The Limits of Anachronism:

Hobbes, Thucydides, and Us.

If we are to escape reducing our political decisions to the choice between Coke and Pepsi, we need to replace our anachronistic ideas with a new anachronism.

Crisis creates comparison. Whenever something completely shatters our conceptual frameworks, we almost immediately rebuild them, stronger and more forcefully than ever. The less sure we are the more sure we want to seem. As a result we do not think with the kind of suppleness required by the situation at hand. As new situations arise we trap ourselves within the Coke/Pepsi dichotomy again, as if there were only two choices, and both were nothing at all new.

Thus, at the time of this writing, war time, it is difficult to avoid such comparisons. These comparisons fall into two categories, both of which can be called anachronism. "Hawks" tend to equate bin Laden with Hitler, or the World Trade Center with Pearl Harbor. In either case these people are thinking within the framework of the Second World War. Doves, on the other hand, tend to make the comparison with Viet Nam on a variety of grounds. The most common of these grounds are either the colonial situation or the lack of a clear goal (and thus lack of chance of achieving it). It is possible, however, that the situation calls for neither hawk nor dove, but a new anachronism. Rather than allowing disaster to strengthen our old ways of thinking, we should allow those old frameworks to crumble so that we can think anew.

War time is, of course, worse than times of peace in this regard as in every other. War, as has rightly been noted, is hell; and since Dante we have known that every visitor to hell needs a guide. Of course, there is no guide who can allow us to escape from ourselves, our history and our tradition. And yet, just as the arts "advance" by the uncovering of new traditions, re-reading those long forgotten or out of fashion, so too should our thinking move along by finding different traditions.

Thucydides, the Ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, was also looking for the essence of conflict. But, unlike those today who inevitably compare the conflict to either Viet Nam or WWII, depending on their paradigm (which is to say, generation), Thucydides was looking for the eidos of a particular conflict. In fact, some scholars believe that Plato took his word eidos ("form") from Thucydides, who took it from the medical writers. The Hippocratics would look for the form of the illness whose symptoms they noticed. Likewise, Thucydides was looking for the form of the illness of the polis, the form of the particular war he addressed, the war being the "symptom." The form of war is by no means like the beautiful platonic forms. As the Czech philosopher Jan Potocka points out in his "Heretical Essays," war's essence is night, and it cannot be comprehended with the concepts of day. Thucydides was not looking for the "universal form" of war, but rather the specific singularity of an event, which is by definition not a substance. Thucydides sought what Gilles Deleuze, reviving medieval jargon, calls a "haeceity" (which, because of an ambiguity in Latin grammar, can mean either a 'this-ity," or "these-things-ity"). That is to say, Thucydides shows us the form of singular events which are neither substantial nor universal. They are neither particulars nor "universal" essences, but they have a form nevertheless—a time of day, a discourse, a war.

Eric Voegelin claims that the Peloponnesian War wasn't known as such until after Thucydides' book was published, after his death. It had not been conceived of by its principle players as a single and unified war. Rather, because of its length and its dispersal over many fronts, it had generally been considered a series of conflicts. The specificity of this particular "situation"—both its own internal coherence and its external differentiation from prior conflicts—was lost on Thucydides' contemporaries. This is why Thucydides begins his work by distinguishing it from that of Homer and Herodotus, in the same way that one would need to distinguish an account of the present conflict from both World War II and Viet Nam in order to be able to think it clearly and responsibly.

Today Thucydides can help us think, if we listen. The Western Democratic states are confused. The very symbols of the gradual corrosion of the nation state under the aegis of free trade were destroyed by stateless groups. The World Trade Center towers, the American symbols of a stateless global capital, were destroyed by a band of organized people who cannot be found within any one nation-state. The nation-state itself—as a concept—is "under attack" from the outside. Politicized religion was attacking depoliticized capital and the state whose main job was to protect and facilitate that capital. In the days following September 11, all around the world the idea of the nation-state sought to grasp hold of reality again. Rhetoric, and not only media, became extreme. All of the talk about "our way of life" seems to be aimed primarily at the idea of the nation-state. This reassertion of the nation-state is also a reversal—it is full of confusion—given the recent trend toward economic globalization. Thucydides (in a translation by Thomas Hobbes) said of the Corcyran revolution, that everything was turned upside down, into an either/or, without possibility of recombination:

