The Thucydidean Turn: (Re)interpreting Thucydides’ Political Thought Before, During, and After the Great War

Ben Earley

Citation with persistent identifier: Earley, Ben. “The Thucydidean Turn: (Re)interpreting Thucydides’ Political Thought Before, During, and After the Great War.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


Today, Thucydides occupies a more prominent position in political discourse and debate than any other ancient, medieval, or even early modern text. The Athenian historian is taught across the US in political science and international relations courses, in military academies, he is quoted regularly in op-ed pieces, political debates, even computer games. Most conspicuously he has inspired Professor Graham Allison, a political scientist based at Harvard, to create the notion of the Thucydides trap, a model which paints a bleak picture of US-Chinese relations and claims to show policy makers how to avoid war. Allison believes that Thucydides offers ‘the most frequently cited one liner in the study of international relations’  when he claimed that ‘“it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”’ (Allison 2017: xiv). Thucydides is, for Allison, the originator of the idea that it is very difficult for a rising power and an established power to avoid conflict. Allison has identified 16 cases that he believes are analogous to the Thucydides trap in modern history, in all but 4 of them war ensued. His book is intended as a polemical intervention in current US foreign policy debates to ensure that war with China is averted. As such it has created quite a storm, generating a flurry of both journalistic and scholarly articles, a TED talk, and endorsements from, among others, Joe Biden, Henry Kissinger, Ban Ki-Moon, and David Petreaus. Even China’s president Xi Jinping has felt obliged to dismiss the Thucydides trap on the record.

My project aimed not to critique or support the current role Thucydides plays in political debate (although I suspect many classicists may roll their eyes at such a simplistic reading of a text as rich as the History of the Peloponnesian War). Instead, I explored when and why Thucydides came to be so prominent both in academic and public political discourse. This question has been asked before and a number of different answers have been produced. For many IR scholars, Thucydides simply stands as the first practitioner of their discipline, alongside Machiavelli and Hobbes. Others have pointed to the role of the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam in the ‘turn’ to the Athenian historian. Readers may recall that W.R. Connor mentions the role of the My Lai massacre in his own personal discovery of the History. More recently Edward Keene, a Professor of IR at Oxford, has pointed to the prominent place of Arnold Toynbee in the post-Second World War reception of Thucydides in both the corridors of power and in political science departments. Toynbee is an interesting figure. A trained classicist who later became a kind of prophet of the future decline of Western Civilization, he emphasized again and again in his writings that it was the horrors of the Great War of 1914-18 that had led to his personal turn to Thucydides. It is this period that I studied during my fellowship. I contend that a number of British classicists writing before, during, and after that war are the first to hold Thucydides up not only for his value as an historian, but for the universal relevance of his political philosophy both to academic and popular audiences. This movement, I further contend, was not caused by the Great War, but it most certainly acted as a strong catalyst. In what follows I refer to this movement as the Thucydidean turn.

The Thucydidean Turn

Laying unread in the archives of Churchill College Cambridge is the typescript of a paper titled simply the Effect of the Great War upon Thucydidean Studies given by young scholar called Enoch Powell to the AGM of the Classical Association in January 1936. At 11am on the final day of the conference Powell ascended to the speaker’s podium to argue that on the 2 November 1914 a major change had taken place in Thucydidean literature. On that date Lieutenant Schwartz of the German army was killed on the front. The following week his father, a German scholar named Eduard Schwartz, received the telegram informing him of the grim news. He immediately abandoned his current work on the ecumenical fathers and turned, instead, to Thucydides out of a sense of kinship with antiquity’s greatest historian of conflict. In Powell’s estimation, Schwartz now came to fully embrace Thucydides’ ‘realism’, that is to say, his harsh depiction of human nature and unflinching portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man. Before the Great War, Powell imagined German scholars had been content to engage in arcane debates over philological aspects of the text, while British academics had little truck with Thucydides’ realism because it detracted from the beauties of the Greek golden age and the Victorian world order of law and morality in international politics, which they imagined might exist for ever. In effect, Powell wrote: ‘To appreciate the gulf which separates pre-and post- war in this respect, one should turn for example from the priggish superiority of Arnold’s appendices, or the theoretical superiority of such pre-war books as “Thucydides Mythistoricus.” To the urgent sense of kinship which animates a Thibaudet or an Abbott’ (Churchill archives 1/6/19: 8). The latter two figures having written monographs embracing Thucydides’ realism in the 1920s. Powell, therefore, appears to confirm my suspicions that it is around the time of the Great War that we should search for the turn to Thucydides.

