Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-662rr Total loading time: 0.3 Render date: 2022-05-23T20:19:49.995Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

What Can We Learn from Political History? Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron, Readers of Thucydides

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2018


Through a comparison of Leo Strauss's and Raymond Aron's interpretations of Thucydides's history, this paper sheds light on the relationship between political history and political philosophy. In continuing the dialogue between the two thinkers, I demonstrate that in spite of their opposed views on modern historical consciousness, they converge in a defense of the object and method of classical political history. However, there is a deeper disagreement regarding the relationship between philosophy and politics. While Strauss makes the case for the compatibility of classical political history and classical political philosophy on the grounds that Thucydides is a “philosophic historian,” Aron argues that it is precisely because Thucydides is not a philosopher that he succeeds in understanding an essential feature of political things, namely, contingency in history.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Strauss, Leo, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 72102 Google Scholar; Strauss, , “On Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians,” chap. 3 in The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 139241 Google Scholar; Strauss, , “Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 89104 Google Scholar.

2 See Aron, Raymond, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” in Politics and History: Selected Essays (New York: Free Press, 1978), 2046 Google Scholar. Aron's article first appeared under the title Thucydide et le récit des événements,” History and Theory 1, no. 2 (1961): 103–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and subsequently as Thucydide et le récit historique,” in Dimensions de la conscience historique (Paris: Plon, 1961), 112–47Google Scholar. For further discussion of Thucydides in Aron's writings, see La République impériale (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1973)Google Scholar and his Mémoires: 50 ans de réflexion politique (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2010)Google Scholar, first published in 1982.

3 Strauss to Aron, June 11, 1963, Fonds Raymond Aron, boîte n° 208, dossier Leo Strauss.

4 About Aron's Paix et guerre entre les nations, Strauss writes: “I have now completed my study of both of them. As for the first book, it is in my knowledge the best book on the subject which is in existence: no other book I know of is as broad and as profound, as free from delusions and as humane as yours. To my great pleasure, I hear that it will soon be available in English translation. I believe I agree with your political theses in every point, except that I may be even less sanguine than you are” (letter of June 11, 1963).

5 A thorough examination of the “problem of history” in Strauss's thought would require a separate and very long treatment that falls outside the scope of the present article. For an concise overview of his criticism of modern historical consciousness and its philosophical and political implications, see, among other texts, Strauss, Leo, “The Living Issues of German Postwar Philosophy” (1940), in Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, by Meier, Heinrich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 115–40Google Scholar.

6 See, among other writings, Strauss, “Living Issues”; introduction to City and Man; Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953)Google Scholar, introduction and chaps. 1 and 2.

7 See Aron, , Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1986 Google Scholar; orig. pub. 1938), in which he argues that the historical philosophy he sketches in his book will be at the same time a “philosophy of politics” that would seek to understand “the concrete consciousness, the passions and conflicts that motivate human beings” (13, my translation). This modern historical orientation is also manifest in Aron's secondary thesis, La philosophie critique de l'histoire, published in 1938, which consists in an investigation into the German theory of history put forth by the Neo-Kantian school of Heidelberg—Rickert and later Weber—as well as by Dilthey and Simmel. The book deals with the problem of the philosophical foundations of objectivity in the emerging social sciences and the tension between the universal and the particular. Ultimately, Aron's analysis points to a crisis in German philosophy: how to preserve philosophy as a theoretical pursuit in the face of historical relativism? In that sense, his fundamental preoccupation, despite the language in which it is expressed, is closer to Strauss's own concerns than it appears at first sight.

8 See Aron, Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire. See also Dimensions de la conscience historique; Aron, Raymond, “Ma carrière: Note du 6 janvier 1983,” in “Raymond Aron (1905–1983): Histoire et politique,” special issue, Commentaire 8, no. 28–29 (Feb. 1985): 517–19Google Scholar; Aron, , “De l'existence historique (inédit),” Cahiers de philosophie politique et juridique de l'Université de Caen, no. 15 (1989): 147–62Google Scholar.

9 See Aron, Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire, sec. 4, “Histoire et vérité,” 331–437.

10 See Pierre Manent, “La politique comme science et comme souci,” in Liberté et égalité: Cours au Collège de France, by Raymond Aron (Paris: Éditions EHESS, 2013). For an excellent analysis of the debate in France about whether Aron is more Kantian or Aristotelian, see Raynaud, Philippe, “Raymond Aron et le jugement politique entre Aristote et Kant,” in Raymond Aron et la liberté politique, ed. Bachelier, C. and Dutartre, E. (Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2002), 123–31Google Scholar.

