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Achilles and the Brexit

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 »

In Thucydides We Trust?

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 »

How should we imagine a world without work, and prepare ourselves and our society for it? The publication of another “the robots are coming!” piece in this morning’s Grauniad brought the passing thought that maybe we could look to classical ideas of the Golden Age, as sketched by Hesiod and others, when the Earth fed its children without any need for them to drag it out of her with violence and endless physical exertion. The idea of such a comparison is not that it will offer us a template for the fully automated leisure society – there are only so many babbling brooks besides which to recline while singing songs to the nymphs, even in temperate regions – so much as a means of deepening the debate by highlighting some assumptions that might otherwise be taken for granted. Continue Reading »

When I Was A Lad…

It’s the week before my first week of teaching in Exeter (a week earlier than I’m used to, creating an unfortunate clash with the Deutsche Historikertag in Hamburg, so it’s actually going to be my first half week of teaching…). Busy uploading module (not ‘unit’ or ‘course’; must remember that) information onto ELE, learning the relationship between seminars and study groups, revising the ILOs according to house style, checking availability of e-books, re-writing guidance on source analysis exercises, navigating SRS to send out messages, trying to grasp the workings of BART and RECAP, and wondering where I put my copy of the guide to local acronyms. I dunno, in my day you got a photocopied bibliography in the first lecture if you were lucky, none of this spoon-feeding and eDucation nonsense… Continue Reading »

Two-Edged Sword

Over on Twitter – as ever, a reliable source of evidence to confirm one’s most pessimistic, dark-night-of-the-soul judgements on humanity – an alleged artist is protesting loudly about being banned from the Edinburgh Fringe for being “too political” in her support of Palestine and criticism of Israel using the delightful hashtag #holohoax. A supporter responded to a critical tweet by demanding to know whether the critic had ever properly looked into the claims of Revisionists, attaching a link to a video of a lecture by David Irving with the hashtag #thucydides – and responded to a criticism of that by yours truly with the line “Revisionist history is not smearing, ask Thucydides if his histories concur with Cleons?”

I’m not sure if this is the first time that Thucydides has been expressly evoked in the cause of Holocaust denial Continue Reading »

The Man Who Knows

What would Thucydides think of the current debate about the banning of the burkini in various French coastal resorts in the name of secularism? On the one hand, there is his notorious scepticism about religion and its manifestations, which, coupled with his equally notorious conservatism and indifference towards women, might have inclined him to side with those who see the costume as a symbol of intolerance and ignorance. On the other hand, there are the words he puts into the mouth of Pericles in praise of Athens as a liberal state where people’s private lives and behaviour are their own business so long as they obey the law, coupled with his keen ear for the hypocrisy of politicians and the lamentable tendency for society to fragment into factionalism and mutual intolerance.** Continue Reading »

One of the less remarked-upon policies of the UK Labour Party in recent years has been to restore the relevance of the Athenian political system as a workable analogy for contemporary democracy. Besides all the dramatic changes in ideas and ideology since the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, charted at length by scholars like Paul Cartledge and Wilfried Nippel, the fundamental objection to the deployment of classical comparisons has always been the modern switch from direct to representative democracy, from decisions being taken directly by the votes of the demos to decisions being taken by their elected representatives. The consensus – leaving aside recent arguments that the internet now makes a return to direct democracy possible – has been that this is the only practical means of realising the ideals of democracy in the complex world of modernity. Continue Reading »