Evil Losers

Whom would you rather have make a speech about the death of one of your loved ones, Donald Trump or Pericles? For Simon Schama over on the Twitter yesterday, there’s no contest: “Grief obliges eloquence or silence. Pericles. Lincoln. Then ‘evil losers'”. It’s certainly true that there’s no contest when it comes to eloquence and rhetorical skill, or even basic grammar – but the differences aren’t so stark when it comes to the ends of such speeches. For Trump, the deaths of children, teenagers and their older relatives in Manchester are fuel for his confused, ill-directed crusade against ‘radical Islwmic terrorism’, fuelling suspicion of Muslims in general. For Pericles, the deaths of Athenian soldiers were weaponised to urge the survivors to sacrifice themselves for the city as well, with the grief of their families waved away. The issue with Schama’s contrast isn’t that Pericles lost the war or was responsible for starting it, as various people responded to him; it’s that the contrast isn’t as stark as he implies. As for his “Thucydides would block you and so will I”, nice line, but would the man willing to face up to the full ghastliness of human weakness and violence really filter reality like that?

Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse the sub-tweet, I feel ever more disturbed by the sorts of people who choose to incorporate Thucydides into their Twitter identity, and the violent right-wing views many of them seem to hold – and what this says about the modern image of Thucydides, if not necessarily the work itself…

A Serious Man?

Thucydides was not a happy bunny. Strictly speaking, we don’t know this – even if we trust the ancient biographical accounts, it’s not the sort of thing they talk about – but that has never stopped later readers imagining the personality of the author. In the tradition of ‘realism’, most explicitly in Friedrich Nietzsche’s account in Götzendämmerung but pervading many 20th-century political readings, Thucydides is presented as the sort of illusionless man who has the courage to face unvarnished reality; this reading is based on his stripping away of claims about justice and virtue to reveal the power struggles underneath, and then in turn this conception of his ruthless critical spirit is taken as a guarantee of the veracity of his account of the world. Arnold Toynbee in contrast detects an anguished, traumatised figure between the lines of his tightly controlled analytical prose, someone who was broken by his experience of failure, exile and defeat but put himself back together through sheer will and intellectual rigour. In either case, this is not a man who made balloon animals. Continue Reading »

How minimal and commonplace can a quotation or allusion be, and still be traced back to its source with some degree of confidence? Labour’s adoption of “For the many not the few” as its election slogan provoked comments on the Twitter (e.g. from Jonathan Freedland of the Grauniad) about whether Jeremy Corbyn realised he was quoting Tony Blair’s revised version of the infamous Clause IV – doing away with references to the common ownership of the means of production etc. – followed by the argument from Phillip Collins of the Times that this was actually taken from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the famous line (as included in the preamble to the draft European Constitution!) that “our constitution is called a democracy, because it is administered for the sake not of the few but of the many [or: of the whole people]” (2.37).

I don’t actually recall any discussion, back in 1994/5, of the possible sources of Blair’s new wording, and I haven’t found anything helpful on the internet – any suggestions or information gratefully received! Continue Reading »

Is there a plausible outcome in the Melian Dialogue situation in which the Melians ‘win’ in any sense? I’m starting to think about developing the second half of my “choose your own adventure” version, and obviously this is a crucial issue; is the point of the exercise that players should try every possible approach and gradually recognise the bleak reality of their fate, or that there should be a way out, however obscure and improbable? This question was actually brought into focus this week by the spectacle of Yanis Varoufakis offering advice to Theresa May on negotiating with the EU: the man who knew he was in a Melian Dialogue situation, but still tried to force it to a different outcome. Yes, that went well… Continue Reading »

Courtesy of my colleague Richard Flower, another Thucydides reference in an unexpected context: the autobiography of Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, Who on Earth is Tom Baker?, looking back to his childhood activity as a bookie’s runner.

Because the process of taking bets, or making a book, was illegal, the system of identifying betting slips was important. How to identify the winner of a bet? The punter couldn’t put his real name on the slip for fear that the police might raid the premises, find the slips and fine the gambler. This risk was avoided by a system of noms de plumes… One disgraced classicist used Thucydides which caused pronunciation problems back at base. The accepted explanation was that Thucydides was Turkish for nancy boy.

How did he know that the classicist was “disgraced” – specific knowledge, or simply the assumption that no respectable one would sink to gambling? How touching…


fashion 1There are many things, both serious and funny, to be said about the new advert from The Gap allegedly showing the ‘Tenure-Track Professor’ look, complete with one of the most hilariously appalling bits of advertising copy ever. Many of these things are specific to the US, to early career academics, and above all to female academics, and the following ramblings are basically tangential to all that; but thinking about academics and clothes did bring to mind the time I was interviewed by a student newspaper as part of their regular fashion column. Continue Reading »

Wouldn’t it improve British politics (and probably the politics of many other Western democracies) enormously if we reintroduced the Athenian practice of ostracism – holding a vote to decide which disruptive and problematic individual should be packed off into exile for ten years? Actually my reaction when this was raised casually in a Facebook discussion this morning was: no, I can’t think of anything about this that isn’t deeply problematic – but, at the risk of using a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut, and not at all because I’m procrastinating about writing a lecture and revising a chapter, the reasons why it wouldn’t work are worth a brief discussion… Continue Reading »