Thucydides' Views on Ethics & Political Realism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who was Thucydides? How do you even pronounce that name? And what made his views of ethics and politics so important? Explore the life and theories of Thucydides, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Philosophy is serious stuff. I mean, just look at this guy. See how serious he is? You know he's got to be a great philosopher. And he is. This is Thucydides, an ancient Greek philosopher and historian from the 5th century BCE.

Thucydides lived in the Greek city-state Athens, the indisputable center of philosophy and education in the ancient world. Many Athenian philosophers are remembered as the founders of specific areas of study, and Thucydides is no exception. He was one of the first to devote serious attention to the political theory of international relations and established important philosophical precedents in this field. Seriously.

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  • 0:01 Thucydides
  • 0:52 Ethics
  • 2:36 Political Realism
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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To understand Thucydides' ideas about politics and international relations, we first need to understand his stance on ethics, the philosophy of morality. Now, when we think of morality, we tend to think of philosophies that strictly define right and wrong. But Thucydides had a slightly different take. Throughout his writings, this philosopher meticulously examined the cause and effect of actions, but only as they could be observed. This means that unlike most ancient Greeks, he really didn't blame the gods for anything.

His focus was on observable data, which actually makes him a very early precursor of the scientific method, although he never would have used that term. So, instead of seeing morals as some universal, natural force, Thucydides saw them as the effect caused by a person's physical and social environment.

To Thucydides, ethics was a study of how various factors in a person's life influences their morality. So, he actually had a fairly skeptical viewpoint on morals. Right and wrong were therefore not simply universal truths, but something slightly different to each person, depending on your experiences. Other factors, such as social influences and basic needs like hunger, also influenced each person's beliefs about right and wrong. Now, Thucydides does not specifically say that there are no universal truths in terms of morals, but again, he is much more skeptical than other philosophers. This rather serious take on ethics sets the tone for Thucydides' views on international relations.

Political Realism

Thucydides' main focus as a philosopher and historian was the politics of international relations. And he lived at a great time for this - Athens had recently become so powerful that it started conquering the other Greek city-states, resulting in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during his lifetime. From his observations and research, Thucydides came to the conclusion that political behavior is driven by fear and self-interest. Modern intellectuals call this idea political realism, and Thucydides is considered one of the founders of this school of thought.

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