It wasn’t entirely a joke. No, I don’t actually think that most people who cite Thucydides are zombies (though the mindlessness of some of these references, by no means only from the much-maligned Neorealists, does continue to demand explanation). However, the idea that we might think about the process whereby classical texts and ideas are rediscovered and reinterpreted in other contexts in terms of contagion – a viral theory of the classical tradition, if you will – does seem to me to have considerable merit. It’s a variant of an idea I floated in my article on the practice of quoting and misquoting Thucydides (and attributing quotes to him that were actually taken from other people), the notion of an ‘aphoristic ecosystem’ in which concepts and soundbites struggle to survive and reproduce in people’s minds (and I was interested to hear last week that Liz Sawyer at Oxford has been thinking along similar lines in her study of twentieth-century readings of Thucydides). Here, however, it’s the idea of Thucydides himself (and I don’t see why this can’t be extended to other classical authors) as virus: a virus that can mutate but which retains a core identity (compare and contrast ‘Thucydides as historian’ and ‘Thucydides as political theorist’, both offspring of the ‘Thucydides as most politic historiographer’ form to be found in Hobbes); a virus that finds some environments more hospitable (C19 German historiography, late C20 US International Relations theory), others less so (much of antiquity, C15-16 Europe, contemporary Europe) and has as yet scarcely penetrated further regions (Africa, Asia); a virus which affects people to different degrees, and can produce different symptoms, depending on the host’s susceptibility, their general state of health, and the extent of contact with the pathogen.
In brief, the idea offers us two things. The first is an alternative vocabulary and set of metaphors for thinking about what’s going on when a classical text is evoked, discussed or echoed in a more modern context: we can try to identify the specific variant of the pathogen (abandoning the notion of a single, fixed Thucydides that later readers either get right or wrong), we can talk about the nature of the infection (there’s a helpful distinction in pathology between primary infection, where the invasion of the pathogen causes disease in most if not all cases, and opportunistic infection where disease is manifested only in hosts whose resistance is for some reason depleted; as well as the more familiar distinction between acute and chronic infections), we can talk about things like immunity and susceptibility in the host and explore the factors that contribute to these, we can characterise the different symptoms that may be manifested and the ways in which the host then spreads the infection to others. The second is a different set of research questions: we need to chart the processes of transmission and infection over time, the history of the mutation of the basic virus and its response to different environments, and the means by which it has succeeded in jumping the barriers that normally separate one historical culture from another as well as one area of human cultural life from another, above all through the role of certain vectors and agents of transmission.
How do we explain the history of the ‘reception’ of Thucydides in Europe in the modern era? It’s a matter of charting the survival of the virus in the eastern Mediterranean, its arrival in Italy as the result of intensified contacts with the east, its gradual spread through most regions of western Europe as a disease that affected only a limited number of highly susceptible people, and then a sudden upsurge in cases from the mid-18th century as, for a variety of reasons, the number of those with diminished resistance increased at the same time as new forms of communication and new patterns of human existence allowed the virus to multiply more dramatically than before. We need to consider the spread of the virus to the Americas (it’s recorded in C17 sources as having been taken across by early settlers, but the population seems to have been largely resistant until the late 20th century), and the role of new technology, especially the internet, in accelerating the rate of reproduction and infection so that for the first time it has become a disease of the masses rather than one contracted only by the educated upper classes.
One obvious objection to the idea from classicists will be its apparently negative connotations – how dare I suggest that drawing inspiration from the culture of Greece and Rome should be characterised as a disease? (Non-classicists, on the other hand, may be quite open to this). I can think of two immediate responses. The first is to note that the characterisation of disease in wholly negative terms is, clearly, a human and value-laden perspective, whereas virology aspires to scientific objectivity; from the point of view of the pathogen (and medical science aims to understand the process of infection in such neutral terms) it is a matter of the innate drive to survive and reproduce by infecting a host, and the negative consequences of disease may be as much a problem for the virus (losing its host) as an opportunity (offering new modes of transmission to new hosts). The second is to observe that the conventional terms of conventional ‘classical reception studies’ are equally value-laden, mostly characterising the influence of the classical in positive terms as a gift or an inheritance to be received gratefully (tradition, heritage, reception) and only occasionally admitting the possibility of an inappropriate or dangerous influence (‘appropriation’ – a term which has no real analytical content, as Katie Fleming has discussed in relation to the Fascist and Nazi use of the classics, but is simply applied to instances of influence which we personally feel uncomfortable about). A viral theory of classical influence doesn’t attempt to draw tendentious distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ receptions, or ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ readings; it assumes that the same basic process of cultural infection is involved in all cases, and seeks then to describe the resulting symptoms as neutrally as possible.
A second objection might seem more cogent: conceiving of this topic in terms of infection does away with notions of agency, whereas – surely – classical reception is all about the modern writer choosing to reference, rewrite etc. the ancient text for his/her own purposes? I’m still thinking about this; it is at best only a partial objection, since this hypothetical writer must already have been infected with the pathogen (through the mechanisms to be discussed within this virological framework) before s/he could be capable of manifesting this through writing. Could we see the habit of some modern writers of referencing the classics as only a symptom of infection – implying that we should focus on the most dramatic cases above all as a means of learning about the disease in general, relevant to the mass of more regular cases, rather than as end in itself? This does suggest that we need to think in terms of a syndrome, a propensity to quote classical sources generally (found more often in some contexts than in others), alongside infection by specific individual classical pathogens.
Classicism as sickness: every ancient author is a virus (naturally of varying virulence, infectivity and resilience), each of which has been striving to find its way through bloodstream or lungs into the brain of the prospective host, to multiply within the cells and transform the activities of the brain. It’s not a voluntary process: the moment we find ourselves thinking that a classical reference might be useful in engaging with the modern world, we’ve long since been infected, and are now starting to infect others with the same contagious notion.