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Thucydides in Wartime: Reflecting on Democracy and its Discontents

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

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

Affiliations: 1: St. John’s College60 College Ave., Annapolis, MD


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