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Silence and Democracy

Athenian Politics in Thucydides’ History

John G. Zumbrunnen


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Silence and Democracy

Athenian Politics in Thucydides’ History

John G. Zumbrunnen

“John Zumbrunnen’s book offers an inventive and provocative analysis not only of Thucydides’ History but also of the political issues such as democracy, empire, and realism that continue to engage scholars and policy makers alike.”


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The role of elites vis-à-vis the mass public in the construction and successful functioning of democracy has long been of central interest to political theorists. In Silence and Democracy, John Zumbrunnen explores this theme in Thucydides’ famous history of the Peloponnesian War as a way of focusing our thoughts about this relationship in our own modern democracy.

In Periclean Athens, according to Thucydides, “what was in name a democracy became in actuality rule by the first man.” This political transformation of Athenian political life raises the question of how to interpret the silence of the demos. Zumbrunnen distinguishes the “silence of contending voices” from the “collective silence of the demos,” and finds the latter the more difficult and intriguing problem. It is in the complex interplay of silence, speech, and action that Zumbrunnen teases out the meaning of democracy for Thucydides in both its domestic and international dimensions and shows how we may benefit from the Thucydidean text in thinking about the ways in which the silence of ordinary citizens can enable the domineering machinations of political elites in America and elsewhere today.

“John Zumbrunnen’s book offers an inventive and provocative analysis not only of Thucydides’ History but also of the political issues such as democracy, empire, and realism that continue to engage scholars and policy makers alike.”
“In Silence and Democracy, John G. Zumbrunnen moves beyond the traditional approaches to silence in political studies. . . . Zumbrunnen's contribution would be appreciated by democratic theorists, as well as by scholars of ancient political thought. His reading of silence as presence challenges the hegemony of perspectives that have rendered silence absent from politics and political theory, and his rereading of Thucydides provides fresh insight into democratic politics in ancient Greece.”

John G. Zumbrunnen is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.




1. Athenian Stasis and the Quiet of the Mob

2. The Silence of Hoi Athenaioi: Two Modes of Athenian Action in the History

3. Deliberative Action and Athenian “Character”

4. The Silence of the Demos and the Challenges of Political Judgment: On the “Decline” of Athenian Politics

5. Justice and Empire: Athenian Silence and the Representation of Athens Abroad

6. Athenian Silence and the Fate of Plataea

Conclusion: Thucydides for Democrats?




I. The Silence of the Demos and the Meaning of Democracy

Reflecting on the life and career of the great Athenian politician Pericles, Thucydides tells us that during his ascendancy in Athens, “what was in name a democracy [log men dmokratia] became in actuality rule by the first man [tou trpou andros arch]” (2.65). How ought we to understand the political transformation suggested here? As his accounts of stasis, especially at Corcyra and Athens, make clear, moments of revolutionary political change hold considerable interest for Thucydides. But those moments as they appear in the History involve attempts to change the form of government or, more precisely, attempts to bring about institutional changes that warrant an accompanying change in name. At both Corcyra and Athens, the revolutionaries thus move more or less openly to replace democracy with oligarchy. By comparison, the transformation of Athenian politics under Pericles appears considerably more subtle, one might even say insidious. Here the institutional structure of the city’s politics remains the same. The people still hold ultimate political power, exercised most visibly by making decisions in the assembly about what the city will do. Athens remains a democracy not only in name but also in its institutional form. Somehow, though, Pericles has come to exercise a kind of rule or arche that Hobbes, Thucydides’ first English translator, describes as “monarchical.” How might that have come to pass?

Living in a time when nearly everyone claims to be a democrat and nearly every regime claims to be democratic, we are all too familiar with the tendency of democracy to become merely nominal. In America in the early years of the twenty-first century, mass politics seems particularly susceptible to the subtly developing dominance of a centralized elite that, somewhat like Pericles, renders the meaning of democracy suspect precisely as it claims to be protecting democracy at home and democracy’s interests abroad. We are no doubt more likely to be troubled by this sort of undermining of democracy than the author of the History. At least on a theoretical level, contemporary democrats will likely not share Thucydides’ apparent approval of the Periclean transformation of Athenian politics. Elsewhere in the passage with which I began—the so-called “eulogy of Pericles”—Thucydides clearly rates the dominance of a single elite more highly than the struggle for power that he says followed Pericles’ death. We are unlikely to agree with that judgment, even if we recognize the pathologies of Athenian democratic politics that perhaps help account for the disasters the city later suffers. We are even less likely to share Thucydides’ admiration for the moderate oligarchy of the five thousand, which briefly replaces Athenian democracy in both name and form late in the war. In the end, though, these disagreements with Thucydides’ own political judgments ought not to obscure the possibility that he may have something to teach us about democracy. As Arlene Saxonhouse has it, we must set about “learning about democracy from Thucydides rather than just portraying him as antidemocratic.” Most immediately here, whatever its author’s political commitments, the History may have something to contribute to a central critical task of contemporary democratic theory: determining when—and how—democracy comes to exist in name alone and, by extension, what mass democracy that is more than merely nominal might look like. In this book I aim to recover the History as a resource for exploring these questions. As the title I have chosen suggests, doing so will require grappling with the role of silence in Thucydides’ account of Athenian politics.

The idea of a political transformation amounting to a move away from democracy absent overt institutional changes resonates not only with contemporary political experience, but also with contemporary arguments that we ought not to understand democracy as a form of government at all. Sheldon Wolin’s claims along these lines have been especially influential. Wolin describes democracy not as a particular sort of political constitution that might (or might not) endure through time, but rather as an “experience” that unsettles all forms of government and that calls into question political “boundaries” that aim to “domesticate.” He insists that democracy is in this way a “rebellious moment,” one that is intimately connected to revolution understood as “the wholesale transgression of inherited forms.” “Revolutions,” he writes, “activate the demos and destroy boundaries that bar access to political experience.” Wolin in fact describes the development of Athenian politics in the fifth century <SC> BCE as a series of revolutionary moments in which the demos gradually asserted its full power. Surveying these claims and similar arguments by Jacques Rancière and others, Pachen Markell describes them all as focusing on “the uncomfortable fit between democracy and rule” or arche. That is, from this perspective, the imposition of any form of rule marks a diminution of the formless experience of democracy. Conversely, the mere presence of a particular type of constitution or a particular set of institutions may not in fact indicate the presence of democracy.