11 Strauss, City and Man, 239.

12 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” in Politics and History, 21.

13 This question is reiterated each time Strauss introduces a new element in his interpretation (see, for instance, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 74, 80, 81, 96).

14 Strauss's argument on the perennial character of the fundamental problems of political philosophy is well known; more surprising is Aron's view on how the particular should always be analyzed in light of the permanent features of human action. On the possibility of a comparison between Thucydides's time and ours, he makes the following claim: “The situations are similar because the problem—peace or war between states jealous of their sovereignty—is eternal, because the aims of each state—security, independence, power—are in the abstract the same; and because the nature of the deliberation—calculation of power—results from these permanent aims” (Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 43).

15 See Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 75.

16 See Aron, Mémoires, 829–30.

17 See Aron, “Journaliste et professeur,” Revue de l'Université de Bruxelles, Oct. 1959–Feb. 1960, 177–96. The whole passage deserves to be cited: “Deux livres grecs sont pour moi des livres de chevet: la Guerre du Péloponnèse de Thucydide et la Politique d'Aristote, l'un histoire d'une grande guerre, l'autre sociologie des cités et de leurs constitutions. Aristote n'aurait pas eu la naïveté de croire que la sociologie des cités grecques permettrait jamais de se passer du génie de Périclès. L'histoire de la grande guerre, telle que Thucydide l'a racontée, serait inintelligible sans la compréhension des classes sociales et de leurs luttes. Enfin, l'historien et le sociologue seraient également perdus en une navigation sans boussole si le philosophe ne leur apprenait à s'orienter sur l’étoile des idées” (195).

18 “Que voulait-il dire à la postérité?” ( Aron, , “De l'interprétation historique,” in Penser la guerre, Clausewitz: L’âge européen [Paris: Gallimard, 1976], 20 Google Scholar).

19 Lefort uses this expression—“ce qui ne passe pas dans le passé”—to describe Machiavelli's teaching in his monumental work Le travail de l’œuvre Machiavel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 6465 Google Scholar.

20 Raymond Aron, “De l'objet de l'histoire,” in Dimensions de la conscience historique, 106.

21 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 21.

22 Ibid., 45.

23 Ibid., 31.

24 Strauss makes the same argument in City and Man, 141–42.

25 Ibid.

26 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 76.

27 Ibid.

28 See, for instance, Adams, Henry, “Political Morality,” chap. 10 in The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 145–66Google Scholar.

29 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 75.

30 Aron adds: “They both underestimated the power of the specifically political factor” ( Aron, Raymond, “The Dawn of Universal History,” in The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century [New York: Basic Books, 2002], 469 Google Scholar).

31 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 44.

32 Orwin, Clifford, “Reading Thucydides with Leo Strauss,” in Brill's Companion to Leo Strauss’ Writings on Classical Political Thought, ed. Burns, Timothy (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 52 Google Scholar.

33 As Thucydides explains: “This was certainly the greatest ever upheaval among the Greeks, and one which affected a good part of the barbarian world too—even, you could say, most of mankind. In respect of the preceding period and the still remoter past, the length of time that has elapsed made it impossible to ascertain clearly what happened; but from the evidence I find I can trust in pushing my enquiries back as far as possible, I judge that earlier events were not on the same scale, either as regards their wars or in other respects” (Thuc. 1.1). Here and throughout, I use the following edition of Thucydides's work: Thucydides, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, ed. and trans. Mynott, Jeremy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

34 See Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 24.

35 “Celui-ci ne formule pas de lois, il ne s’écarte pas de ce qui s'est passé à tel endroit, à tel moment, et pourtant la signification du récit ne s’épuise jamais dans l'anecdote” (Aron, “Thucydide et le récit historique,” 118; my translation). This passage is omitted entirely from the English version of the article, even though it is of central importance for the specific relationship between the particular and the universal.

36 See Leo Strauss, “The Political Philosophy of Thucydides,” lecture 1 (book 1, chaps. 1–23: The Archeology), University of Chicago, Winter quarter, 1962 (The Leo Strauss Center, Univ. of Chicago).

37 See section 2 and 3 of City and Man, chap. 3, entitled “The Case for Sparta: Moderation and the Divine Law” (145–54) and “The Case for Athens: Daring, Progress and the Arts” (154–63). See also Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 29.

