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Someone – sorry, can’t for the moment recall where I saw this; maybe in commentary on Jon Hesk’s recent blog post on the ‘Challengers’ debate and ancient political rhetoric – recently noted in passing that they knew of some school students studying Aristophanes’ Knights with Nigel Farage playing the role of the Sausage-Seller, the rogue who out-bids even the shameless Kleon in his rabble-rousing. Fair enough, one might say, apart from the fact that it does let other politicians off the hook by attributing manipulative and shifty rhetoric to Farage alone; arguably they’re all Sausage-Sellers, or at least – and this is perhaps a more reasonable interpretation – they’re all being encouraged by highly-paid advisers to bury their decent instincts and reservations in the interests of victory, in the spirit of the end justifying the means.

This is most obvious in the case of the repulsive discussions of immigration as the Great Spoken issue of the election campaign, where even Labour is producing souvenir merchandise of their capitulation to, at best, profound moral feebleness.

Continue Reading »

Who Are You?

I confess: I am @CAConf2015. And yes, I’m afraid I am already married.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I’ve spent the last few days at the UK Classical Association conference, which we were hosting in Bristol; not just introducing speakers and chairing a few sessions, but also running the official conference Twitter feed. This has been a rather strange experience (though not completely new, as I did something similar for the Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition last year for the Blackwell-Bristol lectures, and will probably be doing it again at the end of this month). The thinking is presumably that I know the system and style and so can be left to get on with it, but actually I wonder if giving the job to someone new to the whole thing might not be better – it doesn’t need or want someone with experience and confidence, and someone new to the whole thing and hence nervously feeling their way might find it easier to hit the right note, rather than someone like me having to un-learn some habits. Yes, I use Twitter in a relatively formal, work-related capacity, and so what I say there is pretty edited and filtered compared with many, but compared with what’s expected of the official voice of an institution or event, it feels like Hunter S. Thompson-esque stream of consciousness. Continue Reading »

“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” remarked Thomas Piketty, in a work noted for its regular references to the novels of Austen and Balzac for insights into wealth and inequality in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the claims to scientific objectivity made by mainstream economics, issues of power and money inevitably have a subjective, psychological and hence political dimension; “democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts”, and it is the imaginative artists who can depict the effects of inequality and the workings of the economy ”with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” Continue Reading »

The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides has been of interest to game theorists since the earliest development of the field; it was discussed on several occasions by John von Neumann, generally accepted founder of this approach, and it appears in the work of a leading game theorist like Thomas Schelling. It’s entirely understandable: the dialogue presents two sides in a high-stakes, zero-sum conflict, pursuing very different strategies with a limited number of possible outcomes, and – if you want to push the boundaries of game theory a bit further, it also offers interesting examples of how each side seeks to anticipate and influence the decision-making of the other, and raises some fundamental questions of rationality. I fully expect to find lots of other examples when I have time to pursue this theme in depth, but for today I want to focus on one case of a game theoretical discussion of the Dialogue, written by the current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (1997; revised version 2014: 262-83). It is in itself an interesting reading of the situation, in relation both to Thucydides and to the normal assumptions of game theory, but there are also some striking implications for the current negotiations between Greece and the EU, especially Germany, which I will consider in the final section. Continue Reading »

I’ve never seen the whole of The Phantom Menace,* only odd five- or ten-minute snatches here and there, generally with the sound turned down, but over the years this has been enough to build up an overall impression of the film. This has tended to confirm the comments of various critics that it’s basically a number of show-piece action sequences interspersed with long discussions of galactic politics and trade embargoes with the Naboo, that could easily have been edited down into something a bit punchier. Some critics have said similar things about Thucydides – though in this case the temptation is to skip the battles and action sequences** to get to the meaty political debates, rather than vice versa. There is also, thankfully, no equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Thucydides doesn’t really do comedy, even if it seriously cuts his margins on the merchandising.

How should one read Thucydides? Or, as I put the question at the end of the last blog post, do you really have to read all of it? Continue Reading »

The next episode of the User’s Guide to Thucydides will be posted by the end of the week, I promise – not least because there may then be a pause as I flee the country for a bit of rest and relaxation before the Classical Association Conference in Bristol after Easter. However, I wanted quickly to jot down a few comments arising from the lecture by Brooke Holmes of Princeton yesterday evening (yes, we’re having a really rich period of intellectual stimulation at the moment, with Liz Irwin a week ago, and coming up on Tuesday is Josephine Crawley Quinn on Carthaginian infant sacrifice).

Brooke’s paper was on the French theorist of the history of science Michel Serres, and his reading of Lucretius’ place in scientific development. In brief, as I understand it, Serres presents Lucretius as having had genuine insights into the true nature of the universe, in a way that we can recognise only today as a result of more recent scientific developments – and at the same time being thoroughly non-modern. Continue Reading »

Plutarch wrote a work On the Malignity of Herodotus, explaining all the ways in which Herodotus did down the noble Greeks and was unacceptably positive about barbarians. To judge from a fascinating seminar paper in Bristol yesterday, Liz Irwin of Columbia University is planning to write On the Malignity of Thucydides, explaining all the ways in which this brilliantly manipulative writer persuades us to accept dubious ideas, not least the idea of his own absolute trustworthiness. She began with Thucydides’ emphasis on the hard work involved in gaining a true knowledge of the past, which most people don’t bother with; this also applies to Thucydides’ own work, which most people take largely at face value as he’s done all the hard work, whereas in fact we need to work incredibly hard to see the reality that lies behind his misleading presentation – otherwise we’re just like hoi polloi (and perhaps specifically hoi polloi of Athens) who’ll accept any old story, now including Thucydides’. She went on to develop a reading of the first two books or so of the work, showing the gaps between Thucydides’ presentation of events and the reality of what really happened – or at least the alternative interpretations that we can derive from other sources or from what seem to be significant absences or tendential claims in Thucydides. Continue Reading »

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