Synopses & Reviews
Thucydides' classic work on the history of the Peloponnesian War is the root of Western conceptions of historyand#8212;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 Eliandaacute;n 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 historyand#8212;with apologies to Thucydides, who too often did not.
"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."
"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." Peter Burke - Journal of Modern History
"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."
"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."
"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."
andquot;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.andquot;
andquot;It would be hard to argue that the year's most ambitious, and in my opinion,and#160;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.andquot;
"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."and#8212;George Scialabba, Boston Globe
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"A powerful statement on the enduring kinship of history and culture."
About the Author
Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, he is the author of many books, including Culture and Practical Reason, How “Natives” Think, Islands of History, and What Kinship Is—And Is Not, all published by the University of Chicago Press.
Table of Contents
List of illustrations
1. The Polynesian War: With Apologies to Thucydides
2. Culture and Agency in History
3. The Culture of an Assassination