We might well draw on this notion of democracy as a political moment independent of and likely in tension with any institutional form for a preliminary understanding of what happens when Pericles comes to dominate politics in Thucydides’ Athens. According to the eulogy, Pericles apparently managed to impose a kind of rule or arche on Athenian politics that co-opted the potential activation of the demos otherwise allowed by existing Athenian institutions. Athenian politics thus became something other than democracy, though its outward form and its name remained the same. Thucydides’ explicit analysis of Pericles’ “rule by the first man” adds credence to this reading. According to Thucydides, Pericles exercised a “free control” over the Athenians and so was able to lead them instead of being led (2.65). Rather than “speak to please in order to acquire power,” Pericles stood before the assembled demos and confronted its worst political inclinations. When they were “arrogantly confident,” he “shocked them into a state of fear.” When they were “unreasonably afraid,” he “restored them to confidence.” Using Wolin’s terms, we might say that Pericles, on Thucydides’ telling, was able at various points to “domesticate” the rebellious instincts of the demos. Driven by a desire for power, Pericles’ would-be successors did not—dared not, one supposes—“contradict” the Athenians as Pericles could and did. Athenian politics descended into a struggle for influence among contentious elites. Where Thucydides laments the consequent “handing over [of] affairs to the people’s pleasure” (2.65), we might well see a potentially democratic if perhaps still modest [re]activation of the demos. On Pericles’ death, neither the form nor the appellation of Athenian politics changed; but democracy again became something more than merely nominal as the actual relationship between demos and elites changed.

Thucydides’ narrative at times complicates the seemingly unambiguous conclusions he offers in the sort of authorial comment I have been examining so far. At various points in later chapters, I will in fact argue that Pericles’ relationship with the Athenians is not as exceptional as Thucydides’ eulogy of him suggests. Indeed, read in a certain way, aspects of the eulogy itself call into question the idea of Pericles’ exceptionality. Still, if we turn—as we almost inevitably do—to the moments in which he speaks before the Athenian assembly, we find seeming support for the idea that Periclean politics involved a sort of de facto deactivation of Athenian democracy. That support comes in the form of two sorts of silence, one relatively familiar and straightforward, the other more complex, harder to grasp, and so—ultimately—more interesting.

First, whenever Thucydides records Pericles’ words in the History, he records only Pericles’ words, rendering silent the voices of any other would-be speakers. In the case of two of the three Periclean speeches he includes in the History, Thucydides suggests that all the Athenians except Pericles remained silent. In introducing Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration, he thus tells us that the Athenians, in accordance with ancestral custom, chose Pericles as the one speaker they would hear (2.34). As for Pericles’ final appearance, Thucydides says that Pericles himself called an assembly to respond to the Athenians’ growing unease about the war and their anger at him; so far as we can tell from the History, no one else was given the opportunity to speak at this assembly. On the other hand, when Pericles first speaks in the History—late in book 1, where he lays out his strategy for the impending war—the absence of other voices seems clearly the product of an authorial decision. Describing the Athenian assembly called to respond to Sparta’s ultimate demand that Athens “let the Hellenes be independent” or face war, Thucydides writes that “there were many speakers who came forward and gave their support to one side or the other.” But, again, he records only the words of Pericles, “the first man of his time at Athens” (1.139). For the reader, the result is the effective if not the literal silencing of voices other than that of Pericles.

The actual silence or textual silencing of other voices when Pericles speaks stands in contrast to Thucydides’ reliance elsewhere in the History on paired speeches by contending speakers. When the Athenians consider how to deal with their rebellious imperial subjects in the city of Mitylene, Thucydides allows into his work the words of both Cleon and Diodotus; in describing the assembly at which the Athenians make the ultimately disastrous decision to sail for Sicily, he records the arguments of both Nicias and Alcibiades. Whatever else the presence of contending speakers may tell us about Athenian politics in these moments, it throws into sharp relief Pericles’ repeated solo appearances in the History. One can hardly avoid concluding that Thucydides crafts the silence of potential opponents as a way to emphasize Pericles’ temporary political dominance and the consequent reduction of democracy to a hollow name for Athenian institutions.

In short, what I will here call the silence of contending voices does indeed seem to distinguish the time of Pericles’ ascendancy from other moments of Athenian politics. It is worth noting that Thucydides actually has Pericles offer what we might read as an explanation for the singularity of his own voice in Athenian politics. Describing Athenian political practice in the Funeral Oration, Pericles claims that “wherever each man has earned recognition he is singled out for public service in accordance with the claims of distinction” (2.37). He adds that “it is within the capacity of some of us to manage private right along with public business.” In short, those who are able to guide the affairs of the city will, in Athens, be recognized and “singled out for public service.” By extension, Pericles has so been “singled out,” quite literally. As we will see in Chapter 3, Pericles makes this point explicitly in his final speech in the History, when he explains to the Athenians in no uncertain terms why they have chosen to follow him. In this sense, the silence of contending voices amounts to a recognition of the merit of the single remaining voice. Along these lines, it is also worth noting that Pericles, before offering his understanding of how the meritorious rise to prominence in Athens, says that “by name [Athens] is called a democracy” (2.37). Here, perhaps, he is hinting obliquely at the conclusion that Thucydides will later draw regarding the true nature of Athenian politics during Pericles’ reign.

