Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens

In 1944 Charles Cochrane reviewed Thucydides by John Findley.1 Cochrane’s review is noteworthy in the context of Eric Havelock’s ongoing work on the Sophists and Socrates at that time, and of the close relationship at UT between Cochrane and Harold Innis2. The short review characterized in some detail Finley’s description of “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens in the fifth century BC, which Findley attributed to the deep influence of the Sophists:

Professor Finley now proceeds to examine the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of the
period covered by [Thucydides’] History — a period which, as he remarks, the historian relived with such intensity.3  This he depicts as a time when the “realistic” thinking of the Sophists made its first and deepest impression on Athens; and he attributes to the impact of Sophism an all-pervasive change in outlook, best described perhaps as the victory of conceptual over symbolic or poetic modes of thought. In this connection Mr. Finley has much of interest and value to say, especially with regard to the so-called antithetic style of discourse in relation to the contemporary mind. Sophistic influence, as he sees it, operated in two ways. In the first place, it provided a fresh impulse to scientific investigation and, therewith, to the “search for causes” in terms of which to understand characters and events. Secondly, it invented in rhetoric a vehicle for “logical” expression, i.e., for identifying and defining the concepts which, according to the findings of contemporary reason, constitute the pattern of things. Both these influences, which are to be discerned in the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides, as well as in the earliest extant samples of Athenian prose literature, are also, as Mr. Finley argues, fully illustrated in the work of the historian.4

Just what had occasioned this “all-pervasive change in outlook” was a question on everybody’s mind. For the Toronto school — Innis, Havelock and McLuhan — the emerging answer was: literacy.

In fact, a hint of this answer appears in Cochrane’s review in a phrase intended by him to suggest mediation only in the vague sense of a middle term. The mind of Thucydides was shaped, says Cochrane, by the “attempt to discover a via media between earlier theories of historical causation, based on religious and philosophical principles, and the rank mechanistic or sensationalistic materialism” of some of the Sophists.

For Cochrane, Thucydides’ work was therefore an attempt:

to develop a position in the light of which man, while denied all capacity to transcend the world of nature or the material world, might still be regarded as in some sense a genuine agent, the “maker” of his own history. To see Thucydides in this context is, we feel, essential to an adequate appreciation of his work and of the claim that it would live as a “possession forever”. Like most of his “advanced” contemporaries — the Sophists of the Periclean age — the historian was strictly and consistently ἄθεος; as such, he rejected in toto the element of myth which had so far dominated the writing of history. But, unlike the majority, he refused to throw the old gods overboard only to deify “fate” or “chance”. Accordingly, he discovered the hormé — dynamic or principle of motion in human history — not in any general hypothetical principle but in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends.5  

It would be this “relationship” between mind and environment, each at work on the other, that the Toronto school would thematize as the research field of “communications”.


  1. John H. Findley, Thucydides, HUP, 1942. Cochrane had published his own Thucydides book in 1929, Thucydides and the Science of History, OUP, 1929.
  2. See Grant on Innis and Cochrane.
  3. Thucydides lived from c 460 BC to c 400. His History covers the three decades following the start of the war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC.
  4. Charles N. Cochrane, Review of Thucydides, by John H. Finley, Jr, 1942, in Classical Philology, 39:1, January 1944, 57-59. The citations in the remainder of this post come from this same review.
  5. Importantly, the last part of this passage — “the “dynamic or principle of motion in human history . . . in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends” — was cited by Harold Innis in his obituary for Cochrane (‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 12:1, 1946, pp. 95-97).