For students of the human sciences, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is, with Clifford Geertz, one of the few Americans who has achieved the status of a name to conjure with alongside the French maîtres à penser, particularly when the conversation turns to the topics of ‘Big Men’ (power-brokers who aren’t chiefs, masters of the games of speech and generosity), or the socially embedded economy of premodern societies, ‘negative reciprocity’ (exchange characterised by hard bargaining, predation or theft), the cultural apperception of colour, or why Americans don’t eat dogs.
Apologies to Thucydides is the latest instalment in a series of meditations on the relationship between history and anthropology, the practical and the meaningful, the porridge of integrated, totalising systems (symbolic, cultural) and the golden syrup of the event, which has been Sahlins’s major preoccupation for the last quarter century. His tropes – islands, washings ashore, shipwrecks, murders – will be already familiar to his admirers, and his basic thesis has not fundamentally changed, although his account of it has become richer and thicker with each retelling: the relationship is not a static one of opposition but a dynamic one of reciprocity. Events make sense only in a cultural context, which means that what is negligible in one place – putting a book on a toilet-seat, for example, or gun-grease derived from the fat of pigs or cows – may have major consequences elsewhere, and vice versa, the structure itself being sometimes transformed in the process. The ‘mediation’ through which a cultural structure constructs a personage or an event as significant – the death of a king, say – Sahlins labels ‘instantiation’, the mediation by which an event modifies a structure (the death of Louis XVI) ‘totalisation’: ‘The claim is not that culture determines history, only that it organises it.’
Sahlins’s most celebrated scene for exploring the drama of the structure-event relationship is the strange death of Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands. Cook had put in at Hawaii (the big island of Owhyhee proper) on 17 January 1779. Tens of thousands of Hawaiians flocked to the ship in their canoes, or, in default of transport, swimming, singing, rejoicing, weaponless, gift-laden, seductive, the very image of the bounteous Other showering the European with swine, women and song. On Cook himself the Hawaiians bestowed extraordinary honours, falling prostrate at his feet and calling him ‘Lono’ – the name, it emerged, of a local god.
After a fortnight or so, the British left. A week later, they were forced to return in order to make repairs to a mast. Their welcome this time was rather different. The Hawaiians seemed less and less co-operative. They made ever more daring predations – ‘negative reciprocity’ – even stealing one of the ship’s boats. On 14 February, in an effort to recover the boat, Cook came ashore once more with a group of marines. The plan was to kidnap the king and hold him hostage against the boat’s return. The king was all for coming quietly, but at the shore his senior wife intervened. Things turned nasty. Cook was killed, his body disassembled. Sympathetic priests subsequently returned a portion of his hind-parts.
There were two great oddities about this colonial episode to furrow the enlightened brow: the welcome offered to the British when they first laid anchor, an outpouring of warmth unprecedented in the annals of ‘first contacts’, and the sudden transformation of the Hawaiians from sweet to sour. Sahlins, in the first flush of his conversion to structuralist interpretations, interpreted the whole thing in terms of the deep structures of Hawaiian ritual, myth and cosmology. Through ‘a series of spectacular coincidences’, Cook had unknowingly gone native. And how. His visit coincided with the climax of the Makahiki festival of the god Lono, the 23-day period in which a symbol of Lono circles the island in a clockwise direction, ‘the same circuit … at just the same time’ as Cook’s ships as they approached Hawaii from Maui, keeping the big island on their right, Lono’s symbol being a piece of cloth suspended from a cross-beam, exactly like a ship’s sail. What’s more, they halted at precisely the point where the temple stood from which the image had departed and left within 24 hours of the precise end (probably) of the Makahiki period, on the night of 3 February.
