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Thucydides&Rationalism 2005.pdf

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Published in Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte (ZRGG, 57, 4 (2005) J. Brill)

History Undone.
The Appropriation of Thucydides
By D. Wyatt Aiken
Many of the ‘great’ classic texts of the west, such as the Iliad and the Bible, have already
disappeared beneath a cocoon of interpretative traditions that have arisen around those texts. It is
my intention in this essay to present one example of this type of hermeneutical rupture, to make
the argument that in the process of creating a Western Rationalist Tradition of ‘History’, the
historical texts of Thucydides have themselves now become effectively absent from the
hermeneutical equation. As a result, there is at present a disjunction, a short circuit between
‘History’ and the Thucydidean texts of ‘History.’ The intent of this essay is to prompt a collision
between the historical Thucydides as he is present in his writings, and the interpretative
assumptions about Thucydides that have grown up in the critical literature. These assumptions,
which constitute a breach in the hermeneutical circle, have given rise to the scholarly
traditionalization or codification of Thucydides in scholarship, with the result that in lieu of
actually ‘listening to’ the historical texts of Thucydides, we are in fact ‘reading’ only the
rationalist Discourse presented by the normative academic paradigm. The methodology of this
essay is three-fold: first, to challenge the academic orthodoxy in their interpretation of texts from
the ancient period; second, to observe how modern interpreters ‘treat’ and ‘mistreat’ figures and
ideas and periods that are past; and third, to reintroduce the modern reader to the ‘true’ figures
and ideas and periods enclosed in certain specific classic texts and authors, in this instance those
of Thucydides.
In the middle of the last century and in the person of J.B. Bury, modern historiography explicitly
ratified for posterity the view that Thucydides composed History in an existential void. Because
the rationalist historian ratifies experiences of the world against the standard of ratio, the Story
he composes is as though born out of season and into “a lifeless world”, and he himself judges
his world “as if the series of years [he] lives through would not slowly wash over him.” To
continue to appropriate Ferge’s (2001, 55) phenomenological turn of phrase, if Bury is correct,
Thucydides found himself “in a lifeless world born of reason, in which the experience of time
plays no part.” In a series of lectures given under the auspices of the Classics Department of
Harvard University, Bury (1958, 75) argued that although Thucydides had learned "to consider
and criticize facts" in sifting through his source material, it was nevertheless his studied opinion
that the fifth century Athenian historian was engaged in the critical process of crafting History
"unprejudiced by authority and tradition.” To be sure, Bury's conclusion is problematic, even
when situated against the backdrop of classical philology's traditionally provincial approach to
language, history, and History; for its assumption is pure Vico (1993, 82): “Tous les
commencemens des histoires barbares sont fabuleux.”
Perhaps more problematic, however, is that this type of a priori assumption should continue to
receive relatively uncritical endorsement in historiographical circles. Nevertheless, keeping in
mind the axiomatic nature of all History, which is to say that "elle a pris le parti d'un certain
mode de connaître,"i the popularity of the purely rationalist re-constitution of the historical past
attests only to the stubbornness of the rationalist presuppositional framework ensconced in the
field of historiographical studies, and not necessarily to the historical 'truth of the matter.' For

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