Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Mary P. Nichols, Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. vii, 196. ISBN 9780801453168. $49.95.

Reviewed by Neville Morley, University of Bristol (neville.morley@bristol.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


In this stimulating, provocative and sometimes frustrating book, Mary P. Nichols offers an interpretation of Thucydides' work founded on the concept of freedom, arguing not only that this was a crucial idea for his protagonists – think of the praise of freedom in Pericles' funeral oration or the rhetoric of freedom in Brasidas' speeches to Thracian cities – but also that Thucydides himself conceived of his project as advancing the cause of freedom through the exploration of this theme. Nichols develops this idea through a mixture of general commentary and close reading, beginning with a survey of the nature of Thucydides' historiography before working through such familiar episodes as the funeral oration, the plague, the Mytilene debate, Brasidas in Thrace and the Sicilian expedition, and concluding with some thoughts on the relationship between Thucydides and Athens and the underlying purpose of his account. He presents himself, she argues, as a true Athenian, still dedicated to the cause of freedom espoused and exemplified by Pericles, even though his ideal Athens has now been lost (or has destroyed itself) – surviving only in the pages of his own work.

As is now well established, there are several distinct modern traditions of interpreting Thucydides, many of which assimilate him to one or other modern genre – historiography, political theory, political philosophy – and draw from this a conception of his methodology and motivation. They thus offer different ideas of what kinds of knowledge we may expect to obtain through reading this work, and how we should understand its claim to speak to posterity. Historical readings focus on recovering trustworthy data about the ancient Greek past (which may or may not have a wider significance, but that is secondary), the political theorist or international relations specialist looks for general principles or laws of human and state behaviour (which may or may not have a grounding in historical reality, but that is secondary), while the political philosopher finds timeless wisdom and understanding, reflections on universal problems of human existence.

Nichols' book is, in both style and conclusions, an example of the last, following explicitly in the footsteps of Leo Strauss and his pupils. She firmly rejects readings of Thucydides either as a narrow positivist and 'scientific' historian or as a post-modernist or constructivist. She doesn't engage directly with questions of historicism – surprising, perhaps, given that this was one of Strauss's major preoccupations in his dealings with Thucydides – but would clearly have little time for historical or philological readings that see his work as wholly embedded in its original context and alien to modern sensibilities. Nichols' Thucydides is not a pure philosopher, as he is undoubtedly concerned with the particular as well as the general, but he certainly intended to speak to us of things that go far beyond the particular events he describes; he easily transcends Aristotle's dismissive attitude towards historiography, and so we can draw trans-historical wisdom and understanding from his work, of the sort we can also find in poets or philosophers.

Classicists who are unfamiliar with this style of discourse may find reading Nichols' book an odd or frustrating experience at times.1 Its argument is rarely stated explicitly or expounded in any detail, but is developed through a series of paraphrases of and commentaries on passages of Thucydides (which often beg questions), interspersed with gnomic assertions; elision and anachronism seem at times to constitute a methodology rather than an oversight. Contrary interpretations are occasionally mentioned – for example, the argument of Monoson and Loraux that Thucydides actually treats Pericles critically rather than setting him up as an ideal – but rarely answered directly; Nichols' response on that point is simply to note that "such a critique of Pericles gives little weight to the nobility or beauty in the image of Athens that Thucydides' Pericles presents" (43), as if that constitutes an unproblematic and conclusive answer. In the absence of any opportunity to button-hole the author and insist that she explains things more clearly, one simply has to go with the flow, keeping in mind that this is just one of many possible readings, and making the most of the moments where Nichols hits on a point or suggests a reading that is illuminating even when extracted from its context and the unspoken assumptions that underpin her reading.

That does happen quite frequently, and on that basis this book is well worth reading by anyone with an interest in Thucydides as a political thinker. However, there are times when the degree of ambiguity and lack of clarity becomes a serious issue. The most obvious example is the organising theme of 'freedom' itself. On the one hand, this concept is presented in the broadest terms imaginable, blurring the distinctions between (among other things) political freedom, legal freedom (e.g. the opposite of slavery), individual freedom of action as opposed to determinism, and Thucydides' intellectual freedom from inherited traditions and supposed facts. On the other hand, the concept is narrowed down to the specific theory – never, as far as I can see, explicitly developed or justified – that true freedom is intimately connected to the idea of home.

