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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thucydides I

Monday in class, Farley posited a question that struck me as odd. "Why do we read Thucydides--why should we?" My initial reaction was, "Because he's important, duh." However, that wasn't exactly articulate. Farley went on, pacing around the room, jabbering about anti-intellectualism, but I was still hung up on the question. Why do we read Thucydides? He's not really a historian, so we can't rely on the exact facts in his narrative. I thought--it's the same reason we read literature, to see what the society consideres valuable and important so that we can better direct the state in its interaction with its individual members and other states. Unfortunately, that's only part of it.

Why go back and read the classics? Personally, I think there are fundamental questions that we, as humans, constantly re-evaluate, and getting older perspectives on these questions is helpful. I'm thinking about questions such as "what is it to be good" or "what is the best state", not "what should I have for dinner"-type questions. I also think these works frame how we approach problems because they've been the framework for the questions for so long, and finally, I also believe that there's something ineffable that still gives the works an appeal. Why do I read Shakespeare? Why do I read Chaucer? Because they speak to something inside me. Do I have the same values and ideas they do? Probably not. Times have changed and so have we. However, both the Bard and Chaucer still managed to put their finger on a chord that still runs through me...somewhere.

I'm going to have to think on this one.


Blogger Robert Farley said...

I AM clever.

I like Thucydides because he's a literate observer of an illiterate age.

Also, while I don't believe in human nature, I think that some social institutions have enduring characteristics. The international system is probably one of these. While human nature doesn't determine our institutions, it precludes some arrangements, even if we can never appreciate what the limits are. So, some institutions with enduring characteristics recur.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Meow said...

Whatever you need to get through the day.

An illiterate age? That's just wrong. I'm sorry, Farley, but no. Greek civilization was incredibly literate. they kept complicated records, were actively interested in poetry and other literate arts, and were active mathematicians and philosphers. How do we know all of this? They WROTE about it. Granted, they did not have 100% literacy, but neither do we, I'll point out.

Now, when you say that you don't believe in human nature, do you mean that you don't believe that there are some inner truths to humanity or that you doubt these inner truths are immutable?

I am not certain I can agree with the former. Tabula rasa can only go so far. We are animals at the basest level, and there are certain behaviors that are common to all humans. We eat, defecate, mate, and sleep, but while the taboos surrounding those behaviors may be different, each society has taboos. I do believe in a certain amount of commonality to behavior.

Discussing the enduring characteristics of institutions vs human nature is a little like discussing the chicken and the egg. Do we keep building institutions because there's something in our nature that recognizes a need for institutions or because the institutions themselves have an inherent characteristic that makes them useful?

I'm not phrasing that well, I know, but it's still a valid question.

Gar...there are days when I wish I were accustomed to political science.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Robert Farley said...

Fair enough; to call the Athens of Pericles illiterate isn't quite right. More accurate would be to say that Thucydides is an ancient who writes as if he were a modern. This sets him apart even from other Athenians; I don't get this feeling when I read Herodotus, for example.

As for institutions, yes, we develop forms of community control in all of our different societies, and we have taboos of various sorts. The tendency or will to do this may spring from some natural impulse. However, that doesn't get us very far or to a very interesting place; it doesn't tell us that some social arrangements are possible and some are not, and it doesn't tell us which institutional characteristics are necessary and which are not. I'm inclined to believe that this is the case, that there are a finite set of possible social arrangements, given our genetic predisposition, but I'm deeply skeptical of our ability to ever figure out the extent of that finite set.

So, there may be immutable human characteristics, but I don't think it is possible for us to know what they are, or to have a complete understanding of their impact on our institutions. Rather than saying that there is no human nature, I should probably say for the purposes of a social scientists there might as well be no human nature; we lack the meta-theoretical capacity to ascertain it, and, being human with no capacity to escape to a "creator's eye view", will never be able to develop the tools to ascertain human nature.

Thus, theories that rely on human nature to explain specific institutional characteristics (men like to hunt, women like to gather, etc.) are, from my point of view, useless.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Meow said...

That's fair. I'm not willing to say that generalizing to institutions based on human nature is entirely useful. There are entirely too many contextual factors for that type of generalization to ever be of any use. However, I'm not a social scientist, so I am more comfortable dealing with universalities. I'm not entirely certain that I agree that we can never know what they are, either. Some of that can be tracked via comparative literature and art, so parallels can be made. As for knowing how those factors affect our institutions, I probably will agree that we can never know how they affect our creation and interaction with insitutions. There are far too many contextual levels to get at that in some sort of real way.

However, I'm not familiar with institutional theory, so I can't comment any further because I just don't have the background to do it.

As for Herodotus, he is a tad more traditional as a writer. There are far too many mentions of the Gods for me to feel entirely comfortable with him. However, I don't know that Thucydides writes as if he were a modern. He's chronicling events as they happen and makes observations about how things are going. I'd have to look at him a little more closely to see what I think on that.

12:01 PM  

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