Benjamin Straumann (New York University): "How to Save your City from Calamity: Hobbes’s Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue"

Thu, Feb 4, 2021, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
Open to Princeton University ID Holders

Political Philosophy Colloquium 


Abstract:  Thucydides and Hobbes are often interpreted as ‘realists’.  States vis-à-vis each other remain in the state of nature and are conceptualized in analogy with individuals in the state of nature.  States are therefore seen as engaging in the kind of self-interested behavior that makes cooperation elusive.  In this chapter I will try to argue that Thucydides's Melian Dialogue might have shown Hobbes that the analogy between individuals and states does not really go all the way.  For Hobbes, states are the artificial structures within which individuals may satisfy their subjective desires; once the Melian commonwealth could no longer guarantee its citizens’ safety, it would have been rational for the Melians to surrender, rather than risk an overwhelmingly probable catastrophe.  States and individuals are also distinct in that the former may develop better knowledge of the laws of nature than individuals ever could.  This fissure in the individual-state analogy is the lesson Hobbes must have drawn from the Melian Dialogue, as can be seen in his analysis of sovereignty by acquisition in the Leviathan.  Thucydides was important because his history, Hobbes thought, was true and could therefore provide useful examples of reason and its defects in action; the Melians might thus in addition have provided an illustration for what Hobbes believed was wrong with the Foole’s reasoning.  Accordingly, Thucydides can be seen to have provided a foundation for Hobbes's argument for peace and individual self-preservation.

Bio:  Benjamin Straumann is ERC professor of history at the University of Zurich and research professor of classics at New York University. He is also Alberico Gentili senior fellow at New York University School of Law. Benjamin is the author of Roman Law in the State of Nature: The Classical Foundations of Hugo Grotius’s Natural Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), and of Crisis and Constitutionalism: Roman Political Thought from the Fall of the Republic to the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).