IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hobbes on Thucydides

The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was a translator of Thucydides, the 5th century B.C. historian of the great war between Athens and Sparta that ended in Athen's defeat.  Hobbes’s declared affinity for the Greek historian of two millennia before is a notable link in the history of realism. Hobbes presents an artful defense of Thucydides, and well conveys the sheer relish with which the moderns still took to the ancient writers, of whom Hobbes deemed Mr. T. the best.  (1000 words) 

 [For the greatest part, men come] to the reading of history with an affection much like that of the people in Rome: who came to the spectacle of the gladiators with more delight to behold their blood, than their skill in fencing. For they be far more in number, that love to read of great armies, bloody battles, and many thousands slain at once, than that mind the art by which the affairs both of armies and cities be conducted to their ends. (p. 8)
[It is no marvel if Thucydides] meddled as little as he could in the business of the [Athenian] commonwealth; but gave himself rather to the observation and recording of what was done by those that had the managing thereof. . . . How he was disposed to a work of this nature, may be understood by this: that when being a young man he heard Herodotus the historiographer reciting his history in public, (for such was the fashion both of that, and many ages after) he felt so great a sting of emulation, that it drew tears from him. (14)
[No one can] justly doubt the truth of [Thucydides], in whom they had nothing at all to suspect of those things that could have caused him either voluntarily to lie, or ignorantly to deliver an untruth. He overtasked not himself by undertaking a history of things done long before his time, and of which he was not able to inform himself. He was a man that had as much means, in regard both of his dignity and wealth, to find the truth of what he related, as was needful for a man to have. He used as much diligence in search of the truth, (noting everything whilst it was fresh in memory, and laying out his wealth upon intelligence), as was possible for a man to use. He affected least of any man the acclamations of popular auditories, and wrote not his history to win present applause, as was the use of that age: but for a monument to instruct the ages to come. (17)
He was far from the necessity of servile writers, either to fear or flatter. And whereas he may peradventure be thought to have been malevolent towards his country, because they deserved to have him so; yet he has not written anything that discovereth such passion. Nor is there any thing written of them that tends to their dishonor as Athenians, but only as people; and that by the necessity of the narration, not by any sought digression. So that no word of his, but their own actions do sometimes reproach them. In sum, if the truth of a history did ever appear by the manner of relating, it does so in this history: so coherent, perspicuous and persuasive is the whole narration, and every part thereof. (17)
The grounds and motives of every action he sets down before the action itself, either narratively, or else contrives them into the form of deliberative orations in the persons of such as from time to time bare sway in the commonwealth. After the actions, when there is just occasion, he gives his judgment of them; showing by what means the success came either to be furthered or hindered. Digressions for instruction's cause, and other such open conveyances of precepts, (which is the philosopher's part), he never uses; as having so clearly set before men's eyes the ways and events of good and evil counsels, that the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept. (18)
Thucydides was criticized harshly by one writer for getting things backwards in his introductory exposition, putting first in his narrative “the public and avowed cause of the war,” and only later giving its “true and inward motive.” Hobbes found the allegation absurd:
For it is plain, that a cause of war divulged and avowed, how slight soever it be, comes within the task of the historiographer, no less than the war itself. For without a pretext, no war follows. This pretext is always an injury received, or pretended to be received. . . . In a word, the image of the method used by Thucydides in this point, is this: "The quarrel about Corcyra passed on this manner; and the quarrel about Potidæa on this manner": relating both at large, "and in both the Athenians were accused to have done the injury. Nevertheless, the Lacedæmonians had not upon this injury entered into a war against them, but that they envied the greatness of the power, and feared the consequence of their ambition.” I think a more clear and natural order cannot possibly be devised. (23-24)
It is written of Demosthenes, the famous orator, that he wrote over the history of Thucydides with his own hand eight times. So much was this work esteemed, even for the eloquence. But yet was this his eloquence not at all fit for the bar; but proper for history, and rather to be read than heard. For words that pass away (as in public orations they must) without pause, ought to be understood with ease, and are lost else: though words that remain in writing for the reader to meditate on, ought rather to be pithy and full. (26)
Lastly, hear the most true and proper commendation of him from Justus Lipsius, in his notes to his book De Doctrina Civili in these words: "Thucydides, who hath written not many nor very great matters, hath perhaps yet won the garland from all that have written of matters both many and great. Everywhere for elocution grave; short, and thick with sense; sound in his judgments; everywhere secretly instructing and directing a man's life and actions. In his orations and excursions, almost divine. Whom the oftener you read, the more you shall carry away; yet never be dismissed without appetite. (27)
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I have modernized some spelling, though not with much consistency. The extract is from Hobbes's Thucydides, Edited with an introduction by Richard Schlatter (Rutgers University Press, 1975). The first quote is from Hobbes's note to the readers, the remainder from his "Of the Life and History of Thucydides." Immediately below is the title page of the 1634 edition of Hobbes's translation (in the frontmatter of the Schlatter edition).