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.