"In this Limbec and Crusible of Affliction": Herodotean Didactics in Thucydides

Tarik Wareh

Union College

In a celebrated and crucial Herodotean passage—Solon's discourse on the impossibility of judging human happiness before seeing in what state deficient and frail mortal vessels reach the final harbor of death (1.32)—the historian has the sage deny that any single individual possesses adequate resources (anthrôpou sôma hen ouden autarkes esti) to assure a fortunate conclusion to life.  Many readers have recognized that Thucydides distinctly alludes to this formula by twice repeating the phrase sôma autarkes in his own history—first in Pericles' affirmation of the Athenian citizens' contributive capacity (to sôma autarkes parechesthai, 2.41), and second in the Athenians' bodily incapacity to withstand the plague (sôma te autarkes on ouden diephanê, 2.51).

Because the allusion itself is unmistakable, because it is not nakedly polemical or otherwise easily decoded, and especially because it is attached to crucial overarching themes of success and failure in both historians, our interpretation of it may bear important consequences for our understanding of Thucydides' historical paradigms and his self-understanding in relation to his predecessor.

Previous commentators on this connection have argued for Thucydides' sympathy with broad and familiar Herodotean themes.  Scanlon ("Echoes of Herodotus in Thucydides," Historia, 1994), by strongly emphasizing Athens' objectively impressive autarky and the positive Periclean pronouncement over the plague-narrative's undermining counter-warning, concluded that Athens had, in Pericles, "proper leadership" from a wise, "Solonian" figure ("Solon's dictum does not contradict that of Pericles").  Macleod, in a reading I find more compelling ("Thucydides and Tragedy," Collected Essays, 1983), gave due weight to the tragic and pessimistic sympathies between the two authors' historical designs suggested by the second Thucydidean echo.

In contrast to these assimilative readings, I focus on the contradictions and interpretative challenges inherent in the specific analogies constructed by Thucydides' echoes.  An especially important inconcinnity has to do with time-perspective.  Whereas, in Thucydides, human sufficiency or insufficiency can be tested and demonstrated today in the crucible of action (on the battlefield, at the crisis of an illness, in a dicanic argument, etc.),  in Herodotus human insufficiency is revealed at the end of a lifetime, and by extension, in larger historical events over the course of grand arcs and long-prepared reversals.  Thucydides does, indeed, like Herodotus, happen to be interested in the larger patterns of history.[1]  But, immediately and literally, this is not the analogy invoked by the allusion, and I seek to explain why Thucydides chooses to gesture back to Herodotus' account of the long-term workings of nemesis, in presenting to his readers a perverse physics governing daily existence, whereby the constraints of human nature are dramatically displayed in instantaneous physiological and moral failures and incompetencies.

By focusing our attention on this inconcinnity, we may begin to arrive at a more complex view of how Thucydides, both intellectually and subconsciously, has transformed Herodotus' didactic framework in the construction of his own history.

[1] This is accordingly Macleod’s focus.  He too emphasizes the autarky of Athens as a whole and ably suggests Thucydides’ interest in the grand sweep of history, with the destiny of whole peoples at stake, in which failure at long last follows unsustainable success, as in Pericles’ later warning to the Athenians that “all things must diminish” (2.64).


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