Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.09

Robert Hariman, Political Style: The Artistry of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Pp. 259. ISBN 0- 22-631630-0.

Reviewed by Gregory Crane, Tufts University.

I would like in this review to draw attention to a new book which, although it does not primarily concern itself with antiquity, nevertheless has much to offer those of us who study how power is concentrated and disseminated in the classical period. Robert Hariman's Political Style: The Artistry of Power uses subtle analyses of four texts to articulate four different political styles: Machiavelli's The Prince introduces the realist style, Ryszard Kapuscinski's account of the last days of Haile Selassie's rule serves as a case study in courtly style, while Cicero's Letters and Kafka's The Castle represent republican and bureaucratic styles. It is hard to assign Hariman to a neat academic pigeon-hole: he is Professor of Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Endowment Professor of the Humanities at Drake University. He certainly lives up to the expectations of rhetoric, for his writing engages complex issues, does not shirk from sophisticated topics and nevertheless remains eminently readable. As an expert on communications, he has a keen eye for the mechanics whereby humans share ideas. As a professor of the humanities, he uses texts, but his reading, far from being a reductive scavenger-hunt for data, enhances the complexity of every text on which it focuses.

I found each of the four main chapters delightful both because of their content and because of their methodology, for in each case Hariman interweaves his canonical texts with more recent but equally elusive phenomena: few would probably link Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, the Emperor Pu Yi and Haile Selassie, but the courtly style illuminates the practices of each; Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, and Vaclav Havel appear as men who are not only politicians but actors struggling to "craft a persona emblematic of public life" (5) and to establish a language appropriate for political discourse in a republican world -- a sympathetic treatment of all three men by a left-of-center writer is worth the price of admission. While the soulless and depersonalized bureaucracy that haunts Kafka's work may seem all too familiar to anyone who has wrestled with an American Registry of Motor Vehicles or Post Office, the student of ancient bureaucracies from Mesopotamia to Rome will probably find this section of interest as well. Hannah Arendt stressed the close relationship between totalitarianism and the anonymity of bureaucratic control.1 She saw totalitarian rule as it emerged in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as typically and distinctly modern, but the basic elements of totalitarianism appear already in fifth century Athens,2 and the student of classical Greece may also find Hariman's views on bureaucratic style useful. The chapter on the "courtly style," with its case studies from the Ethiopian court and its forays into the ostensibly anti-courtly modern world, is an excellent piece of work: those trying to understand the role of Demos in Aristophanes' Knights would do well to consider Hariman on the body of the sovereign in courtly style. Anyone who reads Hariman's description of Selassie's "pee lackey" will be reminded that the grotesqueries to which Kleon and the Sausage Seller stoop are not merely the stuff of comedy. As a student of fifth-century ideologies and especially of Thucydides, however, I found the chapter on the realist style (which makes only brief direct references to classical antiquity) particularly germane, and it is to this that I will turn for the remainder of this review.

The Realist Style

Hariman's chapter on Machiavelli is the best description of political realism that I have yet had the good fortune to find. A few months ago, I ran into a classicist from another institution who also turned out to have been studying the relationship between Thucydides and the tradition of political realism. In exchanging impressions, we both admitted to one another -- not without some relief -- that neither of us had been able to muster much enthusiasm for the extensive and often eloquent bibliography composed by political philosophers and experts in international relations. Several scholars with an interest both in political theory and in Thucydides have recently helped to bridge the gap,3 but Hariman's analysis of the realist style is both penetrating and succinct.

Students of realism have generally sought to enumerate a set of assumptions common to realists of various types: realists, for example, view the state as the primary actor; they see political and international relations as a competition between rational actors maximizing their advantage; they separate interstate conflict from conventional norms of justice; above all, they see power, however power may be constructed in a given society, as a universal object of competition, and the hunger for power becomes a common denominator that makes cross-cultural comparison possible. Different realists vary this set of assumptions, which come to assume the role of litmus tests popular in American politics: one text even helpfully includes a table of "realist assumptions" and who shares them4 -- thus further reducing the concept of realism to a checklist. Since many people use these sets of assumptions to define their relationship to realist thought, these labels constitute an important and legitimate hermeneutic tool, but they do not tell the whole story any more than do the labels by which any group, western or non-western, ancient or modern, "dominant" or "marginal," defines itself.

