Historia Magistra Vitae, Interrupting: Thucydides and the Agonistic Temporality of Antiquity and Modernity

In this essay I discuss Koselleck's thesis on the dissolution of historia magistra vitae in modernity with a view to exploring how the modern historiographical engagement with Thucydides entails qualifications of this argument. Focusing on Barthold Georg Niebuhr's contextualization of Thucydides in a new temporality of “ancient and modern history,” I examine how modernity is caught between conflicting notions of its own prehistory, and that this conflict suggests that the forward-leaping qualities of Neuzeit were co-articulated with other temporal notions, and particularly an idea of historical exemplarity associated with historia magistra vitae. This plurality of times highlights an agonistic temporality linking antiquity and modernity: a model of conflicting times inscribed in a dialogue through which modern historiography interrupted the “useful” history of antiquity, while simultaneously being itself interrupted by it. By following this dialogue, I seek to test two interrelated hypotheses: a) that modernity produced a multitemporal scheme in which the ideas of differential time and the future were intertwined with a notion of historia magistra vitae as meaningful and sense-bearing time; and b) that contradictions in this scheme arising from the modern confrontation with Thucydides's poetics challenges the opposition between historia magistra vitae and modern historical sense and configures a temporality that is self-agonistic in the sense that it confronts historical actors before and beyond the terms through which they may be able to give it meaning. Formulated as a poetics of the possible, this notion is approached as a corrective alternative to the modern consideration of the future as distanced from the space of experience, but nonetheless as grounded in actuality and therefore largely mastered by human knowledge and action.