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No History Without Culture

Simon Hornblower and Charles Stewart
University College London

Marshall Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as

Culture and Vice Versa. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,
2004, 328 pp.

D uring the first Gulf War, visitors to Colin Powell's office could not fail to
notice a quote from Thucydides lodged beneath the glass covering of his
desk. It read: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."
When it recently emerged that this passage does not occur in Thucydides,
Powell caught a certain amount of flak for naively espousing a fabrication
(Sharlin 2004). The Australian news service considered his signal
quote to be "about as accurate as his WMD presentation to the UN."^ This was
perhaps harsh since crikey recognized that the quote faithfully paraphrases
Nicias' speech in Book Six (chap. 11) of The Peloponnesian War. Attempting to
dissuade the Athenians from invading Sicily, the general contended that: "The
best way for us to make ourselves feared by the Hellenes in Sicily is not to go
there at all; and the next best thing is to make a demonstration of our power
and then, after a short time, go away again" (Rood 2004). Operation Shock and
Awe, currently underway in Iraq, sounds like Nicias' second option, although
it has overstayed its "short time." Will Gulf War II end catastrophically as did
the Athenian adventure in Sicily?
According to Thucydides himself: "I have written my work, not as an essay
which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time"

No History Without Culture

(1.22). Thomas Hobbes, who first translated The Peloponnesian War into
English in 1628, drew his idea of a "state of nature" from Thucydides' assess-
ment of the stasis (civil war) on Corcyra (111.83): "And the common course of
life being at that time confounded in the city, the nature of man, which is
want even against law to do evil, gotten now above the law, showed itself with
delight to be too weak for passion, too strong for justice and enemy to all
superiority" (Hobbes trans.). In Hobbes' time. The Peloponnesian Wflr offered
a framework for thinking about the English Civil War, while in the past centu-
ry alone scholars have read it as a parable for the American Civil War, World
War II, the Vietnam War, and the first Gulf War. His topicality struck an observ-
er of an even earlier war: "Thomas Jefferson, writing to Adams in a rapid and
momentous year (1812), commends Thucydides and Tacitus: better than the
newspapers" (Syme 1960:54). In Apologies to Thucydides, the distinguished
American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins continues this tradition of return-
ing to Thucydides for insights about the contemporary world.
Sahlins' Thucydides does not, however, directly address the politics of
American imperialism or the current military operation in Iraq. He utilizes the
Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), rather, as a counterpoint to a war fought in
Fiji between the kingdoms of Bau and Rewa over a twelve-year period (1843-
55). Bau, a tiny island measuring only 23 acres, dominated the seas and
thrived on trade and taxation while Rewa was more densely populated and
richly agricultural. Bau and Athens both operated as theater states (although
Sahlins does not adopt this Geertzian concept), which exercised power
through impressive display, exemplary ritual "a politics of demonstration in
place of administration" (p. 7). Rewa and Sparta developed in counterpoint to
these formidable powers as more introverted polities. In each case, the two
inimical polities formed into anti-types of one another through a process that
Sahlins, following Bateson, labels "complementary schismogenesis."
Any attempt to examine the validity of this formulation runs up against the
differences in source materials available for each case. For the Polynesian War
Sahlins draws upon the reports of missionaries and others, who visited Bau or
Rewa around the time of the Polynesian War. The reports issue from both
places more or less equally as far as we could tell. In the case of the
Peloponnesian War, virtually all of the reporting is Athenian in origin. Sparta
as antithesis of Athens evidently played well as a rhetorical strategy as in
Pericles' famous funeral oration. Is Pericles to be taken at face value when he
asserts that "our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after
manliness" while Athenians "live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready


to encounter every legitimate danger" (11.39)? That the Athenians conceived of

the Spartans ideologically and symbolically as their antithesis is certain. As to
whether the Spartans actually practiced enforced austerity and the Athenians
indulgent liberalism^the truth probably lies somewhere in between, and we
must certainly make allowance for the tendentiousness of rhetoric.^
In any case, the Spartans probably spent much less time thinking about the
Athenians than the self-preoccupied Athenians liked to think they did. The
Spartans had other and closer enemies in the fifth century, notably the Argives
and Arkadians. Sahlins considers this only briefly (p. 75). Thucydides says the
Spartans let the Athenians get away with constructing an empire because they
were preoccupied with "their own wars" (1.118). Whatever that enigmatic
phrase might mean, it indicates some group or groups other than the
Athenians. Certainly there were tensions inside the Spartan decision-making
elite: some of them always wanted co-operation with the Athenians, just as
there were "lakonizers" (Spartan sympathizers) at Athens.
At this point readers might think that, as ancient historians, we are giving a
distorted impression of Sahlins' text by focusing in too great detail on our own
area of expertise. But Apologies to Thucydides represents an impressive and illu-
minating engagement with Thucydides and the vast secondary literature on
fifth-century Greece. Sahlins adduces even greater detail on the Polynesian War.
Aside from an initial curiosityand awe at his comparative vision, and com-
mand of such different examplesthe value in comparing two wars between
strikingly analogous societies is unclear. Presumably, as in the resort to compar-
ative ethnography, the parallels are meant to push thinking further by exposing
alternative developments or neglected dimensions to be explored. Sahlins, for
example, discusses the genealogical relationship between the chiefly families of
Bau and Rewa. The lineage of Bau was actually somewhat inferior; it stood in
the position of uterine nephew (vasu) to Rewa's chiefly ancestry. The vasu, how-
ever, occupies the recognized role of transgressor; he is the one who steals the
maternal uncle's sacrifice to the gods, usurps his place and reaps divine honors
and privileges from his uncle's children. This genealogy provided a cultural
charter for the schismogenetic conflict between Bau and Rewa in the nine-
teenth century. It also suggests a comparative investigation into the role of
genealogy in the Peloponnesian War. Here Sahlins establishes that Athenian
ancestry began in an inferior position to that of the Spartans, who had been
rooted in the Peloponnese for longer. Step by step the Athenians redressed this
deficit. They embraced Theseus as their mythical ancestor thereby gaining
almost equal standing with the Spartans, and finally, in Euripides' ton, written

No History Without Culture

during the Peloponnesian War, an Athenian tragedian asserted a special, divine-

ly-mandated version of autochthony involving descent from Apollo, thereby
going one up on the Spartans, while holding a hand out to them as half-siblings.
Sahlins pursues this valuable line of inquiry in refreshing comparison with his
Fijian material, but classicists and ancient historians had already anticipated his
main findings about the shifting Athenian genealogy (Zacharia 2003:47,55; and
the modern works she cites). Sahlins candidly acknowledges the priority of
Nicole Loraux and Marcel Detienne in a last-minute addition (85, n. 72).
The majority of readers of this book will probably be less interested in
details of ancient Greek and historical Fijian kinship and rather more
intrigued to learn what Sahlins has to say on a theoretical level about anthro
pology and history. The two main themes pursued in Apologies to Thucydides
are: the role of individuals as opposed to collectives in history/society, and;
the importance of considering the cultural dimension in the interpretation of
history. We turn now to consider these topics in this order.
Sahlins ingeniously suggests (138) that people in Thucydides are left anony-
mous and collective when rehearsing received policies, but are "generally"
individuated when they alter the course of events, e.g. by bringing about a
war. This is a new solution to an old problem but it does not work, even allow-
ing full qualifying force to that "generally."' Examples of collective speakers
who alter events are the anonymous Kerkyraian and to a lesser extent
Korinthian speakers who deliver the first two speeches in the whole History.
An even more important counter-case is the Sicilian representatives of Egesta
in the early chapters of Book Six. These people cause an awful lot of trouble,
but they remain anonymous and collective. They are allowed what should
count as a speech (VI.6), although it is in "indirect speech" (oratio obliqua) not
direct speech."" Conversely, Athenagoras of Syracuse is named, but he changes
nothing: his main message is that the notion that a massive Athenian fleet are
on the way is silly rumor, but we already know it is not, and indeed the fleet
arrives very soon after he has finished speaking.
A quick apology to Thucydides and we may proceed to consider Sahlins'
general point that individual characters tend to come to the fore as historical
actors when something momentous and fraught occurs. Sociologically this
does not necessarily mean that these individuals have exercised a truly pow-
erful agency, which directed and determined events. It seems to be the case,
rather, that close-run events funnel down to a focus on individuals.
Individuals do not usually make the stage and write the script, rather they get
thrust into the limelight, onto the knife-edge of history, by chance.