Hariman's analysis leaves these well-known labels aside. Instead, his model of realist style is much more powerful, and its power lies in the attention which he pays to text and language and to style -- elements which realist authors have (for reasons Hariman pursues) generally avoided. Hariman provides a different and (in my view) much more compelling account of Machiavelli, his influence and, indeed, a central force in modern political thought precisely because he does not marginalize language in his search for some "scientific" truth. Many traditional realists give the impression that, although they sense the limits of human foresight and doubt that we will ever have a mathematically exact model of human behavior, they would be delighted if such a thing were possible. It is as if they admired Thucydides' history, but wished they could replace him with a political equivalent to Euclid's Elements, with its elegant and rigorous progression from axioms to theorems.

The Prince, for all its distinctness, belongs to a well established genre in which wise men offer public advice to princes -- there were many such texts in the renaissance and Hariman traces the tradition to Isocrates' letter To Nicocles (those with an affinity for the fifth century may be tempted to add a number of Pindar's epinicia, and the genre could easily be expanded further). But Machiavelli turned the conventional genre on its head: every other renaissance author had grounded his authority in references to past texts. In Erasmus' Institutio Principis Christiani, for example, "the dead have become exempla, rhetorical figures having as much presence as the living and more authority, and any distinction between ancient author, prior ruler, and current prince is, well, something not quite determined (27)." When Augustino Nifo rewrote (and one can say plagiarized) Machiavelli, he added all the references to classical authors that Machiavelli had chosen to exclude, thus bringing The Prince into line with practice of the time and illustrating the gap which separated The Prince from the conventions of its genre.

The issue went beyond including a few more footnotes. Machiavelli's peculiar model of power is inextricably linked to his marginalization of past texts: "Whereas Isocrates understood power as an effective text, and implied that rulers can only rule effectively if they, like speakers, adapt themselves to the restraints imposed by their audiences, Machiavelli developed the modern metaphysics of power by writing in a manner that subverted the authority of textual consciousness, freeing those who would rule from the constraints of eloquence (23-24)." Hariman goes on to state that, for Machiavelli, "the essence of his subject is something that is correctly communicated only through artlessness, he abjures explicit textuality because power is not itself textual. As rhetoric is extrinsic to reality, so power becomes objectified, something existing independently of language, texts, and textual authority (24)." The realist style, according to Hariman, requires the pose of the artless reporter: realists must minimize their use of explicit rhetorical form precisely because they ground their authority in a clear understanding of the "real" world.

Hariman places Machiavelli's vision of power at the center of modernity. This is, of course, nothing new, but Hariman does not content himself with references to the separation of morality from statecraft or the emphasis upon physical force. Hariman sees the contempt for textuality as a force that continues to inform political discourse: "Machiavelli's technique of denigrating other political texts as texts, necessarily alienated in a material world, has become a rhetoric of self-assertion that now is reproduced endlessly. So it is that diplomats can denigrate human rights as slogans, corporate executives can dismiss worker-safety laws as bureaucratic red-tape, and journalists can debunk political speech as mere rhetoric. In every case, understanding the modern age requires reading Machiavelli not only as the proponent of self-assertion for the few fortunate enough to have lo stato within their reach, but also as the modern writer schooling all of us to attain self- assertion by overruling our texts (42-43)." "When political intelligence is represented as the calculation of forces in a real world, then political rhetoric becomes its shadow and political commentary the futile attempt to discern the light in the shadows. Thus, his strategies for aggrandizing his own text ultimately work against him. By setting his discourse over the other writers, Machiavelli set in motion an attack upon all political discourse that has to destroy his own position. The Prince is not enigmatic, strictly speaking, but the experience of reading it is paradoxical. Machiavelli's reader loses through the act of reading itself the resources for integrating this political treatise into the political world (48-49)."

It is not hard to see the irony of the Machiavellian position. On the one hand, Machiavelli undercuts the authority of his own text, for, if texts are secondary to reality, then The Prince too constitutes at best a negative hermeneutic that explodes all texts (including itself). On the other hand, Machiavelli's text itself became a canonical document (for some the founding text) of political science, and it continues to be studied and cited. The realist text, with its disdain for rhetoric and the tactics of persuasion, can be the most rhetorical and persuasive of all. Marx, for example, rejected the airy phantasms of Hegel and Feuerbach, striving to base his philosophy on "facts" and "data," but his work engendered in part a vast and stultifying sacred literature that did as much violence to empirical study as any fundamentalist religious tract.

