Last Thursday, UTM’s historical studies department hosted professor Neville Morley from the University of Exeter to speak about the significance of historical authority, and the role historians play in understanding and translating the events of the past. He grounded his talk, “Authority and Nonconformity in the Ancient World: The Historian’s Duty,” in an analysis of Thucydides, a fifth-century Athenian determined to write an account of the Peloponnesian war.
Born to an upper-class family, Thucydides was elected as a general during the war between Athens and Sparta, and according to Morley, was voted into exile. Thucydides eventually used his banishment to gather the information he needed to create his written account of the war. His work, History of the Peloponnesian War, remains unfinished, and historians theorize that Thucydides either failed to complete the account or he completed the account but no one possesses a version of it. Morley emphasizes that although many people view Thucydides as the “first historian,” and much of his work lays a solid foundation for historical documentation, some aspects prove to be problematic.
Morley explains that people identify Thucydides as a model historian because he establishes his credibility by incorporating his methodological precepts, such as explanations of how he wrote the historical account and why history matters. Morley believes that this ancient text has maintained its relevancy because, as he says, “It’s useful.”
The professor continues, “Knowledge of the past isn’t just an end in itself; it can help in the present and in the future.” Morley also adds, “Events which we experience will resemble those of the past, so a true understanding of what has happened can help us understand what is happening and can help us anticipate what is going to happen,”
For Morley, a historian’s job is “to provide a detailed account of the past, to distinguish the differences between the past and the present, and to identify that things may change over time.” Historians must think about the complexity of events and, and as Morley explains, avoid reducing their understanding to simple principles. Some people interpret Thucydides’ work as a commentary on human nature, as evidence that humans are “predictable, repetitive, and regular,” and because of this, history is destined to repeat. However, Morley reveals it is wrong to simplify Thucydides’ text into a compact universal law. Instead, he argues, Thucydides promotes us to think about the resemblances between the past and present. Morley clarifies that Thucydides’ idea concentrates on humans’ tendency to make mistakes by allowing rhetoric and emotion to govern their actions.
To contrast the traditional interpretation of Thucydides, Morley offers his own reading.
“Thucydides forces us to think about rhetoric, think about communication. It’s not enough to have the content and information—we have to think about how it is presented,” he says. “If we think understanding the past is useful and important, that people can learn from it, and particularly that they can learn to understand complexity and ambiguity, then we need to think about how it actually operates in practice.”
Morley encourages the audience to think about the ways in which we can make the past accessible. For Morley, the solution is simple. Historians must stray from conventional modes of writing history, such as academic articles, and instead communicate the complexity of history in ways that will engage the community.
“We develop the critical skills we need to see through rhetoric and to identify the ways in which people attempt to manipulate us,” Morley remarks. “If we can recognize biases, we can at least try to guard ourselves against them.”
Morley concludes by highlighting the importance of a historian’s role in society. He continues, “[We need] different ways that we can present and represent the past, so it’s not only historians that develop this sophisticated understanding. We need to think of how this can be taken out to a larger audience.”