Pierre Vidal-Naquet
Pierre Vidal-Naquet; drawing by David Levine

Ever since the turn of the century Paris has been the arbiter of fashion for the English-speaking world and though since the Second World War the dictates of its couturiers on skirt lengths have not imposed the universal conformity they once did, the methodologies launched by its intellectuals have all, in their turn, found industrious promoters and an enthusiastic clientele. Fashion however is a quick-change artist and some of her intellectual creations no one would now want to be seen dead in. Even the most infatuated of sentimental leftists had long ago to give up trying to explain Sartre’s manic switches as he wriggled on the hook attached to the Party line, and almost everyone now realizes that Roland Barthes was too great a wit to have taken his own late work seriously (if SZ is not a gargantuan parody of structuralist criticism there is no excuse for it).

Epigones of Lévi-Strauss, of course, are still constructing diagrams which show the tortuous relationships between questionable opposites, and students of Derrida continue to write critical prose which is often a classic vindication of their master’s basic contention that language is not an adequate instrument for the expression of meaning. These fashions too, mercifully, will pass, and there are signs that perhaps Paris is losing its power to impose instant ideologies: what seemed, a year or so ago, to be the distinct possibility that there would be a boom in the Freudian incoherencies of Lacan has turned out to be a false alarm.

In one particular field, however, which might be loosely defined as Greek cultural history, Paris has been exerting an enduring and steadily widening influence on the professional sector in England and the United States. Its source is a group of scholars—Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet—who are not exactly an école (the senior member, Vernant, does not function as maître) or even an équipe, for though they often publish collaborative work they have divergent viewpoints and interests. The main links between them are their cooperation in the direction of the Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes, their teaching and research functions in the Ecole pratique des hautes études (though Vernant moved on to the higher reaches of the Collège de France in 1975), and the general description “structuralist,” which appears in the subtitle of a recent selection from their work in English translation.1

Vernant, whose training was in psychology (his first collection, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs,2 was subtitled Etudes de psychologie historique), attended the seminars of Louis Gernet, whose essays he published (under the title Anthropologie de la Grèce antique)3 after Gernet’s death. In the introduction to the volume he writes with admiration and affection of his teacher, a man whose wide interests and original approach evidently did not recommend him to his bureaucratic superiors; “il n’a pas fait carrière“—in fact he spent most of his life teaching Greek composition at the University of Algiers, before he came to the Ecole pratique des hautes études in 1948. This colonial ambience may have stimulated his anthropological interests (among his articles there is one entitled “You-you, en marge d’Hérodotele cri rituel“); he was in any case a friend of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss and a follower of Durkheim. When he died in 1962 he was known to the scholarly world principally as a specialist in Greek law, author of Droit et société dans la Grèce ancienne4 and translator and editor of the private orations of Demosthenes in the Budé series.5 Since the publication of his selected essays in 1968 his true importance as a pioneer in modern sociological and anthropological analysis of ancient Greek society has been beyond dispute and a recent English translation of the volume edited by Vernant6 will make this rich mine of informed speculation and revealing interpretation available to a wider audience.

Vernant defines his own interest as that of Ignace Meyerson—recherches de psychologie historique—and his first book, Les Origines de la pensée grecque,7 deals not only with the birth of Greek “rationality” from the conditions of the city-state—“in its limitations as in its innovations it is the daughter of the city”—but also with its nature—it is “inseparable from the social and mental structures characteristic of the Greek city.” Since then in collections of essays,8 and also in a series of conferences he has organized or contributed to,9 he has established himself as perhaps the leading, certainly the most consistently exciting, investigator of the psychological, political, and religious norms of ancient Greek archaic and classical culture. He is an eclectic “structuralist,” as ready to use Georges Dumézil’s three Indo-European “functions” as Lévi-Strauss’s binary opposites (or to combine them, as in an influential analysis of Hesiod’s myth of the five ages); he has learned from Marx as well as from Gernet, Mauss, and Durkheim. But the resulting methodology is very much his own; time and time again, coming across a typically challenging and brilliant formulation one feels: “Only Vernant could have said that!”


