Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa


Thucydides' classic work on the history of the Peloponnesian War is the root of Western conceptions of history—including the idea that Western history is the foundation of everyone else's. Here, Marshall Sahlins takes on Thucydides and the conceptions of history he wrought with a groundbreaking new book that shows what a difference an anthropological concept of culture can make to the writing of history.

Sahlins begins by confronting Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War ...

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Thucydides' classic work on the history of the Peloponnesian War is the root of Western conceptions of history—including the idea that Western history is the foundation of everyone else's. Here, Marshall Sahlins takes on Thucydides and the conceptions of history he wrought with a groundbreaking new book that shows what a difference an anthropological concept of culture can make to the writing of history.

Sahlins begins by confronting Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War with an analogous "Polynesian War," the fight for the domination of the Fiji Islands (1843-55) between a great sea power (like Athens) and a great land power (like Sparta). Sahlins draws parallels between the conflicts with an eye to their respective systems of power and sovereignty as well as to Thucydides' alternation between individual (Pericles, Themistocles) and collective (the Athenians, the Spartans) actors in the making of history. Characteristic of most histories ever written, this alternation between the agency of "Great Men" and collective entities leads Sahlins to a series of incisive analyses ranging in subject matter from Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world" for the 1951 Giants to the history-making of Napoleon and certain divine kings to the brouhaha over Elián Gonzalez. Finally, again departing from Thucydides, Sahlins considers the relationship between cultural order and historical contingency through the recounting of a certain royal assassination that changed the course of Fijian history, a story of fratricide and war worthy of Shakespeare.

In this most convincing presentation yet of his influential theory of culture, Sahlins experiments with techniques for mixing rich narrative with cultural explication in the hope of doing justice at once to the actions of persons and the customs of people. And he demonstrates the necessity of taking culture into account in the creation of history—with apologies to Thucydides, who too often did not.

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Editorial Reviews

Bruce Kapferer
"A challenging demonstration of the work of culture—unrelenting in criticism of abstractionism, binarism, and reductionism—and a passionate statement in defense of rigorously analytical, comparative and historically sensitive ethnography that explains the particular in a way which resonates with immediate and general significance. Here Sahlins critically synthesizes major lines of thought in his own discipline—approaches in which he has often taken a leading role—and pushes towards new horizons of understanding. Just when all seemed lost, Sahlins has hit a home run not just for anthropology but for the social sciences generally. This is his best yet."
Claude Calame
"Let us embark with Marshall Sahlins on a fascinating journey. In a truly comparative and contrastive method, Sahlins maps the territory between critical history and reflexive anthropology."
Thomas R. Trautmann
"Brilliant analysis, freshly and amusingly put—this is the work of a master at his best. Marshall Sahlins should apologize to Thucydides, who will never be the same for readers of this intelligent and irreverent study of how history has been constructed over the last two millennia. Squaring the circle of the individual and the collective, history and culture, it is must-read stuff for historians, anthropologists, and, indeed, anyone wishing to know the truth about the Peloponnesian War or the Polynesian War, how the Giants won the National League pennant in 1951 or why Al Gore did not become president of the United States."
New York Sun - Adam Kirsch
"This is only the foundation of Mr. Sahlins's complex book, which goes on to address questions of historical causation and agency using a wide variety of examples—including, at one point, Elian Gonzales and the 1951 New York Giants. The complete ramifications of Mr. Sahlins's argument will be appreciated best by anthropologists and historians. Even for the general reader, however, Apologies to Thucydides has much to offer, as an introduction to an unfamiliar culture and as a new perspective on our own."
Boston Globe - George Scialabba
"Sahlins wants to make a place in historical explanation for ideas and passions as well as hunger, fear, and greed. In extended, detailed parallel histories of the Peloponnesian and Polynesian wars, he argues ingeniously in Apologies to Thucydides that both rivalries display a 'competition by contradiction, in which each side organizes itself as the inverse of the other.' . . . . Sahlins counters with a lucid and convincing account of the 'cultural construction of the forms of human life.' If, like me, you were skeptical that the phrases 'social construction' or 'cultural construction' could ever really do a lick of honest intellectual work, you will be pleasantly surprised. I may have made Apologies to Thucydides sound too formidable; it is witty as well. And there is wisdom where appropriate."—George Scialabba, Boston Globe
Anthropological Quarterly - Simon Hornblower and Charles Stewart
"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."
American Historical Review - William G. Thalmann
"A demonstration of what a historiography informed by anthropology might look like. Moving easily between concrete cases and general principles, Sahlins makes a compelling argument that there is no history without culture, and vice versa. . . . As a classicist who has benefited from Sahlins's previous work, I appreciate this view of Greek history through an anthropologist's eyes. More generally, this book is a paradigm of how history and anthropology might be brought together, to the mutual enrichment of both disciplines."
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Ivan Brady
"When the history of anthropology is written . . . Marshall Sahlins will already have had his place etched in stone in the line-up of the brightest and most influential thinkers in the discipline. . . . Apologies to Thucydides, in many ways a culmination of his earlier works, is unswerving in its dedication to rigorous cultural comparisons, the sine qua non of anthropology. . . . So perhaps we should construct his monument now. Or better, since there will be more from Sahlns down the line, just buy the book. . . . Every future can use a large-minded past and a large-minded practitioner or two. This is a book to build on."
Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory - Andrew Hadfield
"It would be hard to argue that the year's most ambitious, and in my opinion, the best and most entertaining work, is Marshall Sahlins' brilliant Apologies to Thucydides. . . . Sahlins' attempt is to rethink the nature of historical explanation, his lifelong project, one that continues his profound and daring explorations into the ways in which history and anthropology might be thought of as overlapping, rival and complementary disciplines attempting to account for the same types of actions, events and structures."
Anzeiger fuer die Altertumswissenschaft - Federico Santangelo
"This is an important book, and a remarkable one too. It is definitely an important moment of modern reception of Thucydides outside the constituency of classicists; it is a bold and analogical study of ancient and modern history with an anthropological approach. . . . Students of classical antiquity are likely to find the whole book interesting in various respects."
Australian Journal of Anthropology - Kerry James
"The remarkable work under review by Marshall Sahlins, for which he need apologise to no one, has cleared the path of fashionable dead wood and opened the way to a history that includes culture, and it should lead to much further enterprise in the study of Pacific culture and history."
Journal of Modern History - Peter Burke
"It would be a great pity if the readership of these brilliant essays were restricted to anthropologists or to historians of Polynesia. . . . Sahlins has raised questions that all practicing historians need to think about and has offered them some fresh answers."
Journal of Hellenic Studies - Emily Greenwood