38 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 40.

39 “Les grands livres sur l'action, il semble que nous les devions aux hommes d'action que la fortune a privés du suprême accomplissement et qui parviennent à un subtil dosage d'engagement et de détachement, encore capables de reconnaître les contraintes et les servitudes du soldat ou du politique, capables aussi de regarder du dehors, non avec indifférence, mais avec sérénité, l'ironie du sort et le jeu imprévisible de forces qu'aucune volonté ne maîtrise” (Aron, Penser la guerre, Clausewitz, 33; my translation).

40 See Strauss, City and Man, 142.

41 Ibid., 165.

42 Ibid., 166.

43 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 77.

44 Aron makes a similar argument when he highlights the impossibility of determining their degree of proximity to the actual speeches. What matters, he states, is that “Thucydides considers that the speeches should have been in reality what they are in the book” (“Thucydide et le récit historique,” 120; my translation).

45 On this point, see Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 94.

46 For the description of the chaos during the confrontation, see Thuc. 7.44.

47 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 28.

48 See von Ranke, Leopold, “Preface: Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494–1514,” in The Varieties of History, ed. Stern, Fritz (London: Macmillan, 1956), 57 Google Scholar.

49 Leo Strauss, “Basic Principles of Classical Political Philosophy,” lecture 2, University of Chicago, Oct. 4, 1961, transcript p. 21 (Leo Strauss Center, Univ. of Chicago).

50 Strauss, City and Man, 166.

51 Aron points to the universal character of Thucydides's political judgments as proof of his being a “historian-philosopher”; and the title of Strauss's seminar on Thucydides—“The Political Philosophy of Thucydides”—is an indication of his own view on that matter.

52 This is the definition of political philosophy provided by Strauss in “What Can We Learn from Political Theory?”: In the last analysis, political philosophy is nothing other than looking philosophically at things political” (Review of Politics 69, no. 4 [2007]: 527)Google Scholar.

53 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 74.

54 The reader should note the inversion in the titles of the first and the last sections of his essay: section 1 is entitled “Political Philosophy and Political History” and section 10, “Political History and Political Philosophy.” There is a shift in Strauss's argument: it opens on an analysis of political history through the lens of political philosophy. It closes by a reversed examination where Thucydides's narrative comes first. To put it differently, the question at the beginning is: how do wise men (the political philosophers) come to political history? The question one confronts at the end is the status of political philosophy in light of classical political history.

55 The chapter on Thucydides is 102 pages long. By comparison, the first two chapters (on Aristotle's Politics and Plato's Republic) make 125 pages of the book.

56 Orwin, “Reading Thucydides with Leo Strauss,” 53.

57 On that point, see the very end of Strauss's essay on Thucydides in The City and Man, which is also the end of the book. Strauss writes: “Only by beginning at this point will we be open to the full impact of the all-important question which is coeval with philosophy although the philosophers do not frequently pronounce it—the question quid sit deus” (241). This leads to his third essay on Thucydides, written late in life, “Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work.”

58 See Orwin, “Reading Thucydides with Leo Strauss,” 74.

59 See Strauss, City and Man, 240.

60 Hobbes, Thomas, “On the Life and History of Thucydides,” in Hobbes's Thucydides, ed. Schlatter, Richard (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1975), 18 Google Scholar.

61 See Strauss, City and Man, 145.

62 See Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 74.

63 Leo Strauss, City and Man, 239–240.

64 Ibid., 151.

65 Ibid., 229.

66 Ibid., 236.

67 See Strauss, “The Political Philosophy of Thucydides,” Winter quarter, 1962, transcript p. 19.

68 Strauss, City and Man, 148; see Thuc. 1.30–46.

69 The question of the divine in Thucydides relates to the Spartan manner, the reverence for the laws and the obedience to the gods. I have chosen to leave aside this complex discussion, which would exceed the aim (and length) of the present essay. It suffices to mention that Strauss's interpretation of the place of the divine in Thucydides's narrative and its relation to a prephilosophic understanding of the city is most visible in the historian's depiction of Nicias's judgments and actions as the most “Melian” of the characters in the narrative. To cite Strauss, “Thucydides’ theology—if it is permitted to use this expression—is located in the mean (in the Aristotelian sense) between that of Nikias and that of the Athenian ambassadors on Melos” (Strauss, “Preliminary Observations on the Gods,” 101).

