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Opposing the tendency to read Thucydides as a strong realist, committed to a theory of behaviour that assumes rationality as expected utility maximization, Ned Lebow and Clifford Orwin (among others) emphasize Thucydides’ attentiveness to deviations from rationality by individuals and states. This paper argues that Thucydides grasped the principles underlying contemporary prospect theory, which explains why people over-weight small probabilities and under-weight near certain ones. Thucydides offers salient examples of excessive risk-aversion in the face of probable gains and excessive risk-seeking by decision-makers faced with high probability losses. Thucydides suggests that in a democracy, leaders’ rhetoric can limit or exacerbate the political effects of bias in risk assessment.

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References

  • 3

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 10-11.

  • 7

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides p. 202.

  • 8

    Summed up and refined in D. KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux2011).

  • 9

    R.N. Lebow‘Thucydides the Constructivist’American Political Science Review95 (2001) pp. 547-60.

  • 10

    Lebow‘Thucydides the Constructivist’ p. 557; J.S. Levy ‘An Introduction to Prospect Theory’ Political Psychology 13 (1992): pp. 171-86; J.S. Levy ‘Loss Aversion Framing and Bargaining: The Implications of Prospect Theory for International Conflict’ International Political Science Review 17 (1996) pp. 179-95; A. Tversky and D. Kahneman ‘Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty’ Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 5 (1992) pp. 297-323.

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  • 11

    KahnemamThinking Fast and Slow p. 300.

  • 12

    KahnemamThinking Fast and Slow pp. 269-70; R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health Wealth and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press 2008).

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  • 14

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow pp. 310-21.

  • 16

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides p. 204.

  • 18

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 110 113-7.

  • 19

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides p. 116.

  • 21

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow pp. 310-21.

  • 22

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow pp. 318-9.

  • 23

    Cf. OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 97-8.

  • 24

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow p. 320.

  • 25

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow p. 315.

  • 27

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 111 118; Desmond ‘Lessons of Fear’ p. 366. L. Edmunds Chance and Intelligence in Thucydides (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press 1975) p. 186.

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  • 29

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow p. 317.

  • 30

    Cf. OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 118-9.

  • 33

    M.H. HansenThe Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure Principles and Ideology (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press1999) pp. 205-218.

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  • 35

    We differ with OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides pp. 32-37 and Appendix 2 in how to interpret the key phrase. Orwin translates prophasis as ‘allegation’ but we do not understand how something can be at once ‘alleged’ and yet ‘least expressed’ (aphanestatên logôi); it seems to us that an allegation is by definition expressed rather than hidden whereas causes including the truest are sometimes most obscure. Moreover at 1.88.1 (with Orwin p. 42) Thucydides in propria persona says that Spartan fear of Athens was their actual (not just declared) motive for declaring war.

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  • 36

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow pp. 320-21.

  • 39

    OrwinThe Humanity of Thucydides p. 28.

  • 40

    EdmundsChance and Intelligence pp. 7-22 205-214; Desmond ‘Lessons of Fear’ pp. 371-3. We cannot discuss Edmunds’ comprehensive study on chance and planning in this paper though it is important to note that Edmunds concludes that Thucydides though close to Pericles ultimately thought that chance can be overcome by rational planning only with the hindsight of a historian. Whether or not it is possible for a statesman or historian to completely eliminate the influence of chance the main point remains: Thucydides thought it worthwhile for statesmen and leaders to invest in strategic planning in order to overcome uncertainties and Pericles is Thucydides’ prime example of the benefits of this effort.

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  • 42

    KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow pp. 345-46.

  • 43

    On tragic realists see R.N. LebowThe Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics Interests and Orders (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press2003).

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