In any event, beyond Thucydides’ emphasis on Periclean control or “rule by the first man,” we can readily find abundant contemporary theoretical resources for understanding why the silence of contending voices might render democracy merely nominal. It is surely a basic tenet of democratic faith that silence is inherently undemocratic insofar as it embodies and reflects the exclusion and thus the fundamental political inequality of those who might speak but cannot. What is more, in calling for the reinvigoration of political participation or for the expansion of democratic decision making to the economic realm, important strands of contemporary democratic theory surely emphasize the importance of enabling all citizens to exercise their political voice in a meaningful way. From this perspective, and setting aside the obvious exclusion of women, slaves, and non–Athenian born residents, Thucydides’ portrayal of Athenian politics points to the unequal political standing of most of those actually admitted to citizenship.

Beyond this basic denial of a political voice to particular individuals or groups, we might also view the silence of contending voices as reflecting a kind of procedural pathology. For example, the Periclean monologue must seem undemocratic to those who place deliberation at the core of democracy. The unchallenged control over the demos with which Thucydides credits Pericles—especially given its seemingly emotional foundation—hardly leads to the sort of rational deliberative consensus among diverse and well-articulated points of view that democrats might seek. Yet even if we eschew the idea that democracy demands a particular set of institutions or procedures, the presence of contending voices seems a baseline measure of democratic experience. Thus consider the “agonal” democrats—including Wolin—who have recently challenged the deliberative vision. There seemingly can be no democratic agon—over resources or matters of culture or identity or anything else—when one actor so dominates as Thucydides’ Pericles does.

Given that various strands of contemporary democratic theory are appropriately wary of the silence of contending voices, the History perhaps has relatively little to add on this score. Thucydides certainly shows no real interest in the apparent lack of actual political voice among the vast majority of individual Athenians. But consider, too, a second sort of silence that seems at first glance to buttress Thucydides’ analysis of Periclean dominance. I will refer to this as the “silent presence of the demos.” Most basically, I have in mind the seemingly simple fact that when Pericles speaks, the mass of Athenians remain collectively silent. We know that he speaks before mass gatherings of his fellow Athenians, but those assembled as the demos remain utterly silent while he does. Indeed, at the end of each of Pericles’ speeches in the History, Thucydides either indicates that the assembled Athenians silently decide what to do (as at 1.145 and 2.65) or else simply omits any mention of them and turns to narrate other events (2.47). Because the collective silence of the assembled Athenians at such moments stands as a central puzzle for the remainder of this book, let me at the outset consider three seemingly straightforward yet ultimately unsatisfactory explanations for the collective silence of the demos in such moments.

First, we might well consider the assembled Athenians as a group of individuals each of whom, as a citizen of Athens, might speak but does not. In that sense, their silence amounts to nothing more than the cumulative silencing of many contending voices. Yet even when there are contending voices—as when Cleon clashes with Diodotus or Nicias with Alcibiades—the silent presence of the demos remains. More generally, we might say that Thucydides’ practice of reporting some speeches in direct discourse inevitably depicts democratic politics as involving one or more speakers appearing before those who do not speak. Thucydides, that is, depicts Athenian politics (at least in those moments when he records speeches—as I emphasize later, most often Thucydides in recording Athenian actions reports only the silent presence of the Athenians as a whole) as the interaction of a vocal political elite with a silent and largely undifferentiated mass audience. This manner of recording speeches draws our attention to only a few voices. In the case of Pericles’ speeches, it draws our attention to a single voice, thus reinforcing the sense of Pericles’ special prominence. We tend in turn to neglect the rest of the Athenians. Instead of treating the demos simply as a collection of those who might speak but do not—as those who are part of the mass of ordinary citizens simply because they are not members of the vocal elite—I mean to examine the character and significance of their collective silence on its own terms. Since the demos maintains its silence both when Pericles appears alone and when contending voices sound in the assembly, we must also eventually ask whether and how the significance of that collective silence varies from one moment to the next.

Beyond thinking of the silent presence of the demos as simply embodying the absence of many voices, we might understand it as indicative of a kind of attentive collective listening in preparation for exercising the power of the demos to decide. The mass of citizens, that is, might remain silent as they attend to what those who do speak have to say. Indeed, some theorists have recently stressed the importance of listening as a kind of democratic virtue. Susan Bickford argues that “listening—as part of adversarial communication—is a crucial political activity that enables us to give democratic shape to our being together in the world.“ However important it may be for some visions of democracy, it seems unlikely that the silent presence of the demos can be explained as this kind of listening. Democratic listening takes place among political equals and stands as part of a respectful give and take. I listen both to deepen my understanding of another’s perspective and so that I may be listened to with similar care. There is simply no indication of this sort of mutuality in Thucydides’ Athenian politics. In that politics, again, a handful of citizens speak while many others consistently remain silent.

More generally, it is worth emphasizing that silence and listening are not coextensive. Indeed, alongside her careful exploration of the democratic possibilities of listening, Bickford emphasizes that silence “has multiple meanings,” some of which stand opposed to listening. Silence may, for example, “reveal an unwillingness to debate, a reluctance to take up another’s words.” By the same token, one can surely listen without being silent. As Silvia Montiglio has shown, the logocentric culture of the Greeks in particular did not view listening as a silent activity. From the descriptions of gatherings of heroes in the Homeric epics to the fourth-century orators’ references to the properly vocal character of their audiences, the Greeks seem to have seen silence as, in Montiglio’s words, an “embarrassment” to both speaker and audience rather than as a sign of listeners being “absorbed” in a speaker’s words. It is, of course, possible that Thucydides simply had an understanding of listening different from that of most other Greeks and more akin to the idea of listening in rapt silence that Montiglio finds in Roman sources. And I can provide no textual evidence that suggests that the Athenians did not listen to, say, Pericles or Cleon or Nicias. But it seems more likely that Thucydides’ way of rendering moments of political speech reflects an understanding of the relationship between the words of elite speakers and the collective silence of the always present demos that cannot be fully captured by the idea of listening. The demos may well listen to speeches, but Thucydides’ presentation of it in the History as consistently and utterly silent would seem to carry some other, or at least some additional, meaning.

