One third about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta c. 400BC, one third about a "Polynesian War" in 19th-century Fiji, and most of the rest about... baseball - this book claims to address the question: is the nature of historical agency individual or collective? But what really holds it together is the pun on "Peloponnesian" and "Polynesian". A weak hold, because Fijians are not Polynesians but Melanesians. This bit of anthropological licence buys a catchy title with a prestigious sponsor, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.
Marshall Sahlins parallels the struggle for supremacy between Sparta and Athens and the war between Rewa and Bau, two islands about 19km apart in estuaries of Vitilevu, the main island of Fiji. Bau is an islet of only 9 hectares, whereas Rewa is much larger. Sahlins calls Bau "a great sea power" and Rewa "a great land power" while admitting that the population of Fiji was anything from one tenth to one twentieth that of Greece in 400BC. This Polynesian War lasted from 1843 to 1855 when, with the blessing of Western powers, it was brought to an end by the intervention of George Tupou, King of Tonga, with a "large fleet of ocean-going canoes carrying 2,000 fighting men".
Sahlins describes it as "the greatest war ever fought in the Pacific Ocean before World War I..." but his fondness for hyperbole is dwarfed by his systematic use of opaque jargon. Thus, writing about Bau: "The question is one of economism as a telos ." What is wrong with plain English "as an end in itself", and is "economism" to be taken here in the Marxist sense or is it a neologism of Sahlins's invention? It seems to be the Marxist term, as Sahlins writes on the same page of "imperial domination and economic exploitation" and of "an objective force of social action". Having read that far, you somehow expect a Marxist analysis to follow, but none is forthcoming, only more jargon: "For Athens the economism was the more radical because it was chrematistic." A few pages later, Sahlins writes that Athens and Sparta "joined in schismogenic competition". Telos , chrematistic, economism and schismogenic are not words found in many ordinary dictionaries - economism is missing from the Complete Oxford , and so is schismogenic. None of these obscure terms is explained, and there is no glossary. For what audience does Sahlins write?
The second chapter, titled "Culture and agency in history", is almost entirely about baseball. Because Sahlins does not bother to explain the game and its role in US culture and society, this chapter was utterly meaningless to me. But I doubt that a knowledge of baseball would have helped. Consider this sentence: "Contrary to the prevailing epistemological mood of pessimistic self-reflection... the structures of and in history impose some strong limits on our hubris." One can only wonder what that might mean, if anything. With every page it becomes more difficult to resist the suspicion that this work is all words and no substance. Thus:
"This geopolitics of pleonexia was not a simple geographical thermodynamics, however, either in Greece or in Fiji." "Pleonexia" indeed.
What is wrong with "greed"? And what might the geopolitics of greed have to do with thermodynamics? It has become fashionable in some quarters to sprinkle one's prose with scientific terms without any regard for what they mean, and that is what Sahlins does.
The Peloponnesian and Fijian wars are pretexts; they are there to flesh out a thesis that, once dissected, reveals itself to be devoid of meaning. Most frustrating are claims such as that the Fijian chiefs "were descended from powerful immigrants". Sahlins presents no evidence for this and does not say where those immigrants came from.
Particularly galling is when Sahlins brings up interesting incidents of the Fijian War only to drop them without proper explanation or analysis. For instance, an episode that heralded the eventual undoing of Cakobau, the predatory warlord of Bau. Cakobau had "ordered two expensive European vessels... promising to pay with cargoes of bêche-de-mer [sea-slugs, a delicacy highly prized by the Chinese]", and he had directed his vassals and allies to harvest an abundance of sea-slugs. His orders were ignored, and so he gathered a force of some 2,000 men to make an example of Ritova, the most powerful chief of Vanualevu island. For some reason, he decided to attack with only 300 of his men, was repelled and his whole army "precipitously decamped" the next morning when attacked by a small party of Ritova's men. That does not make sense, for Cakobau had been an extremely successful warlord until then. Why that reversal of fortune? The question deserves more than Sahlins's two-line answer: "The army had been recruited through indirect lines of authority, which gave [him] limited command." Nor does that explanation satisfy, as Sahlins repeatedly describes Cakobau as a very astute politician.
Sahlins's conclusion is as devoid of substance as the rest of the book: "No history, then, without culture. And vice versa, insofar as in the event, the culture is neither what it was before nor what it could have been."
Jacques B. M. Guy was formerly an Austronesian comparative linguist and now works in natural-language understanding. He is an expert on the Easter Island script.
Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa
Author - Marshall Sahlins
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 334
Price - £21.00
ISBN - 0 226 73400 5