Marcel Detienne, his close associate at the Ecole pratique des hautes études and now director of studies in the section dealing with Greek religion, is mainly concerned with developing the analytic methods of Lévi-Strauss; in fact he has even won that rare cachet, an endorsement from the master who has, quite understandably, made very sour remarks about some of his would-be disciples but said of Detienne’s Jardins d’Adonis10 that it is “gripping…skillfully organized…written with a grace uncommon in scholarly works.” This praise is justified; the book is a spectacular performance. One of Frazer’s central concerns, the myth of Adonis, is subjected to a structural analysis that stands Frazer’s classic interpretation on its head: instead of a vegetarian god whose life and death was an image of the agricultural year, Adonis emerges as a figure representative of illicit, issueless sexuality, a threat to the institution of marriage and its Greek purpose—the begetting of legitimate children. Linked with Adonis is the whole world of seductive spices and perfumes; Detienne’s decipherment of the “codes” embodied in the myths makes fascinating reading—who could resist chapters with titles such as “The Perfumes of Arabia,” “The Misfortunes of Mint,” “From Myrrh to Lettuce”? Even if the reader emerges not convinced on every point, Detienne has opened up for him a strange and alluring new world.11

Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s name appears as joint author with Pierre Lévêque on the title page of Clisthène l’Athénien,12 and he shares with Vernant the authorship of Mythe et tragédie, to which he contributed two brilliant essays, but Le Chasseur noir is the first book dealing with classical Greek civilization to be issued solely under his own name. That name, however, has often appeared on books which appealed to readers who do not share his interest in the institutions of the ancient world; he was a leading figure, for example, in the campaign to expose and document the use of torture by the French army and police in Algeria. L’Affaire Audin13 presented the results of an investigation into the case of an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Algiers who died in the course of an “interrogation” by the paratroops. The book accused the army of the systematic use of torture as well as murder and managed to document its case very effectively. In Raison d’état14 the army’s use of torture as a normal practice was meticulously exposed, mainly through demonstration of contradictions in the official records. In the next year Penguin Books, in England, published his Torture, Cancer of Democracy: France and Algeria 1954-62, a sobering meditation on the moral and political crises revealed by the public indifference to the use of torture not only in a colonial war but in France itself. This book did not appear in French until 197215 and was followed in 1977 by Les Crimes de l’armée française,16 another selection of documents mostly accounts by men who had served in the campaign, which amply justifies the title.

This book, Vidal-Naquet explains in the preface, is an aide-mémoire. For a people’s memory, he points out, is not an automatic process, a “natural” phenomenon. It can be wiped out, as in the USSR, or maintained, as in the case of the museums and institutes that preserve the record of Nazi terror, or it can simply cease to function, lulled to sleep by the official voices of government, press, and television. “If the profession of historian has a social function,” says Vidal-Naquet, in an ironically appropriate military metaphor, “it is to furnish cadres and benchmarks for the collective memory.”

It was with the memory of another, older controversy which divided the French nation that he engaged, “not without illusions,” in the polemics of the Algerian war: “in the background was the example of the Dreyfus case.” His most recent publication is a long and fascinating account of that “affaire” and its effects on French society, a preface to a reissue of Dreyfus’s own account of his imprisonment, Cinq années de ma vie.17 Vidal-Naquet had heard about the affaire as a child; in fact his great-uncle Emmanuel Vidal-Naquet was a devoted Dreyfusard, but such an interest was in any case natural in a Frenchman of Jewish ancestry, whose parents were “déportés” under the German occupation.

A collection of articles, prefaces, and essays, Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent,18 explores the problem of Jewish identity and destiny all the way from a fascinating discussion of Josephus, the historian of the revolt that ended in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to the controversy over the “revisionists,” French and American, who dismiss the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda. And in a long preface of over one hundred pages written for a translation of Josephus’s Jewish War,19 Vidal-Naquet explores with penetrating political insight and formidable erudition the religious and ideological chaos of first-century Palestine, a tangled skein which seems so familiar that it is hardly a surprise to come across a Menahem (who seizes the fortress of Masada in 66 BC and returns as king to Jerusalem); one half expects to turn the page and find some form of the name Arafat.


Vidal-Naquet has a talent for writing prefaces and he is often invited to do so. He wrote the introduction to Detienne’s book on early Greek philosophy, Les Maîtres de vérité dans la grèce ancienne,20 to translations of Sophocles,21 the Iliad,22 and Aeschylus.23 He also contributed to the French translation of M.I. Finley’s Democracy, Ancient and Modern,24 a substantial essay on the use made of the Athenian democratic tradition by the French revolutionaries of 1789-1794. Le Chasseur noir does not contain any of these pieces but it does consist entirely of articles that have been previously published elsewhere; “in the Greek area,” Vidal-Naquet says in the avant-propos, “the article is a means of expression more in my line than the book.”25 The contents were first published, in their original form, over the course of twenty-three years (from 1957 to 1980) and have here been corrected, expanded, and rewritten to take account of criticism, fresh insights, and new data.

The book is, however, not a haphazard collection of Vidal-Naquet’s scholarly articles; from his impressive output he has selected those essays which deal with “forms of thought” and “forms of society” in the Greek world, or, rather, which attempt to establish a link between those two subjects, “which are not here studied in themselves and for themselves.” The title of the book is that of a chapter on the Athenian institution of the ephebeia, the young Athenian’s initiation in citizenship and military service; this is a brilliant essay which is already well known, not only in French (1968) but in English (1968) and Italian (1975) versions. It is also the essay that, as Vidal-Naquet states in his preface, marked a crucial stage in his development: “the discovery of structural analysis as a heuristic instrument.”

The methods and terminology of “structuralism,” particularly of Lévi-Strauss, are plain to see in the contents of the book—in the analysis, for example, of the voyage of Odysseus as a series of contacts with alien cultures, all of them belonging to a world ignorant of agriculture, or in the title of one of the chapters, “Le Cru, l’enfant grec et le cuit.” But as Pierre Pachet has pointed out in a thoughtful appreciation of Vidal-Naquet’s whole career in Esprit,26 “He has always been at pains to reintroduce into structuralism the historical conscience, to restrict the fields of study, examine the testimony and evaluate its scope, distinguish the authentic from what reactivates or imitates it.” Levi-Strauss himself, somewhat reluctantly one feels, made an exception for the Greeks: myth is timeless but the Greeks “ont pris le parti de l’histoire” and Vidal-Naquet is always aware of the fact that the Greeks, who invented history in the modern sense, were also creators of historical myths. He is also fully aware of the danger inherent in applying Lévi-Straussian methods to Greek material which is “furnished to us,” as he says, “by a learned tradition” and so deserves “a differentiated treatment.”

The introduction, “Une civilisation de la parole politique” (an abridged version of an article contributed to the Encyclopaedia Universalis, Paris, 1970), presents the “oppositions” which are the object of discussion in the rest of the book. They are, to quote the summary in the preface: cultivated and wild, master and slave, man and woman, citizen and foreigner, adult and child, warrior and artisan. “These,” says Vidal-Naquet, “are some of the oppositions which the body of the book will continuously keep in play, without trying to enclose in them matter which resists the process.” They are so basic to the structure of the book, in fact, that its very full and helpful index (an unusual feature in a French scholarly work) is prefaced by a note that warns the reader: “When a pair of opposites is in question, it is located under the word which comes first in alphabetical order; virilité for example refers the reader to ‘femme.”‘

The main text is divided into four sections: “Space and Time”; “The Young, the Warriors”; “Women, Slaves and Artisans”; “The City, Vision and Reality” (La Cité, pensée et vécue). “Space” is accounted for by the analysis of the “cultures” discovered by Odysseus on his wanderings; Greek conceptions of time are the issue in “Human and Divine Time,” while the third essay in the section is concerned, again, with space; it is an attempt to explain Epaminondas’ revolution in military tactics, the use of the left wing instead of the traditional right as the main striking force, by new philosophical and technical ideas which challenged the age-old preeminence of the right hand—“Epaminondas the Pythagorean” is the title.

This sociological approach to military matters is even more highly developed in the next section: “The Tradition of the Athenian Hoplite,” “The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian ephebeia,” “The Raw, the Greek Child and the Cooked.” In all three essays the key concept is that of initiation into manhood. Part Three opens with a title which is a provocative question: “Did Greek Slaves Constitute a Class?” (the answer proposed is a negative) and continues with a penetrating analysis of the “Greek Historiography of Slavery”; it proceeds, in “Slavery and Gynecocracy,” with a careful analysis of the similar but different roles of slaves and women (both excluded from the “citizens’ club”) in myth, history, and utopian fantasy.

The last essay in this section, “The Artisans in the Platonic City,” deals with one of the most striking contradictions of Greek civilization: the fact that its “hero is the artisan, but he is a secret hero.” There is a sense in which the creators of epic poetry, the sculptors, the doctors, the builders of the Parthenon and Erechtheum, are all of them artisans, but in classical Athens and especially in Plato’s ideal cities of the Republic and the Laws, artisans play no important political role as individuals, still less as a class. In the final section of the book structural analysis is applied to two of the most puzzling Platonic myths: the Atlantis story of the Critias and the strange myth of the Politicus in which the whole universe, free of divine control, revolves backward in space and time.

Throughout this long text (over 400 pages, each one with a solid sheaf of notes at the bottom) the argument maintains an unfailingly high level of interest; detailed discussion is not shirked, but it is conducted without pedantry; theory and speculation abound but their formulation is concise and clear. In every case, whether he is dealing with hoplite tactics, initiation periods, utopian fantasies, or mythical cities, Vidal-Naquet never loses sight of the central concern of the book, its method. He states it in the preface.

The things I bring together could quite legitimately be the object of separate studies and it has happened that I have been able to contribute to research in the two separate domains. What interests me here is their conjunction. Separated from the study of social observances, the structural analysis of myth can bring to completion a magnificent program, arranging the myths in series, making them reflect each other, giving play to their logical articulations. But there is a danger—that of taking refuge in what Hegel used to call “the serene kingdom of friendly appearances….” On the other hand, institutional, social and economic history…yields its full value only, as I see it, when it can be combined with the “representations” which accompany, or one could even say which penetrate, the institutions and the observances of the social and political game.

For an example of the method at work one may as well choose what is obviously Vidal-Naquet’s favorite piece, since he gives its title to the book. “Le Chasseur noir” is an attempt to connect what is known about the Athenian ephebeia with comparable institutions elsewhere (especially at Sparta but also in Africa) as well as with a mysterious myth that was supposed to explain the origin of a festival and with a song sung by the chorus of women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata about a hunter-hermit called Melanion—melas means “black” and this is the Black Hunter of the title. Of the ephebeia itself before the fourth century practically nothing is known; our evidence consists of scattered mentions in fourth-century speeches, some inscriptions, and a full description in Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, a treatise written in the last third of the fourth century.

At this time the institution was a two-year military training period for the sons of citizens who had reached the age of eighteen: after a year of training they served as garrison troops in the frontier fortresses of Attica; they wore a black cloaklike garment. As soldiers they were not part of the heavily armed infantry line, the hoplites, and were supposed to be used, presumably as light-armed skirmishers, only on home territory. During this period the young men, Aristotle tells us, were excluded from legal proceedings either as plaintiff or defendant, except in cases involving an inheritance, a female relative whose hand in marriage gave title to property, or a hereditary priesthood.

This two-year period has been compared to the period of sequestration, of “latency,” which precedes full recognition of manhood in many tribal societies. Vidal-Naquet compares it also to the Spartan krypteia, which turned the young initiates out onto the wild hills to live off the land by ruse, robbery, and murder of the helots. Such a life, as Vidal-Naquet points out, is, like many initiation rites, the exact reverse of the mature status to which it is a prelude. The oppositions in this case are many: light or unarmed against heavily armored hoplite; separate small-group operations as opposed to the massed phalanx; young man on the mountain and fully grown soldier on the level ground; the winter guerrilla and the regular soldier of the summer season; the stealthy assassin of helots as against the frank and loyal warrior of the pitched battle; the young man in the night, the grown man fighting in the light of day.

For the Athenian ephebe there was no such grim hardening process, but Vidal-Naquet finds evidence of the “logical inversion” typical of initiation periods in various Athenian festivals connected with adolescence—the Apaturia festival and, close to it in date, the Oschophoria, in which “the ephebes played an important part.” The mythical base for the Oschophoria was the return of the young Theseus from his exploits in Crete, a joyful occasion saddened by the suicide of his father Aegeus who saw his son’s ship returning with a black sail—Theseus had forgotten to change it to white if he returned safe, as had been agreed. The black cloak of the ephebe was supposed to commemorate this occasion. And the festival itself contained such features as a procession to a place on the frontier led by two boys disguised as girls and a race between ephebes representing their tribes—the whole festival, says Vidal-Naquet, was based on a series of antitheses—“the most evident the antithesis which opposes male to female.”

The Apaturia is the festival at which fathers registered their sixteen-year-old sons as Athenian citizens and members of a “brotherhood” (phratry); from this registration would follow, two years later, their entry into the ephebeia. It may have been at this festival that the ephebes took their famous oath (remarkable for its archaic language) to defend “the frontiers of the fatherland, its wheat, barley, vines, olive and fig trees.”