Cook’s return a week later was both negatively and positively disruptive: negatively because the whole show was supposed to be over and Cook’s presence was suddenly as atopical as his first visit was topical; positively because that very disruption could be configured in mythical terms as the Return of Lono (again) from the celestial realm of Kahiki/Tahiti to usurp the king, Lono’s structural antithesis, whose warlike power had just been restored following its ritual suspension during the festival. There were several more, even more spectacular, unwitting convergences of British action with Hawaiian myth, but the upshot was that the oddity of Cook’s death was explained by his oblivious but close compliance with deep-structured Hawaiian rules and roles, each conformity confirming his conformism, accidentally building up a pattern of expectation which made his subsequent nonconformity more alarming.
Sahlins the cultural detective had solved the murder mystery: ‘Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands … could thus be described as the ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,’ as if the Hawaiians had done away with their British doll who had re-emerged (sinisterly) from the toy-box of the horizon after playtime was over, and/or, like over-enthusiastic method actors, or like slaves to a ‘primitive mentality’ (hard to escape that implication), they had naively enacted an actual killing, in accordance with a merely ritual script. For the problem with primitives, as Lévy-Bruhl informed us long ago, is that they don’t know what a metaphor is.
This was too neat (a priori) for most anthropologists, and Sahlins was criticised both for his reconstructions of what the Hawaiians were up to that winter of 1778-79 and for what a generally sympathetic Geertz called his ‘highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless argument’. The suspicious coincidence was not so much Captain Cook’s conformity with Hawaiian structures, as the fact that a convert to structuralism had managed to find so perfect a demonstration of the efficacy of its methods at the site of one of the most notorious conjunctions of the Enlightenment with Savagery.
This kind of criticism was to have been anticipated. What seems to have surprised Sahlins was something that came from a different direction, the ethnopsychoanalyst Gananath Obeyesekere, who claimed that Sahlins, like Cook, was indulging in an age-old European fantasy, that Europeans were taken as gods by the primitive savages they first encountered. Obeyesekere, being from Sri Lanka, knew that colonised peoples had more common sense – that, crucially, they had got the colonisers’ number. Amazed that Obeyesekere’s error-spotted book was not ripped to shreds by critics, but even won prizes, Sahlins was compelled to write a rebuttal, How ‘Natives’ Think, his most accessible book (which you can buy together with Obeyesekere from Amazon at a discount).
How ‘Natives’ Think initiated Sahlins’s continuing resistance to the several dodgy dogmas that shelter under the umbrella of moral-political (‘pseudo-political’) postmodernism, ‘as if the truth of other societies necessarily consists of our own right-mindedness’, arguing that one can know the Other, that one is not destined merely to ventriloquise one’s own symbolic order (‘natives’ are cannibals, Europeans are as gods); that structures of thinking are not impermeable to facts; that the West has no monopoly on the game of constructing the Other and, comparatively speaking, is not necessarily very skilful at it (a low blow, that one), that the Rest have no monopoly on pluralistic thinking; that there can be goodness in dirty-fingernailed empiricism (in trying carefully to reconstruct how ‘natives’ thought), and indeed that there can be wickedness in postmodernism (in gagging ‘native’ voices or postcolonising non-Western minds with ‘Western rationalism’), even a kind of ‘symbolic violence’.
But for all his errors, Obeyesekere had the ‘who speaks?’ tide with him, and still has. And ‘who speaks?’ has a point. Concluding a brilliant paragraph in Culture in Practice (2000), with an assault on the notion of a monolithic Western (colonialist) discourse, Sahlins produced a nice Tacitean sententia: ‘The pseudo-politics of interpretation is the last refuge of the idea that the individual is the tool of his culture – which again proves that people who do not know their own functionalism are destined to repeat it.’ One might, more lamely, retort that a structuralist who speaks without knowing his own place in the structure will find it hard to make himself heard. Sahlins seems not to know what he looks like, a Big White Man flying high in the loftiest intellectual traditions of Continental Europe, making occasional swashbuckling swoops onto islands of cannibals and oddities to prove a point about something that Saussure once said, or Sartre or Certeau. He should have learned from his ‘natives’ that there is a time and a place for hard bargaining.
