Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.23


P.A. Brunt, Studies in Greek History and Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. viii + 411. ISBN 0-19-814873-X.


Reviewed by Paul McKechnie, Auckland University.

After The Fall of the Roman Republic (1988) and Roman Imperial Themes (1990), the Clarendon Press now offers Studies in Greek History and Thought -- effectively as volume 3 of the Essential P.A. Brunt. As with the earlier books, there is more in it than merely collected papers. In an active retirement, Brunt has gone on broadening the range of his published work -- so that Greek philosophy, treated tangentially in two of the earlier papers reprinted here, forms the focus of three of the four substantial new items in the book.

Thus the two sides of this collection are distinct: crudely, old articles on Greek history and new essays on Greek political philosophy. Most of the old articles have stood the passage of time well: good examples of the way Greats tutors in Oxford in the fifties and sixties approached the history of Athens in the fifth century BC. Any of chapters three to five could with profit be recommended to students today: 'The Hellenic League against Persia' (1953) draws important distinctions, arguing that members of the Hellenic League accepted permanent obligations and had no right of secession -- the questions this raises about Sparta's attitude after the battle of Plataea are not discussed fully; 'Spartan Policy and Strategy in the Archidamian War' (1965) proceeds methodically and covers the ground; and 'Athenian Settlements Abroad in the Fifth Century B.C.' (1966) argues with some force against the communis opinio that Athenian settlers abroad, unless they were cleruchs, lost citizenship at Athens.

'Thucydides and Alcibiades' (1952) shows a less finely developed judgement. Brunt does not understand why the Spartan ambassadors were compromised when they told the assembly that they did not have full powers (p.23), and he points out that Alcibiades was not the first to think of fortifying Decelea. These are not very serious difficulties: the Spartans, having failed to carry out the terms of the Peace of Nicias, needed to convince the Athenians of their sincerity, but allowed themselves to be tricked into seeming to act in bad faith. With Decelea the point is not so much Alcibiades as original thinker, as Alcibiades as the man who got the Spartans moving when they were too dull to move for themselves.

Referring in the preface (p.v) to his first five chapters, the articles on fifth-century history, Brunt says that 'friends have encouraged me to think that they are still useful.' In two places those friends might have asked him to be stricter with himself. The first is the very first chapter of the book, on the Megarian Decree (1951). When it was originally published, in the American Journal of Philology, it needed a two-page addendum to take account of volume 3 of the Athenian Tribute Lists (published 1950). Now, besides the addendum, there are two and a half pages of postscript (pp.13-16) accepting points made by de Ste Croix in The Origins of the Peloponnesian War. This article makes a scrappy start to the book and is not really worth resurrecting. The second poor choice is the introduction Brunt supplied in 1963 for the Washington Square Press translation of Thucydides. Brunt's introduction is capable, but it is directed to beginners, and thirty years on they are not likely to go looking through this book for it. I dare say it boiled a pot in its time, but now only the truest of true believers in the genius of Peter Brunt will find it rewarding.

It is possible (though Brunt does not say so) that the purpose of putting in the 'Introduction to Thucydides' was to give context to his new essay (pp.159-180) on the Funeral Speech. In this Brunt deals with Thucydides' treatment of the topics characteristic of a funeral speech, arguing that some features are omitted which might have been expected to be present (pp.161-2) -- in particular, reference to past heroic deeds of Athens (pp.164-5). This, Brunt suggests, indicates that the speech in Thucydides does not significantly reflect what Pericles actually said. Brunt goes on to trace themes in rhetoric justifying Athens' role in history (pp.165-75), and concludes (p.180) that the Funeral Speech conveys Thucydides' 'own view of the spirit that enabled the Athenians to hold out so long.' The only regret is that Brunt declines to engage with recent work on Thucydides: the name of Simon Hornblower, for instance, does not appear. A person of Brunt's distinction may justifiably take a slightly olympian attitude to such matters, no doubt; but if he had gone the second mile and put in some references to current material, his discussion would have been even more pleasing for the reader.

Brunt is apologetic (p. v) about including his 'Cicero and Historiography' (1980) -- not on the face of it an essay in Greek thought -- as chapter seven: but he need not be. It is from a Festschrift, and needed to be republished somewhere: The Fall of the Roman Republic was not the answer, so this is the place. It and chapter eight, 'Aspects of the Social Thought of Dio Chrysostom and the Stoics' (1973), come close to forming a bridge between the early work on political history and the recent work on political philosophy.

