I’m currently trying to write a piece entitled ‘The Idea of Thucydides in Western Culture’, which aims to combine the development over the last few centuries of an idea of Thucydides as an individual authority figure (largely or entirely separate from his work) and the appearance of Thucydides in non-academic contexts; depending on how much time I get to work on this over the next week, it will either be appearing in the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides that I’m editing (manuscript submission can’t be postponed any longer, hence pressing deadline), or will have to be developed for publication somewhere else. I’m focusing on the Western tradition because this is where I’ve found virtually all of my examples; it may be the case that Thucydides is (or at least has been) a significant figure only for writers in this tradition (even if this is now changing), or it may be that I just need to look harder, but in any case the intention of the title is not to claim that Thucydides is the exclusive property of the West but rather to emphasise that the conventional (Western) image of Thucydides is not automatically to be taken as universal and eternal.
Still, it is pretty pervasive, for obvious reasons. This is brought home by one of the few non-Eurocentric sources I’ve so far come across (courtesy of Adam Lecznar), a passing comment in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Discussing the deeply problematic relationship between black people and the past, Fanon remarks: “None the less I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass” (p. 175). I think we can safely assume that “the Peloponnesian war” here stands less for the specific historical event and its actual consequences (whereas “the Persian Wars” might be seen as the actual origin of a specific European consciousness) and more for the understanding of human behaviour, the birth of critical historical consciousness and political theory etc. out of reflection on the Peloponnesian War, i.e. for Thucydides. In other words, his work is being conceived as a possession not only for all time but also for all peoples; like the compass, it is a tool that can be used by all, rather than something which belongs solely to the West.
That clearly, and quite reasonably, counters one approach to his reception that would place Thucydides within a tradition of specifically Western or European thought and/or consciousness – the Western Way of War, the idea that Asia and Africa don’t have proper history and so forth. At the same time, it wholly buys into another approach to Thucydidean reception that insists on his universality, completing ignoring the extent to which the work was written for Greeks at a specific moment in history. It would be interesting to question Fanon further on this; how far does he accept the idea that certain attitudes and forms of behaviour (which Thucydides himself does not unequivocally present as universal and eternal) are manifestations of an eternal human nature? This is to substitute an essentialising notion of ‘the human’ for essentialising notions of ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, which I suppose is progress of a sort, but it feels rather limited progress.
Equally, why exactly did Fanon focus on Thucydides, rather than a myriad alternative examples from the canon of classical literature that could be appropriated as universal human possessions? Could this be in some way connected to the features that persuaded Marshall Sahlins, in his Apologies to Thucydides, to identify Thucydides as *the* founding text in the Western tradition of anti-cultural reductionism in the study of human societies? I don’t recall Sahlins citing Fanon, but he could well have done, as another justification for his project to critique traditional readings and offer an alternative account in which Thucydides helps us make sense of events in a non-western context. Sahlins recognises the power of the name of Thucydides; he seeks if possible to turn it to different ends, but if that can’t be done to undermine it. How far did Fanon simply want to share in that power?
A possible alternative reading: insofar as the invention of the compass was one of the underpinnings of European colonialism, are we to see Thucydides’ ideas as another? In other words, it’s part of Fanon’s history because of its consequences for Africa and the rest of the world, in terms of the development of an instrumental and imperial mindset in Europe, rather than because he wants to lay claim to it as a universal cultural heritage? Even more than normal, I’d be very interested in hearing other people’s take on this…