Think Piece

Thucydides, Canon, and Western Civilization

by Emily Rutherford

Columbia University, where I study, is one of very few American colleges where all undergraduates are required to complete a sequence of survey courses in western civilization. Many history graduate students eventually teach in the Core sequence, and it’s impossible to avoid the thousands of eighteen-year-olds walking around with copies of the Iliad, the Bible, and the Greek tragedy of the year. As a result, I’ve become preoccupied by the pedagogical uses of these ancient texts today, what their significance is to those who don’t study the ancient world, how our reactions to them are filtered through centuries of other readers’ translations and interpretations, and what my own responsibility as someone who hopes to be a university teacher of European history is to Western-civilization narratives.

The Core rubs off on other corners of Columbia. We first-year PhD students began our required introductory historiography course by reading Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. The last time I read Thucydides, it was for a reading course in Victorian intellectual history, in the Greek edition edited by the great reforming headmaster of Rugby Thomas Arnold. Like many of his contemporaries, Arnold revered Thucydides as a guide to modern statecraft and also as a pagan whose theory of history was assimilable to a Christian worldview. Reading the text again, it was easy to see why Thucydides’ perspective on the imperial ambitions of a great naval power, and his commitment to tracing the processes behind that power’s political and military decision-making, might have seemed significant to early modern and modern British imperial subjects whose education and culture taught them to look to antiquity for political, philosophical, and strategic guides. It’s also comprehensible that present-day political and international-relations theorists, working within a philosophical tradition long infused with classical learning, turn to key passages from Thucydides like the “Melian Dialogue” in Book Five in order to illustrate their own claims about the negotiation of political power.

Less obvious, however, is the relationship between what Thucydides and his contemporaries saw as the practice of history and the practice into which twenty-first-century American doctoral students are socialized through institutions like the first-year historiography seminar. Today, we are often nudged away from historical accounts whose primary purpose is to elucidate strategic political and military decision-making; very different theoretical and ethical standards govern our evidence-gathering and how we make use of oral testimony; fewer professional historians see it as their job to record national history for a first audience of compatriots who took part in that history; our professional practice has a first loyalty to the written archive that was not conceivable in the late fifth century BCE. Thucydides’ method is not, practically speaking, among the menu of options from which apprentice historians are invited to choose when using their coursework to conceptualize their own approaches to the past. While a reception history of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War‘s role in shaping the relatively young academic discipline of history would be an interesting project, there’s an alterity to this nearly 2,500-year-old text that can’t be overcome: saying that it’s of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it (one member of our class who works on recent American history and uses oral sources certainly thought so) is fundamentally different to saying, as many historiography seminars do, that a twenty-year-old work of high-theoretical linguistic-turn history is of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it.

A significant strand of public-intellectual debate holds that history has lost a position it once held as magistra vitae and as the deciding analytic of statecraft—hearkening back to a golden age imagined, perhaps, out of a sense that reading ancient historians like Thucydides was once more fundamental to the study of the past than it is today. The data don’t necessarily support a narrative of history’s decline and fall. But in the discussion around Guldi and Armitage’s History Manifesto and in other forums, historians keen to recover this statecraft side to history’s educational potential have advocated approaches that might do this—taking on big narratives and big ideas with methods old and new—and have presented them as a favorable alternative to what they see as a dominant but short-sighted mode of academic history. Those who make this argument hold that this “microhistory” or “antiquarianism,” by letting the archive (instead of concerns found in policy or the public discourse) dictate the historical narrative and claims to significance, is necessarily limited in its impact.

I have many concerns about this artificial binary, but it’s probably best not to wade into them here, except to say that the “microhistorical”/”antiquarian” form of history patently also has important lessons to teach undergraduates and the wider public, a group not limited to policymakers. Putting Thucydides in dialogue with this media discussion ably shows how a policy-, narrative-, and big-ideas-focused brand of history, and an archivally-faithful, perhaps more specialized or narrower in scope, form of history are to some extent two sides of the same coin. The Peloponnesian War‘s status as an ancient text, the specifics of its composition, the stories of early modern and modern readers who have responded to it and thus made it the canonical take on politics and warfare that it continues to be, may not always be stories of interest to those who hope that historians can tell them how to assess the consequences of a strategic decision. But the latter can’t be explained historically without the former, and it’s possible for accounts of both to emerge from a reading of Thucydides’ text itself. Moreover, these factors all feed into how we trace—and justify—large-scale narratives of European ideas and culture to undergraduates, and there’s no telling which bit might make the most difference to a given student.

13 replies on “Thucydides, Canon, and Western Civilization”

A wonderful piece, Emily! I think you’re absolutely right about the sort of false binary getting set up here. One interesting book that helped me sort through this is Marshall Sahlin’s “Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice-Versa” (Chicago, 2004), and there’s a very nice piece from Anthony Grafton which touches upon some the dangers you suggest are to be found here:

So far as teaching Thucydides to undergrads goes, I seem to recall a really sensitive meditation in the NY Times on assigning him to West Point cadets or the students of some other military academy. Alas, the internet was not able to help out on this one, though.

Yes, we read Sahlins for this class meeting as well–though I have to say I was singularly unimpressed. I remember that NYT piece too! I’ll have to see if I can find it.

The Greek run from Herodotus through Polybius is pretty instructive; it is a very different world, but it stretches the imagination in ways that works of high theory tend not to. I’m pretty sure West Point reads Thucydides still – it might have helped if GW Bush had done so, since one of the things that Thucydides seems to have been right about was the permanent tendency of powerful states to overestimate their capacity to remake the world in ther own image.

