Polybius, Tyche and Causality in Historical Explanation

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Polybius believes that the historian’s task is to identify the causes of past events, making these events intelligible and therefore functional to an educative (practical and moral) purpose. This conception of historical activity has to a great degree informed historical thinking ever since and the term ’cause’ is a particularly entrenched term within historical discourse: the intuitive idea being that to identify a cause is to explain an event or state of affairs, the effect. The aim of this discussion is to examine Polybius’ conception of causality concurrently with modern Polybian scholarship on this topic.

We need first to offer some analysis of the concept of cause. To this belongs the dispute between the necessatarians and regulatarians. No particular analysis of the concept of cause commits one to the principle of causality – that every event has a cause. But obviously when someone invokes the principle of causality we’re entitled to ask what concept of cause they are using. First, we need to examine Polybius’ use of the term [insert Greek]. Walbank (1972: 158) contends that for Polybius, an [insert Greek] is ‘anything that contributes to the decision of the individual(s) responsible to make war.’ Cornford (1907: 59) suggests that in Polybius [insert Greek] is best rendered as ‘reason’ in the psychological sense. Allan (1965: 1-2) ascribes a more focused meaning to ‘include any dependence of one thing upon another, or derivation of qualities from it, without the special implication that the cause is prior in time. Clearly Allan is drawing a contrast with the deductive requirement of an efficient cause. For Polybius, aitia is in fact a tripartite composed of the elements prophasis, the ostensible grounds for war, the bona fide cause, and of arche, the initial action of a given war. Walbank draws the distinction between aitiai which are to be viewed as ‘external’ factors that lead to the aforementioned decisions, but do not include these decisions. Polybius’ application of his scheme could also include states of mind (he devotes a sizable amount of space to character assessment in 8.11-8.13), a psychological predisposition as in III. 7. 1, which he regards as an aitia of the war between Rome and the Aetolians. We should note that Polybius did not always invoke his tripartite scheme of aitiai and that its primary applicability was to the explanation of wars. Of course Polybius does invoke his causal scheme when analyzing the Roman constitution (VII. 2. 8-10), a point we will discuss later. Walbank (1972: 159) is in accordance with Momigliano’s view that Polybius’ conception of causality is rather superficial and simplistic.

What then is the purpose for the historian’s invocation of causality in historical explanation? It seems to me that historians hold the tacit and intuitive assumption that significant relationships between historical events must be causal thereby paradigmatically distinguishing between significant and insignificant causes. Causal relationships are viewed as the exemplary form of explanation, its efficacy in its extracting explanation from chance: a universal or general law is sought. There is no suggestion that Polybius sought to achieve a scientific character to his history. There cannot be a science of something as transitory as human affairs (Collingwood 1946: 35). Perceptive a view as this is, there remains in Polybius’ writing ambiguities and contradictions involving tyche and causality. The question that needs to be posed is this: does the historian have to invoke a ‘law’ to offer a plausible account of historical explanation?

