Two fascinating days in Reading at the inaugural workshop of the Legacy of Greek Political Thought network last week brought to mind various ideas about what different writers have sought to recover from antiquity. I suppose it’s because I was already thinking about some of these issues in relation to the different and often incompatible ways in which Thucydides gets interpreted and appropriated in the modern era, but one thing that struck me while listening to a series of excellent papers on such topics as the depiction of tragedy and tragic themes in Deutschland im Herbst (Bonnie Honig), the military exploits of Socrates (Sara Monoson), anti-bellicose Lutheran readers of Thucydides (Kinch Hoekstra) and depictions of Greek decline (Jon Sachs) was how far they were actually about utterly different things, and that it was actually quite remarkable that we could find any common ground for discussion with only the unhelpfully vague terms ‘legacy’ and ‘political thought’ as a basis. We could just as easily have ended up heading off in completely different directions.
What sort of legacy are we dealing with, after all? There seems to be little agreement about the nature of what has been inherited, or at any rate about which aspects of it would put a smile and a fake look of astonishment on our faces on Antiques Roadshow. For some, it’s the legacy of ancient political thought in a strong sense, the substantive arguments and useful concepts of self-conscious political thinkers; for others, it’s the ideas and practices of ancient political actors and institutions, with ancient writers valued not for their own opinions but for their accurate (we hope) accounts of the past which tell us about those ideas and practices; for others, it’s a fuzzier notion of ‘classical culture’ and its present-day political implications, including ideas of mythical or tragic plots as expressing something deeper and more meaningful than mere analysis. Meanwhile, all this takes place within different conceptions of the relationship between past and present, hence of the relevance of material from the past at all, and different assumptions about the universality or otherwise of human nature, particular forms of behaviour and the like.
And, as has been noted plenty of times by scholars of reception (but perhaps not noted enough by political and social theorists), there’s the consequence of figuring this relationship in terms of a handing-down, one-way transmission of whatever it is; that ignores the extent to which we tend to be inventing the antiquity from which we then conceive of ourselves as inheriting stuff (stuff whose significance and authority is drawn largely from its original classical context) and seems to deny the possibility of dialogue and debate, or any other kind of relationship with the past. What united us, I suppose, was a shared interest in the possibility that the classical past might have or has had something useful to offer political thought. Is this a slippery slope to buying into the idea that there is something inherently special about the classical, beyond the fact that it has, historically, been believed to be inherently special?