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Realism vs. Ethics in Thucydides

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Article SummaryEdit

Thucydides has long been hailed as the father of the realist political model of international relations, due to the numerous messages implicit in the History of the Peloponnesian War that seem to favor the idea that that morality and justice do not have a place in political decisions; they are governed more by the basic needs of security and wealth inherent in human nature. W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz’ article “How International Relations Theorists Can Benefit by Reading Thucydides” seeks to expand this somewhat simplistic view of Thucydides’ ideology by showing that he is not a die-hard realist but is rather highly interested in the role of ethics and morals in politics. Korab-Karpowicz points out that Thucydides’ realistic views cannot simply be assumed from those sections that strongly support them, but they must be taken in the context of the entire book. Although Thucydides clearly believes that realism is the true motivator of political decisions, he acknowledges that considerations of justice cannot be ignored if a political entity wishes to maintain its power in the long run. The author’s most compelling argument on behalf of Thucydides’ complex political views is that, as reflected in the overarching theme of the History, an empire that is unchecked by morals and moderation becomes drunk with desire for more power and will inevitably fail.

Author's TechniquesEdit

Korab-Karpowicz extracts most of his evidence of Thucydides’ implicit political opinions by finding recurring themes and patterns among his speeches and narration of events, particularly within the Melian Dialogue and the account of the Corcyran civil war. Since Thucydides strives to report the war with the utmost accuracy and neutrality, it can be hard to find strong examples of his opinions one way or the other. Although his dialogues often give an equally convincing voice to both points of view, suggesting a neutral outlook on the subject, Korab-Karpowicz examines the overall destiny of the opposing peoples throughout the book rather than studying the immediate consequences of the debate. By looking for certain phrases or buzz words within the text that indicate a realist point of view and then connecting them to the overarching plot of the book, the author can prove his point about the complexity of Thucydides’ political views.

One such recurring pattern that is valuable to Korab-Karpowicz’ point is the idea of the “motivational triad” of realism. The three most important factors that realists consider are fear, honor, and personal self-interest. In the debate at Sparta just before the war, the Athenians argue that they were “compelled” to add to the size of their empire because of these three reasons, as if they didn’t even have a choice to remain as they were (1.75). Time and again, the Athenians justify their aggressive political tactics on the basis of these factors but never take into account the morality of their actions, simply because “the rule has always existed that the weaker are held down by the stronger” (1.76). These themes are echoed again in the last speech of Pericles, in which he extols the city for having these virtues, and again by the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue. Because of the emphasis placed on this idea throughout the book, Korab-Karpowicz suggests that Thucydides is of the same opinion regarding the motivational forces behind realism and certainly views them as invaluable in making political decisions; however, his position on the role of ethics and justice is harder to ascertain. Probably the best indicator of Thucydides’ take on morality is found in his description of the social disintegration during the Corcyran civil war. Korab-Karpowicz points out the copious use of negative ethical words, such as “injustice,” “greed,” “deceit,” and “envy,” among many others. Thucydides condemns the “atrocities” of the civil war and directly attributes it to man’s noble nature being defeated by greed and the struggle for power (3.82).

The Melian Dialogue is a prime example of the idealism vs. realism debate, in which each side represents one extreme of the spectrum; Korab-Karpowicz intends to show that Thucydides’ views are somewhere in the middle. The Melians attempt to save their city with idealistic arguments that appeal to justice: they argue that “fairness and justice for those in danger” would be advantageous to the Athenians in the case of the downfall of their empire (5.90), and are confident that in the case of war, the Lacedaemonians and their allies will honorably join them in defending the city (5.104). The Athenians maintain that the matter is an issue of immediate survival rather than avoiding disgrace (5.101), and defend their intentions based on the three key factors of the motivational triad – security, glory, and self-interest. However, Korab-Karpowicz points out the hole in their logic, namely that the Melians aren’t really a threat to their empire. By completely destroying the Melians, the Athenians make a small addition to their empire but lose the war a few years later and pay dearly for their disregard of morals, which is the overall message that Thucydides wants his readers to take away.

Applying the Author's MethodEdit

The techniques used by Korab-Karpowicz to support his idea about Thucydides’ modified realism can be applied to other parts of the book as well, particularly within the many other wartime dialogues. The Mytilenean debate is another solid example of a juxtaposition between the justice of idealism and the smart planning of realism. Although his speech has traces of typical Athenian realism, Kleon takes up the issue of the negative side of morality, which is retribution for misdeeds based on a previous injustice, and argues that the Athenians should kill all the Mytileneans for revolting. He makes a distinction between an acceptable and an unacceptable revolt, saying that “what is involuntary is what is pardonable” (3.40); since the Mytileneans were not heavily oppressed by the Athenians and able to defend themselves against the other side, they were not compelled to join the Lacedaemonians but rather plotted it, for which they must be punished. Diodotos responds by agreeing that the Mytileneans are guilty but stressing to the Athenians that they are more beneficial to Athens alive; “we are not taking them to court to get justice but deliberating as to how they might be of use to us” (5.44). His straightforward, look-at-the-facts approach to the issue is a perfect example of Thucydidean realism, and he makes use of the motivational triad in convincing the Athenians. Since killing all the Mytileneans will ruin their city as a future source of revenue, it would be foolish and harmful to Athens. He considers “this act of voluntarily submitting to injustice much more useful to the security of the empire than justly destroying those you should not.” The result of this debate is in favor of Diodotos, demonstrating that realism is a more powerful motivator for political decisions than ethics and morals.

Using Korab-Karpowicz’ method of analyzing sections of the book in the context of the complete History, Thucydides’ implicit opinion that ethics must not be completely ignored can be found within this same example. While the realism vs. idealism issue in the Mytilenean debate parallels that in the Melian dialogue, the only differences are the actual definition of justice and the consequences of the decision. Kleon’s idea of negative justice is more along the lines of expediency, a realist concept, than the human compassion that the Melians wish to appeal to. He only wants to focus on the idea of payback, insisting that “revenge coming as soon after the injury as possible exacts the most equal repayment” (3.38). Diodotos, on the other hand, does not employ the same extreme realism as the Athenians at Melos do, but rather does take certain moral considerations into account provided that they don’t impede the benefits of the realist argument. He argues that “Kleon’s punishment in which justice and expediency are one is exposed as an impossible combination of both at the same time” (3.47). He also recognizes that killing all of the Mytileneans would be committing an injustice, an outcome which he conveniently uses to strengthen his argument. Finally, we can find implicit evidence of Thucydides’ personal views on the realism vs. ethics issue by the consequences of this debate on a larger scale. Sparing the Mytileneans turns out to be very beneficial for the Athenians, who enjoy substantial economic gain as a result (3.50); in addition, the Mytileneans never give them any more trouble after this incident for the rest of the History, and in this way the decision increases both the prestige and security of the empire – demonstrating the usefulness of considering the three key motivational forces of realism. As opposed to the Melian Dialogue, in which the realist argument is rational but completely unrestrained by ethics or morals, Diodotus’ realist argument is both logical and morally justifiable. By emphasizing the benefits of ethical considerations on top of the invaluable realist strategy, and the dire consequences of choosing to be blind to justice, the events of the History of the Peloponnesian War reveal Thucydides’ implicit partiality towards this view of international relations.

See also the Thucydides Chapter in W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, On the History of Political Philosophy: Great Political Thinkers from Thucydides to Locke (Boston: Longman 2012).

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