The other main site of Sahlins’s historical investigations has been the ‘Polynesian War’ of 1843-55 between the Fijian kingdoms of sea-going Bau and land-lubbing Rewa, and this also provides the main ethnographic ingredients for Apologies to Thucydides. Fiji stars in two essays in Culture in Practice, strategically designed, it would appear, as a response to some of the criticisms directed at the Cook’s death thesis. ‘The True Savage’ addresses the trope of Westerners disturbing the static equilibrium of ‘native’ societies, with musket, vice and trade, bringing the historical to the anthropological, as it were, introducing great deeds to cultures which were too cowardly or unimaginative to contemplate making history until white men gave them the idea and the means, or, alternatively, overwhelming local structures with great big global events, ‘leaving the disassembled jetsam of once-coherent cultural schemes floating in time’s wake’.
‘Charlie Savage’ was the nickname of a shipwrecked Swede, credited with introducing the musket to Fiji in the years after Waterloo, and thus enabling the tiny off-shore island of Bau to achieve pan-insular hegemony, a development with far-reaching consequences right up to this day, since it was the war king of Bau, one of those ‘pocket-Napoleons’ of colonial discourse, who united Fiji, kept it independent from Tonga, allowed Methodism to prosper, and acknowledged the superiority of the British Queen, which is why so many Fijians are now of Indian descent, which is why race has become such an issue in Fijian politics, which has not a little to do with recent coups, and something to do with the strange fact that the descendants of cannibals from remote islands in the Pacific have found themselves watching their backs in Iraq. Charlie Savage was transformed into a Fijian figure, ‘Jale Saveti’, Sahlins concludes: only Bau was structurally situated to make use of him and his ‘Western way of war’.
The other essay on Fiji, ‘The Return of the Event, Again’, focuses on the climactic war between Bau and Rewa, a generation later. A royal prince of Rewa had tried to requisition a pig, which happened to be passing, from the kingdom of Suva, a subordinate ally of Bau. The pig was refused him and, during a subsequent skirmish, the prince’s comb fell from his head and was most provocatively broken in two by a Suvan. This led to an all-out war on Suva by the warriors of Rewa and, eventually, to an all-out war with Suva’s ally, Bau, which Bau, with the help of missionaries and the Christian king of Tonga, ultimately won with all those important consequences. If the pig hadn’t passed when it did, and so splendidly, who knows what, in the subsequent history of Fiji, might have been different.
The whole pig-requisitioning episode might look like a provocative assertion of Rewa’s rights within Bau’s sphere, a provocation anyone might understand. But to understand it properly, one must immerse oneself, apparently, in Fijian kinship structure, and in particular one must chercher le vasu, the peculiarly Fijian cultural category of the sacred nephew, the cheeky, doted-on sister’s son who enjoyed ritually supported licence to pillage the domain of his maternal uncle, a big deal if your mother is a princess and your uncle a king.
Finding the vasu turns out to be extremely complicated, however, since Fijian kings married more than once, and used their sisters and daughters as pawns in power-relations. There were also two kings to a kingdom, a war king and a sacred king. A family tree of the royal families of Suva, Rewa and Bau looks like Spaghetti Junction. Sahlins’s main point, however, is that the Rewan prince who tried to requisition the pig from Bau’s Suva subordinates, was vasu-nephew of the sacred king of Bau, while the king of Suva was vasu to the ruling war king of Bau. By laying claim to the pig, the Rewan prince was asserting his vasu right to raid his maternal uncle’s domain with impunity, which makes it a statement about what his Bau uncle’s domain was.
Having wrestled with Fijian kinship systems, royal titles and family trees, I was annoyed to discover from Apologies to Thucydides that Sahlins was wrong about all this without him even saying so in so many words. The pig-coveting prince was not, it turns out, vasu-nephew of Bau’s sacred king after all, and could not therefore have been drawing attention to the anomalous power of the war king in Bau’s ruling structure. Often Sahlins seems to be engaged not so much in a facts-up thoughtful anthropology as a theory-down illustrated anthroposophy. On the other hand, I like having illustrations to think with, even if they turn out to be merely artist’s impressions.
