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Joel Schlosser Turns to Herodotus's 'Histories' to Examine the Modern Era (Extended Interview)

August 19, 2020

Joel Alden Schlosser, chair and associate professor of political science, and his former student Musckaan Chauhan '20, Ph.D. candidate, Cornell University, Department of Government, chatted over Zoom about Schlosser's new book  Herodotus in the AnthropoceneAn edited, briefer version of their conversation can be found here. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Why Herodotus and why the Histories?

There are a couple of ways of approaching this question. One is that there are lots of different stripes of political theorist—those concerned with theoretical problems, those investigating the logical ways to deal with them—and I'm someone who loves books. There's a part of me that is always thinking about books as whole objects that we can think with. As I say at the beginning of the Acknowledgments, part of reading the Histories is about living with this book and seeing how it becomes fruitful across time for thinking about problems.

The other way of thinking about it—which is maybe more concrete—is that when I was just finishing my Ph.D., I was invited to teach specific courses as a visitor at my alma mater Carleton College. Among other classes, I was going to teach a course on the political philosophy of international relations called “Justice Among Nations.” The political theory text that is usually taught in such a course is Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. An Athenian general involved in war, Thucydides sets up his history in direct opposition to Herodotus and has been subsequently received as a realist, somebody who is clear eyed and unflinching in the face of an unfortunate realities. At that moment, I had read very little Herodotus but because Thucydides explicitly refused him, I thought it would be interesting to take on the opposite approach: how would Herodotus, a man who also chronicles a war of global proportions between the Persians and Greeks—global in their day—be useful for thinking about international relations? It turned out to be one of the best courses that I ever taught; having these two texts brought together students with very different concerns and backgrounds: history, classics, political philosophy. This was during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and a lot of IR students were wanting to think about how these texts are helpful for thinking about concrete issues. Students of Classics wondered how Herodotus could be useful at all, considering his belief in the gods. That back and forth showed me how rich these texts could really be.

That course and the conversations around that course seeded the first thing that I wrote about Herodotus: an article published in Political Theory called “Herodotean Realism,” where I argue that Herodotus has his own kind of realism, a realism that's clear about how it is that everything that we say and understand is embedded in stories that are learned from some particular place and have a particular plot. We can't just say we are realists and we only deal with facts because we always fit the facts into narratives in an attempt to make sense of things. That is the Herodotean perspective: he’s showing us the process of learning these stories and putting them together.

This books finds you situating Herodotus in the Anthropocene. There is a tendency to formulate the Anthropocene in a manner where the political, social and economic apparatuses that drive it are taken as given. Donna Haraway has coined the word “Plantationocene” in its stead while people like Sylvia Wynter dislodge the cosmogonies that the idea of an Anthropocene might take for granted. What is the significance of reading the Histories in a/the Anthropocene?

I think if I had written this book 10 years ago—which is when I taught that course—it wouldn't have been on the Anthropocene. I began within the domain of realism and IR and then I wrote some yet-unpublished things on miracles, beginnings and materialism. However, as I got deeper into Herodotus’s ontology—his understanding of what things are and how being works—it became clear that I couldn't just work with states in relationship to each other. I needed to be more material, more dynamic, more philosophical in certain ways. I found that it was at the nexus of a materialism in thinking about the Anthropocene, ecological crises and catastrophe that there were people with whom I could think in interesting ways. People like Anna Tsing, Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett were really fruitful for thinking about how is it that the Anthropocene demands not only different thinking about different things, but different modes of engagement too. This is one of the things that I think could come out of encountering Herodotus’s work (and not just the concepts of the nature of things or nomos— which is maybe the most powerful political concept that I think he's using is his work—or even him as a theorist of freedom.)

There is a discussion in your book about oikeomenê (“inhabited and known land”) where you show how inhabitation is a work of a given people. While not exactly analogous to modern nation-states, oikeomenê holds some resonance for thinking about the idea of a peoplehood beyond states. I’m wondering if in your discussion of oikeomenê, there is somewhere an implied critique of statehood?

