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People respond to crisis, not to say imminent apocalypse, in different ways. I’d been expecting to struggle through the final two weeks of term, staggering punch-drunk out of the maelstrom that was 150 Greek History essays into the need to write the final classes – an interesting exercise to view the expansion of Rome from the perspective of the eastern Mediterranean, but to be honest I wasn’t looking for new intellectual experiences at this time of year – and hours of consultations, about dissertations, essay feedback, final essays and the Bloody Impact Case Study. I was planning to spend most of next week asleep.

Instead, I find myself strangely full of energy. Continue Reading »

Doom! Doom!

What is the point of these proliferating ‘Thucydides and coronavirus’ takes? Besides giving different academics a chance to get an article into one or other prestigious publication, obviously – never let a good crisis go to waste… This was one of the key themes that emerged in the course of an online discussion this morning with at least some of my final-year Thucydides class, for the final session of the year (and I can’t quite believe how emotional I feel about having a chance to interact with some students, rather than just creating discussion topics that no one comments on and launching audio files into the void…).

If there is a point besides self-advertisement, it’s not a consistent one. Some takes seem focused on reassurance – if only that Thucydides was able to make sense of such events, 2500 years ago, so we should feel okay about it. Others take the opposite tack, seeing the new Plague as the thing that will finally trigger the Thucydides Trap they’ve been confidently predicting for some years – or as something that will sound the death-knell for democracy (whatever happened to the fourth century..?). It makes me feel like a bit of an outlier, since – in my contribution to the ongoing flood, an interview for a podcast at the War on the Rocks website – I took the line that the Plague seems to have had remarkably little effect on the ability of the Athenians to wage war, apart from the possible consequences of the death of Pericles.

Obviously if Xi does get Corvid-19 and is replaced by a new generation of more aggressive and reckless leaders, indulging the demands of the people for an aggressive strategy, we should all start worrying.

People Are Strange

Has the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) read Thucydides, or Camus? The indications aren’t promising; on the basis of the publication yesterday of the evidence supporting the UK government’s rapidly evolving (sic.) strategy to handle the epidemic, this is the Scene That Celebrates Itself, with a list of scholarly literature mostly consisting of publications by members of the group (way to massage the h-index, guys!). Yes, a major plank in the case for deploying behavioural science to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is an op ed article arguing for the deployment of behavioural science to desk with the coronavirus outbreak… Continue Reading »

Wishful Thinking

We have already had a number of ‘Thucydides explains Coronavirus’ takes, of varying degrees of silliness – and the first sign of a fractal effect, whereby Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ misreading of Thucydides generates ‘Coronavirus Thucydides Trap’ misreadings of Allison misreading Thucydides – but I would dare to suggest that we’re already past the worst. Writing to students, the Dean of College at the University of Chicago eschewed the usual discussion of new rules and practical measures in favour of a rather idiosyncratic form of reassurance. His former graduate adviser had told him an anecdote about the dark days of 1942, when his superior officer reassured him with reference to Thucydides: wars rarely turn out in way you expect them to at the outset. Continue Reading »

Well, that happened quickly. On Friday, the latest coronavirus update from the university offered the first indication that they were considering switching teaching delivery from face-to-face to online, from 23rd March, with a decision to be made on Monday. On Sunday afternoon, the decision was confirmed. On Sunday evening, the 23rd March switchover was a minimum, with colleagues in humanities encouraged to change their approach as soon as practicable; I’d been thinking about how to do this for a while, seeing other universities in the UK and US making the change, so was all set to record short audio files, set up discussion boards, contact students etc. Then Monday evening all classes for this week were cancelled so students can, where practical, make arrangements to go home. Continue Reading »

I’ve been yelling at the internet again… Nothing new there, especially when it’s a matter of people misrepresenting Thucydides; what’s weird is that my target should be Adam Roberts, a man with astonishing breadth of knowledge and insight whose blog posts on literature and science fiction regularly leave me in absolute awe. But even Homer nods, or rather occasionally draws an unwarranted conclusion from a academic article that’s much more controversial than is obvious at first sight. Continue Reading »

I believe there’s now something of a vogue for schematic accounts of world-historical development, built around some sort of organising trope like ‘killer apps’, with far-reaching, if tendentious, contemporary implications. However, so far these seem to be mostly focused on technology and institutions, or built around grand assertions about human psychology, and inexplicably they deal with classical culture only as the/a beginning of a long process rather than as the fundamental cultural theme it clearly is in reality. It’s time to redress the balance. Yes, this is just a short blog post, but editors and publishers can be assured that I can easily turn this into a polemical op ed or trade book just by adding some striking examples, without inflicting any unhelpful nuance on the core thesis. And of course it’s just about Europe and the West; what are you, some kind of cultural Marxist? Continue Reading »