The Price of Power: Honor and Self-Interest in Thucydidean Realism

by Seth Delong

For the wretched embellishment of the Greeks into an ideal, which the "classically educated" youth carries into life as a prize for his classroom drill, there is no more complete cure than Thucydides. One must follow him line by line and read no less clearly between the lines: there are few thinkers who say so much between the lines.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Thucydides has often been described as the father of the realist theory of international relations. His reputation as such emanates from the classic postulates and lessons of interstate behavior that abound in his chronicle of the Peloponnesian war, fought between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 B.C. Although there are many different types of political realism, its most general tenets may be summarized as follows: (i) The international system is composed of separate, independent states all competing for power while maintaining their autonomy. (ii) The nature of the international system is anarchical. Based on this principle, realists have claimed that states are motivated by the self-help principle because each state is responsible for its own security in the nation-system. Hence a security dilemma arises because states are driven to acquire more and more power to escape the power of others. (iii) States will, therefore, always act according to what they perceive to be in their own self-interest. In this context, interest is defined in terms of power and power is defined as anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man.

Although Thucydides may be correctly described as the father of these basic realist laws, they constitute only one part of the Thucydidean realist paradigm. The three classic laws by themselves represent what may be called the philosophy of power. This part symbolizes the physical self-interest of the state; it is a kind of interest that denotes the state's physical security. The other part of Thucydides's realism may be termed the moral self-interest, which represents the philosophy of restraint. This kind of interest entails the rules of restraint which stem primarily from the concept of honor. Thucydides's aristocratic conception of honor (aidos) and its implied notion of restraint in individual and state behavior is central to the kind of realism set forth in The History. The self-perception of a country as an honorable state is intertwined with the value that particular state attaches to its heritage, ideals, and institutions through which those ideals are put into practice. Also, the honor of a state operates at the international level, insofar as the state is able to adjust its particular ideals to the limits imposed upon it by the universality of the nation-state system. When it fails to adapt its ideals to the limits imposed upon it by the other actors in this system, then it cannot be regarded as an honorable state. Thucydidean realism combines these two different types of self-interest virtually into an amalgam of the philosophy of power and the philosophy of restraint. By demonstrating how the philosophy of restraint is an essential component of Thucydidean realism, I hope to dispel the misconception of considering realism to be a fundamentally amoral - if not immoral - theory of state behavior that lacks any normative aspects whatsoever. Simply put, the philosophy of power proves self-defeating, unless the moral self-interest defined in terms of honor is also an intrinsic part of the conduct of international relations.

To demonstrate how honor fits into Thucydides's realism it is necessary to examine the meaning of honor in classical Greek thought. Donald Kagan defined the Hellenic notion of aidos as "a quality which combines reverence for the gods, modesty before men, and respect for propriety."1 This is a good starting point, for the definition weds the Homeric conception of themis as a religious concept, that specifies human subordination to the gods, and the post Homeric idea of dike, that qualifies the sense of justice that sustains the polis as a well-ordered community. These virtues, as components of honor, convey the need for piety and respect for communal norms. However, aidos also intimated the notion of adhering to institutional roles and the imperative to restrain one's behavior according to whatever role one fulfilled within society. For the ancient Greeks honor was a concept that first and foremost connoted the sense of unity that permeated the community. It was the recognition of the stratification of relationships in society by which individuals were related to and separated from one another. This type of honor has a tripartite function in the ordering of individuals and city-states within their respective communities. First, it establishes one's role in society; secondly, it sets limits on behavior according to that institutional role; and above all, it imparts to the individual citizen or city-state the requisite obligations, duties, and general responsibilities in proportion to each one's functional role. To be an honorable man meant to know and abide by your role in society and subsequently fulfill your obligations, perform your duties, and restrict your behavior according to that role.

