Back in 2003 I marched against the imminent invasion of Iraq with a home-made banner saying “Historical Analogies Are The Last Refuge Of Those Who Have Lost The Argument”, protesting in my own small and deeply pretentious way against the mobilisation of the rhetoric of ‘Saddam is Hitler, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of Appeasement’ that was helping to drive the Blair/Bush crusade. Extensive engagement over the last eight years or so with readings of Thucydides have done nothing to reduce my suspicion of these kinds of crude, self-serving comparisons, despite the fact that Thucydides makes the strongest case for seeking to learn from the past in exactly this way – this is an issue that one cannot help but consider at length. There is a persistent habit among devoted readers of Thucydides of recognising oneself and/or one’s times in his account, especially in times of crisis – as well as a persistent tradition of claiming his authority to legitimise and publicise one’s own theories of global politics – cf. the Thucydides Trap thing with regard to China.
And there are times – especially times of crisis – when it is easy to see why these habits persist, and hard to resist joining in. Continue Reading »
Posted in Musings | Tagged Corcyra, Crimea, Melian Dialogue, Russia, stasis, Thucydides, Ukraine | 6 Comments »
Two things on the internet caught my fancy yesterday. The first, quite widely circulated so probably already familiar, was a story in the Grauniad: How Computer-Generated Fake Papers Are Flooding Academia. This struck me as a rather wonderful thing. Of course, the basic focus of the article and the research on which it reports is the lax standard of reviewing at certain journals and conferences, so that papers churned out by simple computer programmes which are essentially gibberish nevertheless are accepted (it wasn’t completely clear from the report whether the papers are submitted under the names of the programmers, i.e. real people with genuine university affiliations which serve as an imprimatur so that the content is simply ignored, or under fake names as well, implying that there are no quality checks whatsoever). But it can’t be that big a step to write a programme that could generate fake papers by a specific author. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if an analysis of my own works identified clear, consistent patterns in the use of certain words and phrases, tendency to resort to a limited number of key references and to start every paper with a quote from some nineteenth-century thinker intended to unsettle current assumptions, basic structural similarities and so forth (come to think of it, I’m drawing this entirely from Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, aren’t I?) – so, why not use that to produce ersatz Morley essays, barely distinguishable from the real thing? Continue Reading »
Posted in Musings | Tagged blogs, higher education, money, research | 2 Comments »
Is there any topic that a Thucydides quote cannot illuminate? In this morning’s Observer, Vic Marks turns to the Melian Dialogue (what else…) to comment upon the current state of world cricket:
I suppose that if the notion of “might is right” was good enough for the Athenian Empire, it will do for the ICC. As dear old Thucydides pointed out in the pre-Boycott era, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Let’s not dress up the machinations at the ICC in any other way.
It’s tempting to think of other Thucydides quotes that might be of assistance in this matter (of course, the best line on Kevin Pieterson clearly comes from the same war but a different author; Aristophanes on Alcibiades, “Best not to rear the lion’s whelp within your gates; but if you do, it’s best to learn to tolerate its little ways”). And at the same time, the analogy with cricket can work in the other direction, shedding light on Thucydides’ narrative technique. Both war and cricket, as his account shows, proceed within an apparently clear and straightforward framework (the alternation of summer and winter echoing the change of the bowler’s end every over), the combat is the accumulation of countless individual events, which are rarely in themselves absolutely decisive – even the catastrophe of Sicily did not prevent the Athenians, as we see in Thucydides’ eighth book, from mounting a successful rearguard action and comeback, so we should see it not as the fall of the final wicket but as the unexpected (well…) collapse when both batsmen had seemed to be well in, leaving the question of whether the brilliant but thoroughly unreliable Alcibiades can forge a successful long-term partnership with the number eight, or will simply throw his wicket away and start sending chummy text messages to the opposition…
Posted in Musings | Tagged Alcibiades, cricket, Kevin Pieterson, Thucydides, war | 1 Comment »
There is a persistent habit among readers of Thucydides of focusing on the character and biography of the historian – despite the shortage of evidence on that subject. This resort to the personal is often employed as a means of giving Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, and/or the more general theories that he supposedly derived from the events, greater authority: Thucydides was a general whose views on military matters therefore need to be taken seriously, a politician who therefore understood democracy from the inside, and he was unjustly exiled from Athens and yet shows no vengefulness in his account of the Athenians which shows his astonishing objectivity and impartiality, and so forth. Often, Thucydides’ character is established through a reading of his work – all the familiar adjectives like austere, realistic, rationalistic etc. – and that is then offered as a key to interpretation.
Certain readers also seek to explain the genesis of the work through biography. By far the most interesting and provocative example of this was Arnold J. Toynbee, and his conception of the ‘broken life’. Continue Reading »
Posted in Research in Progress | Tagged Arnold J. Toynbee, history, Polly Toynbee, Thucydides, war, World War I | Leave a Comment »
I’m now somewhere in the middle – it’s slightly trickier than it used to be to determine the exact mid-point, as we’re working with a new academic calendar – of my nineteenth year in Bristol and my twentieth year in some sort of full-time academic employment. One couldn’t get much more mid-career than that – well, other than the likelihood that the notional retirement age will do a Zeno’s tortoise thing, retreating further into the distance however much progress one makes towards it – and it does make you think, reflect and feel generally middle-aged. Even more so after hearing a senior colleague in the faculty referring to a certain department that will remain nameless, blessed with an staff age profile that is particularly heavy on the forty-somethings, as suffering from a collective mid-life crisis.
What, I feel impelled to wonder, is the academic equivalent of buying a ridiculously expensive motorbike or getting a face-lift? Continue Reading »
Posted in Musings | Tagged demography, higher education, life | 1 Comment »
At the top of my list of ‘projects I really wish I’d got around to finishing before it was too late’ is a piece on J.G. Ballard and historical time. I’m a massive Ballard fan, especially of his short stories, and I’ve always been struck by his concern with the human experience of time – explored above all by changing the things that we take for granted, such as when the earth ceases to rotate and it’s always early evening in Casablanca, or when the sleep trigger is artificially disabled in some experimental subjects, or when (for unknown reasons) people start to suffer from narcolepsy, their days getting ever shorter. Most striking – or maybe it’s just because it relates to my research interests in ecology – is his focus in the brilliant ‘The Voices of Time’ on the relation between human time and other times, not only geological time but cosmic time.
Continue Reading »
Posted in Musings | Tagged Fernand Braudel, hope, J.G. Ballard, time | Leave a Comment »
It has been suggested that I might have made more of the publication of my new book on Thucydides’ reception in modern historiography (available from I.B. Tauris) than bury it in a post on other things. So, here is a picture of the book, alongside a cute cat, on the principle that this might just turn viral. But probably not; Bertie looks suitably affronted that he isn’t mentioned in the acknowledgements, but it’s nothing compared with this portrait of magnificent indifference to academic achievement from one of the cats of my colleague Chris Brooke…
Posted in Research in Progress | Tagged cats, history, reception, Thucydides | Leave a Comment »