If the collective silence of the demos does not simply indicate an active, engaged listening, does it, then, suggest passivity and hence a kind of irrelevance? The temptation here is to see the silence of the mass of ordinary citizens as evidence of the reduction of democratic politics to the interaction of elites (or with Pericles, again, to the dominance of a single elite actor). We can find theoretical resources for thinking about this way of reading silence, too. Most generally, the notion of “tacit consent”—a central issue for liberal theory since Locke—suggests the possibility of taking mass silence as an indication of support for or at least acquiescence to political decisions or settlements negotiated by elites or imposed by the state. As a more particular example, debates between the twentieth-century pluralists and their critics rested in part on differing explanations for the “nonparticipation” of nonelites. In his influential study of Appalachian coal-mining communities, John Gaventa thus argued that pluralist accounts of political power assume that all potential grievances are “recognized and acted upon,” so that nonparticipation by nonelites reflects either a rational calculation of the costs and benefits of acting or an unspoken consensus on basic values. Gaventa challenged this view with his own reading of the silence of ordinary citizens, concluding that the “quiescence” of Appalachian coal miners flowed from an abiding sense of “powerlessness” brought on by persistent political, economic, and social defeat.

Making no specific reference to tacit consent, underlying consensus, or learned powerlessness, the literature on Thucydides focuses largely on interpreting the words and deeds of the speakers in the History, and it does so without much attention to the role of the mass of ordinary citizens. Recent work on the nature of ancient democracy, though, warns us against taking the silence of ordinary citizens as a sign of their disempowerment or irrelevance. Both M. I. Finley and Josiah Ober have argued that the ancient demos was a political force to be reckoned with despite the appearance of elite dominance of ancient politics. Finley sees in the polis a basic problem of political stability. Why should the demos have accepted—as the mass of Thucydides’ Athenians seem to have accepted—the prevalence of “spokesmen in the Assembly” drawn solely from the elite group of the politically active? Finley insists that we cannot attribute this apparent acquiescence to powerlessness or apathy; the demos held ultimate political power and was ready to use it. Finley argues that politics remained stable only because and so long as prevailing political arrangements furthered the ends of the demos, for politics are “wholly instrumental: the objectives are what matter in the end.” For Finley, the objectives of the demos were largely economic; thus stability depended on “subsistence crisis insurance” in the form of public works, liturgies, and trierarchies. Such material concessions do not simply suggest elite co-optation of the masses. They reflect the ultimate power of the demos over its advisers, a power quite real even though it had rarely been employed directly or overtly.

We find in the pages of Thucydides no evidence of elite responsiveness to the material needs of the demos. Finley, however, also points to an “ideological aspect” of ancient politics. Political stability flowed as well from “a whole complex of beliefs and attitudes” that suggested the suitability of elite dominance. Ober’s work emphasizes a similar role for ideology in elite/mass relations. He finds, mainly in the fourth-century Athenian orators, a host of rhetorical tropes the purpose of which was to affirm elite claims to dominance while acknowledging the power of the demos. That speakers turned to these tropes suggests the very real power exercised by the demos over the advisers it chose to follow, something Ober terms “the ideological hegemony of the masses.” Because would-be leaders had to win the approval of the demos and because the demos ultimately decided which leader to follow, the masses influenced the arguments advanced by elite speakers seeking support. Democratic politics as rhetorical interaction thus allowed ongoing elite influence while reflecting mass power.

The work of Finley and especially Ober suggests an ancient demos that may have been silent but that nonetheless was active in a way that went beyond merely listening and deciding. This provides a response to any suggestion that the collective silence of the demos indicated disempowerment or passive acquiescence or tacit consent in the liberal sense. Again, the mass of ordinary citizens had political power over the elites and were willing to make active use of it. Ober’s work in particular points toward one way of understanding the relationship between mass silence and elite rhetoric in the History: we ought to read that rhetoric as shaped by the silent presence and silent power of the demos. But this, ultimately, only complicates the puzzle. For in the History, the particular meaning of the silent presence of the demos in any given moment ultimately cannot be resolved in the manner, say, of contemporary public opinion polling. Thucydides does not, for the most part, let us know in any detail what the mass of Athenians think about a particular issue or decision in advance. So we cannot say with any certainty that the silent power of the demos has been exercised in the shaping of any particular words spoken in the assembly. My ultimate argument will be that the collective silence of ordinary citizens renders the demos unknowable; thus the presence of the demos threatens to destabilize any apparent “ideological” nexus between elite rhetoric and mass opinion.

In the end, the silence of the demos cannot be fully explained as the denial of voice or the attentive listening of those who will ultimately decide; nor can it be dismissed as the disengagement of satisfied, disempowered, or disinterested citizens. To understand democracy in the History we must grapple with the presence of an abiding and meaningful collective silence—a silence that Thucydides locates at the core of Athenian democratic politics. And for us to understand the nominalization of democracy under Pericles we must assess the changing relationship between the collective silence of the demos and the Athenian political elite. More generally, to grasp Thucydides’ perspective on mass democracy we must work through the complex relations among speech, action, and silence. Having recognized the thematic significance of silence to Thucydides, we will find indications of that significance not only in those moments when he makes us witness to the play of politics in the Athenian assembly but also throughout the History’s account of Athenian action in the world.

II. Speech, Action, and Silence: “Realist” and “Constructivist” Readings of the History

In exploring the relationship between silence and democracy in Thucydides’ Athens, I intend to contribute to the growing body of work that takes Thucydides seriously as a theorist of democracy. This includes most notably the work of Peter Euben, Cynthia Farrar, Sara Monoson, and Arlene Saxonhouse. As will become clear, I often disagree with particular aspects of the readings offered by these scholars, and emphasizing those disagreements will at times prove useful when it comes to situating my own reading of the History. That said, my own approach to Thucydides owes much to their work, and in general I mean to advance the basic goal reflected in it: namely, to learn about democracy from Thucydides.

