (especially fear, anger, eros, and pity) points to the ways in which the demos acquires, disseminates, and acts on knowledge. It thus undermines the sharp divide between reason and emotion often attributed to the historian. Thucydides’ text also suggests a pleasure experienced through participation in a group such as the demos and the army. The experiential dimension of this “participatory pleasure” deepens the bonds among its members and helps to create a shared and coherent ideology.

The combination of the cognitive and the experiential aspects of collective emotion lead to the translation of emotional experience into action, and to the definition of the type of action to be taken in each situation. In other words, collective emotion carries normative value and motivational power for decision-making and concerted action. Both of the narratives examined, however, emphasize the challenges of reaching genuinely shared perspectives that responsibly contribute to, rather than undermine, collective prosperity. They also recommend a place for pity by redefining its connection with both self- and collective interest.