What would Thucydides say?: In constantly reaching for past parallels to explain our peculiar times we miss the real lessons of the master historian (Mark Fisher, 5/07/24, Aeon)

Thucydides was unusual among classical writers in stating directly what he hoped his readers would gain from his work. He would be content, he says, if History of the Peloponnesian War was deemed ‘useful’ by those who wanted ‘to scrutinise what actually happened and would happen again, given the human condition, in the same or similar fashion’ (my translation). The description nevertheless leaves readers wanting. How exactly such knowledge should prove useful is underspecified, and scholars have long disagreed over what Thucydides expected the utility of his text to be.

Most assume that Thucydides tried to offer his reader a type of foreknowledge that could potentially translate into active control over the politico-historical process. Taken to its extreme, this ‘optimistic’ interpretation reads History of the Peloponnesian War as a sort of ‘political systems users’ manual’, as Josiah Ober put it, capable of creating expert political technicians. Recognising regularities in the historical process, it is thought, should lead to predictive capacity, which in turn allows for political mastery. Proceeding in this fashion, Thucydides takes himself to be training master statesmen capable of solving the fundamental problems of political life.

Others detect a more pessimistic outlook in Thucydides’ stated ambition. They suggest that the lessons on offer are insufficient to produce control over events even if they can help the reader detect regularities in the political process. Unexpected events will often upset our expectations, as the plague did in Athens, and the ignorance of non-experts will often disrupt the translation of technical insight into effective policy. This problem will be particularly acute within a democratic context, where a popular eagerness to apply bastardised versions of such insights may even make matters worse. In this interpretation, Thucydides is ‘useful’ to the extent that he can temper the ambitions of those wishing to impose rational order onto political life. The best we can hope for, it seems, is to minimise our self-harm.

At issue between these two interpretive poles is the basic presumption of applied social science: to what extent can the recognition of recurring patterns translate into effective political policy? Yet, Thucydides was not writing social science as we know it. To the extent that his text articulated anything like fundamental laws of political behaviour, it did so through exemplary instances and carefully curated parallelisms. The Peloponnesian War served as a paradigmatic event for Thucydides: a particular instance that revealed general truths. It served this representative role, however, not because it was typical. Rather, it was exemplary because it was uniquely ‘great’. The war would prove useful, in other words, not because of history’s strict repetition, but by the pregnancy of similarity and the reader’s ability to parse analogies effectively.

Thucydides schools his readers in just how difficult such acts of analogical interpretation can be. A series of carefully considered verbal parallels, or what Jacqueline de Romilly has called fils conducteurs (‘guiding threads’), extend through Thucydides’ narrative like a web, ensnaring the reader in a constant and, at times, overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes, repetitions point towards important explanatory insights. But they also suggest likenesses that can lead the reader astray. Time and again, Thucydides confounds the expectations he has created. Even upon rereading, one can feel an internal tension between what one knows to be the case and what one is nonetheless led to expect will happen. Whether it is your first or your 15th read, you can still catch yourself thinking: this time surely Athens will win.

The evident lesson behind all of this is that we must learn how to choose the right parallels if we are to judge well in politics. But Thucydides also knew that we did not have full control of the analogies that shape our deliberations, especially in public life. Our analogical vocabulary is woven directly into the cultural fabric, a product of the contingencies that shape collective memory. We choose them no more than we choose the language we speak. (Once again, Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’) Some events, such as the Persian Wars in Thucydides’ day or the Second World War in our own, simply loom too large to avoid, and we are easily held captive by the emotional weight of their cultural significance. Thucydides measured this gravitational pull also in terms of ‘greatness’, a concept that he identified closely with the production of collective trauma.

The danger inherent in this, of course, is that emotional resonance is often a poor guide to explanatory power.