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  • Power and the People: Thucydides' History and the American Founding ed. by Charlotte C. S. Thomas
  • Andrew Burstein
Power and the People: Thucydides' History and the American Founding. Edited by Charlotte C. S. Thomas (Macon, Mercer University Press, 2019) 207 pp. $24.00

This is an odd, yet oddly fascinating volume. In most chapters, the American founders appear as an afterthought, and the select men who qualify as founders reveal little about Thucydides' influence on their political philosophies. Karl Walling engages the metaphor of medicine, comparing the method of Thucydides to that of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, who can be regarded as "political pathologists, students of political disease" (31, 33). Devin Stauffer launches "a brief surgical strike" upon one of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist numbers. Yet even he otherwise lumps the designated founders together as men of "gravity, humanity, and sobriety"—like the celebrated Greek historian (153). Added references to the much later French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville further signifies the limited number of authorities from whom the ten contributors could draw.

Setting aside a crucial fact that all historians are obliged to consider—that America's founders schemed, prevaricated, and conducted politics with complex motives that changed over post-Revolutionary decades—and noting that The Federalist itself is a snapshot of a moment in time, designed to influence a couple of state ratifying conventions while having no appreciable effect on the outcome of those conventions, this collection by close students of Thucydides is nonetheless intellectually rich and consistently readable. The assembled scholars re-encounter the ancient Greek historian amid suspicions about human impulses and descriptions of social mores that serve to bring out the real and rhetorical character of the American republic.

Among the more provocative essays is Steven Forde's "The Virtues and Vices of Individualism." Forde's argument cleverly contrasts Athenian individualism with anti-individualistic Sparta, presenting these traits as analogues to the conflicted nature of modern Americans' self-regard. A national predisposition, like that of the ancient Athenians, is revealed in [End Page 610] sociability more than in laws, and the power and dynamism seen in an aggressive foreign policy could be linked to what Pericles saw in "innovative" appetites and an "unconstrained way of life" (70). Athenians suffered from an illusory form of patriotism or "self-deception," which allowed them to see empire as something "noble." They "abhorred tyranny. . . . Yet they tyrannized others" (76). Spartans were, in individual terms, a duller breed, but their policies in favor of restraint dictated that everyone "sacrifice for the common good." Drawing near his conclusion, Forde states, "The American Founders were more likely to regard Greek history in general as a model cautionary tale than an object of imitation" (79). Then he writes, "Athenians led their citizens down paths that benefited private individuals at the expense of the public" (81). The moral is irresistible.

Bernard J. Dobski studies the separation of powers principle by way of differences in the oligarchic and democratic experiences. In a Greek-inflected understanding, the ideal of political moderation requires a side-by-side examination of two concepts, metrios and sophrosune. The first is "proportionate" or "reasonable"; the second is "soundness of mind" or "civilizing restraint" (136–137). What is measured conduct and where does cold self-interest lie, and how are they to be fairly evaluated? By breaking down metrios and sophrosune, components of political ethics too easily conflated, Dobski makes cogent distinctions. He extends the analysis, as others in this volume do, to the irresistibility of power in any political system: "Thucydides shows us that measuredness means coming to grips with the real and insistent moral demands that we make on others and the world when we try to make evident to others our superior worthiness to rule (151)."

The final two chapters are worthwhile ruminations, the first by Sarah E. Gardner on the Confederate officer and Princeton-educated philologist Basil Gildersleeve and the second, kinetically composed by Laurie M. Johnson, "Why Our Democracy Needs Thucydides Now More Than Ever." The Civil War may be out of place in this volume, but Gardner puts Hellenism precisely where it belongs. Johnson, for her part, takes the Greek word stasis...


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