Thucydides: origins of realism?
Edinburgh University Press
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Under indefinite embargo due to publisher policy.
It is a well-established idea in mainstream International Relations theory that the ancient Greek historian Thucydides was a Realist, and the originator of some key Realist ideas. The crude version of this claim, relying on a simplistic reading of the Melian Dialogue as a straightforward statement of Thucydides’ views, is easily refuted, but more sophisticated accounts have been put forward – and belief in a close connection between Thucydides and the real world long pre-dates 20th-century political theory. Interpretations of Thucydides as a Realist take many different forms, depending on how his work is read and in what contexts: we can identify an empirical realism, as has been claimed by generations of historians who take him as model for constructing accounts of the past firmly grounded in critical source analysis; realism as a sensibility, shown by his willingness to observe unflinchingly the harsh truths of the world and of human affairs; and, finally and most controversially, a theoretical or doctrinal realism, that argues for the possibility of learning useful lessons from the past, and develops ideas about the workings of inter- and intra-state relations. All these aspects can be supported from plausible readings of his work; however, contrary to conventional political science interpretations, Thucydides’ realism does not offer invariable laws or consistent principles of human behaviour, but instead seeks to educate his readers in understanding complexity and uncertainty.
In: The Edinburgh Companion to Political Realism, edited by M. Hollingsworth and R. Schuett
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