Perils of Populism

There’s a new Thucydides quotation out on the streets, or rather the internet, bringing him into debates about the candidacy of Donald Trump, and it seems like a good, if probably pointless, idea to try to nip this in the bud.

To get the really pedantic bits out of the way first Continue Reading »

The idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ has now established itself quite firmly in the journalistic mind as the defining dynamic of relations between the USA and China; a clear example of the power of the name of ‘Thucydides’, and the ways in which a meme can be created and disseminated in the age of social media. It’s entirely understandable that some people in China are therefore starting to pay a little attention to the topic; I reported on the first stirrings a year or so back (The Tao of Thucydides), and there is now an interesting article on news.xinhuanet.com, taken from ChinaDaily: Thucydides Trap Not Etched In Stone. I’m grateful to Joseph Cotterill (@jsphctrl) for the reference, and for the information that 修西得底斯 (Xiūxīdédǐsī) = Thucydides, 希罗多德 (Xīluōduōdé) = Herodotus and 色诺芬 (Sènuòfēn) = Xenophon. Googling 修西得底斯 produces over 690,000 results; true, most of the first hundred or so are just dictionary definitions, but if Google Translate is to be trusted it does look as if there are some potentially interesting discussions, even if a lot of them seem to be focused on the Thucydides Trap rather than anything more original. Continue Reading »

Poetry Corner 2

I assume there must be a body of literary theory out there about titles, especially of short, ambiguous pieces and poems; the way they promise to be a key to interpretation, and certainly shape the reader’s expectations and influence her reading – but as a result clearly also have the potential to manipulate, deceive, draw her into position above the trap-door and so forth. This is certainly an issue when it comes to the (admittedly very small) number of extant literary pieces that mention Thucydides in their title and then deal with something that appears to be completely unrelated. Peter Handke’s ‘Noch einmal für Thukydides’ (1997), for example, which I’ve written about elsewhere, describes a series of trivial events on a March morning: a yellow leaf on the wall suddenly reveals itself as a butterfly and flies off, the snow begins to melt, and a crocus flowers; on the basis of the title, and Handke’s known interests, I’ve argued that this piece is engaging with different ideas of ‘realism’ as a style, closely associated with Thucydides – but maybe the whole point is that this is the absolute opposite of the things that Thucydides thought were important, battles and speeches rather than butterflies and the everyday. Maybe the title is simply intended as a provocation, or a joke. And one of these days I must have another go at working out what on earth The Mountain Goats‘ ‘Thucydides II.58’ has to do with anything, let alone Thucydides 2.58 (“Bed face at noon/ Strip naked, we can’t get free/ And doubling over in the street/ dozens just like me/ Spreading like a rumor/ spreading like a rumor.”)*

This edition of Poetry Corner offers another example: Sherod Santos’ ‘A Woman Named Thucydides’ (2010), which I found on the internet through a simple search for “Thucydides + poem”. Continue Reading »

Self Control

Just a short post, as I am still trying and failing to finish revising a conference paper for publication (am now in the phase of, “well, the final revised extended deadline was actually Friday, but no one works at the weekend, probably, and with a bit of luck they’ll have other emails to deal with first thing tomorrow so maybe I have until lunchtime” – cf. http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1815), but I just wanted to comment on a few points raised by the ongoing adventures of the Thucydiocy Bot, dedicated to the never-ending and entirely pointless task of correcting misquotations of Thucydides on Twitter. One is the tenacity with which some people stick to the idea that Thucydides came up with their favourite quotation, even when the real author has been firmly identified. “Jevons aside, give me an alternative source,” demanded one, after the Bot had noted that Colin Powell’s favourite “Of all manifestations of power…” line wasn’t attributed to Thucydides until the 1940s, but was used half a century earlier by a classicist writing about historiographical style. Huh? Give you an alternative source for the quote that isn’t the man who actually wrote it? Failure to do so clearly means that it must be Thucydides… Even sadder was someone else’s reluctance to credit George Santayana with the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” aphorism; true, it is a bit like Thucydides’ “events tend to repeat themselves which is why history is useful” – but the message is quite different, and poor old Santayana doesn’t get credit for anything much these days (apart from the guitar solo on Black Magic Woman) so why begrudge him this? Continue Reading »

We Philhellenists

Things have, predictably enough, gone quiet on the Greek economic crisis front; the drama of negotiations and ultimata has passed, and the ongoing questions of whether the agreed reforms can be implemented and whether the promised negotiations over debt relief will get anywhere are, so far as the anglophone media are concerned, of interest only to a few obsessive economic commentators. Mention of Thucydides has therefore largely switched to the latest version of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme, plus the intriguing suggestion that he records the invention of baked cheesecake.

Classicists may therefore be mourning the passing of their brief moment in the sun as sought-after commentators and experts on the inexhaustible importance of classical metaphors for the crisis. They should rather be breathing a sigh of relief that they’re no longer faced with the temptation of embarrassing themselves, as an excellent piece by Johanna Hanink suggests (thanks to Stephen Clark for the link). Continue Reading »

Before anyone says anything, yes, I know it was a mistake to search for ‘Thucydides’ on Twitter. And to keep searching every couple of days. And to start replying to all the people who insist on quoting the line from William F. Butler’s 1889 biography of General Charles Gordon – “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools”, or words to that effect, so bring back national service and/or replace all the professors with retired military men – as if it was written by Thucydides, to correct them. Whether or not it was a mistake to embark on trying to create an autonomous twitter account, The Thucydiocy Bot (@Thucydiocy) to do all the searching and responding for me, time will only tell (especially once I’ve worked out the technology to make it genuinely autonomous). But there really seems to be only one place this is leading… Continue Reading »

Well, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly this past year or so has seen Thucydides achieve a rather higher media profile: a series of appearances on BBC Radio 4 (including Tom Holland’s adaptation for Book at Bedtime), and ever more mentions in the context of the Greek economic crisis, including at the head of Channel 4 News the other night. There’s still a long way to go before Thucydides can be taken for granted as an authority figure in general current affairs discussions in Britain, compared with his established status in the US – one of the things that’s struck me is the extent to which almost every person mentioning him (see e.g. the letter in today’s Grauniad) feels the need to sketch in a load of background, and appears to assume that this is the first time Thucydides will actually have been mentioned. But we do seem to be getting there.

This isn’t simply a product of events in Greece; the groundwork was already being laid… Continue Reading »


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