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This was, to put it mildly, an interesting week in which to find myself offering commentary on the theme of ‘Was uns zusammenhält’ for a “fish bowl discussion” as part of the Berliner Stiftungswoche. The event itself was extremely interesting (for ancient Chinese proverb values of interesting); representatives of six different Berlin charitable projects taking it in turns to give a 60-second summary of their work, followed by me (in my capacity as Einstein Visiting Fellow) hastily improvising some thoughts on wider themes, followed by more general discussion led by the very impressive moderator, journalist and presenter Jörg Thadeusz, who seemed determined to force me to talk more about Thucydides even when I was trying to waffle about ancient attitudes towards poverty instead. Continue Reading »

Mea Culpa

It seems entirely possible that there are certain people out there reading this blog and noting the fact that I’m currently managing to post at least once a week on average, and also remarking on my occasional contributions to online book seminars* and other non-academic publications, and thinking to themselves: “Okay, Neville, so where the hell is that book review you should have submitted eighteen months ago?” I try not to think about this too much, as I am genuinely embarrassed and guilty about my large backlog of missed deadlines – not to mention the thought of other colleagues’ reactions when they realise that I’m the reason why their book hadn’t been reviewed – but I’m prompted to do so this morning by discussions on the Twitter in the light of the recent debacle at the American Historical Review (links via @helenrogers19c). Why haven’t I got these reviews written? Not because I’m lazy, and not just because I keep taking on too many things, but because writing a decent academic book review is hard, and boring, and fraught with problems. Continue Reading »

Vicarage Values

There’s a lovely passage in John Moore’s Brensham Village (second volume of the Brensham Trilogy, one of the great accounts of British rural life), in which Mr Chorlton, the retired prep-school classics teacher, talks about his affection for the absurdities and rituals of the Church of England, agnostic though he is:

The funny thing is that thousands of people who don’t believe in it have the same feeling. I suppose in Greece and Rome, when the old gods fell out of favour and people ceased to believe in their thunderbolts and their power, the crumbling ivy-grown altars were still regarded with a sort of half-amused, half-apologetic affection, and people made an occasional shame-faced sacrifice at them for old time’s sake. That is how I feel about the C. of E. and I still wonder why!

Continue Reading »

New Europeans

Full of future thoughts and thrills… Published in last week’s The New European.

Europe was invented, or at least first defined, by the ancient Greeks. In the sixth century BCE, geographers like Anaximander and Hecataeus imagined the world divided between Europe, Asia and Libya Africa; their successor Herodotus turned this division into a great historical drama with the confrontation between the Persian Empire, rulers of Asia, and the heroic little Greeks at Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis. Continue Reading »

As regular readers may faintly recall, one of my minor projects for March was to monitor all the occasions when that stupid William F. Butler quote about “A society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” was attributed on the Twitter to Thucydides, if only to work out precisely how much of a waste of time it is for the Thucydiocy Bot (@Thucydiocy) to keep correcting it. The results are now in, and the conclusion is: lots. Continue Reading »

Ideas matter. Perceptions, expectations and beliefs, however detached they may be from reality, matter. This is clear enough from the events of the last year, with the votes in the UK and the USA; and, for all that the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (currently enjoying another burst of publicity) presents global events as the predictable outcome of impersonal dynamics in the relationship between objectively-defined established and rising powers, it’s clear from Thucydides’ account. The events of the Peloponnesian War were shaped above all by the desires, fears, assumptions and misconceptions of individuals – with disastrous consequences. Continue Reading »

Resistance is useless! The zombies are coming! About eighteen months ago, I suggested that the impact of my research into the modern reception of Thucydides might be measured by how far discussions of world affairs in the British media remained uncontaminated by the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme that crops up whenever someone in the US talks about China. Well, so much for that. Earlier this month, the phrase turned up at the end of a letter in the London Review of Books – without any explanation, suggesting that not only the author but the Letters Editor were treating it as a sufficiently familiar idea not to need any context – and now Gideon Rachman (who really deserves a lot of the blame for publicising the idea on this side of the Atlantic) has opened a review essay in the Financial Times on US-China relations books with Graham Allison’s new book-length version of his theory, prompting the sub-editor to include it in the headline. Rachman raises some questions about Allison’s argument, in particular the familiar issue of whether nuclear weapons have changed the whole dynamic of such (alleged) great power relationships – but he takes Allison’s reading of Thucydides as read. Sigh. Continue Reading »