Historians working from authenticated sources (documents, artifacts, speeches, eyewitnesses etc.) which survive in the present, from a no longer extant past, trying to comprehend the character of these unspecified outcomes of antecedent events to which they are significantly related, is an inherently “’inferential“’ enquiry. There is no appeal to a Hempelian deductive-nomological explanation. Those who seek such an explanation are in fact as Oakeshott (1983: ) points out engaged in a completely different sort of enquiry. Their purpose is to deduce the occurrence of an already specified kind of event alleged to have happened by relating it to the occurrence of already specified antecedent events, also alleged to have happened’. This relationship is recognized to be causal in virtue of a universal law which deduces that these kinds of antecedents without exception precede the kind of event whose occurrence is to be deduced. Such an enquiry would undermine and in fact be incoherent: why would the historian seek a cause for an already understood effect? Quite obviously this would be of no concern to the conditions of historical understanding. A causal status is often attributed to an action, if in its execution, the agent may be supposed to have ‘intended’ the outcome, which is thereby recognized to be a consequence. Allan (1965: 2) points out that the Aristotelian meaning of the noun aitia usually rendered as cause, also means ‘charge’ or ‘blame’ and is connected with the verb meaning to ‘impute blame’. Polybius’ characterisation of aitiai as whatever contributes to defining decisions in advance clearly needs some limits imposed on it. In terms of intentionality what shall count as an outcome of an action? In other words how are we to differentiate between action and consequence hinted at by Walbank with his external/internal distinction earlier? Feinberg (1968: 106-7) points out that an action can be described as narrowly or as broadly as one pleases, and this he terms the ‘accordion effect’. What he means by this is that we can usually replace any ascription of agency or authorship. Quite rightly, Walbank points out that such an enquiry reveals itself not to be concerned with cause and effect, but as an undertaking to establish responsibility or even blame. I think that Cohen (1987: 341) is correct in his view that there is an inherent ‘value’ judgment in what he terms ‘attributive causal explanations’ when in reality many wars are the result of a gradual build up of hostility on both sides. Properly speaking, such an activity could not be classed as the primary activity of historical explanation. Earlier I mentioned that in VI. 2. 8-10 Polybius seems to invoke an idea of causality in his analysis of the Roman constitution. Polybius is I think geniunely impressed by the political success of Rome and he attributes this adeptness to the Constitution. Moreover in III. 2. 6 Polybius seems to suggest that it was Rome’s victory in the Hannibalic War that caused Rome to conceive an ambition for world dominion. Though not explicitly said, Polybius certainly implies that after the victory of 241, the Romans conceived this aim and this began a continuous process and pattern leading forward from the conquest of Italy as set out in VI. 50. 6. Were Polybius to view the Roman constitution as the primary cause impetus of their success, a new problem would arise. Causality knows nothing of time, more so in historical time which tends to cover large intervals. And since it is not the historian’s business to seek ‘origins’, the word ’cause’ cannot signify some originating event or state of affairs. Given that the historian’s concern is to distinguish between significant and insignificant antecedents, the word cannot mean the total of all antecedents. Nor may it mean one such antecedent on the premise that had it not occurred, the occurrence of the subsequent events would be a logical impossibility. For example: the birth of Caesar being recognized as a causal condition of his crossing the Rubicon recalling Feinberg’s point on redescription through levels of regression. The Roman constitution therefore would fail to count as a genuine causal explanation for Roman political successes. However, Walbank accords with A Heuss’ view (Walbank 1972: 162) that Polybius is providing ‘a rationalized interpretation of Roman expansion in terms of how men are apt to behave, each episode contributing cumulatively to a single overall pattern of expansion’ which Polybius formulates in III. 32. 7. But as I’ve said previously, a rationalized explanation is not and cannot count as the historian’s task in explanation and on this point hold both Walbank and Heus to be incorrect in accepting this view as legitimate historical activity. I am not precluding that one cannot or should not project perceived similarities of human behavior. (see McClelland’s discussion 1975: 89-91) As McClelland points out, citing Nagel, such an approach is ‘pertinent to questions concerning the origins of his explanatory hypotheses but not to questions concerning their validity’. Walbank (1972: 162) cites P. Pedach’s claim that he doesn’t think that Roman power was internally or self generated. In other words there was nothing uniquely intrinsic to Roman power accounting for such spectacular dominion over the greater part of the known world. Rather power (Pedach personifies power) seeks logical order. Neither I nor Walbank, accept Pedach’s assertion. Walbank counters by saying that the second floor of a building only follows on the first because someone decides to continue to build there; and that surely the view that the stages in the Roman conquest are related to one another, in Polybius’ view, only as a logical consequence, cannot be reconciled with his references to the Romans aiming at world domination. I will resume this discussion later on. At this point we need to examine Polybius’ use of his concept of tyche which is intimately related to the above discussion. Walbank and even Sacks are quite correct in identifying a tension within Polybius’ conception of Fortune: how can a conscious, rational and deliberate attempt at world dominion be as a result of Fortune? If Fortune is not to be taken as chance in the vulgar sense, Polybius ascribes to the domain of Fortune that which is incalculable, capricious beyond the domain of human control (XXXV. 1-17). Quite clearly, any random influences and consequences would undermine Polybius’ pragmatike historia and nullify its educational purpose. But Polybius’ conception of tyche is not quite so banal. For him, tyche had a moral dimension in that common sense would suggest that life is composed of cycles much like Shakespeare’s ‘wheel of fortune’ in King Lear; that accepting that human affairs move incalculably in ‘cycles’, and when as bad fortune will inevitably come round, the reader of his history will be prepared to weather the vicissitudes of ill-fortune much like a Stoic. Walbank (1972: 63) believes some scholars have compared Polybius’ personified use of tyche with the Stoic conception of Providence (c.f. Collingwood 1946:36). But Polybius represents Fortune as a purposive power (1. 4. 4), yet elsewhere the rise of Rome is depicted as essentially something rational (1. 63. 9). As Walbank (1972: 64) perceptively points out, this transcendent and immanent apectival duality, is suggestive of a divine aspect. It may be that Pedach was hinting at the operation of a logos at work in Polybius’ conception of history which would be consistent with the ideas of rationality and Fortune running together. Walbank correctly identifies the crux of the matter. Polybius has confused what has happened with what was destined to happen and so invest the rise of Rome to world domination with a teleological character (1972: 64). This could be characterized by what is called in applied mathematics as the ‘gamblers fallacy’. That the sun has risen each day since the beginning of time does not logically entail that it will rise tomorrow (Wittgenstein) . Recalling the earlier discussion, what Polybius has done is to specify the antecedents, thereby undermining the proper sphere of historical explanation. This all embracing tyche or synoptic view (Walbank 1979: 27) gives the impression of a ‘unified’ universal conception to Polybius’ history, when in fact it is mere glue without which his whole scheme would disintegrate. Returning to the discussion of historical development we now come to consider Oakeshott’s thoughts on the matter. Oakeshott (1983: 94) characteristically offers a brilliant analysis of the problem which he calls the ‘dry wall theory’. Keeping in mind Pedach’s and Walbank’s account of historical development, Oakeshott believes that though historical events are not themselves contingent, they are related to one another contingently. When a historian assembles a passage of antecedent events to compose a subsequent, he builds what in the countryside is called a ‘dry wall’: the stones (that is, the antecedent events) which compose the wall (that is, the subsequent event) are joined and held together, not by mortar, but in terms of their shapes. The wall therefore has no premeditated design; it is what its components, in touching constitute. There is a circumstantial relationship, an evidential contiguity, not in terms of causality, family resemblance, design etc. These circumstantial relationships do not themselves constitute historically significant relationships.

So when a historian employs the language of causality, what he ought to be referring to is this contingent circumstantial relationship. A historical past, composed conceptually of contiguous historical events has no place for extrinsic general terms of relationship – the glue of normality or the cement of general causes’ – neither Polybius’ tyche, Pedach’s intentionality, Walbank’s interpretation of aitiai, nor a Hempelian deductive-nomological conditions are valid analyses for historical explanation. And further, Chance as an exemplar of the purely external, cannot be a genuinely causal relationship and is therefore insignificant. To reiterate: Oakeshott (1983: 83) writes that ‘when a historian invokes a notion of ‘causality’ what he is in fact doing is utilizing a rhetorical expression meaning no more than ‘noteworthy antecedents’ and no ‘law(s)’ are involved.


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