Honor had everything to do with the Greek conception of virtue, of arete, as that general characteristic of excellence by which an individual fulfills himself, yet always in relation to his community. In this sense, honor may be considered the oil of the community; it permeates the working parts and helps them perform their situated roles. Ancient Greeks tied "the concept of aidos [with] an implicit recognition of the ways in which the honour of the self is inextricably bound up with that of others."2 This communitarian meaning of the relational qualities of aidos was "a code which integrates self-regarding and other-regarding, competitive and cooperative standards into a remarkably unified whole."3 The Greeks high esteem for honor codified the ways in which individual interests become compatible with collective interests. It is this method of the institutional amalgamation of disparate individual perspectives that makes honor a predominantly empathetic concept. Upholding the honor of the citizen implied seeing oneself from the viewpoint of someone else. Honorable behavior would thus delineate the individual's unique role in society, while concomitantly preserving the integrity of the community as a whole. The sociologist Peter Berger defined this now extinct aristocratic idea of honor as that which "dictates certain standards of behavior in dealing with inferiors, but the full code of honor only applies among those who share the same status in the hierarchy. In a hierarchically ordered society the etiquette of everyday life consists of ongoing transactions of honor, and different groups relate differently to this process according to the principle of to each his due. . . everyone within the community exists within the same all-embracing system of honor. Those who have a high status in the community have particular obligations of honor, but even the lowly are differentiated in terms of honor and dishonor."4

The sole greatest enemy of honor is an unmitigated lust for power. The effect of the abdication of honor by the unrestrained will to power is the annihilation of those social bonds, which the operation of honor as a political force sustains. When such cohesive values dissipate and the bonds fall apart, there no longer remains a sense of communal or familial allegiance; institutional roles cannot inherently limit individual behavior anymore. Thus Thucydides observed in regard to the civil war in Corcyra how "family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever."5 Since this was the case "There were fathers who killed their sons" and "new extravagances of revolutionary zeal expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard of atrocities."6

Thucydides's insistence on the importance of honor in individual and interstate behavior derived from the nefarious effects he witnessed when the will to power is unleashed in the absence of all restraints. While the will to power may be an innate aspect of individual and national psychology it tends to have a self-checking component, such as the restraints on behavior imposed by conventional norms. The most notable aspect of the civil war in Corcyra is precisely the absence of such a self-checking device. What happened at Corcyra is the story of what happens when all prudence and all limitations are removed from the conduct of human affairs. Corcyra was Hobbes's worst nightmare of a war of all against all. As Corcyra was a microcosmic expression of the totality of human nature laid bare, one may infer that the events of Corcyra are analogous to the nature of the nation-state system, which Thucydides considered to be a community of states like a city is a community of individuals.

Thucydides demonstrated through his commentary on the events of the Corcyran civil war what human nature (physis) is capable of in the absence of any conventional moral maxims (nomos). As he put it "In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do."7 In this situation all aspects of human discourse and social interaction become obsolete and meaningless if they are not conducive to the will to power. Even the old language of the time when honor was extant must be perverted if it is to serve the needs of power seekers. If "Language is the house of Being" as Heidegger claimed, then language must be made to fit whatever Being it is that people aspire to realize."8 In a hauntingly Orwellian observation Thucydides noted how "To fit in with the change of events words too had to change their meanings. What used to be described as thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member."9

The point of Thucydides observations on the civil war in Corcyra is that the quest for power without regard to some externally imposed code of restraint, a sense of restraint dictated by honor, is an entirely self-defeating enterprise. This code of conduct that relates persons to each other in a communal setting, where institutional roles moderate behavior, dissipated into unabashed hubris. In a scathing indictment of man's demise by his insatiable thirst for power he candidly notes: "Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. . . Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment."10 As a result of these times in which the will to power was allowed unbridled reign over the actions of individuals and states "there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, war regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist."11 At this point honor, virtue (arete), and all the noble ideals of Athenian democracy evaporated from firm social institutions into thin air. This is exactly what happened and it was this loss Thucydides lamented more than anything else. As one scholar asserted, "The humane side of Thucydides is centered primarily around his notion of an ethical community as a high human achievement, and he deplores the outcome of Athenian realism as a destruction of this achievement."12