Although I am saying that Herodotus sees people as always already in relationship with one another and that there is always a process of formation, constitution and reconstitution of a peoplehood, maybe I should have taken the question of states on more directly because I do think that one of the interesting things about ancient political theory in general is that the poleis that I talk about (loosely translated to a Greek political communities) are not states. The poleis that we know the most about have both very rigid citizenship laws and participation and contribution from lots of non-citizens like immigrants and non-resident foreigners. Herodotus was one of those people: moving around constantly around the Mediterranean, exerting political influence but holding the status of a formal citizen in a polis. Further, the vision that I have at the end of the book is of a form of solidarity that's transnational. Although I don't think I use that word often, a transnational solidarity looks beyond the structures of statehood.

This vision of transnational solidarity seems very connected to your extensive discussion of nomoi in Chapter 3. I’m thinking of the work of your colleague at Haverford, Molly Farneth here, who reads Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit with a vision towards living in a collectivity and subsequently, of forging solidarity. She names “absolute spirit” as a collection of norms through which a community creates and recreates itself. The “ecological approach to norms” that you talk about in your book, by centering the non-human world as well as the human practice of norms, seems to emphasize and at the same time, expand the “collective power” that norms—nomoi—generate in community. Could you speak more about that?

I've been—correctly—accused of being pretty Hegelian when it comes to the practice of nomoi in community. The year I began working on Herodotus was also the year I first worked my way through the whole of Phenomenology and through Terry Pinkard’s commentary—which is where a lot of this language comes from for Farneth. I think one of the differences with “absolute spirit” is that for Herodotus, nomoi are so textured in the particular that there's no imagination that there could be/become a universal set of nomoi. Even the form of solidarity that I'm invoking at the end of the book and the kind of solidarity that Herodotus himself invokes when he starts using plural versions of the word for freedom is not yet nomistic. It's loose; it's looser than absolute spirit. This doesn't mean that it couldn't be a rehearsal of the creation of new nomoi, so far as what nomoi involve are people doing things together. People will have done things together in a way that they will accumulate certain customs, cultures and practices. But for Herodotus, the texture of such practices and customs will be very particular and not generalizable. There is no universal structure. One of the things that he's doing then, is that he's making many nomoi legible to his Greek readership.

I think I am somewhere between Herodotus and Hegel on this particular-universal axis. I'd like to believe that that we can find more general nomoi of collective action and that's where I hope to go towards with Mediterranean solidarity at the end of the book. One of my colleagues read the book, and commented that I was a Platonist by the end of the book, that my vision of solidarity was a total utopia. Well, one, I don't take that as an insult, and two, it's not universal. I invoke Mediterranean solidarity and I specifically name communities and species in the Mediterranean because I'm not sure that we can get much bigger than that kind of regionalism. This maybe just pushes the problem to another dimension but maybe once we get to that point, there would be some way of formulating transnational nomoi among regions, regions that themselves have some sort of nomistic coherence or connection.

At the same time, however, there is the implication that some nomoi produce political regimes that will be better than others, that would have more sustaining power, that will inspire more practice. What kind of participatory responses/political regimes do you envision that could sustain the ecologies of nomoi that you talk about in your book?

What Herodotus calls isegoria or equal voice seems, in my view, the key practice for supporting inquiry because it's what allows the voices that sustain inquiry. Inquiry is built on talking to other people. The relationship between the inquirer and the respondent is that of hearing and telling stories and that cannot happen in relationships of domination or relationships where some voices are suppressed. Asymmetric relations make it dangerous for you to tell the true facts of the situation as you see it to another who can punish you if they disagree with you. But if there is isegoria, that risk is reduced because everybody is encouraged and allowed to contribute their opinion.

I love how isegoria is the combination of isos (equality) and agora (the marketplace and the meeting place). There is such a tangible way of envisioning how liberation can happen in a space where people are on the same footing and sharing life together in the sacred space that is formed by the marketplace. I don't know if you've ever been in the beautiful City Hall of Philadelphia and some of its hearing rooms, but they are not very encouraging of equal voice: all the walls and doors and that only some people can go through and some people can't. I'm not saying that we just have one big room and everybody shouts at each other. Obviously, we need infrastructure and a set of norms to make equal voice work, but that, I think, would be the sort of Herodotean wisdom that could be brought to the present.