In Apologies to Thucydides, Sahlins takes the author of History of the Peloponnesian War to task for neglecting the level of culture, for initiating that weird Western practice of universalising historical motivations: he doubly humanised history, first by omitting gods and second by invoking human nature. But there are three long essays to Sahlins’s book, engaging with three different elements of Thucydides’ account. The first is a comparison of 19th-century Fiji and classical Greece, drawing on Gregory Bateson’s notion of the genesis of antitypes, the way that two opposed groups tend to polarise, not merely representing the other as Other, but becoming each other’s Other: England as anti-France, France as anti-Anglo. The war between Athens and Sparta is not a clash of opposites, but an oppositioning around a clash, with the Athenians raising Theseus to the status of national hero in opposition to Spartan Hercules, the Spartans becoming more ‘Spartan’ in opposition to Athens, the Athenians emphasising their autochthonousness (their spontaneous generation from the soil) in opposition to the Spartan arrivistes.
Sahlins’s general principle is an excellent one – that history itself has a structural dynamic; that rather than studying the history of nations per se, we should think of nations as the structural elements of history – and there clearly is some structural oppositioning of Athens and Sparta in practice, but his particular elaborations of the principle do not stand up to examination. Either his oppositions seem to not have existed – between Spartan Hercules and Athenian Theseus, for example; oddly, Hercules seems far more prominent in Athens than in Sparta – and/or to have predated the clash. And when you actually try to discover, rather than presume, what their myth of origins meant to the Athenians, it appears to be not so much a myth ‘about autochthony’ as one ‘about’ their unique adoptive relationship with the goddess who gave them their name, Athena: the untouchable virgin of the untouchable citadel, an impregnable mother, a mother without a master, the generic Earth serving merely as the virgin’s surrogate womb.
Sahlins has imposed his own oppositions of native v. invader, indigenous v. arriviste, natural v. adopted, to deduce what the myth ‘is about’: oppositions important to anthropologists, Hawaiians, Fijians, Americans, moderns, but not necessarily to the ancient Greeks, or not in the same way – the valorisation of adoption is an important peculiarity of Greco-Roman society.
‘Am I missing something?’ Sahlins asks facetiously. Yes, he is missing something: the local cultural context.
A basic problem is that Sahlins is not up for reading texts as texts – the ‘who speaks?’ problem again. The reports of white missionaries and Fijian oral traditions are used as windows on what happened with little (explicit) consideration of how the gaze of the observers or the voice of the narrator might construe or construct. Similarly, statements in speeches in Thucydides about ‘what Sparta is’ and ‘what Athens is’ and ‘what is natural’ are in speeches. They are pieces of rhetoric, tools of persuasion, not necessarily fragments of a Thucydidean worldview, and they are representative of the particular and deep-seated Greek structure of the competitive agon, the formal and sited contest, reflected in other odd artefacts of the culture such as pairs of opposed law-court speeches, Socratic dialogues, Comedy, Tragedy and Games. It is not just that this makes it harder to say ‘how “natives” think’, or that the materials will always exaggerate oppositioning, thanks to a fondness for the form of the agonistic showdown, but it raises questions about the modes of oppositioning in this peculiarly oppositioning culture, and therefore about the universalising and culturally decontextualising tendencies of oppositional analysis per se.
Sahlins’s second essay leaves the Greeks to examine the way history gives certain individuals, such as Pericles (though this example is not elaborated), starring roles, by means of an account of the Elián González affair. This is a superb piece of backyard ethnographic description on Sahlins’s part – up-close and impersonal, his version of Thucydides’ plague – showing how it was that this little refugee from Cuba, rescued on Thanksgiving Day 1999 from a wreck which had drowned his mother, became a pawn in the Cold War between Cuba and the United States. Sahlins’s account of the whole affair is very ‘thick’, taking in newspapers, cartoons, murals, plaques and television appearances.
