Joel Alden SchlosserMay 27, 2021
Herodotus in the Anthropocene
University of Chicago Press 2020
Political Theorist Joel Alden Schlosser has turned his attention to Herodotus, an historian and political thinker from classical Greece, to learn how we might better think about and consider solutions to significant contemporary problems, especially those that contribute to global climate change. Schlosser explains that we are currently living in a new geologic and climatic age, the Anthropocene, which is defined as the current period where humans have had a direct effect on the geology and climate of the earth and the surrounding atmosphere. In finding ourselves in this new and potentially catastrophic period, we need to consider how to stop or solve this ongoing and evolving environmental crisis. Schlosser encourages us to turn out attention to Herodotus and his Histories, and he argues that these works, which dive into thinking about community and collective engagement, may provide guidance for contemporary politics and society. This is a fascinating structuring of reading Herodotus as an historian, examining his thinking and his critiques of Athens, of Persia, and of the political life and decisions that have been made by those in positions of power, and also in reading for guidance, to compel contemporary thinking in unanticipated ways. Schlosser centers his explication of Herodotus on the discussion of the nomoi, the informal cultures and traditions that make up our understanding of the fabric of political life, as well as the laws written by legislatures and that are more concrete. These nomoi are created by humans, to manage life. The nomoi contribute to the flourishing of society and should be designed to shift and adapt with time and circumstances. If the nomoi are not changed, they can become sclerotic, or corrupt and destructive of both humans and non-humans. This emphasis on fluidity is quite important to how we may want to craft our thinking in ways like Herodotus’s thinking.
Herodotus, as Schlosser notes, is a storyteller, and in the way that he tells stories, instead of writing factual histories like Thucydides, or making logical arguments like so many philosophers, Herodotus is able to engage in complexities of examples and of thinking. This mode of storytelling comes from older Greek traditions of the oral tales like those that Homer sang, or that the playwrights of Athens produced to communicate comedy and tragedy. This approach allows Herodotus to integrate not just the human experience, but also the experience of the non-human, all of the systems of energy that also exist and are natural, like the weather, the geography of a place, animals and other wildlife, diseases and illnesses. This weaving together of the human and the natural and non-human lays out a complexity of thinking and understanding that Schlosser suggests can be quite important for us to learn as we face complex natural, human, and non-human systems of energy that we need to repair or work collaboratively with in order to try to solve some of the more significant problems of the Anthropocene.
Herodotus in the Anthropocene (U Chicago Press, 2020) is an elegant argument that makes the case for Herodotus’s continued import, not just in the stories he tells, but in the way he grasps the world around him and how he discusses that world, of different systems of energy, and the complexities of these different entities. Herodotus, and Schlosser, compel us to broaden our ways of thinking and how we think, what we consider, and why.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @gorenlj.