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The material versus the symbolic

Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa
By Marshall Sahlins
University of Chicago, 334 pp., $30

From Athens to Auschwitz: The Uses of History
By Christian Meier
Translated, from the German, by Deborah Lucas Schneider
Harvard University, 239 pp., $27.95

The study of history, according to one of the greatest of historians, Jacob Burckhardt, ''is not only a right and a duty; it is also a supreme need. It is our freedom in the very awareness of universal bondage and the stream of necessity." Not everyone nowadays seems to feel this need. Americans, especially, are often too busy shopping at the mall, watching television, or jabbering on cellphones to take much interest in history. True, there's the History Channel, and all those trips to Civil War battlefields. But that's hugging the shore; I suspect Burckhardt had in mind something more adventurous, philosophically. Two new books by very distinguished scholars waft us a little farther out into the ''stream of necessity."

Marshall Sahlins, one of the most eminent contemporary anthropologists, has written extensively about the South Pacific. Some years ago he remarked to a classicist colleague that he was ''working on a war in the Fiji Islands that much resembled the Peloponnesian War," the fateful struggle between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC. They collaborated on a course comparing the two wars, which got Sahlins rereading Thucydides, the celebrated Greek historian of the earlier conflict.

The reason for Thucydides' prestige is methodological. Downplaying mythological explanations, he was the inventor of economic determinism. The Athenians' geographical situation made them a commercial power, and the resulting accumulated wealth made them a maritime empire. The need to secure new revenues and conquests to finance their expanding armies and navies led them to overreach. The gods had nothing to do with it.

Thucydides is a locus classicus for arguments about causation in history. Where, in the last analysis, should we look for explanation: individual will or impersonal forces; Alcibiades' ambition or the rivalry between maritime Athens and agricultural Sparta; Ratu Cakobau's cunning or the rivalry between the great Fijian powers, maritime Bau and agricultural Rewa? Thucydides' ''grand narrative of cultural evolution," his explanation of how technical progress (in shipbuilding and seafaring) determined the course of Greek political history, prefigured modern historians' preference for forces over individuals, the necessary over the contingent, the material over the symbolic.

But the symbolic is the anthropologist's sphere. Anthropology is the study of other cultures; that is, other people's systems of meanings. Sahlins wants to make a place in historical explanation for ideas and passions as well as hunger, fear, and greed. In extended, detailed parallel histories of the Peloponnesian and Polynesian wars, he argues ingeniously in ''Apologies to Thucydides" that both rivalries display a ''competition by contradiction, in which each side organizes itself as the inverse of the other." Athens and Sparta, Bau and Rewa, are not merely trying to outstrip and defeat each other's military forces; they are each defining a cultural -- social, moral, and aesthetic -- identity in opposition to the other.

Sahlins also wants to vindicate the distinctiveness of cultural explanation against historians' frequent invocation of ''human nature." In his famous ''Melian Dialogue," Thucydides has the Athenians explaining that they must conquer Melos simply because all men seek ever-greater power; such is human nature. All too often, historians have followed suit. Sahlins counters with a lucid and convincing account of the ''cultural construction of the forms of human life." If, like me, you were skeptical that the phrases ''social construction" or ''cultural construction" could ever really do a lick of honest intellectual work, you will be pleasantly surprised.

I may have made ''Apologies to Thucydides" sound too formidable; it is witty as well. And there is wisdom, where appropriate. Apropros of the Athenians' ''restless desire of power after power," Sahlins remarks: ''It is not as if a system of hegemony without sovereignty, likewise functioning on the creation of compliant regimes and demonstration effects of the murderous and the marvelous, were unknown to the contemporary world. If one requires a familiar example of [a regime] like Athens, similarly built on exemplary force, cultural spectacle, and the export of democracy, how about the modern American empire?"

''From Athens to Auschwitz" is all wisdom, or attempted wisdom. Christian Meier, a prolific historian of the ancient world, here delivers a series of lectures on the perennial topic summed up in his subtitle. It is all sensible enough, though sometimes a bit too general to be really stimulating. The two most rewarding chapters are the most specific, about the sources of the intellectual and artistic splendor that was classical Greece and the conditions of the equally incomparable horror that was the Holocaust. An America darkened by ignorant and bigoted religiosity cannot hear too often about the gloriously open-minded rationalists who launched Western civilization in fifth-century BC Athens. Meier draws on a lifetime of scholarship to put the miracle in context. And with proper tact and humility, he looks at his own country's all-too-recent shame, hoping to put it too in context. For that is what historians do; that is the use of history.

George Scialabba is a regular contributor to the Books section.

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