Take for example, as Sahiins does, the performance of the 1939 New York
Yankees. They moved into first place in April and stayed there the whole sea-
son. Nothing dramatic happened, just sheer consistency and domination.
Who started for the team on a day-to-day basis is not particularly remembered
or celebrated. Contrast that with the legendary 1951 New York Giants, who
came from thirteen games behind in mid-August to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers
on the last day of the season. They then went on to defeat the Dodgers in the
final game of a playoff series on a home run by Bobby Thomson in the bot-
tom of the ninth inning. Voila, the individual appears in history. With one out,
Thomson successfully exercised his agency during his moment in the spot-
light, and thus he is remembered still today as the batter who hit "the shot
heard round the world." Even the losing pitcher, Ralph Branca, is remem-
bered. Neither of these players was particularly responsible for carrying his
team to the playoffs, nor did either one establish himself as a star player in
his own career. They exemplify what Sahiins terms "conjunctural agency"
(157) as opposed to the "systematic agency" of a Napoleon. The latter makes
the situation, the former is made by it.
This example sparks a fruitful meditation on contingency in history, which
Sahiins examines by reference to the case of the Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez,
who was rescued off the coast of Florida when his boat capsized, killing his
mother, during an attempt to enter the US in 1999. This precipitated an enor-
mous row over whether he should be returned to the care of his father in
Cuba, or allowed to remain with relatives in the States. The polarizations that
ensuedwhether between Cuba and America, proponents of family values
vs. anti-communism, or good vs. evilall exemplify the dynamics of schismo-
genesis touched upon earlier. Sahiins' main point, however, is to demonstrate
the multiple contingencies that allowed the elevation of Elian into an histor-
ical figure. If Elian's father had died at sea, and his mother were still in Cuba,
he would likely have been returned without any question; likewise if he had
been black. Elian just happened to wash up at the right time with the right
photogenic qualities. Sheer contingency.
Sahiins shows little sympathy for approaches to the "individualsociety"
question in terms of Althusserian "interpellation" or Foucauldian "subjectiviza-
tion," which he labels "leviathanologies""draconian notions of autonomous
cultural behemoths with the powers of fashioning individual subjects in their
own image" (142). He is particularly scathing about the current fashion for stud-
ies of "subjectivity" for, among other things, smuggling essentialism back in via
the "individual-as-microcosm" (150). Leviathanology emerged on the Left as a

No History Without Culture

reaction against radical individualism, such as the view espoused by Margaret

Thatcher that there was no society, just conglomerations of goal-oriented indi-
viduals, and yet it threatens to sink back into individualism the more it multi-
plies possible subject positions.
Sahlins points a way out of this cul-de-sac, as only an anthropologist of his
breadth and idiosyncrasy possibly could, by blending insights from Kroeber's
1917 essay on the superorganic with Sartre's posthumous biography of Flaubert
to contend that individuals mediate culture and society differentially, biograph-
ically. Consociates emerge as neither clones nor wholly disparate individuals. So
far so good. But Sahlins does not clarify how this insight affects how history
should be understood or written. It seems a minor point to understand that
Bobby Thomson's homer, or Napoleon's ill-fated decision to invade Russia, may
be understood as simultaneously biographical and historical moments. To say
that they functioned as differentially socialized agents again does not open any
doors of perception. Unlike Thomson, whatever Napoleon decided, and
whether he succeeded or failed, he would still have affected history. But the dis-
tinction between systematic and conjunctural agency, although neat, again
does not change much as far as historiography or, for that matter, anthropolo-
gy are concerned. A Fijian king can fall victim to a chance fatal illness, and a
conjunctural agent such as Katherine Harris can suddenly be in a position to
determine the results of the US elections. Captain Cook was on course to leave
a certain mark on history when the mast of his ship unexpectedly broke precip-
itating a chain of events culminating with his death. Both conjunctural and sys-
temic agents, then, are equally affected by chance and the actions of each in
the jaws of contingency have impressive historical resonance.
Perhaps we can schematize Sahlins' view of history as an inter-play
between cultural forms/social structures on the one hand (C), and pure chance
contingency (c) on the other: CCCCCcCCCCCCcCCcCCCCCCC... Social life flows
along as determined by the baseball season schedule, the rules of the game,
and team solidarity, or according to the Fijian kinship principles, trading
alliances and expectations about the authority of chiefs until some momen-
tous random event occurs thereby changing things. Pre-existing cultural
knowledge and social forms immediately apply again to make sense of the
changed environment, themselves potentially undergoing change in this
process. The previous schema could be presented more accurately as:
CCCCCcCCCCCCCcC C^ cC'C^C^C^C^C^C^C'.... This sort of picture is already
familiar from Sahlins' earlier writings about Hawaiian history where he initial-


