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Finally, I wish to examine as a fourth trend what I will term “paradigmatic realism”: new ways of looking at the world may bring overall advantages, but the advance must often be balanced against its cost. Even in the sciences, new schemata that all agree are superior may have serious drawbacks: no one would dispute the superiority of Einsteinian relativity over Newtonian views of time and space, but the increase in understanding came at the price of an enormous increase in complexity, and even now no physicist uses general relativity when, as in most day-to-day circumstances, the old-fashioned view of time and space will do. In the humanities and social sciences, where intellectual progress is far more ambiguous, the benefits of a new realism are almost always problematic. If realists drag new phenomena into the light, they also push other phenomena back into the shadows. The disciplined observer learns not only what to see but also what to ignore—this is as true for painters, novelists, and experimental physicists as it is for political philosophers and historians. No outlook is ever neutral: scientists and scholars alike see what they expect to see. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn popularized the term “paradigm” as a label for the formalized perspectives of professional scientists,[37] but his concept arguably applies beyond the sciences. It certainly applies to Thucydides.

Kuhn, for example, distinguished “pre-paradigm” science from its more mature counterpart. “In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant. As a result, early fact-gathering is a far more nearly random activity than the one that subsequent scientific development makes familiar.” [38] Kuhn cites Pliny’s Natural History, with its wide scope and lack of precise focus, as typical of “pre-paradigm” science. Herodotus was no Pliny, nor did Thucydides shape history at all as decisively as did Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology, but the change that Thucydides imposed upon history—for better and for worse—reflects in some degree the sudden narrowing of focus that Kuhn identifies with the rise of a paradigm. Herodotus constructed a brilliant and heterogeneous book—in all probability, the first full-length prose work ever constructed[39]—but, although Herodotus was well known and widely read throughout antiquity, and although Herodotus was, in some ways, arguably more scientific than Thucydides,[40] it was Thucydides—willful, obscure, idiosyncratic but brilliant—who established the ideal canons of the historian. This influence was a mixed blessing, for Thucydides helped limit history to the political and military, while marginalizing social factors and oversimplifying events.[41] Thucydides excluded women from his work to a degree unmatched by virtually any classical Greek author:[42] his was a masculine vision, and he did much to establish the gendered vision that almost all realists would share for the subsequent two thousand years.[43] He did more than simply compose a history of the Peloponnesian War. He also established the starting point for ancient historians. And although few of those who followed lived up to the standards that Thucydides espoused, Thucydides did much more than Herodotus to define ancient historiography.[44]

This is not the place to go into Twain-like detail about Thucydides’ historical offences. In what follows I will examine those elements of traditional Greek culture that Thucydides disdained or that modern readers, going beyond even Thucydides, have overlooked. I will turn to political realism as a particular paradigm that Thucydides in some measure founded and that, in one form or another, seems destined to flourish. First, however, I wish to consider the degree to which Thucydides felt that he had established what historians of science might now term a scientific paradigm.

Successful paradigms, at least within the sciences, allow their users to predict events with greater certainty. Certainly, Thucydides makes it clear that he looked for the ability to foresee future events in his statesmen. Consider, for example, his praise of Themistokles:

Themistokles was a man who exhibited most securely the power of his nature (phusis); indeed, in this particular he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled. By his own native capacity (oikeia xunesis), alike unformed and unsupplemented by study, he was at once the best judge in those sudden crises that admit of little or of no deliberation, and the best prophet of the future, even to its most distant possibilities. An able theoretical expositor of all that came within the sphere of his practice, he was not without the power of passing an adequate judgment in matters in which he had no experience. He could also excellently divine the good and evil that lay hid in the unseen future. Taken as a whole, whether we consider the extent of his natural powers (phuseôs dunamis), or the slightness of his training, this extraordinary man must be allowed to have surpassed all others in the faculty of intuitively meeting an emergency.

