Posted by: captainfalcon | June 2, 2010

Geuss on the Thucydidean Worldview

Chris was curious about Raymond Geuss’s essay on Thucydides and Nietzsche (“Thucydides, Nietzsche and Williams” – so I guess it’s also about Williams). Here’s a series of excerpts constituting what I think is its core.

Nietzsche found Thucydides more illuminating about human life than Plato for two reasons. First, he held that Thucydides had an unprejudiced theoretical sympathy for, and hence understanding of, a much wider spectrum of possible human motivations than Plato had…. Socrates, however, ‘dragged moralizing into science,’ and Plato followed in his wake….The antecedent moralization of the basic categories in Plato’s theory of human psychology vitiates his own positive ethical proposals. If he really has merely smuggled a set of tacit moral assumptions into his basic psychology, then it is not surprising that he can victoriously draw them out again as conclusions.

Nietzsche’s second reason for preferring Thucydides concerns the issue of optimism or pessimism as the appropriate human attitude toward the world. Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the philosophical tradition as deeply optimistic. This optimism [asserts that] the world is set up so that for us to accumulate knowledge and use our reason as vigorously as possible will be good for us, and will contribute to making us happy. [I]t was assumed that there was a natural fit between the exercise of reason, the conditions of healthy individual human development, the demands of individuals for the satisfaction of their needs, interests and basic desires, and human sociability. Nature, reason, and all human goods, including human virtues, formed a potentially harmonious whole.

Over the last two thousand years…there have been any number of minor reinterpretations of and deviations from the above scheme, but the basic structure of a philosophy centered around the claim of a harmonious fit between what is rational, what is good for us, and what is good for our society has been very widely retained.

Thucydides seems largely immune to any of the forms of wishful thinking associated with Platonic optimism. He knows that good men suffer undeserved, irremediable, definitive catastrophic failure; unworthy men reap the benefit of others’ achievements; men exhibit preeminent virtue in some contexts and fall into decadence in others; there is no preexisting “meaning” in the world, only what we humans can construct by our weak powers and flawed efforts. Human rationality is real, but its motivation power is extremely weak, particularly in the face of human hopes, loves, desires, and fears, and the success of even the most well-founded and rational plan is at the mercy of external chance.

[Nietzsche] calls the attitude exhibited by…Thucydides the high point of scientific mindedness…careful, methodical attention to the real facts of the situation being investigated. [This], however, does not necessarily imply commitment to the ideals of positivism to the extent to which these represent a code of restrictive practice. This negative canon would have it that a ‘scientific’ account must restrict itself to a purportedly value-free registering of observable facts, to the formulation of generalizations that have their full meaning by virtue of being connected to sets of observable facts, and to the use of conjunctions of fact and generalization for the purposes of causal explanation and prediction…Thucydides’ way of approaching his subject is like that advocated by the positivists in that his treatment is radically nonmythic, nontheological, and nonliterary…His project is to exhibit what really moves people to act, and what then happens to them and others as a consequence of how they act…

Thucydides account differs, however, from anything that positivists of the stricter observance would countenance in taking human beliefs, attitudes, emotions, valuations, even superstitions very seriously indeed as things that need to be considered if one wishes to have a genuine understanding of what happens in the human world. [Additionally] he is in no way reluctant to express value judgments of his own when it suits him…Thucydides’ final value judgments may be unconventional and hidden so deeply in his harsh and obscure prose as to require sustained attention and effort to comprehend them, but they are not, finally, slippery and ambiguous [unlike the judgments of the rhetoricians who overtook him].

If Geuss is to be believed, the Thucydidean outlook on life differs from the Platonic outlook in that, unlike the Platonic outlook, it has (a) no presumption against the widespread prevalence of unsavory motivations, (b) no presumption that a life of knowledge and virtue is a good life, (c) no presumption that a life that promotes social harmony is a good life and (d) no presumption that one can only know contingent propositions that are testable.

Geuss also thinks that most political philosophers (and, I’d hazard, people generally) share the Platonic outlook. Chris asked for evidence. I fumbled a bit, but here are a few examples (corresponding to the negations of (a)-(d)).

1. What we take as evidence of good character. We regard those who don’t steal as more upstanding than those who do; those who cooperate as more upstanding than those who are stand-offish and surly; those who do not cheat as more upstanding than those who do, etc. But these behaviors – respect of property, cooperativeness, honesty – are evidence of the traits that share the same name (interesting that equivalence between the behavior and the upstanding traits we suppose produce it) only if we have a standing presumption against the prevalence of unsavory motives (a presumption that has to be defeated e.g. by “unsavory actions”). After all, all those behaviors are compatible with motives that are as unsavory as those productive of theft, dishonesty and surliness. (One might be motivated to cooperate just so that one can condemn those who don’t, etc.)

2. A kind of campy example, but it is emphasized that the founders (the most successful Americans) were men of deep learning and great virtue (Washington and the cherry tree). In fact, their learning was spotty and tendentious (John Adams thought Plato was a republican), and they had their share of vices (Washington was ill-tempered). More generally, curricula aim to teach the truth and inculcate interest in questions it is ethical to ask (e.g. what is an effective means for the rich to remain in political power is not something we’re primed to consider), but they also purport to be good for their students (i.e. to improve their chances of flourishing). This presupposes a connection between the pursuit of knowledge, virtue and the good life.

3. The aim of most political philosophy – like the aim of policy justification, generally – is to give reasons why a political, social or economic system (or policy) is (i) acceptable to all (ii) because it makes individual lives go better. I hypothesis that most who work within a particular PSE system do so because they think it satisfies (i) and (ii). (Whether I’m right is an empirical question.) But (i) and (ii) presupposes that the promotion of social harmony (that which is promoted by PSE systems) amounts to leading a good life. For, if it is not, then surely (i) – with its universal scope – is false. Thus, much political philosophy is only plausible to those in the grips of the Platonic worldview, and much social, political and economic life proceeds untroubled only because it is inchoately assumed that Platonic political philosophy succeeds.

4. The fact that all empirical disciplines emulate (however imperfectly) the hard sciences is proof that testability is the…test of a well-formed, knowable, hypothesis.



  1. […] hosts of anti-Zionists do with respect to Israel).  This dissonance seems to me to stem from what Geuss might call a Platonic worldview: that the ideal system of selecting governments harmonizes […]

  2. […] that only makes sense against the totally unsupported epistemic and psychological assumptions that Thucydides rejects. Recall that the Thucydidean worldview is characterized by, inter alia, “(a) no presumption […]

  3. […] This all confirms, in my view, the illiberal notion (advanced by Geuss in, particularly, “Thucydides, Nietzsche and Williams,” “Liberalism and its Discontents,” and various essays in Politics and the […]

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