ly produced the ideas of the "structure of the conjuncture" and historical

change as failed reproduction (Sahlins 1985).
This hrings us up to one of the main themes in Apologies to Thucydies,
namely the need to understand history culturally and culture historically, as
the suhtitle of the volume enjoins. "The claim is not that culture determines
history, only that it organizes it" (11), Sahlins states at the outset. And to par-
aphrase him at the end: Culture does not make history so much as make sense
of it. Who would contest this? Well, possibly two constituencies: 1) Thucydides
and any others (e.g. sociohiologists or other hiological determinists; those
seeking to apply game theory or rational choice theories to history) who might
helieve that human nature dictates universally predictable responses to
events thereby obviating the need for any sort of cultural contextualization,
and; 2) a strong current of contemporary cultural anthropologists who,
despite their job title, reject the idea of culture as an essentializing idea that
springs from the same sources as nationalism and Nazism, and which hinders
the appreciation of the diverse positionings, strategies, and understandings
held by members of putative cultural groups.
Over the past decade or longer Sahlins has been one of the most vocal
defenders of the relevance of the idea of culture for anthropological analysis
(e.g., Sahlins 1999). He jabs at and postures against his shadowy opponents
giving this book its own complementary schismogenetic logic"Yes, Jim (or
George, or whoever), there is a culture" (187). Sahlins does not regard this cul-
ture as a set of essential attributes shared by all members of the group. If
there were lingering doubts about this, his disquisition on Sartre and the
superorganic in this volume must surely dispel them. Retaining culture
involves shifting attention to notions of structure and systematicity in social
formsthe frameworks of interconnection, interdependence, and narrative
logic that organize social life. These cannot really be recognized, let alone
understood, unless they are considered diachronically as they transform. As
Piaget put it very precisely: "only self-regulating transformational systems are
structures;" "the idea of structure as a system of transformations [is] continu-
ous with that of construction as continual formation" (Piaget 1971 cited in
Toren 1999:9). The main feature of cultures is their mutability and thus any
assertion that culture is static misses the point. No culture without history.
This brings us, finally, back to Thucydides. If he had not existed, Sahlins
would have had to invent him. Who else would commit such hostages to for-
tune as Thucydides does in Book One where he wrote:

No History Without Culture

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because
of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me,
however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to
understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which
(human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much
the same ways, be repeated in the future" (1.22).^

Herodotus is usually considered the father of history as well as anthropol-

ogy. His History abounds with ethnographic details, myths and fabulous sto-
ries. By shearing off the "romantic element," Thucydides orientated a more
scientific strain in historiography. Hume considered Thucydides' text to be
"[t]he commencement of real history." Like Hobbes, Hume agreed with the
central position accorded to a stable human nature. As Sahiins puts it:
"Eliminating the marvelous...became a prescription for devaluing the cultur-
al in favor of the natural for the sake of the universal" (119). Thucydides the
political realist has since been elaborated by numerous scholars and his work
is taught in courses in political theory throughout the world as an authorita-
tive statement on Realpolitik. In a nutshell, the big fish eats the little fish.
Sahiins opposes the exclusion of cultural mediation in human action, as
any socio-cultural anthropologist/historian surely must. For him there can be
no history without culture. But did Thucydides really accept the universal
working of human nature and self-interest? In writing about a polarized con-
flict between Spartans and Athenians, he is forced to countenance certain dif-
ferences between the two groups; they do not always respond the same way
in similar circumstances. Sahiins' emphatic recognition of this contradiction
represents an important contribution to Thucydidean studies.
Which view of Thucydides is right? One of them must be given up, or rather
accepted to be subordinate. Surely it is the first, i.e. the one so cherished by
modern students of Realpolitik. Thucydides cannot really be taken as insisting
that people always and everywhere behave the same way. His own occasion-
al ethnographic comments (which Sahiins does not consider in detail) pre-
clude it. He says, for instance, that the Thracians, a people well known to him
(he may have been part-Thracian himself and has something about Thrace
and Thracians in almost all his eight books) are "the most bloodthirsty of bar-
barians when aroused" (VII.29). He could not logically permit himself gener-
alizations of this sort if he really held to a universally applicable set of beliefs
about human nature.


No apologies needed, then, just "thanks" to Thucydides for stimulating this

creative and insightful investigation of history and culture some 2400 years
after his death.

^In this connection see Rood's outstanding literary study of Thucydides (1998).
'Sahlins is rightly interested in the tension between Thucydidean individuals and
Thucydidean collectives. This is all part of his excellent analysis of contingency in history
(see also Stahl 2003).
Uaird (1999) contends that such indirect speeches should be given the same attention as
those flagged as "speeches" by modern punctuation methods.
^To anthropinon, translated here as "buman nature" means literally "the human thing"
(Cogan 1981). Perhaps something like "the human condition" would do the job with least

Cogan, Marc, 1981. The Human Thing: The Speeches and Principles of Thucydides' History.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Laird, Andrew. 1999. Powers of Expression, Expressions of Power. Oxford: Oxford University
Piaget, Jean. 1971 [1968]. Structuralism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Rood, Tim. 1998 Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rood, Tim. 2004. "Feared in Sicily." Times Literary Supplement, October 15, p.17.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1999. "Two or Three Things That I Know About Culture." yourna/ of the
Royal Anthropological Institute 5(1):399-421.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sharlin, Shifra. 2004. "Thucydides and tbe Powell Doctrine." Raritan 24(1):12-28.
Stahl, H.-P. 2003. Thucydides: Man's Place in History. London
Syme, Sir Ronald. 1962. "Thucydides." Proceedings of the British Academy 48:39-56.
Toren, Christina. 1999. Mind, Materiality and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography.
London: Routledge.
Zacbaria, Katerina. 2003. Converging Truths: Euripides' Ion and the Athenian Quest for Self
Definition. Leiden: Brill.