Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Comparison Between Thucydides and Machiavelli

Bust of Thucydides
Eric Voegelin ends his book Order and History (Volume 2): The World of the Polis with Chapter 12, “Power and History,” which has an interesting analysis of the political, ethical, and cultural aspects of Herodotus’s The Histories and Thucydides’s the History of the Peloponnesian War. He looks at the two historians as the originators of historical consciousness, and in his section on Thucydides, he draws a comparison between Thucydides and the Italian thinker Niccolò Machiavelli:
At this point we touch the limit of Thucydides’ achievement. It is worthwhile to compare his difficulty with the similar one of Machiavelli. Both thinkers were sensitive to the dilemma of power and morality, both were resigned to the necessity of criminal means for what they considered a desirable end. But Machiavelli was supremely conscious that the Prince could realize no more than external order, while genuine order had to be instilled into the community by a spiritual reformer. Thucydides, while moving on the same level of political action as Machiavelli, apparently had no conception of an alternative to his Periclean prince—for which he can hardly be blamed, since he did not have the experience of prototypical saviors which Machiavelli had. This absence of a spiritual reforming personality not only from the reality of Athens, but even from the imagination of a Thucydides, shows clearly that an age of political culture had irrevocably come to its end. The time of the polis was running out; a new epoch of order began with Socrates and Plato. 
Voegelin points out that the critical study of the war between Peloponnesians and Athenians, which we now know as the History of the Peloponnesian War, was inscribed by Thucydides simply as “Syngraphe,” a word that can best be translated by the slang “write-up”.

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