The great thing about Google NGram – which, if you haven’t previously encountered it, is a rather neat online tool for counting the frequency of different words and phrases in books published since 1800 and displaying the results in graphical form – is that it feels a bit like a game, where you get to play with lots of different parameters and see what happens*, but can still be chalked up as a research activity; just the thing if you’re feeling slightly under the weather but not ill enough to take the day off.** I remain a little sceptical about some of the results (especially as books mentioning classical examples are always such a small part of the total corpus of publications, and I don’t currently feel well enough to calculate whether a shift in references to Thucydides from 0.0001958557% of the total corpus in 1940 to 0.0002307328% in 1945 is statistically significant or not), but if you keep in mind that it’s all about relative prominence then you’re less likely to place undue weight on the results, and can just have fun.*
This morning I have been idly testing some hypotheses developed in the paper I gave yesterday for the joint research seminar of the HU and FU in Berlin, on ‘Thucydides in WWI and After’. The basic argument – besides offering an opportunity to discuss things like the Thucydides poster in London buses in 1916, the development of war memorials and the fact that a Social Democratic newspaper in Saxony printed the entire Funeral Oration in the early months of the war – is that Thucydides was not especially important for WWI, but WWI was enormously important for Thucydides and his reception, offering a bridge between the ‘model historian’ of the nineteenth century and the ‘political theorist’ of the later twentieth. The prominence of Thucydides in Realist and post-Realist International Relations since, say, 1950 is unmistakable, but also a little puzzling, given that none of the founding figures of the discipline (Hans Morgenthau, E.H. Carr) paid much attention to him (Carr, for example, says quite a lot of things that look rather Thucydidean, but attributes them all to Machiavelli). Logical conclusions are (i) there must be another line of influence and (ii) the inter-war period is probably crucial.
The obvious link – and I’m building here on work by Edward Keene at Oxford (see relevant chapter in the new Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, yours for only £5000 plus tips) – is the work of Arnold J. Toynbee, great admirer of Thucydides (I’ve blogged on this previously), disciplinary maverick (repudiated by most ‘proper’ historians for being too speculative, mystical and popular; not much standing in contemporary political theory that I can see) but influence on Louis Halle, US state department official who wrote influential book comparing Cold War with Peloponnesian War. I want to extend this to encompass other figures in the ‘utopian’ tradition of the 1920s and 1930s (fiercely denounced by people like Carr for their total lack of realism, commitment to the League of Nations long after it had ceased to serve any useful purpose etc.), not least because of the prominence of two other figures with classical backgrounds and a known predilection for Thucydides: Gilbert Murray and Alfred Zimmern. All three, I would suggest, were influenced by the use of the Funeral Oration during the war as an expression of the values people were fighting for (as noted above, this occurred on both sides) and the feeling of recognition experienced in comparing Thucydides’ account with contemporary events, and sought to follow his example in developing a critical understanding of the causes of war as a basis for preventing it in future.
In other words, it’s not that lots of people were suddenly reading Thucydides, but that certain people were – and making specific use of his work. This isn’t something that Google Ngrams can usefully test, since it measures basic quantity rather than quality of references, but it still offers an interesting comparison, charting the proportion of Thucydides references against Herodotus and Plutarch.
All three graphs show a more or less steady decline from high points in the nineteenth century, with a noticeable dip from 1914-18 – other topics were, for obvious reasons, more pressing – and then a slight but steady climb into the 1920s. Interestingly, references to Thucydides plateau quite quickly whereas those to the other two rise more sharply; in the case of Herodotus, decline sets in around the same time as Thucydides references level out, whereas Plutarch’s popularity continues to rise into the early 1930s. Thucydides is mentioned slightly more often in the early years of WWII while the other two continue to fall off; in 1945, for the first and only time, he is mentioned more frequently than either Plutarch or Herodotus – but then the apparently natural order reasserts itself, and he resumes his status as a more specialised taste.
On this basis, Herodotus and Plutarch remained more significant and popular writers than Thucydides throughout the twentieth century, which is not what one would necessarily expect from the relative prominence of the latter in contemporary international relations theory – there isn’t even any sort of blip after 9/11, which I really would have expected… This reinforces the point that what matters – at least from one perspective – is not how many books make reference to different writers, but which books, and for what purpose.
I am now going to play with the relative frequency of ‘Peloponnesian War’ versus ‘Melos and/or Melian’ (not always to the favour of the former, and both much less frequent than Thucydides) and ‘Pericles’ (similar pattern to ‘Thucydides’ but always ahead until convergence in early 1940s, pulls ahead again as Thucydides goes into a slump in the 1950s, then neck and neck – both in decline – until Thucydides takes and maintains the lead from the late 1970s onwards…).
* Okay, yes, I was the sort of adolescent whose idea of a great computer game was playing SimCity according to the principles of the Garden City movement, and who attempted to play the original Grand Theft Auto by following the Highway Code…
** I do indeed intend to use this on Twitter as a means of guilt-tripping people into reading this blog post, following the pioneering example of Llewelyn Morgan.