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An Exploration of Thucydides and Rousseau

November 8, 2010

In discussion last week, my GSI showed us a song that highlighted the political theory of Hobbes and other theorists. She then encouraged us to look for political theory in our everyday lives.

So I did.

And I was surprised by what I found.

To clarify, I wouldn’t say I was a fan of Rousseau’s political theory. My understanding of his theory was changed however, when reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides recalls the actions taken by the Athenians in their war against the Spartans. In Book One, Pericles, the Athenian leader, gives a speech that prompts confidence in ultimate Athenian victory (122).  This tone quickly changed halfway through Book Two however, when the Athenians realize that the war is going to be long and difficult. Thucydides states, ” because they were so busy with their own personal intrigues for securing the leadership of the people, they allowed this expedition to lose its impetus, and by quarreling among themselves began to bring confusion into the policy of the state” (164).

After reading this, I finally recognized why Rousseau may have had a valid point.

Rousseau essentially said that when it comes to political system, it is the team that matters, not the individual. He stated that we must become an integral part of the whole. In addition, he highlighted the difference between the general will and the will of all. The will of all refers to a collection of individual desires,while the general will refers to what is right for the public. Rousseau said we must focus on the general will.

Now I realize that Thucydides preceded Rousseau by hundreds of years, but I saw a common thread between what both men were saying.

In the case of the Athenians, the politicians focused on what was good for them as an individual, instead of the whole; they put priority on the will of all. And, consistent with Rousseau’s theory, the Athenian public suffered.

While I originally disagreed with Rousseau’s political theory, seeing it in application helped to show me how it might stand true. There is never one right answer to how government and people should interact–political theories are theories for a reason–but by examining the world around us, we may be able to see the different possibilities of truth.

  1. seangordon permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:47 PM

    I too had trouble agreeing with this particular theory of Rousseau. In the example that you provide, it surely makes sense and you defend your point well. The bigger problem I have with Rousseau’s theory of the fact that everyone needs to work together as a team to become a part of a collective whole that will in turn lead to a better society is the fact that I personally do not see this as a practical plan. Like so many of the other political thinkers we’ve covered have posited (i.e. Hobbes) I feel that men are ultimately creatures that are out to protect themselves and serve their own best interests at the end of the day.

  2. samruss permalink
    November 9, 2010 9:23 AM

    First off, just let me say that I am ecstatic that someone else willingly is talking about The History of the Peloponnesian War, because every basic about war and politics can be found in it. However, I think that the example of the Sicilians in the book might have been better. During the Sicilian Expedition (undertaken by Athenians during their war with Sparta, and to dire consequences), the most powerful state in the island was Syracuse. Syracuse had some enemies on the island, and was the primary target of Athens, and Syracuse recognized that in order to preserve itself AND the whole island, the whole island would have to work together to fight back. It was hard to convince the other states that Athens was not just attacking Syracuse, but would not stop there. This was especially hard given that many Sycracusans did not even believe Athens would be coming for them anyways. At any rate, I think examining the Sicilian Expedition could be beneficial in expanding thought on Rousseau, if it doesn’t prove to be the best example.

  3. Andrew Berman permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:08 PM

    Not only in the political system is the team more important than the individual. In business, sports, school, and many more aspects of daily life is the team more important than the individual. One example is in sports. Phil Jackson, the future Hall of fame coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, wrote in his book “The Last Season” than when players come to his team they must sacrifice individual glory in order for the team to succeed. Players have to adjust to his system and most of the time their statistics suffer, but the team wins. In return for sacrificing individual feats, these players win championships, which put them in the spotlight. Basically, if people sacrifice their individual accomplishments for the betterment of the whole, everyone will succeed.

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