Elián’s washing up in America had shape and form. It was, Sahlins shows, intrinsically a ‘good story’, like Cook’s washing up in Hawaii, full of symbolic resonances for Cubans in exile and in Cuba: culture informs history. And when this extremely incidental incident engaged with American structures, most obviously with the place of Cuban exiles in Florida’s electorate and Florida’s place in the electoral college, it could be said to have led to the election of George W. Bush: ‘No Elián, no war in Iraq.’ In Cuba, meanwhile, it had the effect of restoring the authority of the Old Guard and rolling back reform. The oppositioning around this accident seems to have had the unhappy effect of fixing old structures, old oppositions, more firmly in place, or even of opening the fateful gateway for neo-conservatism in the United States: history informs culture.
Sahlins’s third essay revisits the causes of the Bau-Rewa war once more, in terms of Thucydides’ famous distinction between casus belli and ‘truest justification’ (prophasis). There was not just a pig, but also a bit of adultery. At first, the ruling war king of sea-girt Bau did nothing to save its Suvan ally from Rewa’s onslaught; it was only when his Rewan wife committed adultery, fled home to Rewa and was given, insultingly, to another man, that he began the fight to the death between the two kingdoms. In Sahlins’s unpersuasive account, the adultery (or its publicising?) was a deliberate act in response to the already deteriorating relationship with Rewa, which had led to the downgrading of the Rewan wife, and of her son’s prospects of succeeding. That deteriorating relationship was itself due to Rewa’s attack on Suva, provoked by the famous pig, an attack which was in fact a response by Rewa to sea-going Bau’s growing power, which now emerges as the truest cause of the war, just as the truest cause of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War was Sparta’s fear of the growing power of Athens.
For some reason it is important for Sahlins to establish close and detailed parallels between the ‘Polynesian’ and the Peloponnesian wars, between Bau and Athens; he even describes Fijian kingdoms at one point as ‘poleis’, a taxonomic error if ever there was one. This emphasis on identicalities is not only unnecessary, but promotes an impoverished understanding of what comparative history is for. Or perhaps these two little wars have a more general significance, sea-powers representing the danger of the disembedded economy to all embedded economies, of the global to the local, of commoditisation to gift exchange, the threat of the (hap)hazardous, intractable, sea-borne Real to the Ordered and Meaningful. Perhaps one can detect a little incipient ‘Western-ness’ among the cannibals of Bau.
All this, however, is presented simply as a demonstration of the importance of culture in history, the culture that was first excised from (Western) historiography by rationalising Thucydides. Sahlins variously treats this rationalising as simply what Westerners do, as if practical reason sprouted fully formed from Europe’s soil; or as what citizens of market-oriented sea-powers like Athens do, structurally amenable to ‘human nature’ as Bau was structurally amenable to the Western way of war; or as the result of the intellectual revolution of the fifth century, with Thucydides ‘too much influenced’ by the sophists’ opposition between convention (nomos) and nature (physis), or simply unable to view the culture he is swimming in, an endotopic observer in contrast to exotopic Herodotus, the observer of others, for ‘it takes another culture to know another culture.’
One can get around this problem – and it is more of a problem than Sahlins is prepared to admit – in various ways. I suppose the answer that would occur to most people is simply that Thucydides was Greek, and so objective about history in the way that Praxiteles, say, was objective about human bodies, Aristotle about animals, Hipparchus about the movement of the stars: that the Greeks, uniquely, were not ‘natives’, but famously, peculiarly, engaged with the world as it is, although one might well want to contextualise this ‘Greek Miracle’, a not uncontroversial exercise.
One might at least refer to the extreme up-and-down shuttling between extreme difference and extreme sameness, between, on the one hand, hundreds of local, structurally integral cultures, to whom citizens of other poleis, even the polis on the other side of their little island, were foreigners, and, on the other hand, a flourishing all-Greek culture. The citizens of Greek polities, therefore, were peculiarly local people with a peculiar appreciation of their own localness, which would become pretty evident, in most cases, simply by walking (or sailing) in a straight line for a few hours and finding oneself in a Greece with a different dialect, currency, calendar, cult, with different weights, measures, gods, governments, festivals, myths, marriages, love-ways, foodways, age-grades, time.
