Hobbes, Thucydides, and conflict

Anyone interested in the development of modern political philosophy is unavoidably interested in Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and one of the earliest proponents of what came to be known as the “social contract tradition” of thinking about the moral legitimacy of state power. (Here is a post on Hobbes’s intellectual development; link. And here is a post on Hobbes’s framework for thinking about human society; link.) Hobbes’s political philosophy depends on a theory of human nature — how do human beings behave when they’re at home? — and a theory of the consequences of bringing a group of individuals with that kind of nature together. But it is worth asking the question: where did Hobbes’s ideas about human nature as fearful, calculating, and self-interested originate? And it is very interesting to note that Hobbes’s experiences as a young man involved quite a bit of practical experience and international exposure. (For example, it is likely that he met Galileo in Florence in 1630 while accompanying Sir Gervase Clifton on a trip to Italy.) So the potential influences on Hobbes’s foundational ideas are quite broad.

In this light it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that Hobbes translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as a young scholar in 1629, at the age of 41. And some aspects of Thucydides’ treatment of the war between Athens and Sparta have suggestive features in common with some of Hobbes’s later ideas. For example, the position taken by the Athenian delegates in the Melian Dialogue — a crucial moment in the history of the war between Athens and Sparta — is similar to the rule of the strong over the weak in Hobbes’s description of the state of nature in Leviathan (1651). Was Hobbes influenced by this dialogue — and the underlying Hellenistic conception of “international justice” — in the formation of his own theory of the modern state? And did this view of the logic of expediency and the absence of moral limitation produce his most basic intuitions about the war of all against all?

Here is the relevant passage from the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides in Richard Crawley’s translation:

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation of the same passage (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

Now compare a few sentences about the individuals in the state of nature from Leviathan:

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him. (Leviathan, Chapter XIII)

In each case the position is formulated in terms of the rational calculations of individuals involved in conflict, and the sole basis of reasoning is self-interest. Moral constraints have no purchase in these circumstances. The question arises, then: did Hobbes have the. moral worldview of Thucydides in mind as he formulated the chief arguments in Leviathan?

This question has been considered before. In a very interesting 1945 article Richard Schlatter noted the parallels between Thucydides and Hobbes (link). The year of publication of Schlatter’s article is significant; the horrors of the twentieth century were surely still fresh in the minds of European and American intellectuals.

The idea of an unchanging human nature, the constant element in history, the common denominator which enables the historian to compare one event with another and construct a formula or pattern which is intelligible and useful, was a basic assumption of the science of history as Thucydides expounded it. Hobbes devotes the first third of the Leviathan to a detailed description of human nature which served as the foundation for his political philosophy. (357)

In the preface “Of the Life and History of Thucydides” Hobbes expresses his approval of the Athenian generals at Melos who refused to discuss the justice of their invasion–as soldiers their proper function was to carry out the will of the Athenian State by fair means or foul. As to whether the action of the state was just in this case, Hobbes puts aside the question with the observation that it “was not unlike to divers other actions that the people of Athens openly took upon them.” (358)

Thus it appears that Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides confirmed for him, or perhaps crystallized for him, the broad outlines and many of the details of his own thought. As an individual, he was said to have read little but to have digested thoroughly what he did read. As a translator, he was working in a great tradition which assumed that classical history was to be read as a preparation for political action. When he turned to Thucydides–perhaps at the suggestion of Francis Bacon–he had been meditating on political affairs for some time. (362)

So Hobbes generally agrees with the moral position taken by Thucydides on the actions of the Athenians. However, Schlatter believes that this represents evidence of agreement rather than influence. 

At a slightly more general level, it is clear that Hobbes was a creative and imaginative thinker. It is reasonable enough to expect that his philosophical framework was to some extent influenced by his immersion in Thucydides; but it is also well established that he conceived of his philosophical methods in analogy with the scientific ideas of Galileo as expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. There were many influences on the development of Hobbes’s theories. So perhaps the most we can say, along with Sir Isaac Newton, is that great thinkers “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Nonetheless, the parallel between Hobbes and Thucydides is striking and interesting.

*     *     *

Also interesting is a recent article by Robert Howse, “Thucydides and Just War: How to Begin to Read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars”link. Here is his abstract:

Thucydides is usually considered a realist thinker who denies a meaningful place to right or justice in international relations. In Just and Unjust Wars, however, Michael Walzer develops a powerful critique of realism through an engagement with Thucydides. This article compares Walzer’s treatment with Leo Strauss’s anti-realist interpretation of Thucydides, suggesting many similarities between Walzer’s approach and Strauss’s. Both Walzer and Strauss hold that, even in war, necessity does not eliminate meaningful margins of moral choice. Strauss’s  much more expansive treatment of Thucydides helps us appreciate the subtleties of Walzer’s terse argument against realists.

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