RIP Geoff Hawthorn
It has not been a good couple of months for people who have inspired me and influenced my intellectual development, to the point where I’ve been wondering about whether I should send out cautionary messages to others on the list (although receiving a “Better watch your step” from me might be open to misconstruction). In early November, one of my school classics teachers, Aubrey Scrase, died, albeit having reached the age of ninety; any idea of writing a blog post at the time was buried by the avalanche of other commitments that month, but I do say something about his role in my early encounters with Thucydides in the preface to my book on Thucydides and the Idea of History. At the close of the old year, on December 27th, Christopher Brooke died, as discussed in my last post – and in the early hours of New Year’s Eve we lost Geoff Hawthorn. I have no idea what the status of his work within political theory or international studies may be – at any rate the TLS review of his and my books on Thucydides seems distinctly equivocal – but I would certainly argue that he ought to be a significant figure for anyone thinking about the relationship between history and the social sciences.
Despite my studying in Cambridge – and, looking back, I wonder about the ‘might have been’ if he had already started teaching his now legendary classes on Thucydides for politics students – I didn’t meet Geoff in person until eight years ago. My initial encounter was entirely intellectual, and quite by chance, but no less powerful for that: some in the mid 1990s I picked up a cheap copy of Plausible Worlds in Galloway & Porter out of curiosity, and partly because I was thinking about disease and demography at the time and noticed the chapter on the Black Death. Since then, it’s become one of my touchstones for thinking about aspects of historical change. Indeed, I now seem to have about four copies, as for some years whenever I came across one I would instinctively buy it; it took ages for Bristol library to add it to the collection, despite my pleading (I suspect that it looked insufficiently classical to go onto our book budget, but the historians didn’t see it as a priority), and so I kept lending copies to particularly eager students who then never returned them, or at least I could never be certain whether I still had a copy or not.
Plausible Worlds is arguably the sole serious book-length contribution to the field of counterfactual history, as opposed to all those trashy, lightweight ‘what if Hitler’s artistic career had taken off and the wind had changed direction at Trafalgar?’ historical fantasies where you can detect the self-satisfied, I’m-really-slumming-it smirks of the contributors from a mile away. It establishes the centrality of counterfactual thinking to all discussions of historical causation (even if this is not recognised, or is even actively denied, by serious call a spade a spade historians), and offers several case studies to show how an explicit acknowledgement of these assumptions can illuminate understanding of key historical processes. In particular, it embeds thinking about change and contingency firmly within social scientific approach, emphasising the importance of considering the complex interaction between individual decision-making and social, economic, cultural and environmental structures – in contrast to e.g. Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History, entirely focused on old-fashioned leaders’n’battles topics, whose key claim was that this approach demonstrated the crucial role of individual decisions as the sole significant determinant of historical events, thus refuting the determinism and tedious economic nonsense of the evil Marxists. The influence of Hawthorn’s approach on my own attempt at using a counterfactual approach, to explore some underlying assumptions of the history of technology as applied to the Roman Empire (‘Trajan’s Engines’, Greece & Rome, 2000), is obvious.
Seen from a conventional historical perspective, Hawthorn’s approach is explicitly concerned with theoretical and methodological issues, and hence potentially suspect – certainly in the early 1990s when it was published. It has no time at all for naive positivism or the claim that historians can offer objective reconstructions of the past simply by re-presenting the evidence; on the contrary, every account of the past is shown to be influenced by the historian’s own prejudices, assumptions and intellectual procedures – whether or not the historian recognises this. But at the same time, it offers a implicit historical critique of conventional social science. Hawthorn’s answer to the anti-theoretical historian is not the conventional theoretical historian or social scientist, who simply imports a modern theory that is taken to explain everything, replacing the confusing and contradictory details of a specific historical context with the clarity and elegance of timeless general principles. As exemplified by his practice in Plausible Worlds, the contribution of a social-scientific viewpoint to history is not to offer pat answers or a rigid template for interpretation, but to help historians ask better, more self-aware questions of their evidence. This in turn can offer a corrective to the over-ambitious claims of social science to have discerned the essential dynamics of all historical development without having actually studied the past in any detail.
The danger for this sort of work is that it all too easily falls between two stools. I don’t think I can recall meeting a historian, even those fully open to theoretical issues, who had read Plausible Worlds before I started raving about it (when the discussion turned in an appropriate direction, I should add; I don’t actually make use of this as a conversational opening with every historian I meet), and certainly its contribution to the field is generally seen to be limited to counterfactual history (still regarded as marginal and eccentric) rather than linking to these much broader and more significant issues.
The Politics of Thucydides
My personal connection with Hawthorn began in 2007 when I organised the first workshops of what became the Thucydides: reception, reinterpretation and influence project, and I invited him (at the recommendation of Duncan Bell, as I recall, though it could have been Chris Brooke. The other, non-deceased Chris Brooke) to contribute to the third session on the place of Thucydides in modern debates about international relations. At this point, I was entirely ignorant of how IR theorists, especially American ones, read and interpreted Thucydides, and it was something of a culture shock. I have learnt over the last eight years to understand and appreciate the discourse better, even if it will always be foreign to me, but at the time it seemed as if all the issues of translation, interpretation, genre, ambiguity, reception and context that had dominated the first two workshops were not simply being ignored but had no purchase whatsoever on the discussion: rather, this was what Thucydides had said, this was what it meant, and this was how it related to the present. One of those moments when the closest thing to a coherent question was “Huh?”, which is never a good look in a workshop organiser.
