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Causation In Thucydides Notes

Classics Notes > Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War Notes

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Causation Thucydides' text is succinct and dense, expressing several ideas in a tight often complicated way. Such a writing technique reveals a man who is pedantic and rigorously thorough therefore it comes as no surprise that his models of causation and agency are complex and multi-faceted. He was the first historian to conspicuously show that history is not a simple linear progression; many factors intertwine and impact upon events in a unique, if not necessarily obvious, way. As a result in Thucydides there is a primary concern for accuracy, objectivity and scientific generalization. "We may claim instead to have used only the plainest evidence as to have reached conclusions which are reasonably accurate, considering we have been dealing with ancient history." (1.21) He exudes a confidence in his own method and so too his own ideas about the causes of the war. This leads to a very stark statement he makes in book 1 which dismisses the method others have used in recording events, "It is better evidence than that of the poets, who exaggerate the importance of their themes, or of the prose chroniclers, who are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public, whose authorities cannot be checked, and whose subject-matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology." (1.21) He aims to record those events which are recent so that he can gather information that is well researched and is as reliable as it ever could be owing to the age. He does these things because he believes that people will always respond in the same way to similar events and so his work will become timeless for this. Therefore underpinning his models of causation and agency is a method that is solid and so can be regarded as having a significant degree of historical integrity. He, in the typically modern way of detailing historical events, is very sparing with his personal judgement on the significance of any item in a causal sequence. However he suffers from the same problem as modern historians in that the material he chooses to produce and the order in which he does so involuntarily reveals his own sense of importance. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the models of causation he uses and the emphasis he places on these if we want to determine the causes behind the Peloponnesian war. For example there are what Pelling (pg 25) calls, "combative silences", where things such as the Peace of Callias and the Megarian decrees are not mentioned because this would have given them too much casual importance. On the other hand Corinth, along with Corcyra and Potidaea, are given much narrative space because Thucydides regards them as more important. This is relevant if we wanted to talk of a "league table" of causes because any such table would be deeply affected by the emphasis placed on some events by Thucydides and the exclusion of others. (An example of something excluded by Thucydides includes Athenian alliances with Rhegium, Leontini and Egesta and more importantly an insufficient appreciation of the impact of Persia.) However these things seem insignificant when Thucydides true influence upon the genre of history is considered. This comes in the way his distinguishes between different levels of causation. Hornblower (ad 1.23) says that "explicit formulation of a distinction between profound and superficial causes is arguably Thucydides' greatest contribution to later history writing." In that section of the work (1.23) he, for the first time, shows the difference between the aitia and the prophasis. The former is the true underlying cause of why

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