There is a persistent habit among readers of Thucydides of focusing on the character and biography of the historian – despite the shortage of evidence on that subject. This resort to the personal is often employed as a means of giving Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, and/or the more general theories that he supposedly derived from the events, greater authority: Thucydides was a general whose views on military matters therefore need to be taken seriously, a politician who therefore understood democracy from the inside, and he was unjustly exiled from Athens and yet shows no vengefulness in his account of the Athenians which shows his astonishing objectivity and impartiality, and so forth. Often, Thucydides’ character is established through a reading of his work – all the familiar adjectives like austere, realistic, rationalistic etc. – and that is then offered as a key to interpretation.
Certain readers also seek to explain the genesis of the work through biography. By far the most interesting and provocative example of this was Arnold J. Toynbee, and his conception of the ‘broken life’. Thucydides is seen by Toynbee to be representative of a generation of Greeks who were shattered by the way that their society had torn itself apart; but also a member of a very select group through human history who began as generals and statesmen but were then banished from the field of action, and developed historical sense as a result. Thucydides became a historian, and a particular kind of historian, as a result of his experiences. The ‘broken lives’ of such man gave them to ability to rise above their old patriotic and personal loyalties and to control their personal distress about events in order to make sense of them:
The dross of egotism and animus has all been refined away… We are conscious that the author’s personal misfortune is genuinely of no account in the author’s own eyes by comparison with the public catastrophe which has overtaken Athens and Hellas; and even the deep emotion which the consciousness of this catastrophe awakens in Thucydides’ soul is so rigorously held in control that we are only made aware of its intensity now and again by the quivering tension which reveals itself, here and there, through the texture of the historian’s calm and measured words.
It’s clear that Toynbee’s response to Thucydides was equally shaped by his own times and experiences, the way that Europe had torn itself apart in the First World War. A key strand in the next phase of my research project on Thucydides and his reception is precisely the way that scholars like Toynbee sought, in the inter-war years, to use history to make sense of this catastrophe and, more importantly, to try to prevent it ever happening again; they did not turn to Thucydides – he was already a familiar author to them – but rather clung to him as a guide and a model of a historiography that sought to engage with the world and provide understanding for the benefit of the future, in contrast to histories that were solely concerned with the past. Hence, the shift from seeing Thucydides as primarily the property of the historians and classicists to the present situation where he is claimed as a political theorist and international relations guru; Toynbee and others brought him across disciplinary boundaries (and arguably at the same time found their way across the boundary of conventional history through their reading of him) and also transported him across the Atlantic.
What I had not recognised previously – it comes, I have to admit, from a habit of regarding biographical interpretations with a fair degree of suspicion, and hence neglecting such issues unless absolutely forced to confront them – is the depth of personal investment and emotional complexity in Toynbee’s formulations. This was suddenly brought home by reading an article yesterday written by the journalist Polly Toynbee, granddaughter of Arnold J., about her own family’s memories of WWI: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/14/family-first-world-war-experiences-these-are-mine, which is highly recommended.
Toynbee, it turns out, was not a man of action who was then forced into a life of contemplation by events; he never served in the war, presenting himself on several occasions as a volunteer but with doctors’ letters declaring him unfit to serve and later evading conscription in the same manner, and finally found a berth in the Foreign Office writing propaganda. As P. Toynbee writes, “He could have been the shamed father of the notorious poster, ‘Daddy, What Did YOU Do in the Great War?’” He was not a conscientious objector – on the contrary, he firmly believed that Germany needed to be taught a lesson in order to deter future aggression – but was simply scared.
A different sort of ‘broken life’, then, excluded from the field of action not by external circumstances like Thucydides’ exile but by his own personal failings. One can only imagine (well, perhaps there are letters or diaries in which he talks about it, but for the moment I can only imagine) the shame and guilt that must have been bound up with his reading of the ancient historian, all too aware that he was no Thucydides. But the experience led to the same place – and this is something which P. Toynbee might have made a little more of in her account, rather than leaving a clear impression that she was distinctly ashamed of her grandfather’s behaviour: like Thucydides, Toynbee turned to history as a means of trying to make sense of these world-shattering events, not as an end in itself but as a means of trying to stop them happening again.
His account of Thucydides quoted above, then, must surely carry some personal baggage: not a self-description but an aspiration, that in his work the dross of egotism and personal emotion might be refined away (and forgotten…), that the author’s personal misery might genuinely come to be of no account in comparison to the general catastrophe – and that the academic skills that had found him a refuge in Whitehall from the horror of the trenches might now be turned to positive, public use.