History as Political Therapy

Neville Morley

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


What does history have to offer political theory? This familiar question is normally understood in terms of the utility or otherwise of the contents of historical accounts, the information they provide about the past. This may be used to trace the origins of political ideas or institutions, to identify permanent principles or forms of political understanding, to offer alternatives against which the present can be evaluated, or – perhaps most frequently – to offer a historicising critique of the idealised images of the past deployed to support political arguments or legitimise political institutions. This sceptical function of historical research is exemplified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ attack on popular views of the Athenian tyrannicides, a foundational myth of the democracy.

There is less concern with, or interest in, historical accounts themselves; the writing and reading of history is often seen as irrelevant to political understanding and activity, or even as a potentially dangerous tendency to turn away from politics, and from the present, altogether. The role of history in shaping political subjects has received only limited attention. This can be seen in readings even of Thucydides, a historian whose approach seems in many respects consonant with the aims of political theory, who claimed that his work would be ‘a possession for all time’ precisely because of its continuing usefulness to those who know how to read it properly. Political theorists have generally taken this as a cue to identify the abstract principles, Realist or otherwise, that are assumed to be present in his account but concealed from view by his preference for narrating events rather than elaborating arguments.

This paper explores the proposition that it is the text itself, rather than just its contents, that is useful, and that its usefulness lies in the way that the reader is led, through the process of reading its narrative, to see and experience both the world and herself differently. It is not primarily concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, but with the cultivation of self-awareness and political consciousness. Historical thought, at least in this form, is therapeutic insofar as it helps the reader achieve a healthier relationship with the world and with others; moreover, this relationship is essentially political and engaged rather than apolitical and solipsistic. Thucydides’ history is intended to help form the self-aware, ethically engaged and essentially healthy subjects on which a successful polity depends.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2013
EventAmerican Political Science Association - Cicago, United States
Duration: 29 Aug 20131 Sept 2013


ConferenceAmerican Political Science Association
Country/TerritoryUnited States

Structured keywords

  • Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition


  • history
  • Thucydides
  • care of the self


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