70 See Strauss, City and Man, 211.

71 See Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 90–91.

72 See Strauss, City and Man, 212 and 229–230.

73 See Strauss, “The Meaning of Political History,” 90–91.

74 See Aron's Mémoires: “Ce qui fait précisément l'insurpassable grandeur de l'Athénien, c'est son impitoyable regard qui pénètre au-delà des apparences et des subterfuges, atteint la réalité humaine dans sa nudité” (829).

75 “En tout cas, nous serions tentés d'emprunter nos conceptions à Thucydide plutôt qu’à Platon” (Raymond Aron, “La notion du sens de l'histoire,” in Dimensions de la conscience historique, 33).

76 Strauss to Löwith, August 19, 1946, in Correspondence concerning Modernity,” Independent Journal of Philosophy, no. 4 (1983): 111 Google Scholar.

77 Many events were unpredictable: Alcibiades was called back to Athens for his trial, a lunar eclipse led Nicias to delay the return of the Athenians who were preparing to sail home, and Nicias's hesitation to go to battle, which allowed the Syracusans to prepare their attack and trap the Athenians inside the port.

78 As Aron puts it, “there is a tie between ‘event’ and ‘accident.’… ‘Not inevitable’ means that the actor could, without being essentially different, have made another decision” (“Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 35).

79 As Thucydides explains: “in fact they were all the more motivated, and the result was just the opposite of what he had expected—they thought that he had given them good advice and that now the safety of the enterprise would be fully assured” (Thuc. 6.24).

80 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 38.

81 Ibid., 40.

82 Ibid.

83 Strauss, City and Man, 140.

84 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 84.

85 Strauss, “The Political Philosophy of Thucydides,” lecture 1, p. 5.

86 Strauss, City and Man, 157.

87 Aron, “Thucydides and the Historical Narrative,” 37.

88 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 74.

89 Aron, Raymond, preface to Le savant et le politique, by Max Weber (Paris: Plon, 1959), 34 Google Scholar.

90 Aron, “History and Politics,” in Politics and History, 237.

91 See Mahoney, Daniel, “Aron et Thucydide,” Commentaire 4, no. 132 (2010): 911–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mahoney's thesis is that Aron's rationalism finds its source in classical thought rather than in modern philosophy. Although he acknowledges in his book on Aron the many modern intellectual influences on Aron's thought, he also insists on the parallel with Aristotle (see Daniel Mahoney, The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron: A Critical Introduction [Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992], appendix). In fact, there is very little evidence to support such a claim. With the exception of one specific passage, mentioned above, in which Aron claims that his bedside table readings are Aristotle's Politics and Thucydides's History, there is no direct mention of his alleged preference for the Greeks. Aron examines Aristotle's classification of regimes in some of his essays, but it plays a minor role in his thought. He also claims that if he were to choose between the different Greek thinkers, he would side with Thucydides rather than Plato. But these remarks have little weight when compared to his in-depth analyses of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Weber, and Marx. Aron did not understand his work in terms of the ancients/moderns dichotomy.

92 Mahoney, “Aron et Thucydide,” 912.

93 Aron, , “De la vérité historique des philosophies politiques,” in Études politiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 48 Google Scholar.

94 Strauss, “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History,” 94.

95 Strauss, City and Man, 240.

96 I wish to thank the editors for pointing out the important difference between the affirmation that political philosophy requires a supplement that the philosopher cannot provide and that is found in political history, and the claim that this supplement is inaccessible to the philosopher.

97 Strauss, City and Man, 237.

98 See Orwin, Clifford, The Humanity of Thucydides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)Google Scholar. In chapter 8, Orwin argues that Thucydides does not raise the question of the best regime because this question presupposes “the priority in domestic life of choice over compulsion.” The relations between cities are marked by the need to do what is necessary, even when it contradicts justice (172). Thucydides does not believe in the possibility of actualizing the perfect political order, mainly because of his emphasis on the determining domestic repercussions and “exigencies” of foreign policy.

99 Mahoney, “Aron et Thucydide,” 917; my translation.

100 Aron, Raymond, Introduction à la philosophie politique: Démocratie et révolution (Paris: Fallois, 1997), 245 Google Scholar.

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

What Can We Learn from Political History? Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron, Readers of Thucydides
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

What Can We Learn from Political History? Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron, Readers of Thucydides
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

What Can We Learn from Political History? Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron, Readers of Thucydides
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *