History of the Human Sciences 19 (1):1-18 (2006)
AbstractThe ancient Greek historian and political scientist Polybius is not as well known in the present day as figures such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle. This is in part due to his having lived in the Hellenistic period, an epoch often thought to be characteristic of Greek cultural and political decline, rather than in the earlier ‘golden age’ of Greek intellectual life in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Yet Polybius’s ideas have been of profound importance in modern western thought, in areas as diverse as historiography, philosophy of history and the theorization of political institutions. This article illustrates the main contours of how subsequent thinkers have received and made use of Polybian ideas and themes, and argues for regarding Polybius as an important precursor of contemporary social scientific analyses of ‘globalization’. The article first excavates and identifies some of the main forms of appropriation of Polybius’s ideas that have occurred in the West over the last 500 years. Secondly, it delineates the most important appropriation of Polybius in the human sciences that has been effected in recent times, namely the use made of Polybian themes by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire, their influential diagnosis of the contemporary state of world affairs. Thirdly, the article proffers a critique of these authors’ use of Polybius, and in its stead offers an alternative mode of appropriation of his work for the purposes of analytically reorienting the human sciences in light of present-day concerns with globalization and conditions of globality. It is argued that, far from being a figure of only antiquarian interest, Polybius continues to be of much relevance for human scientists today, for he may be seen as a foundational figure in efforts to think about the ‘global’ level in human affairs
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