Learning about democracy from Thucydides requires us to engage with what has in the past been a fairly common idea about the History: that Thucydides’ interest focuses on relations between cities rather than on politics within cities. As Clifford Orwin has written, “Thucydides is little known as a theorist of domestic politics,” democratic or otherwise. This idea has been especially prominent in readings of Thucydides by realist students of international relations, who view politics in the History as centering on the power struggles of city-states out to promote their own interests. In recent years, much of the vast secondary literature on Thucydides has reflected the emergence of self-proclaimed “constructivist” readings. Constructivists tend to position themselves as critics of realist readings; they insist on the importance of speech among citizens and within cities and on the relevance of communicatively constructed norms as well as calculations of interest to the behavior of Thucydides’ actors. As will be clear in what follows, I find much to admire in constructivist readings of the History; and I see certain aspects of my arguments about the relationship between speech and silence as offering new insights into the constructivist approach. This does not, however, mean that I reject realist approaches altogether; for in the realists’ assertion that domestic politics are irrelevant in the History there lies an important complication for the questions of silence that interest me. In the end, my reading of democracy in Thucydides draws on both realist and constructivist insights while emphasizing the undertheorized way in which both depend on the silences—silences that I find thematic in the History.

Realists have long claimed Thucydides as one of the founding figures of their school of thought. Robert Keohane summarizes well the realist approach, arguing that the History evinces agreement with “three key assumptions” of realism: “(1) states (or city-states) are the key units of action; (2) they seek power, either as an end in itself or as a means to other ends; and (3) they behave in ways that are, by and large, rational, and therefore comprehensible to outsiders in rational terms.” Keohane’s assumptions 2 and 3 define action as essentially instrumental. In the rational means–end calculation that, consciously or not, drives state behavior, action is a means to gain power. A state may pursue power as an instrument that can be used to further other ends—one supposes security or glory, perhaps even justice as it sees justice—but this does not change the fact that action itself is always taken as a means to an end.

This basic account of the character of action fits some parts of the History better than others. It seems a particularly good description of those actions Thucydides reports in his narrative of events—a narrative that in fact constitutes most of the History. For vast stretches of the work, Thucydides describes the actions of the Athenians (and everyone else) but records no speeches, thus silencing all contending voices. In the terminology I have been developing here, we might say that so far as Thucydides tells us, in such moments all contending voices are silent. Disagreements between elite speakers disappear, and so does the very distinction between elite speaker and ordinary citizen. Put differently, the silent presence of the demos spreads to include all Athenians, who appear to act with no vocal disagreement. All of this does fit with the realist notion of the Athenians as a unit of action, instrumentally pursuing agreed upon ends with no apparent need for any discussion of those ends or, for that matter, of the means to pursue them. But such a conclusion has as its largely unacknowledged and unexamined foundation a particular understanding of the meaning of the Athenian silences as crafted by Thucydides. A key task of Chapters 2 and 6 will be to explore more carefully the nature of Athenian action taken in this fully silent mode.

If moments of utter Athenian silence lend themselves to realist interpretations, the speeches interspersed in the narrative pose problems for each of the three realist assumptions Keohane finds in the History. Against assumption 2, one can argue that Thucydides’ actors do indeed weigh the demands of justice or nobility in addition to those of rank expediency, as the speeches make clear. Against assumption 3, one can draw from the speeches to argue that passions often overwhelm rationality in determining the actions of city-states in Thucydides. Given my concern with Thucydides as a theorist of democratic speech and action, I want to focus on assumption 1. How does the breaking of Athenian silence bear upon the realist idea of the city as a unit of action? Put more sharply, why should the arch-realist Thucydides concern himself with noisy domestic political squabbles that are, again, irrelevant given that the action of the city is determined by its situation within Greek affairs? In this very strict sense, Thucydides hardly seems to see cities as “units of action.”

A less strident realist appropriation of the History—one more attendant to the significance of speech and plurality within the city—would have Thucydides advancing not a deterministic theory of unitary state action but, rather, a theory of statesmanship. Thucydides presents a realist course of action by cities not as inevitable, but as the best course and as the result of sound leadership. We can easily enough raise questions about whether Thucydides really presents a self-interested eschewal of justice and morality as good policy: the supposedly harshly realistic Athenians, after all, ultimately meet defeat. But the notion that Thucydides envisions the molding of the city-state as unitary actor pursuing its interests to be the primary task of the statesman has had appeal stretching beyond the realists. Here internal politics do matter, but as a source of problems for the statesman to solve, of threats to the rational pursuit of power in the interest of the city. Not surprisingly, the mighty Pericles almost inevitably emerges as the statesman par excellence. Thus for Peter Pouncey, Thucydides shows Pericles as “the “guardian of Athens’s true destiny, protecting her against her enemies, shaping her policies, and defining her ideals.” And according to Charles Cochrane, the period of Pericles’ predominance was for Thucydides a time marked by “wisdom, strength, and incorruptibility on the part of leaders, self-restraint and a disposition to follow sound counsel on the part of those who were led.”

Insofar as it allows for a stronger focus on internal politics, this statesman-centered reading readmits the speeches in the History as a worthwhile object of study. From this perspective, speech, like action, has a basically instrumental character. Words serve as the tools with which the statesman might manage the demos by teaching it enough about its true interests, thus unifying the city around the best course of action for achieving its ends. Here again, though, we can note some underlying assumptions about the meaning of silence in the History. On this reading, Thucydides’ juxtaposition of the silent presence of the demos and the speeches of the Athenian political elite signals the relationship between statesmen or would-be statesmen and their potentially unruly charges. The only question is whether the silent demos will listen to the true statesman or follow one rogue or another. Meanwhile, the silence of contending voices that accompanies Pericles’ appearances in the History stands as clear evidence of his statesmanship. That is, the silence of contending voices comes to mean that he and he alone manages to tame the demos.