And would the intersubjectivity created in this marketplace we meet in, in the new City Hall of Philadelphia, be mediated by wonder? Is that the goal?

That would be great! It’s an affective aspiration. It is also something that I think is elicited when you read Herodotus’s work and find him exuding a sort of respectful curiosity that isn't pushy or aggressive, but is deeply interested and interrogative. We tend to think of interrogations as one-sided and harsh, but Herodotus’s inquiry is interrogative because it is creating a questioning among and across different people, non-people and non-humans. If we could have an easy area suffused with wonder, wouldn’t that be just ideal?

I describe this book as a Deep Springs book in the preface and this book really emerged from that context. A lot of my experiences of living in a community and participating in self-governance at Deep Springs were infused with that feeling of wonder. There was at least a norm of isegoria and it arose in a lot of different ways, through reviews of staff, faculty and students that everybody contributed to or by giving people's voices equal hearing or through sitting on committees where there wasn't a decisive voice and where faculty and staff were outnumbered by students. Students had the table as opposed to just being invited up to the table. Once there is relative equality and equal voice, the way that you're listening to people changes and is infused with wonder because you're now in the best of circumstances and you're no longer assuming that there will be a structural result in a given outcome. Instead, it's much more of something that's creative.

Another thing that you connected with wonder was that you changed the word “otherness” to “strangeness.” How does that plays a role in the wonder-infused isegoric classroom you envision. Is it something that same moves beyond the politics of reciprocal recognition? Is it a move beyond simple identity politics (which I think is something you might be problematizing when you talk about inhabited land too)?

Strangeness is a term that has been in my thinking for a long time. It is a key term in my Socrates book (What Would Socrates Do?). A lot of people want to read Socrates and interpret him as ironic—as saying one thing but meaning another—but I argue that what Socrates is doing is strange and strange is a translation of the Greek word atopos, which literally means out of place and not quite fitting. In my thinking, strangeness has a self-reflexive component that otherness lacks because saying that something is atopos also means identifying the topos, identifying where it is that we are thinking from. To me, that is one of the really interesting things about what Herodotus is doing: he is very clearly saying that where he’s thinking from is the Greek perspective and he is making it clear by virtue of comparison. By moving beyond simply otherizing, Herodotus allows us to see what is not Greek and how it’s not being Greek helps us understand what is Greek.

Regarding the second part of the question, the framework of recognition is very powerful and has been important in my thinking. What strangeness adds to this framework is this dimension of reflexivity: it's not just an Other that has been established as different, but actually an other or a strange thing that allows the self to understand itself in a new way. Part of the reason that works for Herodotus is that he has seen relative equality among all of these different people. There isn't this process of otherization because the strangest people are pretty powerful, amazing and interesting. They're not subordinate or inferior. In fact, he's resisting some of those assumptions about their inferiority. This allows for a reciprocity but also an almost philosophical or puzzled inquiry to emerge. It's not as fraught as the master-bondsman or master-slave dialectic that Hegel is identifying.

There is a footnote in your book where you argue that ancient Greek political thought in general encompasses an “expansive and self-reflective approach to theorizing politics.” Going back to the idea of statehood and political regimes, I wonder whether this kind of approach/anachronism hinders a theorization of the present moment, for while central to ancient political theory is the idea of a polis or an expansive political community, there's also the problem that we are placing these Greek thinkers in our midst, a place where there is a very specific idea of a political.

I'll revert to my teacher’s teacher Sheldon Wolin here and his definition of political theory as making political phenomenon salient. I don't claim to do all political theory at all. One of the things I think I do is calling attention to things that have been overlooked and making a case for their political salience. That also means however, that I don't think about the state much because everybody thinks about the state. In my classes, when students complain why are we reading all this ancient stuff, I answer that in Dalton Hall, of all these social scientists, I'm the only person who talks about anything that didn't happen in the twentieth or twenty-first century. I see my role as fighting presentism. That's a worthwhile undertaking, if only it gets to this strangeness to let us see what we ourselves consider to be topical, to be the topos by virtue of pushing back against it. Our thinking is very state centric. While the state might be the most important political phenomenon—although Michael Allen would also push back against that from another direction—all these other things that are happening could be theaters of political imagination. These visions of political action, like Wolin says, aren’t just visions of what’s there, but also involve an envisioning and imagining alternative futures. That's partly why I'm drawn to the Anthropocene: it allows us to imagine an alternative where collective action is possible and pleasurable and real, and that that's something that people can do together with non-humans as well.

