BMCR 2007.07.08

Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History

, Thucydides and the philosophical origins of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii, 268 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521864119 $85.00.

The aim of this book is “to clear away the obstacles to our seeing the play of tragic temporality in Thucydides and beyond” (151). Certainly the argument reaches far beyond Thucydides, offering analyses of Herodotus, all three Attic tragedians, and Plato, before turning to Nietzsche, Heraclitus, Heidegger and others. Shanske addresses core issues: What accounts for the power of Thucydides’ writing? What is the relationship between history and tragedy? What are Thucydides’ metaphysical foundations? He is to be congratulated for isolating and approaching these important questions.

It might have been better to tackle fewer authors or questions, especially as this book takes on topics that need careful and precise explication. To the author’s credit, however, the book sustains a single argument for its whole length, namely that Thucydides is superior to, for instance, Herodotus and Plato, in that he founded a Heraclitean world in which the continuous irresolvable tensions of the human situation become apparent to the ambitious reader. Unlike Plato, he argues, Thucydides did not abandon time in order to found his metaphysics on a solid, but timeless foundation. Rather, Thucydides is a “metaphysical realist” (142), so that his history and Attic tragedy spring from the same fountainhead: a realization of the human predicament in time.

Few will argue with the idea that Thucydides engages with the human predicament in time. But many, I believe, will wish to take a different route to this conclusion than Shanske (hereafter S.). In his introduction, S. argues that Thucydides “creates a world” in which we all still participate. “Thucydides’s (sic) work represents a metaphysical event in which we all now partake whether we, as individuals, have read Thucydides, or not… The new world disclosed by Thucydides’s text is not a physical world. Rather, in this context, a world is a boundless sphere of significant engagement” (9). The first chapter sets out to demonstrate the way in which the “world-disclosive power” of Thucydides’ text was achieved. The argument requires S. to disqualify Herodotus (and later also Plato) as primitive, philosophically speaking. I will briefly take up the argument contra Herodotum before moving on to Thucydides.

S. levels heavy (and conventional) charges against Herodotus. According to S., Herodotus reveals “in general the absence of a passion for revealing the contradictory functioning of the logos” (12). S. is compelled to isolate Thucydides from Herodotus. (“Not that Herodotus is not original, just that many more features of his text point backwards rather than forwards” (11).) He argues that Herodotus is a Kepler or Galileo to Thucydides’ Newton, and takes up Virginia Hunter’s oxymoronic disqualification of the earlier historian: history in Herodotus is a “static continuum” (12).

Such an argument would need a great deal of textual support, but S. does not provide it. Moving on to Thucydides, then, while S. might argue that he has no time to cite Herodotus in detail, it is certainly his duty to cite Thucydides. The one example from Thucydides S. gives in the introduction (1), repeating it for the first chapter (15), is his translation of 8.24.3-5. This passage is wonderful, but here it is vastly overinterpreted, and these few sentences cannot, on their own, support so many important arguments about Thucydides’ meaning and style. Thus, S. argues that: “The world-disclosive features of this passage are its density, consistency, ubiquity, open-endedness, familiarity, and significance” (16).

S.’s subsequent attempt to justify these terms and to describe the qualities of Thucydides’ writing is very interesting, and the analysis of a greater number of passages would have been most welcome. His method is immediately reminiscent of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who, however, was conscious that some of his descriptive terms applied to the meaning of the work and others applied to prose style. Dionysius understood that the boundaries were somewhat fluid; here however, all terms are taken to apply equally to the entire effect of the writing. More precision, a few more translated paragraphs, and some equally interesting analyses of them would anchor S.’s argument in Thucydides.

The rest of this review will focus on describing the progress and character of S.’s main argument. Much of this argument is useful, and S.’s intransigent focus on his core questions cannot be praised too highly. But I have two criticisms, which have already become evident: the argument is both too abstract and too far from the texts (especially Thucydides) it purports to describe. These problems exhibit themselves most clearly in S.’s use of transliterated Greek words.