My point here, again, is not simply to reject realist readings outright. The realists’ insistence on the city’s status as a unit of action resonates throughout my reading, always challenging the idea of Athenian democracy as the flourishing of plurality expressed through speech. More immediately, as we have just seen, this insistence draws our attention to moments of seeming complete silence in Thucydides’ Athens. I mean here chiefly to emphasize that realist readings make undertheorized assumptions about the meaning of various sorts of silence in the History. But the realists’ chief critics, the constructivists, make analogous assumptions themselves.

Only recently have some scholars begun to label their readings of the History “constructivist.” But these readings have precursors in earlier challenges to the dominant realist approach—challenges that emphasize the importance of speech and language in the History. In particular, James Boyd White’s arguments have been influential. In a chapter on the History in When Words Lose Their Meanings, White argues that Thucydides traces the decline of a “culture of argument” that existed in Athens and throughout Greece at the beginning of the war. In its healthy form, this culture allowed for talk of justice and thus for both moral argument and moral agreement. As this culture declined, White argues, it became less possible for speakers to introduce justice into considerations of what must be done. Collective political judgment faltered, and many suffered as a result. More recently, constructivist students of international relations have begun to concern themselves with the collective identities of the Greeks and of particular city-states in Thucydides. Thus Per Jansson, for example, considers how Athenian “identity” is “maintained” or “expressed” in the History. In this context Pericles’ Funeral Oration stands as “largely an act of self-identification” for the Athenians.

As the following chapters will make clear, I find much to admire in such arguments, for they correctly and usefully complicate the overdrawn realist notion of the city or state as a package of interests. Political actors—be they individual or collective—find themselves embedded in a culture of norms that shape what can and cannot be said and thus what can and cannot be done. We ought to direct our attention not simply toward action as the instrumentally rational pursuit of interests but also toward speech, which, rational or not, constitutes and reveals who we are and thus gives meaning to what we do. Yet existing constructivist readings seem to me both incomplete and undertheorized. Because of their focus on speech, these readings risk overlooking the vast stretches of the History in which Thucydides records no speeches; as I have suggested, the challenge of understanding Athenian democracy in the History involves grappling with those moments when Thucydides renders the Athenians silent. Moreover, in considering the meaning of speech in general and of particular speeches, constructivist readings tend (like realist readings) to make unacknowledged assumptions about the meaning of silence. Thus the assertion that Thucydides traces a “culture of argument” in the words of speakers leaves unexamined the question of whether and, if so, how this culture of argument extended to and was understood or accepted by those present who remained silent—the ordinary citizens of the demos. And, as with the realist reading of Pericles as the ultimate statesman, the idea that the Funeral Oration serves as an “act of self-identification” for the Athenians rests on a particular way of reading the silence of contending speakers; it assumes that because Pericles alone seems to be describing Athenian identity, his account of that identity must in some way be authoritative.

Where the realist reading quite usefully centers our attention on the dynamics of unity and action, the constructivist reading emphasizes the revelation of identity through words and deeds. In doing so, it also calls for us to think about how norms shape and are shaped by words and deeds, and thus brings back deep issues of justice and responsibility that realist readings tend to eschew. Yet insofar as existing constructivist readings lack a full appreciation of the complex relationship between speech and silence, they tend to underestimate the complexity of these deeper issues as well. In the end, an understanding of democracy in the History requires both realist and constructivist insights. But it also requires careful attention to the silences that Thucydides weaves into his text.

III. Reading Silence

Arguments from or even about silence are notoriously risky. In a treatment of the role of silence as thematic in Thucydides’ account of Athenian politics, two particular dangers stand out. First, such an approach risks reading too much into the History’s silences, with the result that one finds there precisely the preconceived ideas one brings to the text. Second, and conversely, emphasizing silence risks underemphasizing what we do find in the text. In the particular case of the History, the danger here lies in giving too little play to Thucydides’ own explicit authorial comments and analysis or to the ways in which his narrative pulls the reader toward particular conclusions. In the face of such risks, there is some comfort in the fact that other readers of the History have grappled with similar issues of interpretation. Let me mention two especially prominent ones here.

I have already drawn from “On the Life and History of Thucydides,” the essay that Thomas Hobbes appended to his translation of the History. In describing Thucydides’ “disposition or method,” Hobbes notes that Thucydides “never useth” what he calls “disgressions for instruction’s cause” and concludes that “the narration doth secretly instruct the reader.” “Secret instruction” here contrasts with what Hobbes calls the “open conveyance of precepts.” Hobbes thus goes beyond Thucydides’ evaluation of the success or failure of particular actions, in the sense that he finds Thucydides openly offering such evaluations “where there is just occasion.” The reader is apparently meant to find Thucydides’ deepest conclusions by reflecting on the “grounds and motives of every action,” which Hobbes says Thucydides “setteth down before the action itself, either narratively, or else contriveth them into the form of deliberative orations in the persons of such as from time to time bare sway in the commonwealth.” This sort of indirect view of the springs of action would seem to feed into Hobbes’s claim that Thucydides has “clearly set before men’s eyes the ways and events of good and evil counsels.”

The secret instruction that Hobbes finds in the History ultimately leads the reader, by reflection upon the connections among motives, deliberation, action, and results, to a hard-earned understanding of “good and evil counsels.” Hobbes is quite forthright about his reliance on both Thucydides’ explicit claims and his silences. His idea of secret instruction rests in part on a reading of the History whereunder Thucydides offers ample evidence of the motives of the actions of the Athenians and others, both when he records speeches and when he allows silence to reign. As regards Athenian democracy in particular, Hobbes would seem to be pointing toward what I have called the silent presence of the demos in the face of elite rhetoric as a Thucydidean method of portraying a sort of civic deliberation in which those who “bare sway in the commonwealth” reveal why the city acts as it does. Along these lines, the silence of contending voices no doubt further suggests that Pericles bore more “sway” than any other Athenian. Hence Hobbes’s view of Pericles’ dominance as “monarchical.” Indeed, one of the more fundamental precepts the History reveals—both explicitly and through its subtle, silent instruction—seems for Hobbes to be captured in the idea that Thucydides “least of all liked democracy.”

