What would Thucydides think of the current debate about the banning of the burkini in various French coastal resorts in the name of secularism? On the one hand, there is his notorious scepticism about religion and its manifestations, which, coupled with his equally notorious conservatism and indifference towards women, might have inclined him to side with those who see the costume as a symbol of intolerance and ignorance. On the other hand, there are the words he puts into the mouth of Pericles in praise of Athens as a liberal state where people’s private lives and behaviour are their own business so long as they obey the law, coupled with his keen ear for the hypocrisy of politicians and the lamentable tendency for society to fragment into factionalism and mutual intolerance.**
The simple answer is of course that we haven’t the faintest idea; the issue is not one that remotely translates into the context of fifth-century BCE Greece, so the only way of ascribing an opinion to Thucydides is to abstract general ethical and political principles from his work (difficult enough, given that almost all statements along those lines are put into the mouths of characters of dubious trustworthiness, rather than offered as his own views) and then argue about how these might apply to a specific problem. In other words: if we assume that Thucydides endorses Pericles’ stated principles on public and private behaviour, then we can make a case for how a given case could be understood in terms of those principles (which would tend to point towards freedom of dress as well as expression). But it’s all pretty tenuous, and a long way from being able to state that this is what Thucydides thought on the matter. So for the most part such discussions focus on those topics, like war and politics, where we can feel confident that Thucydides did actually have opinions even if they’re less clearly stated than we might wish.
I should have said: the only defensible way of ascribing an opinion to Thucydides – because of course there are plenty of examples of people ascribing opinions to him regardless. He prompts his readers to expect to recognise their own times in his account of past events – and that seems to encourage some of them to imagine that therefore he will have something to say about everything, regardless of the degree of separation from the world of the Peloponnesian War. The long tradition of constructing Thucydides as an authority figure is bound up with a persistent habit of imagining his character and personality; this generally serves to bolster his authority as historian and/or political analyst – he’s the austere lover of truth, the sceptic, the exile etc. – but clearly it creates the possibility of imagining his views on different issues on the basis of his perceived attitudes and sensibility.
My starting assumption is that this is basically (or at least primarily) a modern phenomenon. Certainly the examples that come immediately to mind are modern: W.H.Auden’s claims about what “exiled Thucydides knew” about dictators and their rhetoric, Bob Dylan’s somewhat, erm, imaginative account (see John Byron Kuhner’s Eidolon piece) of the way he shows “how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior”. In previous centuries, ideas about Thucydides’ character were deployed above all to reinforce the authority of his work; today, one might argue, such ideas are deployed in order to claim his authority for the author’s own views about the world. ‘Realism’, for example, becomes less of a theoretical proposition about inter-state relations and more of a sensibility, on the basis of which we can argue that Thucydides would have cheered for Mourinho’s Chelsea (Mark I) and listened to Aphex Twin.
The most striking and interesting example of such imaginative reconstructions that I’ve encountered up until now is Victor Davis Hanson’s 2001 piece ‘An interview with General Thucydides’ (reprinted in his An Autumn of War from 2002), which constructed a Thucydidean case for a belligerent US response to 9/11 by quoting lines from his work as responses to questions from a journalist about the world situation. Rather than Hanson offering the argument that Thucydidean principles of inter-state relations point towards the need for immediate retaliation, he makes Thucydides offer such an argument himself. The words themselves are genuine enough (translation issues aside), it’s the de-contextualisation and re-arrangement of them that might provoke accusations of tendentiousness.
The latest example of an imagined Thucydides goes much further in projecting the author’s ideas about contemporary issues onto the ancient Greek, by claiming to present what he actually thinks about such things without worrying about quotes. Thucydides in the Underworld, by one J.R. Nyquist (who seems to spend much of his time warning against imminent Russian aggression, the Muslim invasion of Europe (Russian-backed) and the Fourth World War), imagines Thucydides’ spirit being constantly disturbed from its rest in Hades by the arrival of his deceased admirers, seeking his approval for their own works of history – an increasingly miserable and unimpressive crowd, especially with the advent of modernity, who seem ever more to miss the real point of his account and instead believe in their own superiority as the most evolved men (echoes of Nietzsche here, I think).
Thucydides longed for the peace of his grave, which posthumous fame had deprived him. As with many souls at rest, he took no further interest in history. He had passed through existence and was done. He had seen everything. What was bound to follow, he knew, would be more of the same; but after more than 23 centuries of growing enthusiasm for his work, there occurred a sudden falling off. Of the newly deceased, fewer broke in upon him. Quite clearly, something had happened. He began to realize that the character of man had changed because of the rottenness of modern ideas. Among the worst of these, for Thucydides, was that barbarians and civilized peoples were considered equal; that art could transmit sacrilege; that paper could be money; that sexual and cultural differences were of no account; that meanness was rated noble, and nobility mean.