The received value of names imposed for signification of things, was changed into arbitrary. For inconsiderate boldness was considered truehearted: provident consideration, a handsome fear: modesty, the cloak of cowardice: to be wise in everything, to be lazy in everything. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valor. The re-advise for the better security was held for a fair pretext of tergiversation. He that was fierce was always trusty; and he that contraried such a one, was suspected. He that did insidiate, if it took, was a wise man; but he that could smell out a trap laid, a more dangerous man than he.2

It should be clear from the above passage that both Thucydides and Hobbes are, if nothing else, supreme theorists of the mind warped by war. The use of words to discredit thoughtfulness is, unfortunately, as apparent on both sides of the issue now as it was in 427 BC.

In order to think beyond the modern nation state, as the situation may require, it may be useful to look back to times prior to the birth of the nation-state. Thucydidean Greek is, however, a chthonic maze in its own right and, having found our Vergil in Thucydides, we are in need of yet another guide to bring us to him. And who better to translate Thucydides than one of the theorists of the liberal nation-state, Thomas Hobbes. Not only is Hobbes more sensitive to Thucydides as a theorist than other translators, he is also more sensitive to his syntax and sense of style. Hobbes' translation of Thucydides maintains the difficulty and sometimes effectively tortured syntax of Thucydides. In his introduction, Hobbes writes, "Thucydides is one, who, though he never digress to read a lecture, moral or political, upon his own, upon his own text, nor enter into men's hearts further than the acts themselves evidently guide him: is yet accounted the most politic historian that ever writ"(viii).

It is possible that people in the future will consider the present conflict as a part of a larger conflict that began, perhaps, with the Gulf War: "The Arab-American War" or something of the sort. Americans have been able to forget the Gulf War or to say that it "never took place," but to the people in Iraq it has not yet ended. Reading Thucydides may give us a chance to uncover the lost horizons of our own history, extending in every direction.

In Hobbes' translation we find two different political traditions which can be summed up according to their thoughts on human nature—as that which thinks humans are naturally equal (even if only because the weakest can kill the strongest in his or her sleep) and that which thinks they are not. These traditions are not simply the ancient and the modern, for the ancients were as torn in this regard as the moderns. This tension appears with heightened clarity on nearly every page of the Hobbes translation. Hobbes and Thucydides see both the ugly difficulty and the very necessity of politics more clearly than any other thinkers in the Western Tradition; they assess situations with neither Romanticism nor Cynicism, but with a cold clarity that borders on passion. Or rather they are dispassionate yet engaged, navigating between the blinding effects of the enthusiasm of Hawks and the passion of Doves. Romanticism and Cynicism are reflections of one another. Romanticism is the enthused ideology of action, and cynicism the disdainful ideology of rejection. Each sees only the phantasms of their own memory reflected in the other; they are both implicit and unrecognized accounts of the world, and both are blind to thought. Both sides call the other either romantics or cynics alternately. Thucydides and Hobbes enable us to see the outside of the play of these reflected discourses; and seeing another reflection, from outside our own historical discourse (which is really only to say from a different angle of refraction), we are able to trace the lines of this discourse more clearly.

Of course, we have a much greater task even than the rather arduous reading of Thucydides ahead of us. But, if we hope to escape the outdated conceptual models—the Romanticisms of both Peace and War—that we bring to the situation, we must first make ourselves even more anachronistic, to test the bounds of anachronism and thus the limits of thought. •

1 For the sake of clarity, and to give credit where it most certainly is due, Jill Stauffer would like to assert that Bay Woods is a real person, not a pseudonym of Jill Stauffer. Yes, it is possible that there is another person out there who is interested in Hobbes, Levinas, political theory and Greek Philosophy! Mr. Bay Woods lives in Pennsylvania, and he and Jill Stauffer met at a recent meeting of the ill-named Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. They are not anti-matter twins, and no explosion nor rift in the space-time continuum occurred when they entered the same room.

2 The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Sir William Molesworth, ed. Vol. VIII. London: John Bohn. Reprint, 1966. 348-349. III.82