The Greek Miracle can be seen then simply as a place where Greeks could come together, leaving their subcultures aside. Hence Athenian Thucydides’ anti-cultural history, using a non-Athenian, universal/ natural calendar (spring, winter) and Greek-universal dates (based on the Olympic Games), is simply an unlocalised history, whereas the history of Herodotus of Halicarnassus was not cultural history so much as a multilocal history full of different versions of events: ‘what the Corinthians tell’ v. ‘what the Athenians tell’. The two great Greek historians present opposed solutions to the problem of how to write Greek history: the one producing an open, polyvocal text in which competing discourses, or ‘tales’, originating from outside the text, can sit alongside one another, the other producing a closed, univocal text structured dialectically by the author; the one reflecting dialogues, the other constructing dialogues, respectively a servant and a master of the Greek conversation. For, unlike most ancient literature up to that time, history was not a local type of discourse. Though it might have had local subject-matter, it had no local structure (local procedures, performance-structure and literary forms), no local occasion (a drama festival, a trial, a funeral speech) and no local space (a theatre, an assembly, a court). History is structurally supra-local, belonging to the pan-Greek ‘middle’.
Or we could emphasise the cultural elements in the account of someone who was indeed part of his culture. Sahlins’s understandable reluctance to worry too much about what ‘culture’ is, or isn’t, becomes a problem in a lament for the elision of ‘culture’ from history. If Fijian kingship is cultural, so is a big debate in an age-graded democracy. Certainly, it is not something found in the history of every culture. Elected generals, demagogues, embassies, oligarchic revolutions, polis-collectivities, votes for expeditions, hostage crises, enslavements, crop ravaging, stasis, city walls: Thucydides is full of this kind of stuff. What’s not ‘cultural’ about it?
The cultural is not necessarily ‘The Cultural’, all strangeness and believing the unbelievable: ‘The Noticeably Quirky’. When Thucydides pointedly observes that at the time, in his early thirties, he was made a general, Alcibiades would have been ‘still in the age-grade of Fresh Man in another polis’, and therefore ineligible for responsible office, he is giving us a fine ethnographic datum, albeit a rather unexciting one, about the peculiar Athenian age-class structure and about its peculiarity, comparatively speaking.
And then we come back to his typically Greek, late-fifth-century BC fondness for structural oppositions, for structuring sentences and paragraphs around notoriously oxymoronic antitheses (on the one hand, the reasons given for making war, on the other, ‘the truest justification obscured in the justifications’) and a war around two antagonists – on the one hand, feverish Athens, on the other, porridgy Sparta. Thucydides’ addiction to chiaroscuro, his fondness for dramatic entrances, his holding back of facts the better to surprise readers later, or omitting the more muddying ones completely, can be seen to produce much of what Sahlins gets out of him.
Pericles, for instance, was by no means a ‘systemic agent’ like a Fijian king or Napoleon, but more of a speech-wielding (if generosity-eschewing) Big Man, a type the Greeks, confusingly, called ‘a Man’. Thucydides’ provocative presentation of Pericles as a unitary more-or-less monarch of Athens, non-expansionist, leading the People, is produced in part out of a narrative structural opposition with what comes immediately after him in a highly manipulated narrative: i.e. the squabbling disunity of multiple ‘demagogues’, a further manifestation, it sometimes seems, of the epochal disorder (geological, epidemiological, linguistic) in Thucydides’ cosmos. These oxymoronic ‘People-leaders’ did not lead but were led by the People, competing for their favours with a jingoistic policy of conquest, notably and disastrously the attempted conquest of Sicily – cue another cultural trope, a Greek Tragedy, Athenians defeating themselves through hubris.