The problem? The triumph, not of democracy, but of the belief that democracy had triumphed; excessive confidence in human capabilities, and hence neglect of the real threat to civilisation, nuclear proliferation:
Men built new engines of war, capable of wiping out entire cities, but few took this danger seriously. Why were men so determined to build such weapons? The leading country, of course, was willing to put its weapons aside. Other countries pretended to put their weapons aside. Still others said they weren’t building weapons at all, even though they were.
Would such weapons be used? The example of Melos shows that it’s inevitable. Moreover, whereas Athens just had to endure Alcibiades, every free and prosperous country in the modern world suffers from a plague of “human beings with oversized egos, with ambitions out of proportion to their ability, whose ideas rather belied their understanding than affirmed it… Instead of being exiled, they pushed men of good sense from the center of affairs. Instead of being right about strategy and tactics, they were always wrong.”
Perhaps because he’s had two and a half millennia to think things over a bit more, Thucydides’ original optimism about the capacity of history to teach people to understand the world has been replaced by despondency, and a belief in absolute determinism; human beings repeat the same actions, again and again, and the only lesson of history is that no one ever learns lessons from history:
Society is slowly built up, then wars come and put all to ruin. Those who promise a solution to this are charlatans, only adding to the destruction, because the only solution to man is the eradication of man.
The generations most in need of his teaching, he now realises, are those most likely to ignore it, and so re-enact the events he described.
Seeing that time was short, and realizing that a massive number of new souls would soon be entering the underworld, the shade of Thucydides fell back to rest.
It’s an interesting counter-point to Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ idea; in that case, various commentators have argued that the existence of nuclear weapons is precisely why the scenario of escalating tensions between established and rising power leading to war is less likely to happen than the alleged model of Thucydides and the 12 out of 16 case studies suggest; here, it’s the existence of nuclear weapons that will bring about Melos For Everyone.
In lots of ways, this image of Thucydides as the Man Who Knows, who really understands the dynamics of human behaviour and history, even if most people are incapable of accepting his insights, is utterly conventional. The two aspects that seem odd are, firstly, Nyquist’s claim that interest in Thucydides has recently declined – on the contrary, a strong case can be made that he’s more widely cited as an authority than ever before, albeit mostly not by historians – and secondly the passing denunciation of modernity in general, cited above.
We could at a pinch equate the line from Nyquist’s ‘Thucydides’ about meanness being rated as nobility and vice versa to the actual Thucydides’ account of the collapse of agreed values in the Corcyrean civil war, though this raises questions about the definition of ‘nobility’. It’s also a standard interpretation that Greek thought was built around polarities – Greek/barbarian, male/female etc. – so one could imagine that an ancient Greek might be disturbed by a different system of conceptual order, different ideas about gender etc. – but it’s not an idea that has much basis in Thucydides’ actual writings, which almost entirely ignore such issues. Moreover, the claim about his suspicion of paper money resembles nothing so much as the line invented by Friedrich von Raumer in the anecdote cited by Reinhart Koselleck to illustrate the collapse of historia magistra vitae that I’ve quoted so many times. And as for the idea of art transmitting sacrilege – you what? I suppose Pericles does say something about art…
If I had the time, I’d be tempted to revive my idea for a picaresque novel in which Herodotus and Thucydides go back-packing across Europe, reflecting philosophically on historical change, the nature of the human and the music of Hubert von Goisern.* Of course, my Thucydides would not be the curmudgeonly conservative of the mainstream interpretation, let alone of Nyquist’s fantasy, railing against multiculturalism and modern art – and even if the likelihood of my working on a novel any time soon is basically zero, I really do need to find time for a shorter piece that I have in mind on how he can be reclaimed for radical politics.
But my Thucydides would also be unmistakably a fictional character, rather than desperately denying this for fear that this would undermine his usefulness as a source of authority and counter-cultural icon. Ventriloquism, one might say, rather than sock-puppetry…
*I’d be perfectly happy to make this a classic trans-American road trip instead, if anyone feels like paying expenses for the necessary research.
** Update, 19:00. On reflection, given the sorts of things being said about anyone (though mostly women) who questions the burkini ban on Twitter, I feel I should add a rider to the effect that I think its idiocy, hypocrisy and counter-productive potential is indisputable – see for example http://www.francetvinfo.fr/societe/religion/laicite/polemique-sur-le-burkini/pour-les-femmes-qui-le-portent-leburkiniest-un-compromis-entre-la-modernite-et-la-foi_1593515.html – and my Thucydides would be completely against it on the Periclean ‘live and let live’ principle noted above. But this is still only ‘my’ Thucydides – though there may be a case for pretending that this has the support of the ‘real’ Thucydides, for the sake of the cause…