The dissolution of honor was reflected both on the individual and interstate levels. Early in The History, in the first book, the Athenian envoys to Sparta describe why the Athenians sought to maintain their hegemony, even though the Persians had ceased to pose any foreseeable threat to the Greek city-states. The envoys state on behalf of the Athenians that they would not appease Sparta by dismantling the empire since "security, honor and self-interest" prevented them from doing so.13 They still considered their empire to be honorable because they treated their colonies as a stern, albeit protective father would treat his sons. Though unnecessary, their paternalistic treatment was allegedly honorable and humane, since Athens was so powerful that it could easily rule with an iron fist instead. But it did not and this is precisely what spurs the envoys to declare "we are worthy of our power."14 They go on to boast:

"Those who really deserve praise are the people who, while human enough to enjoy power, nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do by their situation. . . No one bothers to inquire why this reproach is not made against other imperial Powers, who treat their subjects much more harshly than we do; the fact being, of course, that where force can be used there is no need to bring in the law."15

What is so significant about this passage is that the Athenians obviously prided themselves on their sense of honor and the imperial consequent of that sense, namely, treating the colonies more humanely and justly than they had to. Later, however, as the ominous eclipse of raw power covers the sun of the once noble empire, the Athenians completely change their motives for maintaining their imperial position. In contrast to the motives of the Athenians at Sparta the Athenian representatives at Melos openly and unflinchingly asserted that justice and honor have absolutely no place in the calculus of a foreign policy.16 Power became so glorified as an end in itself that the Athenians could declare to the Melians

"the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the

strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept

what they have to accept. You

seem to forget that if one follows one's self-interest one wants to be safe, whereas

the path of justice and honour involves one in danger. Do not be led astray by a false

sense of honour - a thing which often brings men to ruin..."17

How strikingly different from the Athenian assertion of their honour and "worthiness" as a noble empire just seventeen years ago at Sparta!

From what source did this unabashed love of power spring? Without getting too much into human psychology, it is worth examining that quality of daring that Athenians exemplified in their propensity to look beyond the traditional limits of human action. This daring quality which came to be the penultimate trait of Athens' unrestrained realist foreign policy was the greatest mark of the Athenian character following the Persian wars and extending into the Peloponnesian war.18 In this context daring signifies a disregard of human limits. The limits of humanity are drawn for the individual by the pressures of other individuals and for the state by the presence of other states in the international community. A man's proper place in the world certainly has a worldly imprint on it. The pursuits of others that compete with ours and our priorities during such confrontations significantly dermines how restrained our quest for power will be.

When the Athenians abandoned their city in order to fight the Persians on the high seas they left in Athens not only the tangible religious aspects of the city, such as the temples and altars where sacrifices to the gods were made, but also their sense of humility. Perhaps they had to leave humility behind to do the unprecedented. For a people who "claimed to have sprung from their own soil and to have lived in the same place since before the birth of the moon" this abandonment could only be considered unparalleled and even sublime in its implications.19 They astonished the other Greeks by showing that they would rather abandon their homeland than live there under the subjection of a foreign power. This was indeed a radical event considering the fact that one's allegiance to his city, which included the tangible aspects of the city, was for the rest of the Greeks wrapped up in the very character of selfhood. The Athenians fled their city with nothing but their own fortitude to fight the invading Persians and in doing so committed their first egregious act of defiance against "the accepted code of international Greek morality as it had existed from before the Persian Wars."20

The city, with all of its history and religious ties, represented for the Greeks what in our time is represented by patriotism.21 When the Athenians abandoned their city to the Persians they simultaneously abandoned a sense of groundedness, of adherence to traditional norms and customs. In a word, they abandoned their honor. Indeed "one might say that what the Athenians discovered as a body of their ships is the enormous potential of purely human power - that is, human power standing on its own and bereft of its traditional supports, terrestrial or otherwise."22 It should be no wonder therefore that "From the point of view of the other Greek cities, the unexampled zeal exhibited by Athens in the Persian wars would thus have not only an admirable, but a terrible or shocking quality as well. The astonishing deed of the Athenians, . . . seems also to bear a certain tincture of impiety."23 A few decades later the Athenians illustrated the human tragedy that man has the ostentatious ability to forget his limits while not possessing the means to overcome them.

