Re-reading Marshall Sahlins’ Apologies to Thucydides yesterday, I was struck by his characterisation of the malign influence of the ancient Greek in a way I hadn’t been before. In my previous reading, perhaps because this was what I was most interested in at the time, Thucydides seemed to be being presented above all as a symbol of and/or cause of the narrow perspective of traditional historiography, excluding cultural and social factors from serious consideration and concentrating on politics, narrowly conceived in nationalistic terms. This is a critique that dates back at least to the late nineteenth century and the reaction against the dominance of the Rankeans, and appears in a less developed form much earlier, most often in the confrontation of Thucydides and Herodotus as different models of historiography, where the latter can be celebrated for his broad ethnographic and geographical interests and inclusive approach. This time, however, I realised how far Sahlins’ critique was not directed solely against historiography, but against an entire climate of thought in the modern West: the ‘neoliberal’ assumption that all human actions are intelligible in terms of crude, instrumentalist motives, driven by a universal ‘human nature’.For Sahlins, albeit relying on translations that render the vague and ambiguous phrase to anthropinon precisely as ‘human nature’ or something similar, Thucydides offers the first explicit statement of such an approach to making sense of the world: things will in future more or less repeat themselves because of human nature, the basic motives of fear and profit will always determine human behaviour in basically the same way. Hence, he suggests, the current popularity of Thucydides as an ancient authority (the book appeared in 2004, in the aftermath of extensive citation of Thucydides in the context of the Iraq invasion). Whether or not this is a wholly fair rendition of that phrase of Thucydides or a wholly fair account of his view of the determinants of actions and events (for what it’s worth, I’d go with those who think Th had a much more complex and ambiguous take on human motivation), it’s undeniable that this is how he has been interpreted all too often, especially in the late twentieth century, and (unlike some interpretations) it’s easy to see why this is the case.
And of course the fact that Thucydides can, plausibly if not incontrovertibly as far as mainstream readings are concerned, be understood as a supporter of this neoliberal perspective then itself provides evidence that the core claim is indeed valid: that certain forms of human behaviour found in the contemporary world (but scarcely universally), and assumed in certain traditions of social science (most obviously neoclassical economics) as at any rate a useful heuristic tool, are in fact universal traits of eternal ‘human nature’. Thucydides provides evidence that such behaviour existed in fifth-century Greece, so it can’t be just a product of capitalism as is sometimes alleged; and the fact that such a masterful analyst anticipated modern theories of human motivation goes to show that the theories are true. People have always and will always be like this – even if only the truly brilliant and genuinely critical thinkers recognise this or are prepared to admit it.
I happened to glance at Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (don’t ask), and there it is again: a professed concern at the threat to the ‘tradition of individualism’ that is handed down by, among others, Pericles and Thucydides. I’m really not sure what Pericles is doing there, given his very un-Hayekian emphasis on the necessity of subordinating the individual to the interests of the collective in the Funeral Oration; at a guess, Hayek has at best simply read the stirring quote about democracy’s non-interference in citizens’ private lives, and assumed that he’s found an ally. The main claim is that Thucydides established the importance of the autonomous individual and his instrumentalist motivation, and even provided an ideological justification for his importance; and that current developments in the power of the state are thus wholly unnatural because they threaten what Th established as essential human nature.
What would be nice would be to have an easy way of demolishing such a view of Thucydides, without having to resort to the usual defences of “it’s actually much more complicated than that” and “you really need to read the whole book”. The current image of Thucydides as hard-headed realist with no time for ethics, glorifying the role of the military, is hard to shake; how far because it’s a cultural construct founded on a selection of isolated (and sometimes spurious) quotations, and how far because this is the Thucydides that the world (or at any rate the United States) wants right now, I’m not sure. Thucydides as neoliberal ideologue is not a writer I would especially warm to, but complaining that my Thucydides isn’t like that will get precisely nowhere…