Central issues in Plato's and Aristotle's work are tackled in the new chapters. There are three: 'The Model City of Plato's Laws' (pp.245-281), 'Plato's Academy and Politics' (pp.282-342), and 'Aristotle and Slavery' (pp.343-388). On the Laws Brunt argues in detail against G.R. Morrow, A.E. Taylor and anyone else who might think Plato had a practical purpose in outlining his 'second-best city'. The unavailability of sites in Crete with the amount of vacant land presupposed is noted early on (p.246), together with Plato's apparent unawareness of Cretan serfdom (p.246 n.6); and later the question of property-classes is raised. If land allotments are to be equal, how will there be four classes, distinguished by wealth? Citizens will not be earning from industry or retail trade (ignoble occupations left for metics), and they will not be gaining profits from having their slaves working at these things -- slaves in the Laws are only to be agricultural workers or domestics. Brunt does think out a route to wealth which Plato has not cut off: there is no law against the rich leasing land from the poor, or letting out use of equipment. All the same, Brunt concludes (pp. 264-5) that Plato would have banned this if he had thought of it.

Shrewd points are made against Morrow's view of the basic political structure of the 'second best city' as thoroughly Athenian (p. 259): Brunt points out the advantages for Plato's purpose of Spartan/Cretan type institutions, while questioning the real extent of Plato's familiarity with Crete (pp. 253-4). Still, Athenian assumptions are at work: Plato was ready to assume that metics would be available to take on the work which for moral reasons he preferred his citizens to avoid. The illogic inherent in depending on metics from unreconstructed cities (p. 266) is probably clearer to us than it was to Plato: he was imagining a utopia within the context of the Greek world as he knew it, and deliberately chose to consider one city -- a commune, if you like , not a whole soviet union. The chapter concludes modestly (p. 281): 'it would hardly be worthwhile to draw attention to such difficulties, which are naturally of no philosophical interest, were it not that some of [Plato's] philosophical interpreters suffer from the delusion that the Laws is a realistic, practical treatise.'

'Plato's Academy and Politics' (pp.282-342) is the longest piece in the book, and the most interesting. It opens (p.282) with quotes from modern writers suggesting that the Academy might have been influential by producing statesmen. Brunt's view is that it was not. His first move in arguing for this is to make a distinction (p.283) between Plato's 'true disciples' and 'those who merely "heard" him for a time'. It is assumed that the second category can be discounted as irrelevant to the issue of the Academy and politics. So at p.287 Brunt says, 'we can certainly not exclude the possibility that Plato attracted some disciples who expected him to prepare them for public careers. In my judgement they would have been alienated by the seeming irrelevance of the disciplines to which they were asked to attend, and have fallen away unless they had acquired a zest for the mastery of abstract studies.'

There is a fallacy here to which it seems odd that an Oxford professor should subscribe. Brunt has himself in Oxford taught both people dedicated to abstract studies, and people destined for public careers. Earlier, back in the last century, young men at Jowett's Balliol studied the Classics in preparation for the Indian Civil Service. Similarly nowadays young people who are aiming at a directing role at the heart of a society are likely to take an interest in the types of learning and enquiry -- or of activity in other fields -- which are regarded by that society as particularly prestigious or absorbing. Relevance is not merely a matter of learning to carry out procedures which are required in a future occupation: it is also to do with learning things which a society values. So law school, in the States, is for young people with the ambitions of a Bill Clinton, or a Hillary Rodham, and not just for people who mean to learn how to be a lawyer. In fourth century Athens, Plato's Academy was the equivalent of Yale Law School -- and a student with political ambitions might study long enough to be at home with influential styles of thought and argument, while not immersing himself for the many years needed to turn him into a heavy-duty philosophical intellect. The 'hearers' not the 'true disciples' would make the political difference.

So even if Brunt has shown (as claimed at p.288) that Dion in Sicily was not acting on Plato's instructions or in conformity with his principles, he has still not proved that Platonist philosophy had no impact on politics in the fourth century. It is not enough to construct what we think should be an outworking of Plato's teaching, then demonstrate that his pupils did not achieve it. Brunt is therefore on poor ground in rejecting (p.292) the story of Euphraeus putting Macedonian barons to work on geometry. College level math was required for entry to the Academy -- it was where its teachings started from. We may think this odd, but there it is: 'the past is another country'.

More persuasively, Brunt stresses the theoretical preoccupations of the Academy (p.301) and the relatively small part political philosophy had in the overall scheme of Platonist thought. At p.313, Laws 803B is quoted: 'Human affairs are not worth very serious attention, but we cannot help our concern with them: it is a misfortune.' Pages 314-25 are a discussion of the value and use of Plato's seventh letter (Brunt believes it usable, though not necessarily written by Plato himself). At the end of the chapter (pp.332-342) five appendices pick up detailed points for discussion.

Chapter eleven, 'Slavery in Aristotle', is a systematic survey describing Aristotle's position as enunciated in several texts. The bottom line (p.367) is that 'Aristotle is not consistent with himself.' A final chapter comprises three book reviews: of E.A. Havelock The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (1957); of Hans-Peter Stahl Thukydides: Die Stellung des Menschen im geschichtlichen Prozess (1966); and of Kurt von Fritz Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung: Band I: von den Anfängen bis Thukydides (1967). The most exciting parts of Brunt's book are its newest parts: even in these parsimonious days library buyers will feel that there is enough added to his work as available in standard journals to make the purchase worthwhile.