The myth that “explained” the festival told of a battle between Athenians and Boeotians (their neighbors to the northeast) which is settled by a duel between the opposing kings, Xanthos (Blond) for the Boeotians, Thymoites for the Athenians. But Thymoites withdraws (too old, says one version) and into his place steps an Athenian called Melanthos (Black). Black wins by a ruse: he calls out to Blond, “You’re cheating; there’s somebody beside you.” And as Blond looks around, Black kills him. In some versions there actually is somebody beside him; it is Dionysus—Dionysus of the night and the black goatskin (nykterinos kai melanaigis). The model proposed for the young warrior-initiate is a frontier fighter, who wins by cunning and deceit, who is black by name and black by nature. The relation of the mythical model to the real institution of the Spartan krypteia is clear.

Vidal-Naquet now goes on to connect this “black” ephebe with the hunt. As in war, so in the chase, there are two worlds. One is the daylight hunt of the adult male, who faces the boar spear in hand, together with his companions—as in the great mythical Caledonian hunt; it is the transposition of hoplite values and organization from the battle line on the plain to the hunt in the woods. Opposed to this ideal is the solitary hunter who uses the net, ruse not courage, and whose snares are set at night. Vidal-Naquet finds him, in literature as in art (though examples are extremely scarce), portrayed as an adolescent. And he turns finally to the strange song in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, about Melanion, another “black,” a “youth who fleeing from marriage, went off to the wilds, lived in the mountains and hunted the hare with nets he made himself. He never came home—he had such a horror of women.” This, says Vidal-Naquet, is a “failed” (échoué) ephebe; he remains forever in the initiatory stage instead of proceeding on to maturity.

Vidal-Naquet sums up the results of this fascinating inquiry.

The ephebe, in archaic and classical Greece, is the pre-hoplite and for that very reason, through the symbolic dramatization afforded by the rites of passage, he is an antihoplite: sometimes black, sometimes cunning hunter, sometimes girl. There is nothing surprising, in any case, that a myth like that of Melanthos should serve as a model for him. Technically, the ephebe is a light-armed combatant and this anti-hoplite ensures the maintenance, often hard to discern, of forms of warfare which are both pre and anti-hoplite, which will reappear in full daylight during the Peloponnesian War and the fourth century.

“Only connect,” said Forster, and there can be no doubt of the brilliance of these connections, which give institutional solidity to a baffling but obviously important myth and insert in a coherent context historical and ritual details which meant little in isolation. Représentations are what interests Vidal-Naquet: the ephebe’s vision of himself, his image in the eyes of the adult. In one of his contributions to Mythe et tragédie he finds such a représentation in the literal sense: the figure of Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. The young son of Achilles, as yet untried in battle, is set the task of deceiving the ailing hero Philoctetes, luring him aboard a boat for Troy by acting out an elaborate lie—a typical “ephebic” exploit. He does brilliantly at first but finally, moved to pity by the nobility of his victim, he renounces deceit and emerges as a grown man, a frank and open warrior in the image of his father Achilles.

The theory as a whole is attractive and it is presented with skill and eloquence. But of course it has its flaws. The mythical connections can only be accepted as valid if the institution of an ephebic training period is at least as old as the mid-fifth century and they would be stronger still if that date could be pushed further back. But though we have evidence for men of ephebic age mobilized in the Peloponnesian War for specific campaigns, it seems always to be an emergency measure; there is no evidence to show that these men were already in training or on garrison duty. And it seems strange that neither in Aristophanes’ fifth-century comedies, so full of allusions to contemporary reality, nor in Plato’s early dialogues, in which so many of the characters are ephebes, is any mention of such an institution to be found.

Vidal-Naquet points out that when these youths were summoned to duty for emergencies, for service outside Attica in fact, they served in the same units as noncitizens, as Aeschines did in 370 BC, or with men recently admitted to citizenship like the Plateans in the campaign at Megara in 424 BC. But this is frail evidence on which to base the sort of ritual separateness demanded by his thesis, and the fact that the affair at Megara was an “embuscade nocturne” does little to help the contrast between cunning nocturnal ephebe and stalwart daylight hoplite since hoplites too, six hundred of them in fact, took part in the operation; they spent the night hiding in a trench from which the bricks for the walls of Megara had been dug—a most unhoplitic situation.