Like Hobbes, Nietzsche sees the History as indirectly revealing its deepest truths. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche describes Thucydides as his “recreation” from Platonism. He is gesturing in part here to the contrast between Plato’s cowardly idealism and Thucydides’ “courage in the face of reality.” But he also preferred Thucydides’ style; so the actual process of reading Thucydides would have been, for him, rather more enjoyable than reading Plato. The History for Nietzsche required deep and careful textual engagement: “One must turn [Thucydides] over line by line and read his hidden thoughts as clearly as his words; there are few thinkers so rich in hidden thoughts. I have elsewhere argued in greater detail that perhaps the foremost hidden thought Nietzsche finds in the History concerns what he calls the “terrible” reality that emerges in the infamous Melian Dialogue. On my reading, Nietzsche here foreshadows the constructivist vision of reality as the creation of rhetoric. In particular, Nietzsche sees Thucydides as understanding that the meaning of justice is merely the product of rhetorical negotiation between equally powerful parties.

If I am right about Nietzsche’s reading of Thucydides, then he finds in the History rather different “hidden thoughts” than does Hobbes. Where Hobbes sees Thucydides as silently (as well as, at times, openly) instructing readers about “good and evil counsel,” Nietzsche draws on the History for support for his attempt to move “beyond good and evil.” Here I am less interested in whether Hobbes or Nietzsche has the better reading than in the emphasis both place on Thucydides’ use of silence. That they find different meanings in that silence points back to the first risk I identified earlier: that of reading one’s own preconceived ideas into the History. But Hobbes and Nietzsche also point toward what I take to be the best way of dealing with that risk. If the History does “secretly instruct” through its “hidden thoughts,” we as readers will inevitably make something of its silences. It will, then, be best to make the role of silence explicit, as Hobbes and Nietzsche both do. Some will find in this approach an invitation to subjectivity; I, however, ultimately see the History’s thematization of silence as yielding an interpretive flexibility that in the end can only add to its power to spur our own thought.

This is not to say that Thucydides, because he allows his text to reflect the significant role of silence in action and politics, licenses just any interpretation. The History is not that flexible. As per the second risk I mentioned above, Thucydides’ relatively rare authorial interventions demand attention; and no reader can ignore the potential significance of the broad narrative structure of the History. These aspects of the text provide the context for approaching the matter of silence, and I have tried to remain attentive to them throughout. In the end, I find that the relationship between text and textual silence evades any simple account. At times, I see the language or structure of the History as providing more or less explicit support for my reading of silence, as in my discussions of “quiet” in Chapter 1 and of the “sudden” mode of Athenian action in Chapter 2. At other points, I find the silences that Thucydides embeds in the History standing in tension with his explicit authorial analyses; in dealing with the matter of Athenian character in Chapter 3, I discuss this tension in terms of the difference between Thucydides’ perspective as historian and the perspective of the political actor, which the History also presents.

Still elsewhere, including in Chapters 4, 5, and 6, I find that attention to the role of silence complicates common readings of various narrative arcs in the History, including most notably the supposed decline of Athenian politics and the increasing harshness of Athenian ideas and actions. The structure of my own argument in some sense stacks the deck in favor of such a conclusion. I here offer a thematic rather than a sequential reading of the History. This sort of approach serves well to emphasize the role of silence in various contexts throughout the History; but it perhaps risks downplaying the ways in which events in the text relate to one another as part of broader stories of historical continuity and change that Thucydides means to tell. Here, then, let me emphasize that I never mean to treat the narrative arc or arcs of the History as imagined or nonexistent. I mean rather to suggest that Thucydides is always prompting us to question any sense of historical certainty we might develop in thinking about such matters. His work always encourages us to consider the perspective of the political actor, where little if anything is certain, in large part due to the persistent role of silence in politics.

At various points in the following chapters, I thus emphasize the presence of textual silence in the History to highlight what I find to be the speculative nature of certain familiar readings. That is, I find many existing interpretations to rest on unacknowledged assumptions about the silence of contending voices and the silent presence of the demos. But my own readings of the History are themselves speculative at various points. At times, a reading of silence only takes us so far, and I have tried to identify those moments where the History leaves us with more questions than answers and where it invites us to do our own thinking. At another level, as I have tried to acknowledge here, my own approach to the History of course rests on assumptions of its own. Most obviously, I begin with the idea—supported by Finley, Ober, and others—that the Athenian demos had real power and actively exercised it. In the end, I see in the History evidence that Thucydides held a similar view. To the extent that this latter conclusion follows from my own reading of the significant silences I find in the text, it is itself speculative, both in its general form and in the particular instances in which I see the silent power of the demos at work and interpret its effects. In the end, I think the History, by its sheer complexity and by its enigmatic theoretical power, calls us to such speculative thinking. More broadly, I hope the reading of silence I offer here can in some small measure spur our thinking about how the largely silent mass of ordinary citizens might yet hold and exercise meaningful power in the nominally democratic politics of the contemporary world.