But despite all this, the problem of Thucydides’ reasonableness remains. He seems to make a statement himself about what his text excises. It avoids not ‘the cultural’ (for how can one excise what is everywhere), or even ‘the Cultural’ (the In-Yer-Face-Quirky), but the mythodes, the oral, the entertaining anecdote, the (tall) tale – the rivals of the written text. This too, however, is merely another aspect of Thucydides’ extreme localness, his contemporaneousness and his eagerly oppositioning culture. In the first place, he was writing, as he says himself, before oral histories had had time to get up and running, to be transformed by the Cultural machine into something rich and strange, the kind of material that Herodotus, writing about things that happened well before his time, so depended on: many of Herodotus’ stories have to do with objects of memory, dedications, monuments, or are designed to entertain, with narrative structure and punch lines.
But Thucydides’ contemporaneousness also means that his account assumes and competes with other contemporary versions. He is not just anti-local and anti-anecdotal, using materials that were still fresh and clean, not just at odds, even, with the anticipated view of a posterity deluded by those monuments of memory so beloved of Herodotus, but a contemporary in agonistic opposition to his contemporaries, to his present, making use of the opportunity his culture had already prepared for him of a supra-cultural position outside his own time, non-partisan, unpatriotic, pan-Hellenic, an arbitrator, looking at his own people askance.
We can see that especially in his treatment of the two most important cultural episodes he elides, the causes of the war and the plague sent by Apollo. For it is precisely at the points where religion is most conspicuously disregarded that Thucydides produces his two most torrential streams of reasonableness. He describes the plague with remarkable scientific detachment, though not without great pathos, his self-observed recovery and subsequent immunity from this unique world-historical disease perhaps setting him off on that journey adrift from his locality, a stranger among his own people, wandering untouchable, a ghost, watching without participating any longer in the disaster as it unfolded, peering into houses of death and disease that no one else could enter.
Then there is his treatment of the Megarian decree(s), the cause of the war, it would seem, to most contemporaries, and a quintessentially cultural episode. Athens had been trying to make more of the symbolic capital that derived from the ownership of the awesome sanctuary of the two goddesses at Eleusis. The city’s unfriendly neighbour, little Megara, was accused of farming the goddesses’ sacred land. In response, the Athenians passed a decree to ban Megarian products from the marketplace of Athens and the harbours of the entire ‘empire of allies’ she controlled, leading, possibly, to real hardship in Megara. The Spartans demanded repeal. The Athenians refused. Historians have debated for years about whether this is a local cause to be explained only by deep immersion in local beliefs about the sacred, about pollution, about space (the space of the market, the alliance, the port, Eleusis), or whether it is a straightforward example of economic sanctions aggressively applied to an enemy under the cynical fig-leaf of piety.
As a crux of embedded/disembedded economics, the Machiavellian and the divine, the Megarian dispute seems tailor-made for the wisdom of Marshall Sahlins, but he barely mentions it. Nor does Thucydides give it the treatment one might expect. This prime cause of the Peloponnesian War is ignored in his long-winded account of the ‘reasons given’, which starts off instead with an extensive account of a ‘reason given’ that would almost certainly never be given by any of his contemporaries (which is the whole point): a dispute between Corfu and Epidamnus, one of Corfu’s colonies on the Adriatic. Thucydides did not need to go into the Megarian dispute because everyone knew about it. His history is written in dialogue with his contemporaries, a dialogue often hinted at but mostly unelaborated. His playings up and playings down, his goings on about (the plague, Epidamnus) and his brief alludings to (‘some oracle’, ‘the Megarian business’), are inversely proportional to each other, and match in almost perfect negative what we find in other sources. He is a fundamentally perverse historian, always writing against the grain. It is no surprise, in retrospect, that the one phrase people remembered from Pericles’ famous Funeral Speech is the one phrase you won’t find in Thucydides’ version of it.