"This is an awe-inspiring work. . . . Classicists have plenty to learn from Sahlins on Thucydides, not least self-awareness about some of our disciplinary blind-spots. More broadly, Sahlin's trenchant discussion of historical agency and historical contingency will give students of history much to think about. . . . [The book]  demonstrates the potential for intelligent interdisciplinary conversations to take the study of Thucydides in new directions."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226103822
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/11/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 348
  • Sales rank: 791,180
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. The author of numerous books, Sahlins is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Author's Note
1. The Polynesian War: With Apologies to Thucydides
2. Culture and Agency in History
3. The Culture of an Assassination

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First Chapter

Apologies to Thucydides

Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa
By Marshall Sahlins

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-73400-5

Chapter One

Baseball is Society, Played as a Game

In the late 1960s the Yale historian J. H. Hexter wrote a revelatory essay on "The Rhetoric of History," the centerpiece of which was a crafted response to the question, "How did the New York Giants happen to play in the World Series of 1951?" Since the so-called World Series of that time matched baseball teams all the way from the Mississippi River to the East Coast of the United States, and from the Canadian border to the Mason-Dixon line, you will appreciate the world historical significance of the question. If not, you are probably not a fan, and I must apologize to you for this commentary on Hexter's text. Apologies especially to people other than Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Cubans, who are not baseball fans and probably couldn't care less-although anyone who is an athletic supporter of some sort should be able to transpose the narrative to a league sport of another kind. I can offer the consolation that the story of how the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League championship, which is how they got to play in the World Series, also has elements of class warfare, inasmuch as it pitted the patrician Manhattan followers of the Giants against the plebeian Brooklynites. In any case, it will be useful to suffer through the account of the 1951 Giants' pennant, together with the comparison Hexter draws with the American League championship of 1939 won by the New York Yankees, because the two stories not only feature individual and collective agency, respectively, they also motivate the narratological difference by contrasting kinds of historical change.

There are structures of and in history. It's not all tricks the living play on the dead. The history of the '39 Yankees' pennant was developmental, where that of the '51 Giants was evenemential. The first was evolutionary, the second a kind of revolutionary volte-face. The Yankees dominated the 1939 season from beginning to end, April to October, steadily pulling away from the second-place team. The Giants won at 3:58 PM (EDT) on 3 October 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the famous home run that defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last half of the last inning of the final game of a three-game playoff for the title-the teams having been tied at the end of the regular season. Hexter chose to compare the two seasons because in contrast to the narrative mode appropriate to the Giants' victory, which he calls "storytelling," the Yankees' championship is better understood by "analysis": an account simply of their attributes as a team, without the necessity of referring to individual exploits or particular games. So to compare small things with great ones, again as Thucydides would say, here also are histories of competition that, by their specific forms, variously motivate a collective recounting or the intervention of difference-making persons. Even more, Hexter's baseball comparison affords a principled reason, grounded in the nature of the history at issue, for the temporalities or periodizations by which we relate it. Eureka! Contrary to the prevailing epistemological mood of pessimistic self-reflection-which is too often self-reproach for laying presentist concerns on a past that seemingly offers no resistance to the historian's manipulations-the structures of and in history impose some strong limits on our hubris.

