An Exploration of Thucydides and Rousseau
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.