“Logos” is one of those words. S.’s discussion of Athens and logos (27ff) is foundational for his argument, which will ultimately conclude that human logos itself, since it is embedded in tragic temporality, is “deinon”, i.e. terrible or “dreadable” (71). Consistent with the size of this idea, logos is here everything that has any order to it. “…logos, as ordering of the Athenian democracy, allowed for, and indeed propelled, the flourishing of logos in every possible temporal dimension…” (28). In illustration of this point, forensic, epideictic, and deliberative oratory, tragedy (28), Themistocles’ plan for the empire, the organization of the navy and of the empire (29), and the symbolic logos of Athenian money (30) are all quickly delineated. Of course, these are all in some way logoi, and S. is generally right to stress the unique importance of logos at Athens and to bring out the connection between Athenian logos and Athenian power: “the external manifestation of the power of Athenian logos was the empire” (29).

As is evident, the transliterated Greek word “logos” is being asked to carry a huge freight of meaning in this argument. In the end it must carry even more meaning than I just indicated, since S.’s overarching aim is to show that there is also “isomorphism” between Thucydides’ logos and the empire he has described (27). I understand S. to mean that the “density and consistency” of Thucydides’ presentation of Athens is in some way irresistibly coherent (31). This is a fascinating idea, and precise and vivid illustrations of exactly how this works would have been most welcome. However, S.’s subsequent discussions of the agreement between Pericles and Thucydides, of the break-down of the Periclean logos, and of the importance of the emblematic figure of Themistocles rely heavily on past scholarship, and show the continuing strength of the conventional view of Thucydides, rather than the coherence of the logoi he has mentioned. For this S. would have to produce an original reading of Thucydides.

S.’s next and strongest argument is that the relationship between Thucydides and the tragedians is founded upon their common acceptance of tragic temporality. Unfortunately, his explication of this idea takes on rather narrow lines, since S. restricts himself to passages that explore the “deinon” (“the dreadable,” 71) in the Attic tragedians. However, the narrow confines of this argument lead us back to very large questions, since the “deinon” leads back to “logos.” The “tragic mechanism that structures this world” (72) stems from the “painful paradoxes” of human existence, and these lead us back to the centrality and difficulty of logos. “But what is so inescapably dreadable in who we are? The answer is: logos. We are the creatures who must have logos, and yet we also never have full control over logos” (72).

In the sections that follow, the two transliterated words “deinon” and “logos” do more harm than good to S.’s argument. Compelled by the compression of his analysis to avoid lengthy descriptions of the particular features of each author, play, and situation, S. begins to use his transliterations in an absolute way. A sample “translation”: (Soph. El. 221-5) “Amid deinon things to deinon things I was compelled, I know well, my rage does not escape me. But amid deinon things I will not hold back these dooms, so long as life holds me” (90). A sample analysis: (Soph. El. 235) “…Electra explicitly insists that what it means to be in the deinon is that there is no metron, no measure. This makes sense if the deinon must be done in a deinon manner and if this compels further events that are deinon; then measuring the deinon is not going to be possible, since it is always expanding…”(91). These are not unique passages, but rather there are many such translations and sentences, and they undermine S.’s argument. The repeated insertion of the unchanging transliteration of a single Greek word over the course of an analysis of the tragedians and Thucydides cannot substitute for translations, however tentative, that would help us better to understand what the author understands each passage to mean. Once again, greater closeness to the texts would have made S.’s argument strong.

None of this is to deny that S.’s argument is exciting. A detailed analysis of the texts might well argue the connection between Thucydides (and Pericles) and the deinoi logoi of tragedy. But S. refuses not only translation, but even definition and precision at every turn. “The deinon is expansive, hard to perceive, and located nowhere in particular” (108). I accept that this may be the case: abstract concepts are by nature hard to pin down. But if this is true, how can the argument be made? S. has by now created a remarkable contrast between the iconic and reified words “deinon” and “logos” in his book and the nature of the “deinon” and the “logos” as he describes them. Second, and more important, in this argument the concepts referenced by logos and deinon are, as S. himself seems to say, so large and diffuse that their substantial values (as opposed to their emotional values, which are here very strong) become difficult to assess.

