Plutarch wrote a work On the Malignity of Herodotus, explaining all the ways in which Herodotus did down the noble Greeks and was unacceptably positive about barbarians. To judge from a fascinating seminar paper in Bristol yesterday, Liz Irwin of Columbia University is planning to write On the Malignity of Thucydides, explaining all the ways in which this brilliantly manipulative writer persuades us to accept dubious ideas, not least the idea of his own absolute trustworthiness. She began with Thucydides’ emphasis on the hard work involved in gaining a true knowledge of the past, which most people don’t bother with; this also applies to Thucydides’ own work, which most people take largely at face value as he’s done all the hard work, whereas in fact we need to work incredibly hard to see the reality that lies behind his misleading presentation – otherwise we’re just like hoi polloi (and perhaps specifically hoi polloi of Athens) who’ll accept any old story, now including Thucydides’. She went on to develop a reading of the first two books or so of the work, showing the gaps between Thucydides’ presentation of events and the reality of what really happened – or at least the alternative interpretations that we can derive from other sources or from what seem to be significant absences or tendential claims in Thucydides.
This critical reading of Thucydides against a supposed historical reality includes the fairly familiar stuff about his very patchy account of previous events in the Pentecontaetia (e.g. where’s Megara in all this?), but also the way in which he ‘invents’ the Athenian plague as The Plague, presenting what must actually have been an assortment of different illnesses including typhoid as a single catastrophic event – that was however natural rather than in any way attributable to divine wrath at Pericles’ hubris towards Megara. The underlying agenda is to exculpate Pericles from any war guilt, even by avoiding topics that might have raised such questions, to legitimise Athenian imperialism by glossing over incidents that might call it into question, and to exclude any sort of moral considerations from discussions of war and politics. Thucydides wants to present the war as the unavoidable and unintended outcome of inexorable forces and circumstances, rather than something brought about by human decisions, i.e. Pericles’ aggression, and unless we are very careful and active readers we are likely to fall for this. (There is therefore scope for a very interesting comparison with Edith Foster’s work, which suggests that Thucydides’ account is rather a subtle critique of both Pericles and aggressive Athenian imperialism in general…)
None of this is entirely new, except possibly the interpretation of the Plague as a literary device; but, as Irwin noted, such gaps and distortions in Thucydides’ account are regularly neglected or played down; readers do indeed tend to explain away such problems and read his work charitably . We emphasise the positive, ‘scientific’ aspects of the description of the Plague, for example, and excuse the less scientific aspects with reference to the limitations of ancient medical understanding more generally; the fact that hundreds of different studies have failed to agree on what the disease might actually have been is explained by, for example, the different ancient attitude towards symptoms, not for a moment by questioning the integrity of Thucydides’ account (after all, he lived through the plague so of course we can trust him..). The ways in which Thucydides manipulates his readers without seeming to do so has been recognised by scholars who are otherwise entirely favourable to him, such as Wilhelm Roscher’s comments on the ‘art of apparent artlessness’ or Eduard Meyer’s remark that Thucydides seems to leave readers to their own judgements but has in fact completely loaded the dice. However, this does not diminish their admiration or basic belief in his trustworthiness. As I argue in my chapter in the forthcoming Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides (no idea when it’s actually appearing; I had thought end of February…), this is at least in part bound up with a powerful idea of Thucydides, partly but not wholly drawn from his text and from a heroised biography, which establishes him as the reliable authority and so inclines us trust him and make excuses even when he clearly fails to meet our expectations – perhaps it is our expectations that are wrong…
Irwin is clearly infuriated by the failure of even critical readers to go further and reject Thucydides; the recognition of problems in his account and artfulness in his presentation ought to arouse not just suspicion but anger, and fear about what he might be persuading us of without our noticing. Whereas I would frame the problem of Thucydidean reception in terms of the apparent openness of the text, so that different readers can find quite different and contradictory things in it without this clearly being a misreading or misappropriation, Irwin sees a much more deliberate attempt by Thucydides to mesmerise his readers for his dark purposes – that is to say, assuming clear authorial intent (where I’d be inclined to be agnostic) and a single underlying meaning (even if it’s concealed; a touch of the Straussian here). To put it in metaphorical terms: whereas I have offered the idea of the Thucydides virus, inadvertently creating an army of shambling zombies through its relentless drive to reproduce, Irwin sees an immortal vampire or demon, casting its spell over generation after generation. It isn’t wholly clear to me how she imagines the balance of different motives for Thucydides’ use of his rhetorical wizardry, between excusing Athenian imperialism and perpetuating his own name regardless of interpretation. Perhaps it is more the latter, but seen to be irrevocably tainted by the former, so that Thucydides’ drive for his text to live for ever, scarcely distinguishable from the same drive in numerous other writers, is rendered problematic by his other attitudes, especially his alleged wish to exclude moral questions from history and politics. Perhaps this impression is then reinforced by the identity of some of his later fans (I didn’t get to find out why Irwin hates Hobbes and feels that he and Thucydides deserve one another, but the obvious implication is that Thucydides continues to inspire authoritarianism and imperialism). Certainly this perception of an absolutely closed text, defined by the intent of its author, precludes the possibility of alternative readings – the anti-imperialist Thucydides offered by Foster, Thucydides as theorist of democratic deliberation and so forth.
In response to my ramblings on Twitter in the course of the discussion and afterwards, Ika Willis (@doessheek) mentioned recent theoretical work on the hermeneutics of suspicion as a dominant line of criticism in the twentieth century; all texts are (quite reasonably, one might say) suspected of attempted manipulation and rhetorical deviousness because that’s what they do, and the critic can then enjoy the feeling of satisfied superiority at having spotted this. What Irwin offers seems to be something beyond this. The difference lies not in the presence of sophisticated rhetoric, the partiality of the narrator, the unreliability of the narrative and so forth, all of which can be paralleled in plenty of other texts (and in readings of Thucydides), but rather in the alleged motivation and the supposed effects. Thucydides’ manipulation of his readers is somehow worse than that of any other author; every impulse to defend him or at least moderate the critique is a sign that we’ve been brain-washed into giving him the benefit of the doubt and hence we’ll fall for his lies and distortions; recognising the manipulative qualities of his text without denouncing it is a mark of complicity. One basic problem with this line of thought is that it’s impossible to falsify, since every counter-argument can be interpreted as a sign that one is under Thucydidean thrall. It’s analogous to the standard argument in modern conspiracy theory, that the apparent absence of evidence for a vast conspiracy of alien lizards is evidence of the effectiveness of that conspiracy in suppressing all evidence of its existence. The fact that so many readers still find themselves responding to Thucydides and believing in his essential good faith is evidence of his terrifying effectiveness in blinding readers to the truth. Thucydides is messing with your minds, people!