In a pious community that maintains a sense of civility and traditional norms the evils which Thucydides described presumably may still occur but in a much less egregious manner. For unlike the will to power which is the spirit of unrestrained imperialist ambition honor prescribes a code of obligations and duties, a code of reciprocal conduct between persons, a code that has at its core the value of restraint. A person or nation may choose to engage his will to power in the absence of all limits but not without abdicating his honor at the same time. In the absence of honor the will to power, as the mark of unconditional ambition, exalts in its own sublimation regardless of any restraints. Such ideology must perish in spite of itself due to those restraints it so dogmatically refuses to recognize. Tragically the Athenians would neither be the first nor the last to realize that increased power increases oneís insecurity, which ultimately points to "the tendency of power to destroy its very raison d'être."24

Somewhere between the naive idealism of the Melians and the staunch ideology of power as expressed by such demagogues as Cleon and Alcibiades lay a golden mean which is what Thucydides was getting at. This mean may be Thucydides's subtle idea that the importance of adhering to military necessity for the physical self-interest of the state need not prohibit the exercise of morality when morality is viewed as the offspring of prudence, a prudence that stems from the maintenance of honor. Honor offers the statesman the hope of a contingent morality, a morality that ought to be practiced when possible. In other words, military necessity need not necessitate the apotheosis of power as an end in itself. Indeed one may assert that honor and its ameliorating effect of restraint on the behavior of nation-states is a necessary component to a true realist foreign policy. For obviously it is not in the state's best interest to procure power for the sake of power alone and thereby overextend its influence abroad and bankrupt the value of its institutions at home. When power is extended this far the state destroys its own sense of security. As Reinhold Niebuhr observed, "[p]ower, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power."25 When a state does not recognize honor and its consequent philosophy of restraint, its strategies are short-sighted because they presume their particular quest for power to be universally unbounded. Athens reached this point at the moment the demos wholeheartedly capitulated to Alcibiades over and against the moderating influence of Nicias before the catastrophic Sicilian expedition, its limitless quest for absolute power limits its quest absolutely. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before Athens choked on the consumption of its imperial gluttony. This is the tragic predicament of the individual or state that is simply incapable of seeing or abiding by any limits on behavior.

The significance of a supranational sense of honor in discussing the inclusion of morality in the realist paradigm is that the maintenance of this code works to save realism from itself, from its otherwise amoral behavior as dictated by the will to power. To the end of integrating honor into the realist paradigm Thucydides forcefully reminded us of the dangers of liberating ourselves from the restraining influence of honor which is responsible for establishing among nations the sense that they are not unencumbered selves in a Hobbesian state free to do whatever they wish in the absence of any norms. When nations recognize their place in the international arena they are consequently able to erect general conventions capable of moderating their behavior.

What emerges from the implosion of the Athenian empire is the lesson that a genuine realist paradigm must include the moral self-interest, a notion derived from honor, just as much as physical self-interest. Working together, these two types of interest are fully able to recognize and adapt to the necessities of power politics while concomitantly retaining honor and prudence, which saves the state from a total capitulation to the hubristic pitfalls of unlimited self-aggrandizement. What today's theorists of international relations need to take into account in any discussion of the virtues and vices of realism is the Thucydidean amalgam of moral and physical self-interest and the role honor plays in creating a balance between the two; then, "realist prudence would bow to those realist necessities of international politics that are genuinely unavoidable, while attempting to moderate the impulse to carry realism to its limit."26 What seems to emerge from Thucydides is a portrait not just of realism as a paradigm for international relations, but a vivid description of the innate faults of such a paradigm if it is carried to its extreme in the absence of restraint.

