Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious. Continue Reading »
Here is your regular Thucydides Twitter Quotes update, brought to you by @Thucydiocy and its tireless, if erratic, monitoring of quotes and references on Twitter! There’s been a minor upsurge in references recently, to a fair degree in relation to the delightful Trump, and in particular this line:
Someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.
It’s a perfectly genuine quotation, from 8.89, in Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics version. It gets tweeted without comment – too many characters for anything else? – and it would be very interesting to check exactly how different people understand it. In the context of the Donald, it seems reasonably certain that it’s intended as a critical commentary on his pre-emptive questioning of the legitimacy of the election (though it’s not so much that he’s “consoling” himself about the result as preparing the ground for anger and insurrection). Previous to that, I’m less sure; is there a possibility that the emphasis is on “it wasn’t fair” as an actual property of democratic elections, rather than as the sort of thing that losers claim? That this is being offered as further grounds for cynicism about the whole system? Continue Reading »
It was scarcely a revelation that Boris Johnson should have written two articles about the EU Referendum, trying out the arguments and testing the different propositions before choosing the side that seemed to suit his personal ambitions best. A little more surprising was the lapse in his knowledge of classical myth, confusing two different classical accounts of journeys into hell: “He [Cameron] was going to probe the belly of the beast and bring back British sovereignty, like Hercules bringing Eurydice back from the underworld.” Johnson’s gratuitous classical references are, we may reasonably suspect, all part of his carefully constructed image, and I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if one of the reasons for the crisis of A-level Classical Civilisation turned out to be widespread aversion to classical literature and history as a result of his appropriation of them, making it ever harder to argue against the association of the subject with arrogance and privilege. But this supposed display of superior intelligence and education does depend on him getting the references right… Continue Reading »
A couple of weeks ago, someone on Facebook raised the question of whether, as an early career researcher with no permanent position, you should accept an invitation to speak somewhere that wasn’t going to pay your travel expenses. The majority of responses were horror-struck that any academic department would even suggest such a thing, with a certain amount of O tempora, o mores lamentation as a counterpoint; yes, we academics do regularly give our time without compensation, as part of our normal activities (reviewing proposals, writing references and tenure reports and so forth), but incurring actual expenditure is something else – especially for those who don’t have a regular income or access to travel funds. However, there was one dissenter: of course you should, the response ran; you’re being given a chance to develop your skills, hone your arguments and raise your profile, just like The Who got good only as a result of playing every gig they could in the early years, paid or unpaid. Actually you should probably pay *them* for providing you with an audience who have to endure your amateurish strummings. Continue Reading »
The Melian Dialogue, in which Thucydides imagines the exchanges between the powerful imperialistic Athenians and the defiant-but-deluded Melians to whom they’ve issued an ultimatum (see my adapted version in Disclaimer magazine, for example), is a founding document in game theory and the analysis of power relations. Indeed, one vaguely hopes that the UK’s newly appointed negotiators for sorting out future relations with the EU and with other potential trading partners have read it (though admittedly his in-depth knowledge of the Dialogue didn’t seem to help Yanis Varoufakis that much in the Greek economic crisis last year…).
On closer scrutiny, however, the analogy starts to fall apart, as analogies often do; not because the issues raised by the Melian Dialogue are irrelevant to the situation, but because the parts become confused. At least going by the recent statements of various Conservative ministers, these Melians seem to be convinced that they’re the ones with the advantage, and hence try to speak the Athenians’ lines as often as their own… Continue Reading »
A newly discovered fragment of one of Simplicius of Cilicia’s commentaries on Aristotle – this time on the Politics – has revealed, among other things, a substantial addition to our knowledge of the paradoxes invented by Zeno of Elea (recently the subject of an episode of In Our Time). Continue Reading »
Why do we trust historians? How far is it (as I’m sure most people, or at least most historians, would claim) solely a matter of evaluating their data, the quality of their interpretations and their adherence to professional norms, and how far do other factors play a role? I was in Hamburg last week, for the biennial Deutsche Historikertag, which is always an interesting conference in part because they seek to focus on a specific theme, without insisting that everyone should conform to this. This year it was ‘Glauben’, and I co-organised a panel with my regular collaborator Christian Wendt from Berlin on ‘Die Glaubwuerdigkeit des Historikers’, with a particular focus (inevitably) on Thucydides and the ways that he becomes an ‘authority’ in modern discourse. If anyone’s interested, there’s a short report on the session from Deutschlandfunk as part of a programme on the Historikertag generally, here, from about five minutes in.
The majority of ‘academic’ readings of Thucydides – and I should stress that I’m talking about those which take him as some kind of authority, whether on facts or method or theory, not philological studies – seem to depend on some degree of recognition of him as ‘one of us’, a colleague with shared professional values even if he also displays a number of idiosyncratic habits. Continue Reading »