There are other places, too, where the evidence for connections is less than adequate. Melanion the woman-hating hunter is compared to Hippolytus (so far so good—even Wilamowitz-Moellendorf agrees) but it will not do to go on and reinforce the comparison by making Hippolytus, like Melanion, a hunter with the net, in fact the inventor of it. That detail comes from Oppian, who wrote in the late second century AD a boring poem on hunting for which the emperor Caracalla is supposed to have paid him a gold piece for every line—the most colossal overpayment in literary history. What his source for the detail about Hippolytus was (if he had one) we have no idea, but the Hippolytus in Euripides’ play, produced in 428 BC, hunts by day “with swift hounds ridding the land of wild beasts,” and when Phaedra imagines herself with him she speaks of “hurling the Thessalian lance.” Hippolytus in fact is very far removed from the nocturnal sphere; he repudiates the goddess Aphrodite, who “works her miracles by night.”

Such awkward details (and there are others—the frailty of the link between the Apaturia and the ephebic oath, for example) may seem unimportant when viewed against the internal coherence of the interpretation as a whole. Taken singly perhaps they are, but their cumulative effect is disturbing and since, in any case, the argument is a chain, the weakness of individual links causes concern. Perhaps it is a matter of temperament which side the reader opts for. Some will be prepared to overlook weak spots in a brilliant interpretation which makes sense of many things that were obscure and connects in a meaningful pattern what previously were isolated and therefore puzzling facts. Others will prefer to settle, reluctantly in most cases, for the old uncertainty and imperfection, to live with unanswered questions and unrelated details rather than allow theory and occasional poetic license the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps it is even a matter of national temperament. At the final session of an international conference on Greek myth held at Urbino in 1973, Vernant referred to some critical observations that had been made by the Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, Geoffrey Kirk, the author of two books on Greek myth which show an intimate acquaintance with and a certain critical distance from structuralist theory.27 He had written for the Times Literary Supplement a review of Vernant and Vidal-Naquet’s Mythe et tragédie in which he remarked that the authors were both “extremely French.”28 “Coming from a British pen,” said Vernant, “the formula is at the very least ambiguous and I am not too sure how to take it. Perhaps I should turn it around and say that in his contribution to the discussion here, my friend Kirk has shown himself, in his positivism and prudence, to be ‘extremely English.”‘ He added that empiricism, even if it is a spontaneous product and a natural inclination, is still as much a philosophy as any other and that it is a form of conceptualization which, if it remains merely implicit, is all the more likely to constrict and deform. He is of course quite right—if, that is, one can call “philosophy” an attitude which, having seen many theories come and go, is on its guard and which is prepared to accept the possibility that in this sub-lunar world the problems may have no final solution and the data may make less than perfect sense.

But there is one great advantage to being “extremely French”: the method is, as Vidal-Naquet says himself, “heuristic”—it discovers things. And not even the most “English” reaction to Vidal-Naquet’s book could deny that it contains discoveries; exactly what the connection is between the black ephebic cloak, Melanthos the tricky fighter, and Melanion the woman-hating hunter may be disputed but that there is such a connection few readers of this book can doubt.

Discoverers have to be bold: one of Vidal-Naquet’s great exemplars, Lafitau, an eighteenth-century Jesuit who lived among the Algonquins, Hurons, and Iroquois, is praised in this book for precisely that quality. In his Moeurs des sauvages amériquains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps (Paris, 1724) he abandoned the customary attitude of writers on the Americas, which was to measure their inhabitants by the standard of classical antiquity. With what Vidal-Naquet terms an “incredible audacity” (une incroyable audace) he wrote that “if on the one hand the classical authors had helped him understand the savages, the customs of the savages had, on the other hand, lighted his way to an easier understanding and explanation of what was in the ancient authors.”

Audacity has been characteristic of Vidal-Naquet’s career from the start; it marked his activities as a historian engagé in the political struggle; it is visible at work in every page of this book where, however, it is tempered and checked by the historical conscience. As befits a man who has learned from Vernant to reckon with the symbolic and social importance of civic space, the location of his office in Paris is wonderfully appropriate. The rather dilapidated building which accommodates the Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes is located on the curve of Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. Upward the street climbs toward the Odéon, a classic theater named after the building erected by Pericles to commemorate the victory over the Persians. Downward it ends on the Boulevard St.-Germain, where, in the midst of the surging traffic and unnoticed by the pedestrians who wait for the bus, Danton stands on his pedestal, shouting the words engraved below him on the stone: “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace….”

This Issue

March 3, 1983