Who knows? Was Falstaff right when he shrewdly observed "What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air?" Is honor only a predicate of air while air is the predicate of nothing? Perhaps. But against such cynicism perhaps the truth Thucydides taught us was that an "honorable empire," while a rhetorically sweet idea, is a contradiction in terms.


I must emphasize that aidos is not the only Greek word used to denote honor. Aidos is the most suitable word for the meaning of honor I am describing here, namely the aristocratic notion of honor as a function of status, a status susceptible to suffering shame before others if one fails to execute the duties and obligations requisite to one's role in society. Simply put, aidos means honor in terms of restraint. Other

words which convey different meanings of honor include time (the honor or prestige that is held among one's peers) and andragathos (manly virtue, bravery in war). For an elaboration on this translation of aidos see W.D. Furley. Phaidra's pleasurable aidos. The Classical Quarterly,

Jan-June 1996.

1. Kagan, Donald. The Great Dialogue: The History of Greek Political Thought. 1965. pg. 41.

2.Cairns, Douglas L. Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. 1993. pg. 13.

3. Ibid. pg. 14.

4. Sandel, Michael (edited). Liberalism and its Critics. 1984. pg. 151 (my italics)

5. (3.82)

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. revised and expanded ed. Edited by Krell, David. "Letter on Humanism" pg. 213.

9. (3.82)

10. Ibid.

11. (3.83)

12. Forde, Steven. International Realism and the Science of Politics: Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Neorealism. International Studies Quarterly, June 1995. pg. 154.

13. (1.76)

14. Ibid.

15. (1.77)

16. Towards the end of the war the Athenians proposed to the inhabitants the island of Melos that they accept their role as a subject colony else they would be destroyed. The Melians appealed to the gods and abstract notions of justice and honor in order to protect themselves against the might of the Athenians. After the Melians finally declared they would not voluntarily succumb to Athenians domination the Athenians promptly killed the male citizens and sold the women and children into slavery.

17. (5.89, 5.107, 5.111)

18. Steven Forde has written much on this unique trait of the Athenian character in contradistinction to the character of the rest of the Greeks. "Daring in fact is reserved almost exclusively in Thucydides for descriptions of Athenian acts and the Athenian character - it is practically a technical term. The primary effect of Athenian daring seems to be the empire. Indeed, if we reflect on the difference between courage and daring as suggested by the remarks of Pericles or the Corinthians, we see that daring is adventurous and expansive, willing to go where courage will not; it is a specifically imperial or imperialistic quality. Athenian daring and Athenian imperialism seem so closely related in fact that we are led to wonder whether they are not coeval." See The Ambition to Rule. pgs. 18, 19.

19. Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. 1995. pg. 24.

20. Grene, David. Greek Political Theory: The Image of Man in Thucydides and Plato. University of Chicago. 1950. pg. 43.

21. David Grene has argued that the Athenians first lost their bond to traditionally accepted norms (and therefore honor) after the reforms of Cleisthenes, the main reform having been the abolishment of the tribal brotherhoods in 510. This abolishment of the "blood brotherhoods as the significant unit in political association" had the positive effect of establishing the ground for democracy while also having the negative effect of totally eliminating the traditional grounds of Attic society which thereby made this advent brought on by Cleisthenes an unprecedented one. See Grene, David. Ibid. pgs. 35 & 36.

22. Forde, Steven. "Thucydides on the Causes of Athenian Imperialism." American Political Science Review, Vol. 80 No. 2 June, 1986. pg. 437.

23. Forde, Steven. Ibid. 436, 437.

24. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. Touchstone Edition. 1995. pg. 11

25. Ibid. pg. 43

26. Forde, Steven. International Realism. pg. 155.

Seth DeLong is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Virginia.