When you teach Herodotus at Bryn Mawr, would you say that this is a book concerned with self-governance, something I know you are personally invested in? Does this book give that agency to students or are students merely “a stream swollen in winter” and is this a guidebook?

I think everything that I've written is about self-governance at some level. And by self-governance I refer to the governing of self and others, the self individually and the self collectively. Wolin says that we don't have a great tradition of Democratic thought because it's not the democrats who write the histories. I think Herodotus was a democrat and that he believed in collective power and didn't admire many of the anti-democrats that he depicted. His story of the creation of Athens is where the word demokratia was born: before democratic theory existed, before demokratia existed, the people rose up and created it. I think his is a story of self-governance, but it's not at the front; you have to look hard for the moments that I’m pulling out and bringing to the front. It may partly be about the traditions that he's working in and the reality of the world that he's writing from where there were many democracies but in a way, the Histories is a negative lesson about the need for self-governance: if you don't govern yourself, here's what happens. And in essence, that is a part of Herodotus’s warning that is specifically targeted at the Athenians who were living in a decadent democracy, a democracy that had fallen away from a more participatory democracy.

The ideas that you develop in this book, the complex interactions between humans, nonhumans, Gods, challenges a view of the world with humans at its center. The force of the “collective power” developed through the common practice of nomoi responds to that view. Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed how you think about these forces and these practices or has it served to reinforce what you always thought?

I was living in Seattle this year and Anna Tsing was on campus at the University of Washington where she gave a talk called “Feral Atlas and the More-than-Human Anthropocene” which picked up on the idea of the arts of living in a damaged planet. She talked about things like parasites, water hyacinths and non-human things that were mucking up global capitalism in ways that were problems but also opening up possibilities. And somebody asked, “wasn’t Covid-19 a problem that might also open up possibilities?” While people weren’t fully convinced of that then—Covid-19 was known at that point but hadn’t been deemed an “American problem” and part of it was just implicit racism—I think that that question is exactly right. That would be the thing to think about: Herodotus’s wonder at this virus which is really frightening. However, I think interacting with this virus also involves responsibly changing our lives. I say this while acknowledging and not wanting at all to diminish all the suffering and death that this virus has caused. How does human life need to dance in a different way with this particular partner?

The common reaction we see amongst most people is the desire to exterminate this virus. Herodotus would want to caution against this hubris that takes for granted that we can control the non-human world. This is not to say that we should not eliminate malaria and viruses at all, but rather, to point towards an orientation where we deem any human or non-human object contrary to our particular projects as worthy of only elimination. Herodotus is deeply skeptical of this false belief that humans can understand and control everything around them.

Further, Covid-19 has opened up some really pregnant possibilities of a retreat to a smaller-scale life and community. It would involve immense sacrifice and difficulties and a recognition that the particular moment of the last, say, fifty years of this highly globalized system was a bubble which has now burst. We are now going to have to figure out what sorts of practices are we going to create in the midst of it?  What are the ways that we can sustain productive life? Longer term, I don't know if we are actually going to be able to do that. That's why the book ends with a question of what are we going to do now; a lot of the arguments about sustainability assume that we know what's worth sustaining. Have we had that conversation? Do we know what's worth sustaining in the pandemic? At least in the United States, we've done no work of figuring out what's worth sustaining and it is just a continuous repetition of the same pathologies. At the same time, people on the left don't like where I'm going either, because there’s a lowering of human agency. If you're a progressive, you want to say we can build better institutions, that we'll get the vaccine right and that we will have global health care. That would be great! I'd certainly prefer that over what we have now. But if that kind of action is premised on—in James Scott’s words— seeing like a state, it's going to destroy itself.