The fact that Themistokles himself ended his days as a wanted man, an exile from Athens and client of the Persian king (Thuc. 1.135–138) did not diminish Thucydides’ admiration for him. Similarly, Thucydides takes care to inscribe within the History his own judgment that Perikles’ strategy for Athens was correct. Perikles’ own mortality constituted the only flaw in his reasoning, for no one after Perikles’ death was able to provide the leadership necessary to keep Periklean strategy on track (2.65.7–12).

The idea that human intelligence could accurately manage the future did, in fact, find expression in the fifth century. Demokritos reportedly said that “human beings invented the image of chance (tuchê) as a pretext for their own foolishness, for only rarely does chance conflict with intelligence. Intelligent careful observation makes most things in life run smoothly” (frag. 119 DK). Other texts, such as Prometheus Bound 436–506 and the “Ode to Man” at Sophokles Antigone 332–375, attest that, in the fifth century, a certain pride in human achievements had at least leavened traditional archaic pessimism about the human condition. Some intellectuals gave full weight to the power of technology and emphasized the possibilities that human intelligence opened up. The optimism visible in the fifth century clearly influenced Thucydides: the Archaeology dismisses early human history and even the heroic age, stressing that modern society had progressed far and that untrustworthy poets such as Homer had grossly exaggerated events of the past (such as the magnitude of the Trojan War).[45]

Thucydides struggled to establish history as what we would now call a scientific discipline, and if he was unsuccessful in this, it is not clear how much farther we have really progressed in the intervening two thousand years. Nevertheless, if history is supposed to generate scientific laws by which we may accurately predict future events, Thucydides was not successful. I have already alluded to the unresolved problems within Thucydides’ analysis of the past (for example, “archaic” Sparta’s defeat of “modern” Athens). If Thucydides could not even “predict” the past, it is hardly surprising that his History ultimately presents a bleak picture of mortal capacity to cope with the future.[46] He begins his History with the boast that he wrote so that future generations could scrutinize his account and “judge it useful” (Thuc. 1.22.4), but this confidence seems to evaporate as the narrative progresses. He approaches his superb account of the plague at Athens with marked diffidence:

All speculation as to its origin and its causes, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do as I had the disease myself and watched its operation in the case of others.

Thucydides can claim a great deal of intellectual authority, since he lived through the plague and suffered from it himself, but his account, however accurate, has few pretentions. He can offer no treatment, much less explanations, for the plague. At most he hopes that others will recognize this disease from his account if it ever crops up again.[47]

By the time Thucydides describes civil war on Corcyra, knowledge of the past becomes even more problematic. On the one hand, he includes in this analysis perhaps his strongest assertion about the predictive power of good observation:

The sufferings that revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of humankind (phusis anthrôpôn) remains the same, though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases.

Grim as the subject matter may be, the savagery of the Corcyraeans provides us with a case study in which we see human behavior that is typical for such circumstances. Given the conditions that obtain in Corcyra, human beings anywhere will pursue the same harsh measures. Indeed, Thucydides justifies his analysis of Corcyra as a “case study” on the grounds that what happened at Corcyra repeated itself throughout the Greek world and that Corcyra is a general, not a special, phenomenon. Certainly, every continent, including Europe and North America, has in the past decade produced its own Corcyras, and it would be all too easy to establish case studies eerily similar to Thucydides’ analysis of Corcyra.

And yet, even if the Corcyraean excursus constitutes a high-water mark for Thucydidean exposition, the triumph of accurate history proves double-edged. The memory of atrocities is not simply a neutral finding but, like the process of war,[48] takes on a life of its own and begins to exert its own force upon events:

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places that it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

The participants in civil war become students of factional fighting, and by learning of previous struggles they perfect and intensify their own ruthlessness. Memory becomes an incitement to murder and betrayal, as the reputation of past crimes undermines confidence for the future. The self-fulfilling nature of ideological realism finds its way into the History.

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