But Sahlins also neglects the two great quirkily Cultural episodes widely believed to have contributed to Athens’s final defeat (inasmuch as they led to the recall and exile of Alcibiades, the leading light of the Sicilian Expedition): the outrages known as the ‘Herm-trimming’, when members of Athens’s elite went around one night cutting the beards of Athens’s peculiar images of lucky Hermes, and, inextricably associated, the mocking at private parties of the Mysteries of Eleusis. Locals, it seems, have a contract with their quirks, and are obliged to protect their investments – in statues, in Mysteries – when they are threatened.
If we think about what Sahlins is saying with this book rather than what he says in it, the main theme emerges not so much as the play between culture and history, but the play between little and large, between minor Fiji and glorious old Greece, between Elián and Napoleon. Sahlins seems to be newly anxious about heft in history and dignity in historiography, his books strategically designed to counteract the ignominy of silly little cultural causes – ‘you broke my comb,’ ‘you tried to steal my pig,’ ‘Oooo! I feel so angry with him, I think I will commit adultery’ – with a grandeur more appropriate to the grandness of the event.
In making large of little, Sahlins is, as he acknowledges passingly, following in Thucydides’ footsteps. If Thucydides omits the ‘Megara business’ from his causes, it does crop up in his account of the actors’ causes, notably with his having Pericles say, somewhat startlingly if you have been relying on Thucydides for your information: ‘Don’t think we are going to war over a trivial matter if we go to war over the Megarian decree.’ This is an extraordinary statement to find in this history, almost as if Pericles is stepping out of the text to address the author. Certainly something much more complicated is going on than what Sahlins calls ‘the ethnographic cardinal sin of ignoring what the people found important’. Thucydides is wise to the discourse of ‘importance’, and plays games with it. For if the Megarian dispute seemed too frivolous intrinsically to ignite so great a war, it had already been trivialised further by Aristophanes in The Acharnians, when he claimed it was not a religious matter at all, but a squabble over courtesans, the proverbially squalid dispute of the law-courts and comedy. I doubt very much that Thucydides was unaware of the fun Aristophanes had already had with these Kriegsschuldfragen.
So great a war? Wherefore so great? For Thucydides, and this is where he is really weird, claims he started writing as soon as it began, when it looked like nothing so much as the resumption of business as usual between Athens and the Peloponnesians, after a brief, unusual truce. He was provoked, it would seem, by a queasy feeling that the cosmos was in momentous disorder – plagues, droughts, eclipses, civil strife, oxymoronic subversions of the true meanings of words – presaging a momentous event, which would require a far grander cause than Megara could provide. Thucydides’ text, therefore, is not the ‘ontic’ history beloved of students of international relations – focused on ‘scientific’ facts, human nature and Realien – but ontogenetic. Thucydides writes the war even as it comes into being, as it becomes historical in tandem with his text becoming history. Indeed, his account finishes abruptly just when things start to get truly interesting, after several chapters, after a decade and a half, of not very momentous stalemate.
It is almost as if, were the Megarian business indeed the cause, it had no right to be; it was not a worthy cause, could not be a ‘truest justification’ of this unique cosmic trauma. In that respect, Thucydides’ ‘Peloponnesian War’ is a kind of idealised monumental representation, indicative of ‘the War’ and full of signs of the real – the texts of treaties, or the names of obscure Spartan captains never heard of again – without actually being realistic. It is the war as it should have been, a war that took place, it sometimes seems, well above the heads of its participants.
With Apologies to Thucydides Sahlins has probably reduced his standing among classicists, who had given him too much respect when he took as his subject peoples they knew nothing about. I still think he is one of the most interesting human-thinkers around, and nine times out of ten I agree with him. Rereading him for this review, I came away with a better appreciation not only of how tendentious he sometimes is, but of how sharp, how brilliant, he always is. But he is a discussion-provoker rather than a model-provider.
Thucydides, on the other hand, the oxymoronic drama-queen and Father of History As We Know It, emerges from his unprovoked encounter with ‘the wise man of contemporary anthropology’ quite unscathed. It is clear that, for all his rhetorical targeting of Thucydides, Sahlins finds far more affinity with him than he is prepared to let on.
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