Stuck in the Middle…

Just to prove that Australians don’t remotely have a monopoly on invoking Thucydides in the antipodes – and one would scarcely expect that they should, given they share with other former British dominions a common inheritance (however differently problematic) of Old World classical interests and (perhaps more pertinent) a common association with Thucydides, the Aegean and war through the Dardanelles Campaign in WWI, hence a tendency to quote the Funeral Oration on public war monuments – I’ve just been pointed towards an interesting paper by Vangelis Vitalis, currently New Zealand’s ambassador to the European Union and NATO (and a few other places): Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War and Small State Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Lessons for New Zealand, originally given as a lecture to the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies in Canberra in 2011.

Vitalis opens with some conventional remarks about Thucydides’ “timeless” political wisdom – the Melian Dialogue. inevitably, with citations of Kaplan, Huntington (both of whom should ring a few alarm bells) and W.R. Connor – and the standard comparison of the period of the Peloponnesian War to today’s multi-polar, more or less anarchic international scene. His focus is rather more interesting, however: the behaviour and strategies of the “small states” caught in the cross-fire between Athens and Sparta Continue Reading »

Thucydides citing Pericles (2.37.2): “We show no animosity at our neighbours’ choice of pleasures, nor cast aspersions that may hurt even if they do not harm.”  Even if you don’t go so far as to change the final word to “ham” (thanks for that, @JohnPowersUS), the relevance of this line to today’s wild-fire of an unsubstantiated rumour seems obvious. But we could take it in different ways. Read straight, as an accurate reproduction of Pericles’ noble rhetoric, this can seem like a judgement on our own trivial. tabloid-driven society, in which the idea that ‘the personal is political’ becomes an excuse to ignore serious debate in favour of gossip; it’s only a day or so since people, largely the same people as are now giggling about this story, were denouncing the tabloid attacks on things that Jeremy Corbyn said or did decades ago. But then one might reasonably reply that someone who was quite happy to join in presenting Corbyn in the most lurid terms as a threat to national security has given up his right then to get huffy about other people’s muck-raking and occupy the moral high ground. And that’s before we get to the fact that Pericles was someone with an obvious reason for wanting to insist on the irrelevance of private pleasures to public life – and that Thucydides was perfectly aware of those, and could imagine that enough of his readers knew about Aspasia to hear that line and, sniggering, think “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he..?”

Here Comes The New Boss

The British media and political class don’t do really Thucydides in the way that he’s a fixture of public discourse in the US (and, it seems, is now making inroads into Australia), or we might by now have seen a rush of references from those horrified by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to “hope, danger’s comforter”, the irrational exuberance of the Athenians in the Sicilian Debate, the depiction of factional in-fighting in the Corcyrean episode, or the general “history repeats itself, people being what they are, so it’ll be 1983 all over again” pessimism of his methodological statements in Book 1.* We have already had lots of more general (and non-classical) comments in a similar vein, arguing that the ‘lessons of history’, and more particularly the lessons of the 1980s, demonstrate the foolishness of abandoning the middle ground, however far rightwards it’s moved, and however much one might yearn for a bit more principle.

It isn’t that history is necessarily a conservative discipline, Continue Reading »

A Serious Man?

A recent discussion of the likely foreign policy tendencies of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s new prime minister as of yesterday, cited an earlier article that included the fact that he’s been known to cite Thucydides:

Turnbull is alive to such risks, and he seems to favor a conciliatory path to resolving U.S.-China tensions. He reviewed quite favorably a book by a leading Australian academic arguing that the U.S. should give up its primacy and instead find an accommodation with China in which the two countries share power in the Asia-Pacific (Turnbull also notes in passing that Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims are not “without any legal merit”). There is a strong streak of realism in Turnbull, who has quoted the Thucydides line that “justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

Interestingly, several of the people who’ve mentioned this piece on Twitter have chosen to emphasise the Thucydides aspect, and it’s difficult to avoid the sense that this is operating as some kind of code – with remarks such as “this sheds a different light on MT”. Continue Reading »

Bollocks to Nero

The most distinctive cry of the professional academic historian, to be heard (with only minor regional variations) throughout the Western world, is “Yes, but it’s rather more complicated than that.” Historians as a species concern themselves with detail and specificity, to an almost obsessive degree; highlighting the unique features of every period and every culture that mark them out from every other period and culture, and regarding any attempt at generalisation across periods or cultures or even individual cases with, at best, hearty suspicion (while relying on any number of unspoken generalisations) because, of course, it is actually rather more complicated than that.

It’s for this reason that historians really need to pay attention to the wonderfully-titled ‘Fuck Nuance’ (Abstract: Seriously, fuck it) by sociologist Kieran Healy Continue Reading »

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 »


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