Professor Seth N. Jaffe Publishes Book on Thucydides

Professor Seth N. Jaffe

Professor Seth N. Jaffe

Professor Seth N. Jaffe, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at JCU, just published the book Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest with Oxford University Press.

The cause of great power war is a perennial issue for the student of politics. Some 2,400 years ago, in his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that it was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this power inspired in Sparta which rendered the Peloponnesian War somehow necessary, inevitable, or compulsory.

In this new political psychological study of Thucydides’ first book, Professor Jaffe shows how the History’s account of the outbreak of the war ultimately points toward the opposing characters of the Athenian and Spartan regimes, disclosing a Thucydidean preoccupation with the interplay between nature and convention. Jaffe explores how the character of the contest between Athens and Sparta, or how the outbreak of a particular war, can reveal Thucydides’ account of the recurring human causes of war and peace. The political thought of Thucydides proves bound up with his distinctive understanding of the interrelationship of particular events and more universal themes. We asked Professor Jaffe a few questions about the book.

Why did you decide to write a book about Thucydides?
I have always been deeply interested in the living, breathing world of political life. Not politics as dead object of inquiry, but instead how politics appears to the actors, particularly in moments of terrible extremity, which is to say in matters of war and peace. Thucydides is generally acknowledged as the political historian par excellence, but he is much more than this. He asserts that he has captured something essential about all war through his recreation of a single, cataclysmic conflict, and I became fascinated by that claim. Not only for the potential truth of the Thucydidean vision of political life, but also in the difficult question of how one would explore something of trans-historical significance through the recreation of singular event, the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides therefore spoke directly to my interests in International Relations, Classics, and Political Philosophy, while somehow losing none of the immediacy of the events of a long war. And despite having now written a book on the subject, I find Thucydides even more enigmatic than when I first began to study him.

Who are the modern equivalents of Nicias, Alcibiades, Pericles and Themistocles, (if any) and why?
I am not sure that it makes sense to talk of modern analogues to the historical figures reanimated by Thucydides in his History, though Donald Trump and Cleon do bear more than a passing resemblance to one another: the leader as demagogue, who appeals to anger and fear and sows mistrust of his political opponents as a way of making himself trustworthy. Yet the Thucydidean portrayal of Nicias, Alcibiades, Pericles, and Themistocles are also intended to be somehow archetypal. To simplify: in my view, certain characters in the History are presented as almost ideal types, the cautious man (Nicias) and the daring one (Alcibiades), where both caution and daring have their advantages but also their disadvantages. If there is a concrete political lesson for the reader in these character studies, it’s perhaps that one should attempt to loosen the straight-jacket of one’s character, lest one be shipwrecked by political circumstances demanding some uncharacteristic response. In this vein, Themistocles is portrayed as a man of marvelous talent but also of tremendous versatility, a new Odysseus.  I am not sure I see anyone on the contemporary scene of this sort – a political savant of the highest caliber. Alcibiades, despite his flamboyance (and treachery), clearly has a similar talent. Pericles is certainly the figure that most take as the model of the Thucydidean statesman – sober, respected, persuasive, and manifestly public-spirited.

Dr. Jaffe is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University and an Associate Researcher at the Berlin Thucydides Center of the Freie Universität (FU) Berlin. He has taught at Bowdoin College and the University of Toronto and is a member of the project ‘Bewegung als Prinzip – Dynamik und Transformation als politische Impulse im 5. Jh. v. Chr’ (Movement as Principle – Dynamics and Transformation as political impulse in 5th century BC) of the Freie Universität Berlin.

His research focuses on classical political thought, international relations, and the history of international political thought. Overall, he has wide-ranging research interests in Greek conceptions of human nature, which are political (or moral) psychologies, and more specialized interests in the phenomenon of political motion – war and civil war – as it was conceptualized by the writers and thinkers of the 5th and 4th Centuries BC in Greece. He is also interested in how classical frameworks can enrich contemporary debates in the social sciences.