Misquotations of Thucydides on Twitter, Nos.73 and 74… Nestled in among the continuing deluge of mis-spelt variations on ‘The sacred of hippiness is freedox…’ quotes – most of these are bots, I assume, changing the spelling slightly for copyright reasons – the discerning observer may occasionally spot a few new variants; yes, I’m starting to feel like one of those obsessive bird-watchers, improbably excited by the possible sighting of something that’s distinguishable from a common-or-garden variety of misquotation only by a slightly different pattern of wing stripe. But this is one of the few occasions I get to be a properly scholarly pedant, or pedantic scholar…
First up is something I’ve spotted a couple of times before without getting round to looking it up: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” Perfectly innocuous statement, indeed more or less a staple of introductions to the Mediterranean environment and the rise of classical civilisation – but nagging feeling that I can’t actually recall it in Thucydides’ Archaeology (which is the obvious place to look). This turned out to be a reasonably easy one to track down through the power of Google: Wikipedia helpfully opens its article on Ancient Greece and Wine with the quote, with a reference to Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: the story of wine (New York, 1989), p.35 (and no mention of Thucydides, oddly enough). I haven’t yet managed to track down a copy of Johnson’s book to check what, if anything, he lists in his bibliography (if any) in the ancient history line, or even to confirm the wider context of the quote, but it seems pretty clear that this is the origin of the tradition – not least because Johnson re-uses it elsewhere; for example, in a piece entitled “An Oenophile’s Personal Observations on Historic Landscapes of Viticulture” that appeared in a 2014 issue of Sitelines: a journal of place. Lots of subsequent citations mention Johnson as well as Thucydides, but plenty offer Thucydides alone, in particular a 2007 New York Times article on wine (I guess Johnson is in no position to complain about plagiarism, given that he didn’t claim authorship of the original), which may be a major source for a lot of the subsequent quotations – and its dubious provenance has already been noted in a brief exchange on a Roman army blog.
My best guess at this point is that Johnson has, as so often happens with ‘popular’ histories, taken a line from an earlier history book that mentions Thucydides, as if it’s an actual quotation from him. The likely source of this discussion is 1.2.2: Thucydides notes that the earlier Greeks, because of insecurity and the assumption that they could secure subsistence anywhere, didn’t found cities or produce surplus goods or plant the land (i.e. with long-term crops like olives and vines); put another way – which is presumably what the unknown author plagiarised by Johnson did – it was only when the Greeks started to found permanent settlements and to plant olives and vines that they were able to accumulate resources and achieve anything of note. So, definitely a connection to Thucydides, but definitely not an actual quotation.
Pretty well the same can be said of the other new quotation, which has suddenly appeared in just the last week or so: “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.” This clearly links to the familiar 1.22.4 passage, where Thucydides makes his claim for the usefulness of his account (the human thing meaning that events will tend to recur in more or less the same way) – but equally clearly, this isn’t actually what Thucydides wrote, however you go about translating it. Again, it turned out to be pretty easy to find the source: Henry Kissinger, at least as described in an anecdote from a Harvard contemporary when they were both first-year graduate students, as cited in Niall Ferguson’s new biography Kissinger: 1923-1968: the Idealist (London, 2015: I’m consulting the eBook version so no page numbers, but it comes towards the end of the preface):
“He argued forcefully for the important of history. Quoting Thucydides, he asserted that the present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future… More than ever…one should study history in order to see why nations and men succeeded and why they failed.”
It’s easy enough to see how the misquotation could then arise; if you don’t already know Thucydides well, it can look as if everything in this extract after “he asserted” is quotation rather than gloss or interpretation.* Maybe it was, as far as the source was concerned; maybe this friend misremembered, or gave Kissinger words that it seemed appropriate for him to have said; conceivably Kissinger himself mistakenly presented this as a quotation – but it seems more likely that this is an amplification of Thucydides, Kissinger’s gloss on the statement at 1.22.4, which presents the idea of the repetition of events in a form that’s perhaps more palatable to a twentieth-century historicist. It can then became a foundation of an intellectual world-view that, Ferguson claims, always revered history above theory (unlike most students of international relations in his generation), or rather recognised that states and statesmen act on the basis of their own historical self-understanding.
I can’t help feeling that there are a couple of non sequiturs and little skips in the argument here, that could benefit from a little more discussion. How, for example, does Kissinger get from his paraphrase of Thucydides – history is useful because events tend to recur in more or less the same form – to the idea that this usefulness lies in identifying the roots of success and failure (rather than, for example, Thucydides’ own focus on understanding the causes of the war and the course of events)? What is the nature of Ferguson’s segue from Kissinger putting history above theory in general terms (an idea which has some pedigree in the tradition of receiving Thucydides) to the much more specific idea that history matters because it shapes actors’ decisions (an idea which doesn’t)?
I am well aware of my tendency to treat Thucydides as the Key to All Mythologies, or at any rate as a handy crowbar for opening up intellectual problems, but it does seem reasonable to think that, given his importance both as a manifesto for the importance of historical understanding (however understood) and as a significant text in 1950s International Relations discussions (bipolar conflicts etc.), this is worth exploring in a bit more depth. Ferguson however moves rapidly on to talk about philosophy of history as prior to history, in order to distance Kissinger from Machiavelli (for obvious reasons) and instead put him into the idealist tradition of Kant and Hegel. To be fair, this is only the preface – but there is only one subsequent reference to Thucydides, when Ferguson notes that, as a tenured Harvard professor from 1959, Kissinger taught a course on ‘Principles of International Politics’ (Government 180), with Thucydides as one of the ten required texts – though soon, along with Machiavelli, to be replaced first by some more conventional modern British historians and then by some American IR theorists.
It’s entirely possible that Kissinger makes no references whatsoever to Thucydides in any of his works, lectures or unpublished writings; it’s equally possible that he does, but that his comments are wholly conventional and shed no light whatsoever on his intellectual development. Ferguson may have said nothing about Kissinger’s reading of Thucydides because there’s not a lot to say, or not a lot that’s of any interest. But it’s also possible that he said nothing because the potential significance of Thucydides in this context, as a nexus of history and theory, history and politics, and humanities and social science, passed him by; that he sees Thucydides as just a historian, who has no relevance to a discussion of the philosophy of history, and an ancient historian at that rather than a member of his own guild. To an obsessive like me, the idea of Kissinger’s world-view being bound up with the intersection of history and political theory instantly raises questions about how this relates to his interpretation of Thucydides – and raises the possibility that this reading may have played a role in the development of his wider thought at least as important as the role allegedly played by Kant and Hegel. I suspect this means I have to add the early works of Kissinger to the list of things I ought to read if I can find any time…
*And that’s what happens in a review by Graham Allison, well-known citer of Thucydides, published a couple of days ago, where the passage quoted by Ferguson is rephrased so that the (supposed) quotation is signalled more explicitly:
Kissinger would cite the assertion by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides that “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.”
The publication of this review and the appearance of that quotation in the Twittersphere in the last couple of days attributed to Thucydides does not seem to be a coincidence…