Just before Christmas, I had a most enjoyable time participating in a discussion, organised by colleagues from Historical Studies, of the new History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage – still available as a free download here. In considering some of their claims for the potential usefulness and relevance of history if only it can lose its parochialism and narrow focus and follow their prescriptions, I was regularly reminded of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century claims about Thucydides. Of course, that’s what I do, so it was very interesting to see that the review of the book by David Reynolds in this week’s New Statesman also focused on Thucydides in its closing paragraphs, offering his work as the prime example of a history concerned with the present and orientated towards policy-makers.
I would dissent from Reynolds’ account in a few respects. He follows the conventional but problematic translation of to anthropinon as ‘human nature’ and disparages Thucydides for believing in such a thing, and his summary of the work – showing how disaster in Sicily weakened Greece as a whole and led to its decline and conquest – doesn’t wholly correspond to what is actually in the account; brilliant as he was, Thucydides didn’t actually anticipate Philip of Macedon or the Romans, and understandably saw the failure of the attack on Syracuse as a key stage in the defeat of Athens, not of all the Greeks.
What really struck me, however, and fully compensated for the above, was the entertaining chutzpah of a political theorist telling historians that they really need to return to the ideas of one of the first historians if they want to get their discipline’s act together. There’s an implicit claim here that political theorists have continued to recognise his importance where historians have neglected him (to a significant extent this is true) and that Thucydides represents a better model for historiography than either new historicist microhistory or Guldi & Armitage’s preferred Big History (a plausible claim, at least).
Potentially, Thucydides offers a point of contact between history and political theory, if each discipline is prepared to learn something of the other’s language – though he also, as has been recognised by theorists as varied as Wilhelm Roscher, Arnold Toynbee, Raymond Aron and Ned Lebow, challenges the approaches and assumptions of both. He seems both startlingly familiar and thoroughly alien, and it is striking that no historian or political theorist, however loudly they declare their admiration, has ever actually attempted to imitate his work. Perhaps at last they should, or at least make a serious attempt to consider how his approach might be realised in the present. That would be a radical manifesto, for history and political theory alike.