- Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History
Darien Shanske opens this original if somewhat idiosyncratic book with an observation that I have often made myself, that the power of Thucydides’ narrative is evident even in otherwise unremarkable passages. From a brief examination of one of these rather unexceptional passages (the revolt of Chios at 8.24.3–5), he launches into a discussion of how and why Thucydides’ text possesses such remarkable power. Of course, this is a question which has been asked (and answered) in many different ways since antiquity, but Shanske offers a different perspective, namely, a philosophical treatment of some of the timeless issues raised by Thucydides rather than an examination of Thucydides either qua historian or qua literary artist.
A close reading of Shanske’s succinct introduction is crucial to understand fully what he attempts to achieve in this book. In order to explain the remarkable power of Thucydides’ achievement in philosophical terms, Shanske turns first to Wittgenstein’s famous image of the fly-bottle. To Wittgenstein, the fly-bottle serves as a type of glass prison, into which a fly enters through an opening in the bottom, attracted by a sugary liquid, and then is unable to escape by the normal route of flying upwards to the light because the top is sealed. Shanske uses this powerful image as a metaphor for Thucydides’ History, for, as he argues, Thucydides attracts the reader into his work and then circumscribes our view once we are trapped within it. Shanske then proceeds to refine the metaphor of the fly-bottle by applying to it specific vocabulary (borrowed from Heidegger): “disclose” to denote the action Thucydides exercises upon those who enter the fly-bottle, “world” for the space within the fly-bottle itself, and the verb “found” to express the disclosure of a world that is epochal and continually [End Page 82] relevant. With this new vocabulary in place, Shanske summarizes the argument of his book as the answer to this question (italics his): How does Thucydides’s text possess the world-disclosive power required to found a world? (9). While most would probably agree with Shanske that Thucydides’ text is both timeless and foundational (as he defines it), those who are not philosophers themselves may be put off by further assertions such as: “World foundation ain’t in the head. Thucydides’s work represents a metaphysical event in which we all now partake whether we, as individuals, have read Thucydides or not” (9).
In the first chapter, Shanske returns to the narrative of the revolt of Chios (8.24.3–5) in order to identify the features of Thucydides’ text that are “world-disclosing,” so that we may recognize the fly-bottle once we have entered it. Shanske provides his own definitions for these features (density, consistency, ubiquity, open-endedness, familiarity, and significance), which renders his argument (here and elsewhere) somewhat circular, although he does note that “these terms are meant to function as heuristic devices, not an end in themselves” (16). He then proceeds to a reading of the Archaeology to demonstrate how Thucydides seduces us into the fly-bottle, his world. This section, in which Shanske reveals how Thucydides’ engagement with his predecessors serves as the lip of the fly-bottle, lulling the reader with its deceptively familiar treatment of a familiar theme, is one of the strongest and most persuasive parts of this book. He concludes this chapter with a discussion of the emphasis on seeing that occurs at the end of Thucydides’ methodological statement (1.22.4). Shanske suggests that the kind of vision that Thucydides wished his target audience to have is “aspect-seeing” (a term borrowed from Wittgenstein), a phenomenon which denotes seeing something as something else. In this context, a wise reader could make the connections which might appear obscure otherwise and a world would be disclosed in the process. While the language may be a little abstract for the non-philosopher, Shanske’s analysis offers a convincing explanation for the...