Back in the day, when I first read Thucydides, we knew he was addressing us directly, telling us why the Vietnam war was impossible to win. (Of course, we also knew that Sophocles was speaking to us directly in the Antigone . . .) Now, it’s the wild parts of Thucydides that speak to me: the description of the plague, from which Thucydides also suffered, in weirdly objective Greek doctor-language; the meditation on how civil war transvalues our most basic words (which also struck Lorenzo Valla and Thomas Hobbes with special force); the Melian dialogue. And the very end of the text as preserved. He’s an astonishing writer. Of course, since he dealt with a short-term conflict and worried about things like language, he can’t have been writing to educate political elites. Oh, wait . . . Thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful post.

Very nice commentary.

Personally, I think any discussion on the possible usages of Ancient Historiography (that is, usages that go beyond the personal and self contained desire to “know the past”) is worth having. If I am not mistaken, the usual narrative concerning the limitations of pre-modern historiography is that our experience of time has fundamentally changed, which makes it impossible to appropriate Thucydides text in its original function. Thucydides was assuming it was possible to reproduce actions and decisions made in the past and expect similar results. The consensus, however, is that we can’t, thus, his work seems to belong to a different epistemological order. As you well put it, it’s not just a matter of him being dated (historical materialism can be said to be “dated” and that is not stopping anyone): he is, essentially, playing by different rules. I, however, fully agree that, despite the many merits of this development (and that fact that it itself is the result of a specific historical process), academia has something to lose in thinking on these terms.

As you suggest, I don’t think the problem is the antiquarian, short-sighted or “microscopic” nature of modern historiography. If anything, antiquarism can teach students a kind of skepticism that is uniquely historiographical, it can teach them that one can train oneself to visualize the past based on material evidence and a sense of verisimilitude (to this day, my favorite historical lesson was on Valla’s “Donation of Constantine”, a text so old as to be kitsch). Rather, I think the decline of statecraft historiography has to do with the kinds of claims people expect academic history to make. If I learned anything in switching from History to Literature, it is that a valid historical statement is not only constrained by its status as “factually provable”, but also by a certain pragmatic precision. These are, of course, just my impressions, but I find a lot of intellectual pressure in modern historiography. Historians can/should be abstract, deep and complex, but they are also required to be precise, to avoid generalities and to speak on intellectually tight terms. This makes it hard to talk about the values of Thucydides claims on politics for today’s world: it is impossible to take his claims at face value (to expect them to offer air tight guidelines for modern statecraft), but it is also “un-academic” to refer to their more generic qualities, to talk about him “broadly”. This is all very ironic. As a literature student, I seem to have more space to talk about how Thucydides work offers us, today, a solid theory of politics than proper historians: I have the privilege of being generic, of letting go of absolute precision in favor of a bolder type of claim.

Anyways, this was great, and interesting, and good!


Thanks Caio! Just posting here what I said in my email, for consistency’s sake:

You probably know more about all this than I do, but from what I do know I completely agree with you. I’m in history in large part because I value precision and the ability to make some kinds of empirical claims, but I also value what literary methods bring, and your comment shows how we need to think of the two analytic modes as supplementary to each other instead of one being better or more “right”. I was reading some Carlo Ginzburg this week, and is historiographical writing is a good example, I think, of how these modes can work together to shape our understanding of the past (though I was surprised to learn from the essay I was reading that he was often accused in the heady atmosphere of the early ’90s of being a positivist!).

That’s a wonderful comment by Caio. But I’m not sure that that “usual narrative” about the experience of time is all that widely accepted these days. It was itself the product of scholars who were rooted in modernity (and what they saw as the transition to it) and portrayed early modernity as a foil to it, with a static experience of time. Early modernists–and medievalists– have some very different stories to tell about time these days. And even in the study of ancient history there’s a very wide range of opinion about how far the history of Thucydides–or other records of Greek political and military experience–can be directly useful–all the way from Greeks as total others whose experience is only recoverable in very small ways to Greeks as models for the construction of living political theory.

This is perhaps a naive observation, but one of the things I get from working on the 19th century–a period almost-but-not-quite like our own–is that it’s always possible either to emphasize the foreignness of the past or its similarity, and conclusions will change radically depending on which choice you make. Personally, though, I find it impossible to overcome the sheer age of 2000+-year-old texts. Every time I think about it, I have to sit still for at least five minutes while my mind is blown. But I imagine that’s also a form of paralysis that hampers one’s ability to say more interesting things about the distant past (and perhaps its relationship to the present).

Every little boy or girl who’s born into the world alive is a little St Johnsite or a little historicist, and you and I were born historicists–especially when looking across an abyss of millennia. But there are, I think, always ways across, however tentative and fragile–the bridge at San Luis Rey, perhaps. One of my favorite crossing stories, couched as autobiography (of course) appears in the introduction to Bernard Knox’s Essays Ancient and Modern (1989).

I really enjoyed this, and if I can find the time in the next couple of weeks to think further, I may take up some of your points in a blog post of my own. In the meantime, at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I was wondering if you knew that there has been a fair amount of work in just the last few years on the modern reception of Thucydides, both on the political theory & IR side and on his influence on historiography? It echoes many of your comments and questions, especially the sheer oddness of seeing Thucydides as in any sense a model for modern historians – except, perhaps, as a provocation…

K. Harloe & N. Morley, eds, Thucydides and the Modern World (2012)
C. Lee & N. Morley, eds, A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides (2015)
N. Morley, Thucydides and the Idea of History (2014)

Given time, I can also supply further bibliography that I wasn’t directly involved with, if that’s any use…

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