IV. Plan of the Book

My focus throughout this book remains on Thucydides’ Athenians and their words, deeds, and silences. I aim to offer a reading of democratic politics and action that may provide fresh angles of approach to the peculiarities of mass democracy, both ancient and contemporary. I begin near the end of the History, focusing in Chapter 1 on Thucydides’ account of the oligarchic coup that toppled Athenian democracy near the end of the Peloponnesian War. I set my argument against the backdrop of Thucydides’ account of the revolution at Corcyra. Political theorists—and constructivists in particular—are often drawn to this latter account, in which Thucydides famously states that as Corcyra came apart “words lost their meaning,” with revolutionary rhetoric turning traditional values upside down. Corcyra, in short, experiences political disintegration as a chaotic cacophony of political speech. By contrast, I draw attention to Thucydides’ emphasis on the role of what he calls the “quiet” of the Athenian “mob” as democracy falls in Athens. The quiet of the mob ultimately amounts to a sort of acquiescence to the imposition of oligarchy. It thus contrasts with what I have here called the collective silence of the demos. Put differently, my argument in Chapter 1 suggests that the silence of the demos that prevails in Thucydides’ account of democracy does not amount to bowing before the rule of a small corps of elites. The silent demos, that is, is not simply a quieted mob.

Chapter 2 begins more directly to address the place of silence in Athenian democracy in the History, focusing in particular on the Athenians’ response to the affair of Mitylene. Going beyond the common focus on the denouement of this affair in the famous Mitylene Debate, I identify two modes of Athenian action toward Mitylene. Thucydides records political speeches in the Athenian assembly to mark what I refer to as moments of “deliberative action.” Much more often, though, he shows the Athenians as a unit engaging in what I term “sudden action”; he records no speeches and simply reports the actions taken. I situate my discussion of these two modes of action—and the complex role of silence in each—against the backdrop of Aristotle’s discussion of deliberation and voluntary action and Hannah Arendt’s concern with the disastrous potential of instrumental thinking. These theoretical resources help us begin to reframe the deep questions of justice and responsibility that arise from Thucydides’ account of Athenian democratic politics.

In Chapter 3, I challenge existing readings of the collective “character” of Thucydides’ Athenians. This character has most often been described as a set of underlying traits—most notably boldness and daring—that distinguish Athens from other Greek cities, in particular its chief adversary, Sparta. According to the common argument, these traits explain Athens’s imperial success, but they also explain the city’s eventual defeat and demise. Against this reading, I argue that Thucydides and his Greeks discuss character not as a set of traits but as a characteristic way of acting. What is more, this “Athenian way” does not stand as a constant explanatory background for Athenian action; rather, it appears as a malleable subject of deliberation, something that speakers claim to define authoritatively as they try during moments of deliberative action to persuade the silent demos. In making this argument, I pay special attention to Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which we must understand as a moment of deliberation and democratic politics. Beyond exploring the dynamics and inherent changeability of the Athenian character, my aim here is to explore the interactions among elite arguments that claim to reveal the collective character of Athens. I do so with reference to the silence of the mass of Athenian citizens as those arguments are made.

Chapter 4 continues the exploration of the deliberative mode of Athenian action and deepens the questions of responsibility raised in Chapters 2 and 3. Some locate the causes of Athens’s fate in the nature of the Athenian character; others point to a supposed decline of Athenian democratic politics from the lofty heights of Periclean leadership to the petty squabbles of his successors. In Chapter 4, I explore this notion of decline by considering the descriptions that Athenian speakers themselves offer of the workings of Athenian democracy. In offering these descriptions, the speakers contribute to what appears to be an ongoing and in a sense unresolvable debate over a particular aspect of the Athenian way. Here I explore the challenges of political judgment faced by the speakers as they attempt to describe the Athenian way. and faced as well by the silent demos as it sorts through what the speakers have to say. I conclude that, precisely because of the collective silence of the demos, we cannot easily construct a narrative of Athenian political decline. Nor can we instantly locate responsibility for Athens’s fall in such a decline.

Chapter 5 marks the transition from consideration of the “deliberative mode” to the “sudden mode” of Athenian action. I focus here chiefly on the Melian Dialogue, the infamous exchange in which anonymous Athenian envoys, demanding the surrender of the small island of Melos, reject all appeals to justice. The Athenian envoys’ arguments have often been taken as evidence of the realism of both Thucydides and his Athenians. This view, however, requires us to view the envoys as representative of Athens and the Athenians. I raise questions about the sense in which the envoys are in fact Athenian representatives, arguing that we must in the end approach them—and any supposed “spokesmen” for Athens—as political actors in their own right, engaged in their own rhetorical strategies. Meanwhile, Thucydides depicts the Athenians at home as utterly silent about Melos; in this way, they pose difficult challenges of political judgment for both the Athenian envoys and, more important, for the Melians.

In Chapter 6, I consider the fate of Plataea, a small city in central Greece allied with Athens that falls to Sparta early in the war. The affair of Plataea reveals much about how the Spartans deal with the smaller Greek cities (just as the affairs of Mitylene and Melos reveal much about Athens). I focus my attention, though, on the persistently silent role of Athens in the affair, as this provides a paradigmatic instance of the sudden mode of Athenian action and reminds us that, whatever their limitations, realist readings that take the city as a unit of action do resonate at certain points in the History. On my reading, the Athenian failure to deliberate about how to respond to the Spartan siege of Plataea renders Athenian action and inaction indecipherable—not just to Thucydides’ readers but, most important, to the Plataeans (and, one suspects, to the Athenians themselves). My aim here is to continue to explore the implications of action taken without deliberation and the ways in which we can and cannot assess responsibility for those implications.

In the Conclusion, I return to the fundamental questions about the nature of democracy raised at the outset of this Introduction, focusing in particular on how mass politics may, in the context of particular manifestations of silence, become only nominally democratic. Here I bring to the fore a basic tension between the project of contemporary democratic theory and the concerns of the History. It is worth reminding ourselves here that Thucydides certainly did not set out to write a defense of democracy or an exploration of its possibilities. He prided himself instead on having “recorded the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians” (1.1) and having produced a work that might be “judged useful” by those observing human affairs “at some future time.” I proceed in that spirit of contemporary usefulness, aiming to draw out the implications for our own concerns of Thucydides’ understanding of democracy—and, in particular, the central and paradoxical role of silence in democratic politics.

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