Chicago (2020) h/b 191pp £24 (ISBN 978022670845)

The currently accepted title of the most recent geological age is the Holocene, starting about 11,000 years ago (at the end of the last Ice Age). There is a movement to establish a more recent age called the Anthropocene which defines the point at which the nature of the planet was first significantly altered by the activity of humans rather than wholly by non-human influences. These influences are described as ‘actants’. There is no agreement about when such an age might start—ranging from the change from hunter gathering to agriculture, to the Industrial revolution of the 19th century or the invention of the atomic bomb.

S. is associate professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College. His research concentrates on making the features of historical philosophic thought (particularly Greek) relevant to contemporary debate. His previous book What Would Socrates Do? (2014) explores the value of the dialogue technique.

In this book S. takes the Anthropocene proposition for granted and argues that Herodotus’s approach to the writing of history can be applied with great value to the analysis of this new period.

His basic case is that the willingness of Herodotus to record widely disparate sources of information and to leave many conclusions about cause and effect unresolved (in contrast to the specific and definitive conclusions of Thucydides) would be a valuable contribution to current debate on issues such as climate change.

He establishes this proposition in five chapters, supported by 40 pages of notes and bibliography. He starts by noting the two purposes of Herodotus’ inquiry—to establish the cause (aitiê) of the war between the Greeks and the barbarians and to ensure that men do not forget the past. He demonstrates that Herodotus concentrates both on what happened and how it happened. He commends the range of sources that Herodotus cites, ranging from the reliable to the fanciful, and Herodotus’ willingness to offer multiple theories of causation without necessarily coming to definitive conclusions. Herodotus is willing to describe the activities of non-human actants (i.e. the gods) as having equal significance as those of human actants. It is this catholic approach to analysis which S. sees as having particular relevance to a study of the Anthropocene.

In much the same spirit he admires Herodotus’ treatment of the half-known edges of the then known world in his digressions on Egypt and Scythia. He devotes a chapter to Herodotus’ description of nomos, a term which describes the defining characteristics of the custom, law and culture of individual political societies. He admires the flexibility of the concept in using different aspects of the concept for different societies. He also has a section on Herodotus’ approach to governance and explores the different implications of isonomia, isokratia and isêgoria. His fifth chapter outlines the use that Herodotus makes of story-telling and S. again admires both the variety of Herodotus’ sources and the variety of uses to which he puts them.

There is something in this engagingly written book for several interest groups. For the student of Herodotus there is the stimulus of being asked to admire, as virtues, characteristics of his approach to history which are more frequently regarded as vices; for the student of political science there are some interesting insights into to the complicated characteristics of democracy; for the student of the Anthropocene there is the encouragement to use the example of Herodotus to think more pluralistically about their research. It is perhaps a little difficult to identify which of these groups is for S. the prime target audience.


Roger Barnes