However, we should certainly quibble the specifics of Powell’s argument in this paper. Nietzsche had already ‘turned’ to Thucydides’ realism (against Plato’s Utopianism) in the 1890s and, I believe, Cornford was more aware of Thucydides’ political philosophy than Powell allows. Nevertheless, this paper points to an awareness, even at the time, of the profound effect that the Great War had on the reception of Thucydides. It is during the war that we find excerpts from the Funeral Speech printed on the sides of London Omnibuses, texts of the speech were carried into battle in the back pockets of both British and German soldiers (Morley 2018). Thucydides also emerges on war memorials and, increasingly, in non-academic literature. Both Thibaudet and Abbott were journalists who wrote of Thucydides not for scholars, but for practical men of politics and business. A particularly striking example of Thucydides’ new relevance is offered by Orlo Williams, a young British officer fighting in the Gallipoli campaign. After the war Williams wrote an article detailing all the books he read while on the front. He recalled reading Thucydides in the following words:

In this spirit I made again the acquaintance of Thucydides, who kept me going many weeks of the Dardanelles campaign, amazed at the modernity of his outlook and the extraordinary political insight reflected in his set speeches. Again and again an exclamation was forced to one’s lips by an expression particularly apt to the conditions of 1915. That wonderful chapter of condensed acumen, for instance, in which he shows that the general political feature of States determined their sympathies in the direction of Athens or Sparta, as the case might be, could have been applied with hardly a word changed to the factors which determined the sympathies of nations in 1915 toward the Allies or the Central Powers. It was impossible not to leave Thucydides with the conviction that he is unsurpassed among political historians, and that, in particular, the funeral oration of Pericles is the supreme tribute to the fallen soldiers of a free State for all time, leaving nothing to be said, no emotion unexplored, and no grace of expression to be added. The peculiar applicability to our own expedition of the account of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse was happily hidden from me till later.

Williams (1919): 469

In many ways Thucydides’ new found prominence must have been welcomed by contemporary scholars. It pointed to the relevance of ancient literature against the modern sciences of chemistry and economics, which were seemingly much more important in an age of total industrial warfare. Yet Powell also offers a note of caution. As Thucydides’ political philosophy becomes more accepted it also becomes liable to distortion and enlistment in favor of unsavory causes. Here Powell points his finger such as Gilbert Murray at Oxford and Charles Cochrane at Toronto who, he believed, had attempted to turn Thucydides into a pacifist in order to support their own idealist vision of international politics. Worse, in Germany scholars such as Wasselmann, Jaeger, Dietzfelbinger, and Weinstock had co-opted Thucydides in support of the pseudo scholarship supporting the increasingly powerful Nazi regime. The Thucydidean turn, therefore, was a double edged sword. It had led to a greater understanding of the Athenian historian and his philosophical program, and elevated the text to its rightful place in classics, political science, and even popular literature. But it also left Thucydides vulnerable.

Alternative Thucydides(s)

What is the value of this turn to scholarship today? Most obviously my research speaks to the burgeoning interest in classical reception studies, which has led directly to a recent major reassessment of the legacy, influence, and (re)interpretation of Thucydides in the modern world. The past ten years have produced volumes edited by Fromentin, Gotteland, and Payen (2010), Harloe and Morley (2012), Lee and Morley (2015), and Thauer and Wendt (2016), as well as a significant monograph on Thucydides and the Idea of History by Neville Morley (2013). However, what has been missing among this plethora of activity is an account of how and why Thucydides became enthroned in international relations as the founder of the discipline and a key practitioner. My work will, I hope, explain how and why much of the ground work for the future American turn to Thucydides was laid in Britain in the period from 1907-1939.

