Thucydides the Constructivist

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)

Text of Thucydides the Constructivist

Thucydides the Constructivist Author(s): Richard Ned Lebow Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 547-560 Published by: American Political Science Association Stable URL: Accessed: 30/03/2009 18:42Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

American Political Science Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The American Political Science Review.

Ameica cec Poiia American Political Science Review eiwVl.9,N.3Spebr20

Vol. 95, No. 3

September 2001

the Constructivist Thucydides RICHARD NED LEBOW The Ohio State Universitylevelof Thucydides' he most superficial examines destructive the history consequences domestic of concludesthat nomos constructs identitiesand channelsand restrains the for civilization.Thucydides behavior individuals societies.Speechand reason(logos) in turnmakenomospossiblebecauseall and of conventions dependon sharedmeanings.Thefeedbackloop betweenlogoi (words)and ergoi (deeds) createdGreekcivilization also the international civilstrife(stasis)associated but and withthe Peloponnesian War.International and civil orderdependupon recovering meaningsof wordsand the the securityconventions they enable. Thucydidesshould properlybe considered a constructivist. and foreign policies framed outside the language of justice. His deeperpolitical-philosophical aim was to explorethe relationshipbetweennomos (convention) and phusis (nature) and its implications

themselves.To makeChristianity more attractive to Jews,the New TestamenttracesJesus's lineage to King David. Realists claim Thucydidesas their forebear. In recent years, a numberof internationalrelationsscholarshave offeredmore subtlereadings of his historythat suggestrealismis only one facet of his work.1I make a more radicalassertion:Thucydides is a foundingfather of constructivism. The underlying purpose of his history was to explore the betweennomos (convention,custom,law) relationship andphusis (nature)and its implications the develfor and preservationof civilization.2His work opment showsnot only how languageand conventionestablish identities and enable power to be translated into influence but also how the exercise of power can underminelanguageand convention.Thucydides' understandingof these relationshipswas insightfuland points to the possibility,indeed the necessity, of a symbiotic and productive partnershipbetween two currentlyantagonisticresearchtraditions.


ovements establish to genealogies legitimize cessful politicalactors(Bury1975;de Ste. Croix1972;

AND THEIRCRITICS REALISTSSince the time of Thomas Hobbes, Thucydideshas been celebratedas a realist,as someone who stripped awayall moralpretensesto expose the calculationsof power and advantagethat of necessity motivate sucRichard Ned Lebow is Professor of Political Science, History, and Psychology, The Mershon Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43201-2602 ( The research was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and its Bellagio Center. I am very grateful to David Hahm, Brien Hallett, Victor Hanson, Clarissa Hayward, Bruce Heiden, Friedrich Kratochwil, Peter Nani, Dorothy Noyes, Niall Slater, and Barry Strauss for their generous assistance. 1 All English references to Thucydides in this article refer to The Landmark Thucydides:A ComprehensiveGuide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Free Press, 1996). 2 Nomos first pertained to customs and conventions before some of them were written down in the form of laws and, later, to statutory law. Hesiod makes the first known usage, and Plato later wrote a treatise, Nomoi, in which he suggests that long-standing customs have higher authority than laws. Nomos can refer to all the habits of conforming to an institutional and social environment. Phusis is used by Homer to designate things that are born and grow and can be derived from the verb phuein, and later it became associated with nature more generally.

Kagan 1969;Meiggs 1972). Neorealistsassert that his historyvindicatestheir emphasison the system level and containsimplicitpropositionsabout power transition and the onset of hegemonic war as well as the inabilityof norms and conventionsto keep the peace underconditionsof international anarchy (Gilpin1986; Waltz 1979). Other realists, most notably Michael Doyle (1997), offer more nuanced readings that attempt to understandThucydides in the context in which he wrote. A growingnumberof scholarschallenge the claims of neorealists, and some question whether Thucydidesis adequatelycharacterizedas a realist. Detailed analysisof Thucydides' historyin the midnineteenthcenturycalled into questionits consistency and unity. This researchgave rise to the Thucydidesfrage, a controversyabout how many distinct parts there are to the history,the order in which they were written, and what this reveals about the evolution of the author'sthinkingover approximately decades two of researchand writing.Thucydides was considereda coldly detachedand dispassionaterationalist,a scientist in the traditionof Hippocrates,in search of an and of "objective" timelessunderstanding politics and war. Because ordered thought and presentationare absolutely essential to such an enterprise, scholars assumedthat Thucydides would have "cleanedup"his to if manuscript remove all the inconsistencies he had lived long enough. The postwarattackon positivismin social sciences and history encouraged a rethinkingof Thucydides. Wallace (1964), Bowersock(1965), and Stahl (1966) made the case for a passionateand politicallyengaged writerwho can be considereda critic of the scientific approachto history.Connor'sThucydides (1984) represents a dramatic break with the past in that it attemptsto restorea "unitarian" readingof the history. To Connor,Thucydidesis a masterfulpostmodernist who carefullystructures text to evoke an intended his set of responses.He uses omissions,repetitions,and inconsistenciesin the form of argumentsand judgmentsthat are "modified, or restated,subverted, totally controverted" 18) to tell a more complexstoryand (p. of convey a more profoundunderstanding the human condition.Ultimately,Connor(pp. 15-8) argues,"the 547

o Thcddste Thucydides the Constructivist sr





b r20 September 2001

work leads the reader-ancient or modern-far beyond the views and values it seems initiallyto utilize and affirm." Thucydides'careful attention to language is the startingpoint of another seminal study, WhenWords Lose TheirMeaning,by James Boyd White (1984). Accordingto White, people act in the world by using the languageof the world.To understand theirbehavior and the social context that enables it, we need to track the ways in which words acquire,hold, or lose meanings and how new meanings arise and spread. White contendsthat Thucydides recognizedthis truth, andhis conceptionof meaningtranscends lexicalto the of encompassunderstandings self, manners,conduct, and sentiment.Changesin meaninginvolvereciprocal interactions betweenbehaviorand language,whichare trackedby Thucydidesin his speeches, debates, and dialogues.As the PeloponnesianWar progresses,the terms of discourse that function at the outset in intelligible waysshiftandchange,andthe languageand community(homonoia) constitutedby it deteriorate into incoherence. When the Athenians can no longer use the tradifor tional languageof justification their foreignpolicy, to find an alternatelanguage,and they they struggle finallyresort to assertionsof pure self-interestbacked by militaryclout. Such a language is not rooted in ideas, is unstable, and deprives its speakers of their culture and identities.By using it, the Atheniansdestroy the distinctionsamong friend, colony, ally, neutral, and enemy and make the world their enemy througha policy of limitlessexpansion.In effect, they abandon the culture throughwhich self-interestcan intelligentlybe defined, expressed,and bounded. By the time of the Siciliandebate, the Athenianscan no longerspeak and act coherently,and this failureis the underlying reason for their empire's decline. For and Thucydides for White,the historyof the Athenian not only indicatesthe tension betweenjustice empire but and self-interest also revealsthat theyvalidateand give meaningto each other. to Garst (1989) relies on White'sarguments accuse neorealistsof havinga narrowdefinitionof powerand of unfairlyprojectingit onto Thucydides.Thucydides was shows that Athenian imperialism successfulwhen powerwas exercisedin accordwith well-definedsocial conventions governing Greek speech and behavior. These conventionsare ignored as the war progresses. The Melian Dialogue and the Sicilian debate reveal how the Athenians destroyed