BMCR 2007.02.39

Reading Thucydides

, Reading Thucydides. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2006. 282. $9.95 (CD-ROM).

The secondary literature on Thucydides is vast and there are no signs that interest in what we call the History of the Peloponnesian War is diminishing. Recently, a number of fine scholarly books have both deepened and complicated our appreciation of the work’s significance as history, political theory, social science or literature.1 Thucydides’ importance for the world of practical politics has — once again — intensified within contentious arguments concerning his potential contributions to our thinking about the United States’ current war in Iraq.2 James Morrison’s intelligent and original book, Reading Thucydides, is an important addition to both conversations.

As the title suggests, Morrison’s concern is to explore how Thucydides’ text encourages critical thought about political commitments and conflicts (p.17). Morrison’s Thucydides is not primarily a synoptic historian who reveals the truest causes of the events he narrates, nor a systematic theorizer who articulates universal laws of power relations, nor a magisterial teacher who conclusively discloses the nature of political life. He is, instead, a conversation partner who engages and challenges the active intelligence of his readers without “offering a single authoritative account of events”. (p. 18) In this respect, Morrison sees the Thucydidean project as paralleling that of at least the early Platonic dialogues, not so much in content, but in style, for both engage their audiences “in a unique way that we might term ‘dialogic’ rather than ‘dogmatic’.” (p. 4) Morrison therefore also reads Thucydides as playing a central role in the transition from an oral to a more literate communicative culture in late fifth/early fourth century Athens (pp. 173-9).

Morrison makes his case (in parts two and three) through interpretive readings that emphasize Thucydides’ construction of different narrative points of view and his use of varied but related rhetorical resources for political comparisons. The narrative approach juxtaposes “participatory” readings in which the audience is encouraged to experience events from the perspective of the agents with “retrospective” readings in which the reader discovers the ways that future events have either confirmed or overthrown more immediate participatory impressions (pp. 14-17). In examining how Thucydides utilizes comparisons between cities and individuals, Morrison argues that the various techniques encourage the development of a capacity captured by the word eikazein and its cognates, the facility to compare and “to make conjectures based on those comparisons” (p. 110). The History is therefore valuable politically because it enables a more competent engagement with the future on the basis of thoughtful and nuanced reflections on the past. Eikazein thus includes both constructive and critical dimensions.

The final portion of the book (part four) addresses the two contextualizing themes identified earlier, the first interpreting Thucydides’ work as in part a challenge to and a deepening of political cultural discursive practices in late fifth century Athens, the second drawing comparisons between receptions to Thucydides’ text among his ancient contemporaries and potential resonances now. To this last purpose, Morrison juxtaposes Thucydides’ narrative of events in Plataea, Melos and Corinth with brief glimpses (pp. 186-192) of speeches given by a variety of political figures prior to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.

Like all good interpretive works, Morrison’s book is valuable because of the way in which it reveals important and provocative characteristics of the primary text. At the most general level, Morrison asks readers of the History to think more deeply about their own experiences with the work’s ambiguities, gaps and multiple perspectives (p. 18). These puzzles are not explained away as signs of Thucydides’ immaturity as a historian or absorbed within a reconstruction of some grand theory of political dynamics. Instead, they are appreciated as those elements of the work most capable of actively engaging the reader. This engagement may well be crucial for Thucydides to achieve his ambitious goal of making his book a possession forever. If we reject the conclusion that his intention is to offer “last words” on any of his subjects, the History becomes a “possession forever” only when its readers actively appropriate and continually grapple with its insights. In this respect, reading Thucydides parallels a kind of politics, for the History would be successful as vehicle for the development of eikazein only if it is read in a way that the text itself (through its puzzles) tries to influence, but cannot in any way ensure.

Morrison also stimulates readings that intersect the texts of Thucydides and Plato in potentially innovative ways. Commentators have often taken one of two directions within critical comparisons of the two authors. They have either followed the lead of Nietzsche (in Twilight of the Idols, What I Owe to the Ancients) and seen them as addressing two entirely distinct realms of existence (Plato, the world as thought, Thucydides the world as experienced)3 or read the History as a hagiography to Pericles that Plato challenges.4 Morrison declines to follow either path and emphasizes how both authors engage their audiences, implying, at least, that the next important question is how they might be read as engaging one another, particularly because they write against such a common historical and political cultural backdrop. Plato inscribes the events of the war and its aftermath within dramas that are constituted by intersecting speeches; Thucydides positions speeches ( logoi) within a more encompassing narrative of the fact ( ergon) of the war. One hopes for more comparative treatments of these two authors from Morrison in the future.

Morrison’s more particular interpretive insights are many, but three are worthy of special mention. The first is his argument (in chapter three) that the seemingly fragmentary experiences of the embattled Plataeans are deeply significant for interpreting the History. Four extended incidents involving Plataea are narrated by Thucydides in books two and three, but in a form that does not draw explicit connections among them, making this, instead, the reader’s task (p. 80). For Morrison, perhaps the most important challenge is to sort through the conflicting presences of pragmatic imperatives toward expediency and discursive appeals to justice (pp. 77-9). One could extend this reading even further to suggest that both Athens’ unkept promises to support its Plataean ally in its resistance to Spartan and Theban aggression and Sparta’s bow to a literally construed sense of justice for expediency’s sake speak volumes about the two powerfully antagonistic regimes around which the war revolves and deepen our understanding of what Thucydides sees as the two fundamental causes of the war, Athenian greatness and Spartan fear.