However, I also have a more ambitious aim for this project:  I want to uncover lost or forgotten interpretations of the text and emphasize their importance for scholars today. I beg the reader’s pardon to take a moment to explain what I mean by this. In the 1970s and 80s so-called realist readings of Thucydides predominated in IR, often focussing on particular passages rather than the whole text, particularly the Melian dialogue. These readings were realist in the way that they saw Thucydides as the progenitor of a particular world view that focused on the dog eat dog nature of politics where the strong dominated the weak and there was little room for law and custom. Psychology was reduced to the simple motivations of fear, honor, and greed. By the turn of the millennium, these readings had become so common that they were successfully lambasted by Bagby (1994) and Welch (2003). More recently, however, political scientists sensitive to the philological and historical complexity of Thucydides have begun to add nuance to their realist readings of Thucydides (e.g. Crane 1998) or even complicate their readings by exploring other themes such as justice (Orwin 1994), necessity (Jaffe 2017), and, most prominently, tragedy (Lebow 2003). It is in and among this opening up of Thucydidean scholarship that I hope my study will have the most value. For example, while at the CHS I devoted much of my time to studying Francis Cornford’s seminal 1907 work Thucydides Mythistoricus. In looking at this work with fresh eyes I came to the conclusion that Cornford’s work should not dismissed as so much frippancy but, instead, we should take seriously his claim that Thucydides viewed history through a tragic lens and that the tragic mode of thinking had much to tell Britons in the wake of the Boer, and later, the Great War. Similarly, Sir Alfred Zimmern and Powell both offered radically different accounts of Thucydidean psychology that focussed not on the essential similarity of human nature, but rather the difference between individual characters, city states, and nations. Thucydides’ masterful presentation of these psychological differences, Zimmern and Powell came to believe, was his greatest legacy to later thought. I cite these as examples of the many different Thucydides(s) that emerged in early twentieth century Britain. I believe that the moment (both political and scholarly) is now right for them to (re)emerge from the darkness.

The wonderful staff and the excellent library at the CHS afforded me the perfect opportunity to reflect deeply on these early readings of Thucydides and their place in his reception history and value to scholarship today. The quiet of the CHS campus allowed me to begin to form these thoughts into a monograph that will hopefully appear next year published by Bloomsbury.

Select Bibliography

Abbott, G. F. 1925. Thucydides: A Study in Historical Reality. London.

Bagby, L. M. 1994. “The Use and Abuse of Thucydides in International Relations.” International Organization, 48.1:131-153.

Connor, W. R. 1987. Thucydides. Princeton.

Cornford, F. M. 1907. Thucydides Mythistoricus. London.

Lee, C., and N. Morley, eds. 2015. A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides. Chichester.

Fromentin, V., S. Gotteland, and P. Payen, eds. 2010. Ombres de Thucydide. La réception de l’historien depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’au début du xxe siècle, Actes des colloques de Bordeaux, les 16-17 mars 2007, de Bordeaux, les 30-31 mai 2008 et de Toulouse, les 23-25 octobre 2008. Bordeaux.

Harloe, K. and N. Morley, eds. 2012. Thucydides and the Modern World: Reception, Reinterpretation and influence from the Renaissance to the Present. Cambridge.

Jaffe, S. 2017. Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest. Oxford.

Keene, E. 2015. “The Reception of Thucydides in the History of International Relations.” In A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, ed. C. Lee and N. Morley, 355–372. Chichester.

Lebow, N. 2003. The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders. Cambridge.

Morley, N. 2013. Thucydides and the Idea of History. London.

Morley, N. 2018. “Legitimizing war and defending peace: Thucydides in the First World War and after.” Classical Receptions Journal 10.4:415-434.

Orwin, C. 1994. The Humanity of Thucydides. Princeton.

Thauer, C., and C. Wendt, eds. 2016. Thucydides and Political Order: Concepts of Order and the History of the Peloponnesian War. London.

———. 2016. Thucydides and Political Order: Lessons of Governance and the History of the Peloponnesian War. London.

Thibaudet, A. 1922. La Campagne Avec Thucydide. Paris.

Welch, D. 2003. “Why international Relations Theorist Should Stop Reading Thucydides.” Kokusaigaku Revyu = Obirin Review of international Studies 29:301–319.

Williams, O. 1919. “Some treasured books of an English soldier.” Orig. pub. in The New Statesman. Repr. in The Living Age 468-471.

Zimmern, A. E. 1911. The Greek Commonwealth. Oxford.

———. 1921. “Political Thought.” In The Legacy of Greece, ed. R.W. Livingstone, 321–352. Oxford.


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