The challenge of democratic statecraft is a recurring subject matter in twentieth- and twenty-first century wartime expositions of Thucydides’ History. This article examines the readings of two American scholars with great public presence, Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson, showing how they reflect enduring anxieties about the promise and perils of liberal democracy in a hostile world. I engage in close analysis of their pre- and post-9/11 interpretations of Thucydides in order to ascertain their judgments about democracy. Kagan and Hanson both use the History to defend democracy, but in ways that are at odds with their implicit criticisms of democratic politics. We can make sense of this tension by appreciating the performative dimension of their readings of Thucydides. Beyond distilling Thucydides for a general audience, their readings enact a response to concerns about democratic weakness with an account of democratic virtues. Their hermeneutic strategies are thus implicated in rhetorical politics that may have deleterious, if unintended, consequences for the democracy they seek to defend. I conclude by illustrating how Kagan and Hanson are paradigmatic rather than idiosyncratic. Their democratic exceptionalism finds echoes in leftist interpretations of ancient Greece and post-Cold War empirical political science.1
The first published in2003is simply entitled The Peloponnesian War (London: Harper Perennial). The material for both works comes from Kagan’s four-volume account of the war whose writing spans the Cold War.
KaganThucydides p. 78pp. 85-6 pp. 120-21. Importantly Kagan The Peloponnesian War p. 113 p. 157 argues that ‘[e]ven the moderates felt the need to take the offensive’ and that the more daring policies in succeeding years ‘did not so much reflect a change in the alignment of generals but rather the fact that encouraged by their recent victories the majority of Athenians were now ready to pursue a more militant strategy’.
Kagan Thucydides p. 161; Kagan The Peace of Nicias p. 184. Nevertheless Kagan is not enamoured of Alcibiades. See Kagan The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1987) pp. 419-20 and Kagan The Peloponnesian War p. 447.
V.D. HansonWhy the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam (London: Faber & Faber2001) p. 21. In North America the book is entitled Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. Hanson’s argument is informed by an earlier monograph The Western Way of War (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1989).
HansonWhy the West Has Won p. 6. In this speech Brasidas exhorts his troops to maintain their courage in the face of an upcoming battle against what appears to be a formidable enemy. Hanson presents Brasidas as dismissing the actual strength of their foes the Illyrians and Arrhabaeus because these ‘savage opponents’ and barbarian tribes are ‘the product of cultures “in which the many do not rule the few but rather the few the many” (Thucydides 4.126)’. Brasidas however is speaking to the Spartans about themselves to assuage their fears about being outnumbered after being deserted by the Macedonians: ‘The bravery that you habitually display in war does not depend on your having allies at your side in this or that encounter but on your native courage; nor have numbers any terrors for citizens of states like yours in which the many do not rule the few but rather the few the many owing their position to nothing else than to superiority in the field’. Hanson wilfully misrepresents Brasidas (and Thucydides) as a mouthpiece for the ostensibly ancient wisdom that ‘connects military discipline fighting in rank and the preference for shock battle with the existence of popular and consensual government’.
KaganPericles of Athens p. 7. For more complicated portraits of Spartan politics and society than those found in Kagan and Hanson see N. Kennell Spartans: A New History (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell 2010) Chapter 6 and S. Hodkinson ‘Was Classical Sparta a Military Society?’ in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell (eds.) Sparta and War (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales 2006) pp. 111-62.
See A. Downes‘How Smart and Tough are Democracies? Reassessing Theories of Democratic Victory in War’International Security33 (2009) pp. 9-51 and D. Reiter A. Stam and A. Downes ‘Correspondence: Another Skirmish in the Battle over Democracies and War’ International Security 34 (2009) pp. 194-204. Downes disaggregates war outcomes into win lose or draw and war participants into initiators targets and joiners. The original empirical analysis only divided the data using the first two categories for each variable. Downes’ views overlap somewhat with John Keane’s arguments on the symbiotic relationship between war and democracy in J. Keane ‘Does Democracy Have a Violent Heart’ in D.M. Pritchard (ed.) War Democracy and Culture in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) pp. 378-408.