The second is the subtle and insightful treatment (in chapter five) of the Melian dialogue, which diagnoses the exchange between the Athenian envoys and the Melian leadership as a failed attempt at mutual education that illustrates the parallel dangers of an inattention to the past and a disregard of the future. That Thucydides’ treatment of eikazein could also be read as an attempt to elicit political judgment as a resource for negotiating spaces between past and future is never clearer than in Morrison’s stimulating reading.

Finally, there is Morrison’s lucid and revealing account (chapter eight) of how Thucydides’ use of multiple metaphors counters simplistic judgments about the character and importance of Athens. Neither the tyrant city, simply, nor the education to Greece, simply, but both — and more. Of particular interest in this context is Morrison’s treatment of Thucydides’ deliberate use of the word arché in his characterization of Periclean leadership (pp. 148-9). In connecting Periclean statesmanship to the arché of the empire does Thucydides express an admiration for aggressive power figures? Or does he offer the basis for a more critical understanding of Pericles’ statesmanship?

Morrison’s interpretation also inevitably raises questions, most of which build on his reading rather than challenge it. First, though Thucydides’ own views are silent in much of the History, there are places where he does, unlike Plato, speak in his own name, particularly in what is now book eight. Morrison’s thesis would be strengthened if he acknowledged and discussed these passages. Examples of these statements include: the exposure of the hollowness of the Athenian empire’s claim to good order ( eunomia) (8.64), the praise of Alcibiades’ most distinctive service to the city on the basis of his act as peacemaker (8.86), the contention that Athens’ success in the war depended significantly on the good fortune of having the cautious Spartans as opponents (8.96), and the judgment that the rule of the five thousand constituted the best Athenian regime of Thucydides’ time (8.97). In spite of their seemingly affirmative tone, all of these claims can be read in ways that are dialogic. For example, calling the Athenian regime’s eunomia hollow suggests that the discourse enabled by Athenian power (as in 1.76) can serve to criticize the ways in which that power is exercised. Praising Alcibiades as peacemaker valorizes distinctiveness on grounds different from Periclean daring and energy. The criticisms of Spartan dilatoriness challenge the validity of Athens’ reputation for greatness (cf. 2.63; 7.27). The endorsement of the regime of the five thousand stands provocatively against what seems to be the decisive appreciation of Pericles (2.65).

Second, Morrison’s focus on how Thucydides or his characters employ comparisons of cities and individuals raises but does not fully address the ways in which political cultures influence practices and discourses within regimes. This feature of Thucydides’ political thought may be particularly important in interpreting the speech of Diodotus in the Mytilene debate (in chapter seven). In spite of his claims to be speaking only with a view toward interest, Diodotus encourages the Athenians to be more just than their superiority in power would require. In this respect, he takes seriously the Athenian discourse on justice offered by the Athenian speakers in Sparta at 1.76. Does Diodotus’ case therefore appeal to and rely upon the political priorities of democracy? Morrison could explore more fully the broader implications of his claim (p. 130) that “Diodotus employs language from a polis based system of justice where guilt, innocence, free will and justice are significant factors.”

Third, Morrison rightly emphasizes the importance of the civic outcomes of Thucydides’ dialogic form of writing. However, he needs to be more explicit about what these outcomes are. The main focus of the book strongly implies that the thoughtful reading of Thucydides can develop the citizen’s capacity for critical judgment, “to challenge the reader — not only to remember and keep track of. . . comparisons, but also to compare, probe and test” (p. 155). Yet in hypothesizing that the History may be intended to “to help prepare later statesmen and citizens to follow in the paths of Themistocles and Pericles” (p. 163), Morrison offers a model of directive politics that a good bit of his interpretive argument works otherwise to challenge. Reading the History as a guide for statesmen5 seems less, not more, plausible if we acknowledge that the text encourages multiple readings and underscores the unpredictability and the fragility of politics. Finally, the concluding attempt to link Thucydides’ insights with the ways in which we might understand and evaluate events leading to the Iraq War in 2003 is provocative but it is also at best glancing. Efforts here are confined to reading and commenting on speeches by various American, Iraqi and international political figures. The goal is to point to the need for turning a critical ear to political speeches, reinforcing the claim that Thucydides offers a resource for so doing. Yet Morrison’s own interpretive claims about reading Thucydides have deeper implications for how we might assess Thucydides’ significance within various arguments for and against this current direction in United States policy, particularly his complex treatment of Athens as a regime characterized by justifiable pride and confidence yet also beset by significant stresses and capable of frightening abuses. Here, too, Morrison might say a good deal more.

All of these questions are prompted and indeed encouraged by Morrison’s book. In eliciting active and critical engagements with the History, Reading Thucydides urges us toward renewed involvement with an extraordinary author and his even more extraordinary text.


1. For example, Gregory Crane, Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity. Berkeley. University of California Press, 1998; Paula Debnar, Speaking the Same Language. Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press, 2001; Jonathan Price, Thucydides and Internal War. Cambridge UK. Cambridge University Press, 2001; Tim Rood, Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation. New York. Oxford University Press, 2004. There are also important chapters on Thucydides in Ryan Balot, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 2001; Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 1998; Victoria Wohl, Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 2002.

2. As in Victor Davis Hanson, An Autumn of War New York. Anchor Books, 2002; Daniel Mendelsohn, “Theatres of War,” The New Yorker, January 12, 2004; J. Peter Euben, “Thucydides in the Desert,” American Political Science Annual Meeting, August 31, 2006.

3. As in Crane, op.cit, pp. 99-100.

4. For a particularly nuanced example see Harvey Yunis, Taming Democracy, Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 1996.

5. In the way more of Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 1969, p. 373.