Clearly this approach conflates various ideas of freedom that the Greeks kept separate through the use of different terminology, and introduces various others that are more closely (if not exclusively) associated with modern philosophical debates. That is in itself not necessarily a problem – of course we can read ancient works in our own terms, through our own conceptual frameworks – except that Nichols is wholly opposed to the 'post-modern' idea that this is just one reading among many possible readings of a complex, multi-faceted text, and instead seeks to imply that this is Thucydides' own understanding of the subject. For the most part, the terminological issue is not even acknowledged; the discussion simply switches from one sense of 'freedom' to another without any apparent consciousness of inconsistency or possible anachronism. For example, Nichols includes in in a single sentence Thucydides' freedom from the Athenian perspective and the freedom that Athens at its best represents (81), and in another Sparta's reputation as a free city and the question of Brasidas' freedom to act (91), as if these are all basically the same thing, or at least unproblematically included in the same general conceptual category. From certain perspectives, of course these ideas are closely associated; but it is quite a step to assume that the differences between them are trivial, let alone that Thucydides himself organised his work around a conception of 'freedom' that encompassed all these different meanings.

There is similar ambiguity when it comes to the question of how far such themes are intrinsic to the reality of these past events, how far they are being identified by a modern reader (i.e. Nichols) in Thucydides' narrative, and how far Thucydides himself was deliberately putting them there and shaping his account accordingly. One might reasonably assume, given the focus on Thucydides as a kind of poet-philosopher, that Nichols' whole discussion is focused on his representation of events, without worrying about historical veracity – except that every so often she appears to evoke a reality prior to the text. Most obviously, Pericles is presented here as a real individual with his own ideas (faithfully transmitted in the account) that inspire Thucydides and his work. Diodotus in the Mytilene Debate is identified as a fictional character (a gift not of God but of Thucydides, as Nichols puts it) – but he is contrasted with a Cleon who is apparently not fictional, or not to the same extent. "Brasidas transcends his city… but Thucydides shows us how much his actions depend on the necessities that Sparta provides" (103-4); is this just loose phrasing, where what is really intended is "Thucydides shows that Brasidas transcends his city… but that his actions depend…", or is there actually an attempt here to distinguish between real events and Thucydides' representation of them, on the basis of a reading of the latter? The problem is not that Nichols does or does not believe in the possibility of recovering historical reality from Thucydides' account – there are reasonable arguments on both sides – but that it is simply unclear, at least to me, which position she actually holds. The one certainty is that she believes that her interpretation is derived from Thucydides rather than imposed upon it.

Numerous modern readers have recognised their own situation and concerns in Thucydides, and concluded on the basis of his claim to be writing for posterity that they are his intended audience and that the themes they have discerned must be his intended message. It is fair to say that I find many aspects of Nichols' interpretation unconvincing simply because Thucydides says different things to me – and perhaps because I am more conscious of the possibility that I have projected these ideas onto Thucydides and then found what I have put there. Certainly we can read Thucydides in terms of different ideas of freedom and compulsion; indeed, it is surprising that Nichols makes relatively little of some episodes that directly speak to this theme, such as the Corcyrean stasis or above all the Melian Dialogue, with its suggestion that the Athenians themselves are effectively compelled by circumstances to act as imperial oppressors (and anyone else in their position would do the same). One possible reason is that she wishes to interpret the dialogue as exemplifying the principles of Alcibiades, who acts as if he is freer than he really is, so ideas of compulsion and limit are clearly inconvenient in this context.

Another explanation may be that there is no obvious connection in either episode to the idea of homecoming, which Nichols insists is the consummate human activity and the basis of true freedom, since human action and hence freedom are possible only in response to a specific time and place. Again, we can certainly read Thucydides through the prism of an Aristotelian idea of the polis as the basic environment for human self-realisation, explored through a series of figures who are separated from their home and respond to that separation in different ways – Brasidas, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Thucydides himself. The idea that Thucydides' work should be interpreted in terms of his exile and psychological response to it is not a new one. But the idea that there is an intimate link between home and freedom and that this connection is the fundamental message of Thucydides' work seems forced. The connection appears to be taken for granted – although Nichols does not discuss it explicitly, it is hard to avoid the sense that this draws on a larger debate – so that, if Thucydides is understood to be concerned with the question of freedom (let alone if, as Nichols argues, his entire commitment is to the cause of freedom), then he must also have been concerned with the issue of home – and this connection is then 'discovered' in the work.

Thucydides cannot truly return home to an Athens that has ceased to be a home for freedom, except by recovering the old Athens through his writing; he thus "finds a homecoming time and again in the future" (183) – but that is precisely a switch from imagining Thucydides' own feelings (a dubious enough exercise) to elevating our sense of recognition, our conviction that we are the readers he has been looking for and hence his true 'home', as a fundamental principle of interpretation. Tempting as this line of thought is – of course we want to believe he would acknowledge us as his truest disciples – we modern readers of Thucydides really need to have more humility, and more scepticism about the spell he sought to cast on us.


1.   It may be worthwhile preparing oneself for the experience by reading Seth Jaffe's chapter on "The Straussian Thucydides" in Christine Lee and Neville Morley, eds., A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

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