The next episode of the User’s Guide to Thucydides will be posted by the end of the week, I promise – not least because there may then be a pause as I flee the country for a bit of rest and relaxation before the Classical Association Conference in Bristol after Easter. However, I wanted quickly to jot down a few comments arising from the lecture by Brooke Holmes of Princeton yesterday evening (yes, we’re having a really rich period of intellectual stimulation at the moment, with Liz Irwin a week ago, and coming up on Tuesday is Josephine Crawley Quinn on Carthaginian infant sacrifice).
Brooke’s paper was on the French theorist of the history of science Michel Serres, and his reading of Lucretius’ place in scientific development. In brief, as I understand it, Serres presents Lucretius as having had genuine insights into the true nature of the universe, in a way that we can recognise only today as a result of more recent scientific developments – and at the same time being thoroughly non-modern. This rests on a model of time not as linear (in which Lucretius would appear in the present encrusted with the accretions of all the centuries in between our time and his) but as non-linear, more like a handkerchief that can be crumpled up in a pocket, so that apparently distant periods can become surprisingly close. This doesn’t quite entail claiming that Lucretius was right in his account of physics, but that his views had reason in them (this obviously works better in French).
I was, predictably, struck by certain resemblances with the modern reception of Thucydides. He too is often seen as someone who arrives in the present as if by time machine, speaking to us directly over the intervening centuries rather than (as reception theory would conventionally insist) being accessed only through the tradition of previous readings and interpretations. One crucial difference is that Thucydides is often presented as actually modern, rather than merely coming close to some modern ideas; and that this is sometimes grounded on a cyclical view of history, in which fifth-century Athens is seen as in some way analogous to the present and hence closer to us – a third way, between conventional linear time and Holmes’/Serres’ liquid handkerchief conception.
The main similarity, I think, is the assumption of some sort of universal principle that can serve as a continuity between past and present. With Lucretius, it is the physical universe and the belief that objective knowledge of it is possible, so that one can believe that he could genuinely have reached the same conclusions about the same more or less unchanging object as modern scientists. With Thucydides, it is either a belief in universal principles of historiography, discovered both by him and by modern historians but assumed to be timeless – or it is a belief in universal principles of inter-state relations, discovered by him and by modern realist international relations theorists but assumed to be not only timeless but objective. In both cases, implicitly if not explicitly, time is subordinated to the timeless, and the historical particular is subordinated to the universal; hence the possibility of the apparently paradoxical reading of a historian in an anti-historicist manner, as in Leo Strauss’ account of Thucydides.
Shane Butler raised the question of whether Lucretius was not so much a Sleeping Beauty to be awakened by us, or a time traveller arrived straight from the past, but a fossil – something that had replaced a one-living thing, and so could give us an impression of it, but not the thing itself. I’m not sure about this – both then and now, Lucretius (and Thucydides, for that matter) was a text open to different readings, rather than a thing in itself (let alone a living one) – but maybe the idea is not to focus on the ancient writer but on our conception of and feeling towards him and his work, our tendency to conceive of them as still active from their own internal energies rather than brought to life through our readings. It actually reminds me of a comment in the article by Julian Baggini on free will and genetics in today’s Grauniad: we like to say that such and such a book changed us, rather than that we changed our life with a book – we experience this as being acted upon by a still living author, or at least his still living ideas, and that means we have to come up with a justification for the continuing relevance and vitality of a long-dead work. We experience time as suddenly irrelevant, the past as mysteriously closer and less alien than expected.