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Singapore Slim

A measure of the success of an idea, or at least its temporary trendiness, is when it crops up in completely irrelevant and inappropriate places. It can only be a matter of time before ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ starts getting referenced in sports reporting (Bayern versus Red Bull Leipzig?) or pop music (Taylor Swift versus someone we haven’t heard of yet?), but at the moment it does appear compulsory to mention it in any discussion whatsoever of inter-state relations in Asia. This morning’s example comes from a piece by John Blaxland of ANU in East Asia Forum asking ‘Do the lessons of Thucydides apply to Singapore?’

Tl;dr: nope. The real question: why did anyone imagine that they would? Continue Reading »

That radical “a plague on all your houses” centrist Thucydides is muttering “I told you so” to himself again…

Factionalism and polarisation became facts of political life, and places that were affected later rather than sooner, hearing what was happening elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in identifying new grievances and new accusations against their opponents. The usual valuation of words and actions was changed. What was once seen as reckless aggression now appeared as the loyalty one owed to fellow campaigners, while forethought and hesitation became cowardly equivocation; calls for moderation meant you lacked decency, while seeing different sides of the question was a sign of secret sympathies with the enemy. (3.82.3-4)

There is one crucial question about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ model of power transition and the confrontation of rising and ruling powers* that has not yet, so far as I’m aware, been asked: what sort of trap did Thucydides have in mind? Mouse? Elephant? Bear? Rat? Lobster? Honey? Because clearly this must affect how we imagine the process of being captured and the possibility, if any, of escape – and indeed the likelihood of realising that one is in a trap in the first place, before it’s too late. A basic starting assumption for such an analysis is that the idea must be based on ancient Greek hunting technology, and so, in the absence of any comment on the subject from Thucydides himself – we can safely assume his familiarity, as an Athenian aristocrat, with the basic techniques – we turn to a comparable figure in the next generation, Xenophon, and his treatise Cynegeticus, or Hunting with Dogs. Continue Reading »

It’s ages since there’s been an episode of Poetry Corner here – mainly because, oddly enough, Thucydides doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of poetry. But there is not none, and every so often a new poet draws on the same powerful images of conflict and the crisis of civilisation that inspired W.H. Auden in 1 September 1939. Thucydides is, as ever, the dark prophet who anticipated our fate, not least in his terrifying account of civil war and social breakdown in Corcyra.

A storm had brewed over Corfu Isle

Thunder roared with the sounds of revolt

Moods had fashioned this weather a while,

All that was needed was a bit of a jolt.

Continue Reading »

This isn’t the Summer of Love; it may be the Summer of Bad-Tempered Arguments About Classics and Racism. Over in the US, Sarah Bond‘s articles on the ‘white-washing’ of classical statues – that is, why do we think of them in terms of gleaming white marble when they were actually painted? – have provoked a furious backlash from the far right, including death threats.* In the UK, an alt-right blogger objected to the fact that a BBC educational cartoon on life in Roman Britain included black people – “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” – and was carefully schooled by @MikeStuchbery_, Matthew Nicholls from Reading, Mary Beard and others – with the result that Mary, at least, now seems to be spending six hours a day responding to people on Twitter about this.

What is surprising about these two arguments is that the substantive issues – ancient statues were painted, the Roman Empire (including Britain) was ethnically diverse – are such old hat. Continue Reading »

Dunkirk Spirit

Democracies are always at their best when things seem at their worst. (Thucydides)

Alongside all the obviously false and/or completely unverifiable ‘Thucydides’ quotations to be encountered on the Twitter, there is a minor strand of what could be called ‘misleading paraphrases’, where someone quotes someone else’s summary of what Thucydides said as if it were Thucydides’ own words. I’ve previously discussed the Henry Kissinger version of 1.22.4 – “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future” – which Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison seem to have successfully launched as a genuine quotation. Yesterday I came across the quote above for the first time, a line which likewise looks not completely implausible but nevertheless wrong. And so it proved… Continue Reading »

I have sometimes wondered why, when the back end of this blog records the search terms that have lead them here, the phrase “daughters of sphinx” often appears. Well, I’ve finally got round to googling it myself, and I am now enlightened (but not in any gnostic sense). The Ancient Arabic Order of the Daughters of the Sphinx: a female branch of a fun-loving red-fez-wearing adjunct fraternity of freemasonry; I can only imagine how aspiring members feel when they wind up here instead. Sorry, guys, the knowledge here may be esoteric, but puzzling it out doesn’t get you any further towards acceptance and initiation – though of course I’d say that if I were trying to test your commitment and perseverance.

The fact that many readers of Thucydides act┬álike a secret order of initiates, priding themselves in their possession of secret knowledge and swapping obscure code phrases with one another, is a different matter…