S.’s distance from the text and tendency to abstraction are compounded by troubles with the ancient Greek language. It seems necessary to comment on this problem in respect to a book that refers again and again to the particular qualities of Thucydides’ writing. For example, on page 113 S. translates deinon poiesamenoi (1.102.4), deina epoioun (5.42.2) and deinon poioumenoi (6.60.4) as “making themselves deinon.” (The subject in each case is the Athenians.) This “translation” has little to do with Thucydides. Periphrastic expressions with poiein are a regular feature of Thucydidean diction. In each example here the Athenians are somehow outraged and/or frightened. The expression means, simply, they got into a terrible state, or, they got very upset. S. agrees with me on this, incidentally (113), and nevertheless offers the misleading monstrosity we see here: half translation, half transliteration, and entirely inexplicable.

In so doing, he misleads himself. The half transliteration of this phrase causes S. to offer the following incoherent translation of 6.60.4, and to make the mistake that follows. S.’s translation of 6.60.4: “The Athenian demos was pleased, having grasped, so they believed, a clarity, and deinon having made themselves already that they could not discover who was plotting against the many.” His apology and explanation: “This translation is arguably a little more awkward than it needs to be, but there certainly was no grammatical necessity that deinon be joined to clarity by an “and,” as it is in [Thucydides’] text” (113). But “deinon” is not joined with “to saphes” by an “and.” In this sentence the conjunction joins the two participles labon and poioumenoi. Deinon here is tied to poioumenoi, and cannot be separated off to be joined to something else. The point is that the word deinon is not nearly as conspicuous as S. is arguing or as his deployment of transliterations seems to make it.

The final chapter deploys arguments from Nietzsche, Heraclitus, Heidegger, Plato, et al. Once again, S.’s core ideas are stimulating and worthwhile: his connection of Thucydides to Hercaclitus’ metaphysics is thought provoking, and his description of the density of Thucydides’ exploration of power (141) is also useful. Ultimately, and despite some Heideggerian doubts (132), S. endorses Nietzsche’s view of Thucydides and corresponding disqualification of Plato. S.’s conclusion about Thucydides is uncompromising: “Thucydides founds a world because the harsh reductionism of his method reveals essential features of our world as it is” (132-133). Perhaps I will not be alone in being confused by this conclusion, at least in combination with this argument. Earlier, S. had seemed to argue that Thucydides’ writing was dense and significant, and could therefore found a metaphysical world. Here he seems to be arguing that Thucydides’ fierce process of selection reveals the real world. I also didn’t understand what the adjective “essential” was intended to connote in an argument that jettisons Plato in favor of Nietzsche.

If S. were to take up Thucydides in detail he might show on many examples what he means, and we might understand him better. As it is, his conclusion (which takes us right back to Otto von Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen”) like much of his argument (cf. the sections on Herodotus, the Archaeology, and Pericles) seems surprisingly conventional. This conventionality is another product of the distance from Thucydides that plagues S.’s work, since this distance enforces a heavy reliance on previous scholars. Only a close and fresh analysis of the text itself, it seems to me, could have confirmed S.’s argument that Thucydides, in contradistinction to the tragedians, Plato, or Herodotus, founded an indelibly influential and separate world of meaning.

This review has been largely critical, and it is important at the end to stress the author’s virtues. S.’s book grasps tenaciously at important questions and never lets them out of sight. The author demonstrates an encyclopedic grasp of the tradition and flashes of deep originality. Many useful insights are scattered throughout, and as I stated at the outset, S.’s main line of questioning repays close attention: S. has reopened the question of Thucydides’ importance and status in the present.