The strength of Hariman's analysis of realism lies in its commitment to texts and to the real impact which they, by their style and particular form, exert upon the world. Most writers on realism have taken for granted, and thus readily overlooked, a central point that The Prince set out to make: they assume that political science/philosophy concerns itself with a real world and that texts are, at best, a means by which to apprehend this real world more clearly. Hariman, with his sensitivity to rhetoric and to the subtleties of communication, resists this. While he does not go so far as to imply that the medium is the message, his analysis insists that medium and message cannot be separated: few writers in any field would challenge this statement, but scholarly practice often fails to give proper weight to medium and message. The text is important because, whether or not there exists a sovereign Platonic reality "out there," the text allows us to interpret reality for ourselves and to extract meaning from events.

Hariman's analysis places at least one traditional question in a new light. Machiavelli's yearning for a scientific realism is related to the transformation of European science. If Machiavelli turned his gaze from ancient authors, the anatomists would likewise begin relying less on Galen and more on direct observation (although Galenic phantoms, such as organ descriptions based on animal rather than human anatomy would remain in the literature well after scientists had begun dissecting human cadavers). Even more intriguing, I think, would be an investigation into the rediscovery of Greek mathematics. The axioms and postulates of Euclid do in fact constitute a language that generates "knowledge" as certain as any human system ever has. Parallels to medicine might suggest that Machiavelli simply wished to replace textual authority with a pure empiricism. The mathematical model, by contrast, suggests movement in a different direction. Instead of eliminating language as a barrier, many political scientists since Machiavelli have wished to replace the inchoate and fuzzy language of traditional texts with a rigorous and reliable scientific discourse. Rhetoric is thus problematic not because language and textuality per se are flawed but because rhetoric embodies in itself the errant and unreliable tendencies of natural language.

Hariman's analysis is valuable not simply because it provides a strong reading of Machiavelli and subsequent realist thought, but also because many of his insights shed light upon Thucydides as well -- indeed, instructors teaching Thucydides might use the chapter on Machiavelli as a starting point for discussion of a realist author.

First, Machiavelli seeks to define "his subject against an alternative; this technique persuades the reader of the artlessness not only of Machiavelli's text but of power itself (5)." The apparent candor of Thucydides and the author's self-effacement are among the most carefully studied aspects of Thucydidean style. Thucydides attempts to present a narrative that perfectly mirrors its subject and presents "just the facts,"5 but the apparent artlessness of his narrative, whether consciously contrived or not,6 contributes to its subtle power.7

Second, Hariman describes Machiavelli's view of power as "topographic," and illustrates this outlook with a quote from George Kennan's Machiavellian analysis of Soviet Power: Russian "political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power (36)." "The shift from textuality to topography," according to Hariman, "creates a gravitational pull toward imperial formulations. When power is understood in terms of speech, it is checked, relational, circumscribed by the exigencies of being heard by an audience or understood by a reader, and always awaiting a reply. When power is understood in terms of vision it is unchecked, expansive, requiring only the movement of the person seeing to acquire the means for complete control of the environment. Machiavelli is comprehensible as the exponent of the modern state not because he described the state but because he composed a discourse capable of carrying the expansive potential in state power (41-42)."

The irresistible fascination of power is, of course, a major theme throughout Thucydides' History. At the climax of the Funeral Oration (Thucydides' closest approximation to idealist discourse), Perikles calls upon the Athenians to lose themselves in worship of Athens' power (2.43). In the opening section we hear that fear, not loyalty and friendship, allowed Agamemnon to assemble the expedition against Troy (1.9). In their first speech of the History, the Athenians argue that the quest for power -- the combined influence of advantage, fear and honor -- constitute natural influences: the Athenian acquisition of maintenance of empire is thus no more than human and should arouse no ill will (1.76). The "topographic" model of power as an irresistible "gravitational" pull is very similar to the model of Athenian acquisitiveness presented by the Corinthians at 1.67-71 and the more general analysis of imperialism by Alcibiades at 6.16-18.

Third, the rejection of textuality may at first seem not to apply to Thucydides. When Erasmus wrote the Institutio Principis Christiani, he drew upon a continuous written textual tradition that was two thousand years old. "Learned" texts of this type were inconceivable in the fifth century BCE, because the written textual tradition in general and prose in particular were still in their infancy: Stewart Flory has argued strongly that Herodotus composed the first book-length prose text.8 Thucydides himself did much (perhaps too much) to establish conventions for the prose monograph.

