Why do we trust historians? How far is it (as I’m sure most people, or at least most historians, would claim) solely a matter of evaluating their data, the quality of their interpretations and their adherence to professional norms, and how far do other factors play a role? I was in Hamburg last week, for the biennial Deutsche Historikertag, which is always an interesting conference in part because they seek to focus on a specific theme, without insisting that everyone should conform to this. This year it was ‘Glauben’, and I co-organised a panel with my regular collaborator Christian Wendt from Berlin on ‘Die Glaubwuerdigkeit des Historikers’, with a particular focus (inevitably) on Thucydides and the ways that he becomes an ‘authority’ in modern discourse. If anyone’s interested, there’s a short report on the session from Deutschlandfunk as part of a programme on the Historikertag generally, here, from about five minutes in.
The majority of ‘academic’ readings of Thucydides – and I should stress that I’m talking about those which take him as some kind of authority, whether on facts or method or theory, not philological studies – seem to depend on some degree of recognition of him as ‘one of us’, a colleague with shared professional values even if he also displays a number of idiosyncratic habits. Historians focus on his critical methodology (and disparagement of fictional or otherwise unreliable rival accounts of the past) while social scientists focus more on the aims of his study, namely to establish general principles or laws, because these are the aspects that most interest them; they end up with radically different ideas of what Thucydides is all about, but in structural terms the interpretative moves are similar. In both cases there is also a substantial influence from the tradition of reception – we think Thucydides is worth citing because our predecessors did – and this then seeps out into the wider culture, where Thucydides becomes a free-floating authority on certain issues, above all war and politics, without those citing him necessarily having a coherent idea of why he should be accorded this respect.
However, while there is a fair amount of mileage in reading Thucydides as a pioneering critical historian in the tradition of Niebuhr, Ranke and ‘Geschichte als Wissenschaft’, or as a pioneering social scientist or International Relations theorist, there are always elements of his work that manifestly don’t fit with contemporary disciplinary norms and values. There are time-honoured means of explaining away such awkwardness, usually by making the obvious point that he was writing in the fifth century BCE before normative social science was properly established – a small concession to historicism, in order to rescue him from a more absolute historicism that would confine him fully to his original cultural context and deny any relevance to the present. The question is always: why would you want to?
Certainly it isn’t a permanent condition, as the decline of Thucydides’ standing within historiography since the early 20th century shows; after a certain point, either his usefulness as a model came to an end (as the successful professionalisation of history meant that classical precedents were no longer needed) or the mismatch between his approach and that of contemporary historiography became too great (and Thucydides’ example became ever more awkward and embarrassing), or some combination of the two and/or other factors (given that there’s little sign of this being a wholly conscious, explicitly debated development). We might anticipate that the same thing will eventually happen within IR theory and other areas of social science; at some point, readers will start reading Thucydides less charitably as trust in him diminishes.
This issue of trust in Thucydides appeared in a different perspective over the weekend, as a result of a passing comment on Twitter about Donald Trump: Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair remarked that:
Trump’s not a liar. He says what he needs 2 be true at any particular moment. He believes it. It is the nature of his psychological problem.
What gave me pause for thought is the resemblance to Thucydides’ explanation of how he composed the speeches in his work, when it was not always possible to determine with complete accuracy what had actually been said: he made the speakers say what was appropriate for them to say in that situation. That’s a bit worrying.
In the cases of both Trump and Thucydides, statements in their speeches are at best only partly verifiable with reference to any sort of reality: in the latter’s case, because pretty well all other evidence is lost, while the former simply brushes aside the idea of fact-checking as irrelevant and partisan. Rather, there are two bases on which the speeches’ credibility may be assessed (leaving aside those who dismiss them wholesale on the basis that they’re transparent and manipulative fictions): their consonance with our own world-view (which is not to say that they simply reproduce it; rather, they’re definitely concerned to push the Overton Window of what can be said and thought) and the trust that we vest in the author. His expertise and experience in relevant fields of human activity – politics, war, money-making – bolstered by key incidents from his life, creating the impression of someone who knows what they’re talking about; the sense of character and sensibility to be drawn from his style, as someone who sees how things really are and isn’t afraid to say it how it is. Now, the biographical information may be dubious, involving numerous exaggerated and unverifiable claims, and reading off actual character from an overblown public persona is notoriously risky – but you could say exactly the same about Trump.
The speaker is trusted by his audience and so they accept his claims, his claims speak to their perceptions and assumptions and so they trust him – and in many cases, it’s the disjunction between those claims and the mainstream, which might make others suspicious of their veracity, that is taken to demonstrate fearless, uncompromising truth-telling. The speaker creates his own reality that persuades his audience, so that it becomes reality. Now, of course there are plenty of differences between Thucydides and Trump in terms of their stated aims and values (though maybe less than some would hope), but in this respect there is a fundamental similarity, the willingness of the audience to accept their authority. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?