There was no pennant race in the American League in 1939, no turning point, no contest (fig. 2.1). Minor day-to-day fluctuations apart, right from the beginning the Yankees progressively distanced themselves from the competition, to end the season with an extraordinary seventeen-game advantage over (who else?) the Boston Red Sox. For the same reason, there were no decisive, pennant-winning acts or heroes. Although certain Yankee players had outstanding years, and one or another may have made an outstanding play to decide a particular game, neither any individual performance nor any specific event can adequately respond to the question (in effect) posed by Hexter, how did the Yankees come to win the pennant? To understand this history of progressive domination, it suffices to demonstrate the Yankees' superiority as a team, over the whole season, in the critical baseball functions of hitting, fielding, and pitching. The historical subject is the collective, and accordingly the relevant historical factors are its properties as a collective. Or as Hexter put it: "There is nothing to do but analyze the betterness of New York [the Yankees], to seek out its ingredients and render them intelligible to the reader". At this point, any baseball fan becomes a cliometrician, adducing the readily available statistics on team play: batting average, fielding percentage, home runs, runs scored, earned run average of starting pitchers, saves-to-blown-saves of relief pitchers, and so on. That's why the Yankees won the pennant. Yet not to overlook the shape and measures of Hexter's diagram of the season. They tell the history in a certain temporality as well as a certain agency.

The form of historical change at issue here, a long-term developmental change, valorizes one or another scheme of periodization, as most suitable to describe it. Although Hexter does not explicitly discuss the choice, the time periods he adopts to diagrammatically relate the 1939 season are equal, precisely so that they can show the Yankees' domination as a long-term trend. Moreover, they are of sufficient duration, four-week intervals, to ensure that this trajectory is neither exaggerated nor obscured. Longer periods would have misleadingly represented the Yankees' success as a rocket launch. A day-by-day account, by its oscillations, would not answer directly to the question of why the Yankees won out, inasmuch as no particular game or stretch of games decided the pennant. In contrast, the Giants' victory of 1951 was precisely another "story."

To explicate the Giants' victory, says Hexter, one has to conform to the logical rules of "storytelling"-which he proceeds to do in practice, without explicitly telling us what the rules are. He does say that fiction can serve as a guide: an observation that Don DeLillo recently confirmed (if rather in reverse, art following life) by making the story of the decisive game between the Giants and Dodgers the opening chapter and repeated refrain of his novel Underworld. Perhaps Hexter remained reticent about the rhetorical logic he adopted because he did not ask the question that would motivate it. The critical question was not the one he posed, "How did the New York Giants happen to play in the World Series of 1951?" The critical question was: How did the Giants overtake the Dodgers to win the pennant (and thus play in the World Series)? For what happened, again, was a specific kind of historical change: the overthrow, at the last possible moment and thus in dramatic fashion, of a longstanding relationship between the two teams or, if you will, the competing collective subjects. Here was a reversal of the order of things, a structural change that qualifies Bobby Thomson's home run as a historic event, even as it qualified him as a hero, a history-maker. And it is from this revolutionary dënouement, working backward, that we discover and rhetorically motivate the tempos, turning points, and agents of our history. The structural reversal in the story is the determining principle of historical value and relevance, a telos that rules the organization of the account. Historical storytelling is the retelling from the beginning of an outcome already known, that knowledge guiding the selection (from the archive) of the successive events of the narrative. It is as François Furet said: "every evenemential history is a teleological history; only the end of the history permits one to choose and understand the events of which it is fabricated."

So Hexter chose to begin his story of the 1951 pennant race more than halfway through the season, on 11 August, because this was the turning point, the beginning of the reversal, although no one could have known it at the time (fig. 2.2). Indeed, around this time Charlie Dressen, the Dodgers' manager, made his famous pronouncement, "The Giants is dead." At the end of play on 11 August the Dodgers held a thirteen-game lead on the Giants, the most they would ever attain. The next day the Giants began a sixteen-game winning streak, cutting the Dodgers' advantage to six games. Note that although Hexter does not diagram it, he does remark that the Dodgers' performance in the several months prior to 11 August resembled the Yankees' pennant run of 1939. Presumably it would be periodized appropriately as a long-term trend and explained analogously by the Dodgers' "betterness" as a team. From 11 August, however, the appropriate historiographic form changes from "analysis" to "storytelling," a difference of narrative mode marked by corollary differences in temporality and agency. Time is progressively magnified. The account that began in months will end in moments, ultimately one final moment of perhaps ten seconds, the home run. And at a certain point in time, individual subjects replace collectives. The account that began with the relative performances of the Dodgers and the Giants will end with Bobby Thomson at the plate.