Geoff’s contribution saved the day as far as I was concerned, as it effortlessly bridged the gap between these apparently incompatible sets of assumptions and interpretative practices; he could speak to both sides – or at any rate he seemed to be raising questions that made sense to all of us, albeit in different ways – and identify themes that tied together what had seemed to me to be a discussion heading off in utterly disparate directions. This was what convinced me that the putative project should seek to engage with the IR tradition, rather than sticking to the much safer ground of a purely historical study of reception, and his ideas gave me enough of a sense of what was going on to frame halfway-coherent research questions – that won the grant, that paid for trips to APSA, that continued the process of culture shock and then at some point led to at least a degree of understanding of why IR people read Thucydides in the ways that they do. Yes, there’s a counterfactual in which the project was dismissed as too narrowly focused and so wasn’t funded, and another where it did get funding but stuck to nice safe historical ground; but this is the prime timeline, and I do owe much of that to Geoff. It was a pleasure then to have his support for and involvement in subsequent activities, and his two short contributions to the edited collections we’ve published, on ‘Receiving Thucydides Politically’ (Harloe & Morley, 2012) and ‘Receiving the Reception’ (Lee & Morley, 2015) – as a supplement to his fascinating Thucydides on Politics: back to the present.
It has become clear, over the years, how little Geoff actually had in common with his IR interlocutors at that workshop; he could bridge the conversational gap because he already knew their language and presuppositions, and because of his basic courtesy and interest in debate – not because he shared their ideas in the slightest. Indeed, his Thucydides is more or less the polar opposite of theirs, besides the fact that they are both taken to have a special interest in politics. Instead of the Realist Thucydides of the Melian Dialogue, or even the Constructivist Thucydides of the Mytilene Debate – Thucydideses who have clear sets of ideas, assumptions and principles that they seek to communicate to their readers, Thucydideses with straightforward messages for posterity about the way the world works – the Hawthorn Thucydides contains multitudes, inconsistencies and contraditions, with no agenda, no theory, no all-encompassing morality or systematic defence of his presuppositions. If he tells us anything at all, it is that our conventional explanations are insufficient and our judgements are misfounded. Only two things are true throughout his account: nothing and no one stays the same, and hence time matters.
In ‘Receiving the Reception’, perhaps his final contribution to the theme, Geoff sets out the wide variety of different readings of Thucydides, each of them claiming to identify his true meaning and message, and then introduces “the naive reader” who expresses puzzlement that none of these readings seems to reflect all that he finds in the text. How can Thucydides be so confidently possessed, in a way that inevitably has to ignore substantial sections of the work and important aspects of his sensibility? Just as importantly, why does anyone actually want to read him in this way? The answer is that this is the great modern disposition, the drive to develop a reading that is selective, exclusive, general and enduring – in a word, theory. Theory may be indispensable for making sense of the mass of data about the modern world – but it cannot illuminate the complexities and contradictions of politics; for that, we need Thucydides’ appreciation of the importance of time, change, contingency, and the inadequacy of all our cherished assumptions.
Naive and Theoretical Readings
The naive reader comes to Thucydides and tries to see what is actually there, rather than attempting to extract a theory that is largely if not entirely the product of the theorist’s imagination. Geoff is of course that naive reader – but it is inevitably a self-conscious, knowing naivete, deliberately adopted. Rather as Leo Strauss sought to use Thucydides, the historian’s historian, against historicism, so Hawthorn seeks to employ Thucydides, the theorist’s theorist, against political theory in general. He offers a radical scepticism, if not an epistemological pessimism – with a curious special pleading for politics as a part of life that resists, or must resist, incorporation into the social-scientific theoretical sausage machine. There is a risk here of lurching into the position that history is no more than one damn thing after another, that the rejection of theory results in the triumph of absolute contingency, and that Thucydides can be seen (as of course many historians have seen him) as merely the diligent chronicler of historical events, rather than as someone seeking to make sense of the complexity of the world without denying or obscuring that complexity. A reader cannot be too naive, or he can be all too easily fooled.
The enormous variety of readings of Thucydides, each almost invariably claiming to be the one, true, indivisible and eternal interpretation, often provoke the thought that perhaps every reader only finds what they’ve put there in the first place. I don’t subscribe to such a pessimistic line – not least because I tend to find not only myself, but also many of those other readers whose interpretations, however partial, have contributed to my understanding. And so one of the many faces of Thucydides – a wry, sceptical, humourous one, full of the unillusion (rather than disillusion) that he felt characterised fifth-century Athens and enables us to see that we too are naked in our political condition – will always be that of Geoff Hawthorn.