Nevertheless, thin as the textual tradition may have been, comparatively speaking, Thucydides establishes for himself a position much like that which Hariman attributes to Machiavelli. Thucydides opens his history with a revisionist analysis of the distant past in which he dismisses heroes and heroic poets as well, and where Homer comes in for explicit attack. Recent as prose writing may have been, Thucydides refers (disparagingly) to his predecessors, citing Hellanicus (Thuc. 1.97.2), and the famous boast at 1.22 that his history will be an "heirloom for all time" glances defensively at unnamed others who compose to give pleasure rather than instruction. Most readers have felt that Herodotus (never explicitly mentioned) looms over Thucydides' text.9 Thucydides' insistence at 1.22 on direct observation, cross- checking and analysis and his suspicion of orality reflect a compulsion to base his words on some tangible reality.10

Fourth, I would like to conclude with the tension that Hariman locates in Machiavelli's realist style. "When political intelligence is represented as the calculation of forces in a real world, then political rhetoric becomes its shadow and political commentary the futile attempt to discern the light in the shadows. Thus, his strategies for aggrandizing his own text ultimately work against him. By setting his discourse over the other writers, Machiavelli set in motion an attack upon all political discourse that has to destroy his own position. The Prince is not enigmatic, strictly speaking, but the experience of reading it is paradoxical. Machiavelli's reader loses through the act of reading itself the resources for integrating this political treatise into the political world (48-49)."

The parallel with Thucydides is not, I think, as close in this case as in the others, but the general problem -- the inherent contradiction of the realist text -- confronts both writers. Many, if not most, of those who have studied Thucydides closely have come away with the suspicion that he never resolved in his own mind the tension between language and reality, even between logos and ergon (or "realism" and "idealism," to use two anachronistic terms). The Athenians not only dominate the History. They also approach more closely than any other actors a heroic status -- at least by Thucydides own terms -- for the Athenians, as they move from their speech at Sparta to the Mytilenean debate and finally arrive at the Melian dialogue -- bring their words and actions into progressively closer alignment. Even so, Athenian realism emerges as yet another rhetorical strategy and a questionable guide to decision making. The Athenian Euphemus delivers perhaps the most ironic speech in the entire history and in so doing dramatizes the uncertainty of the realist style. Pretending to a candor that is false and a realism that seeks to deceive, he tells the Sicilians that Athens can have no designs upon Sicily because imperialist expansion is not in Athens' interest (6.76). The irony is that Euphemus, although consciously lying (the Athenian expedition was sent to conquer Sicily), is actually telling the truth, for, in the event, the Athenian imperialist expedition is a catastrophe from which Athens never fully recovers. Realism may have its attractions, but reality is hard to pin down.


  • [1] Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism (2 ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.
  • [2] Sagan, E. (1991). The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 135-158.
  • [3] E.g. Clark, M. T. (1993). "Realism Ancient and Modern: Thucydides and International Relations". PS: Political Science and Politics, 26(3), 491-494.; Johnson, L. M. (1993). Thucydides, Hobbes, and the Interpretation of Realism. Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press; Johnson-Bagby, L. (1994). "The Use and Abuse of Thucydides." International Organization, 48, 131-153; Derian, J. D. (1995). "A Reinterpretation of Realism." In J. D. Derian (Ed.), International Theory: Critical Investigations, (pp. 363-396). New York: Macmillan.
  • [4] Wayman, F. W., & Diehl, P. F. (Eds.). (1994). Reconstructing Realpolitik. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • [5] E.g., Edmunds, 1993.
  • [6] Hunter, V.J. (1973). Thucydides: the Artful Reporter. Toronto: Hakkert.
  • [7] This is the main theme of Connor's famous article on Thucydides as a post-modernist writer (Connor, R. (1977). "A Post-Modernist Thucydides." CJ 72, 289-298) and a major topic of his book (Connor, W. R. (1984). Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • [8] Flory, S. (1980). "Who Read Herodotus' Histories." AJP, 101, 12-28.
  • [9] Thucydides' knowledge of Herodotus has been seriously challenged in a dissertation: James Kennelly, Thucydides' Knowledge of Herodotus, PhD diss. Brown U 1993.
  • [10] On this, see esp. Edmunds, L. (1993). "Thucydides in the Act of Writing." In R. Pretagostini (Ed.), Tradizione e Innovazione nella Cultura Greca, (Vol. 2, pp. 831-852). Rome: GEI.