Beginning on 12 August the historical tempo picks up, and Hexter accordingly periodizes it in shorter and shorter stretches of time. (This is represented in his diagram by the lengthening of daily intervals along the horizontal axis [fig. 2.2].) By "historical tempo" one usually means something like the density of events over a given time span, recognizing that the condition for what counts as an event is the pertinence of the happening to the final outcome. In the present instance, then, what should motivate and demarcate the historical periods are the times when the relationship between the teams changed substantially-that is, when the Giants made significant ground on the front-running Dodgers. As Hexter indicates, there are a couple of reasonable alternatives, but one cannot go wrong in choosing: first, a span of about a month, from 12 August to 14 September, when the Giants closed to and maintained a position about six games back; and second, the period from 15 September to the end of the season on 30 September, when two Giant winning streaks allowed them to catch and tie the Dodgers. The league season ends in a draw. The teams move into a best-of-three series for the pennant.

Since each game of the playoff significantly affects the teams' positions, we change now to a day-by-day account. On 1 October, the Giants win, 3 to 1, but the next day the Dodgers tie the series, winning 10 to 0. The whole season now devolves upon the final game of 3 October. This sort of structural compression is a hallmark of evenemential history: the working out of a long history in a short time and of macro-relationships in micro-acts. Indeed, it is the event, by the changes it effects, that brings time past and greater social order to bear-that, as it were, reifies them and embodies them in particular actors. History indeed becomes what Alcibiades did and what he suffered. Or, in this case, what Bobby Thomson did and Ralph Branca suffered.

With everything riding on the one game of 3 October, we are virtually down to an inning-by-inning description. More precisely, the narrative tempo shifts to a changing-score-by-inning account, since that would be a succinct indication of the two teams' pennant chances. Brooklyn goes ahead, 1 to 0, in the first inning and holds the lead until the bottom of the seventh, when the Giants tie the score. One whole season, two playoff games, and seven more innings: they are still deadlocked. But the Dodgers score 3 in the top of the eighth and carry the lead into the bottom of the ninth, the Giants' last bats. Of course, individual players could have been introduced into the narrative of this game thus far: as DeLillo does, for example, although sparingly. But until the final inning, the whole season did not come down to what particular players did. Now it does.

(Need I remind you of the U.S. presidential election of 2000, where the outcome likewise, by virtue of the structure of the conjuncture, was decided by what a few people did or did not do? Authorized as difference-makers were the likes of Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state, and Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who used the advantage of his two votes to the other justices' one to enforce the opinion that if the Florida vote were recounted, it would damage the legitimacy of Dubya's presidency-presumably by showing that Al Gore won.)

Last of the ninth, Don Newcombe, who started the game, still pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first man up for the Giants, Al Dark, singles to right: a ground ball that barely eludes the Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges. Man on first. Hodges-or the manager, Dressen-elects to hold the runner on instead of moving to a fielding position between first and second, where the next Giants batter, Mueller, promptly hits a ground ball single, Dark going to third. (History does not record who decided to hold the runner, but as the cognoscenti know, and the consequences show, it was a bad baseball decision, since Dark was no threat to steal second in that situation, down 4 to 2 with the heart of the order coming up.) Monte Irvin pops out. Then Whitey Lockman, a lefthanded hitter, strokes an opposite-field double over third base, Dark scoring, Mueller stopping at third. (Hurt sliding into third, Mueller is carried off the field and replaced by a pinch runner.) It is 4 to 2 Dodgers, one out, Giants' runners on second and third, Bobby Thomson the next scheduled batter. Dressen decides his pitcher Don Newcombe is out of gas and replaces him with Ralph Branca. On the advice of his bullpen coach, which ordinarily Charlie Dressen never even solicited, much less took, Branca was chosen to replace Newcombe rather than Carl Erskine, who was also warming up. Dressen used Branca despite that Thomson had homered off him in the first playoff game-indeed, ten of the seventeen homers Branca had allowed that season were by the Giants, as well as five of his eleven losses. Obviously, such decisions, including the positioning of Hodges after Dark's leadoff single, were crucial. We could go behind them, but that way lies chaos (theory), since all previous acts were necessary to the outcome and none as such won the pennant for the Giants. What won the pennant was Bobby Thomson's home run. So stepping in against Branca, "the Scot from Staten Island," the third baseman Thomson, born in Glasgow, hitting a respectable .292 percentage for the year with a team-leading thirty-one home runs. And as we thus focus in on the ultimate actors, we go into slow motion.

In the final extension of time, it is pitch by pitch.


Excerpted from Apologies to Thucydides by Marshall Sahlins Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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