The great historian of concepts Reinhart Koselleck is one of my intellectual heroes; it’s one of my great regrets that I didn’t discover his work until it was too late (he died in 2006) to agitate for Bristol to give him an honorary degree – he spent some time as a student at the university, and then returned as a lecturer between 1954 and 1956. Since I’m currently in Bielefeld, where he was a key figure in the establishment of the Faculty of Historical Studies and was Professor fuer Theorie der Geschichte from 1973 until his retirement in 1988, I’m trying to make time to read as much of his work as possible, given that I can access a load of stuff that simply isn’t available in the UK.
One thing that’s striking, given the current focus of my interests, is how often he brings up Thucydides as a key example; not, as in most 20th-century historiographical studies, simply as an example of the old-fashioned approach to history that was replaced by the rise of ‘Geschichte als Wissenschaft’ in the nineteenth century, but as a text that helps to tease out distinctive features of the nature of history, and different tendencies within it. Basically, writing an article on Koselleck and Thucydides now goes onto my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list, and adds to my frustration that there is barely six months of the AHRC-funded Thucydides project left and then I have to develop something completely different in order to apply for further funds… In the meantime, however, I was most struck by the way that he returns several times in the course of the essays, mostly from the 1980s and 90s, collected in Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik (Frankfurt am Main, 2000) to consideration of the Melian Dialogue (V.85-115), in a manner that is quite different from the usual reading of it as a simple statement of the universal principles of international relation.
I’m going to concentrate on the discussion in ‘The unknown future and the art of prognosis’ from 1984. Koselleck’s general theme at this point is “the metahistorical statements, in which the conditions of possible histories, hence of a possible future, are reflected”. He refers here to the speeches of Thucydides and the general theme of Tacitus’ history, “which doesn’t describe the actuality of events so much as the manner in which they were contradictorily experienced” (and I know that’s a clumsy translation, but I’m tired, and it is at least understandable…).
The analyses of civil war of both authors, which not only depict the course of events but at the same time semantically reflect them and probe their experiential content, lead to lessons of history, which can be repeated not only rhetorically. They are actually applicable. The overcoming of the confessional struggles of the early modern period might have been achieved even without ancient authors, but in fact they made available lessons which were immediately ready for use. They contained a prognostic potential, which killed off the effect of surprise of the new experiences. Religious intolerance became calculable, reckonable in political terms, and therefore tameable.
[It would be good to know exactly what Koselleck is referring to at this point; having spent some time surveying the reception of Thucydides in this period, my immediately thought is that this sounds rather like the Rostock theologian and historian David Chytraeus’ remark that the evils of the Corcyrean stasis are fully applicable to his own times as well – for here too people claim to be fighting over principles but are actually contending for primacy.]
We can bring this into the present and make use of a supposition. We don’t know what arguments Dubcek was presented with in 1968 in the Kremlin, before he submitted to the Soviet conditions. But the basic structure of the argument is found in Thucydides, in his famous dialogue between the Athenians and the citizens of Melos. The Melian Dialogue consists of an argument divided into two roles, which in modern terms amounts to alternative prognoses, so as to be ready for use. Thucydides defined the attitude of the Melians as a wishful prognosis: they take the veiled future for the present out of sheer desire for justice, and therefore are mistaken. The Athenians on the other hand appeal to the law of power, which they have not invented but only taken over in order to employ it… [The Athenians of course end up massacring the Melians and selling women and children into slavery] Prague was spared an analogous fate. The Czechs submitted. As in 1939 Hacha did before Hitler.
It would be ridiculous to want to construct here a linear history of Thucydidean influence. Rather there are historical structures of experience which, once formulated, don’t then disappear, which persist under completely different conditions of modern exertion of power or new conceptions of justice. A prognostic force lives within them, which is of metahistorical duration and which can be used at any time for political extrapolations.
In a slightly later essay on ‘Historicism and hermeneutics’, the point is made more strongly: “The Melian Dialogue of Thucydides was doubtless repeated in Moscow when Dubcek sought to save the freedom of Prague.”
Can the study of the past offer a reliable basis for prognosis? Arguments along these lines generally have to assume a basic continuity between past and present, so that past experience remains relevant to actual present and possible future, an idea which Koselleck comprehensively undermined in his work on themes such as the dissolution of the topos of historia magistra vitae – and the belief in the existence of a constant ‘human nature’ and universal laws of human behaviour, which underpins much of the continued evocation of Thucydides in Realist international relations studies, is equally subject to his criticisms. That might seem to imply the outright rejection of Thucydides’ claims that his history will be useful; the basic presuppositions of historicism are incompatible with such an idea.
Koselleck argues that Thucydides does not offer eternal laws, but nor does he offer just an account of events; he outlines different modes of living in time and comprehending historical experience, including the different ways in which in which people think about and seek to anticipate the future. Neither the Soviet leadership nor, so far as we know, Dubcek had read Thucydides; but Thucydides, through his understanding of ‘the human thing’, including the ways that humans live within time, had identified the forms of thought to which people resort in certain situations.