A non-Western view of why Thucydides shouldn’t be put on a pedestal (or a syllabus)

When I was a student back in Intro to IR, I confess I never even touched Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War, or even Machiavelli and Hobbes for that matter. The first so-called realist I was exposed to was Hans Morgenthau, and that was thanks to a translated version of Politics Among Nations (the copy which I never finished and I presume is lost). It was only when I started my MSc that I began to read the Peloponnesian War—mostly from Wikipedia and bits and bits from Donald Kagan’s four-volume work on the Peloponnesian War. Right now, I find Donald Kagan’s version to be much easier to follow than the original Thucydides.

For me, Thucydides was too heavy. Even with the help of maps, indexes, and annotations in Strassler’s Landmark Thucydides, I still found myself lost and not immersed in what Thucydides claimed as a “possession for all time”. Maybe I simply didn’t have the intellectual acuity to follow Thucydides’ magisterial work.

But this did not stop me from trying to assign parts of Thucydides in my syllabi.

My first trial was trying to insert the Peloponnesian War into a Study of War and Peace module. It was the first war the class would discuss. I thought it would be a good starting point, mostly due to its recent popularisation of Graham Allison’s moniker, “Thucydides Trap”. I figured I could first mention Allison’s moniker, unpack its key propositions, and explore whether they made sense by diving into that crucial period leading up to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

The results? Let me just say, my class had seen better days.

The most obvious problem that popped up was that students were justifiably lost. Despite having tried to distil (and at some point, I believe I was oversimplifying) key aspects of the Peloponnesian War, my students still had a hard time following my explanation. It wasn’t that they were dumb; I presume it’s due to them having little to no prior exposure to this period of time. And I can’t blame them. Ancient Greek history is not taught in Indonesian high schools (we can’t even get Indonesian colonial history right!). Even if it were taught, it would likely just be in passing due to the demanding jam-packed schedule. Nor would they have had time to cover it adequately in Introduction to IR, which is an expansive 14-week course that needs to cover a lot of ground. At best, they’d have only one 2.5-hour session to cover Thucydides, which is obviously not enough and would probably be, quite frankly, unproductive. In the end, the class was just me retelling interesting parts of the Peloponnesian War for two hours straight, much like regurgitating a Wikipedia article. There was little engagement; if any, it was to ask me to slow down so they could take notes.

So why this obsession with Thucydides? Why does Thucydides always have to sneak his way into an IR reading list? Is it because we decided collectively that students must suffer what they must? (Sorry Prof Poast, I’m stealing this.)

I don’t deny that Thucydides has been highly influential in the development of IR theory despite not being a theorist in the specific sense of the term (for more on this, see Welch, 2003 [paywall]). And even if Thucydides didn’t contribute notable frameworks of thought like Morgenthau or Kenneth Waltz, his history remains an interesting and rich Tolstoy-esque tour of the human condition. But considering its difficult-to-read nature, it should also be treated carefully to prevent sketchy divinations of contemporary IR. Without this careful treatment, as Welch (p. 316) describes, “it is trivially easy for anyone with any particular angle on international politics to find in it something that they can claim as evidence for their view.”

To have this delicate treatment of classics requires proper human resources, which not all institutions may be willing to provide. I concede that I do not have these skills. Coming from a commercially oriented university in a country where knowledge of the practical is more prized than knowledge of the esoteric, this is a hard sell. And coming from a country where the history of Ancient Greece is popularised primarily through mythology, dissecting Thucydides is a tough job to do, and even more so to impart his precious wisdom to students who have never had any prior contact with Ancient Greece. It seems then, we should put Thucydides back in the history department instead of the IR department.

There are still a lot of ways to teach IR even without relying on Thucydides. I always refer to Kenneth Waltz’s The Man, State, and War is a starting point. For a more Indonesian flavour on IR, I believe dissecting the works of Mohammad Hatta would be much more productive in generating localised knowledge. The point being, Thucydides should not be put on a pedestal as the magnum opus to read to understand IR. If the argument is that Thucydides provides us with a guide to understanding modern IR, I share Palmer’s sentiment that “conflicts between city-states in a backwater Eurasian promontory 2,400 years ago are an unreliable guide to modern geopolitics.”

If anything, Thucydides is just one paint stroke in the vast tapestry of international politics. An important stroke, but still a stroke among others.

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