(This is a guest post from Andreas Stradis, one of the doctoral students on the Bristol Thucydides project)
In his bestselling, semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes devotes much attention to the plain-speaking, hard-drinking Lieutenant Colonel Simpson, torn between the needs of his battalion and his promotion prospects. A Korean War veteran and true ‘field’ Marine, he is also an outsider. Despite his combat experience, he is phased by his much younger equal in rank, a suave, educated Annapolis graduate. He sits a world apart from the Ivy League elite, to which Marlantes himself belonged as a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar. At Georgia State University, taking the less prestigious route to a commission, Simpson ‘never had time to learn how to socialize’, or to ‘put pithy quotes into his reports the way he knew he ought to.’ After all he had done, ‘Why should he have to remember pithy f****** quotes?’ Quotes were incommensurate with the plain-speaking man, and otiose in the jungle.
At the heart of that ‘other world’ that Simpson so feared, delivering a lecture to an audience at the Royal Society a couple of months ago, the former British Ambassador to Kabul felt it necessary to caveat his quotation from ‘the greatest writer of political textbooks ever’, expressing his consciousness that he did so ‘rather pompously and pretentiously’. In his glittering and perspicuous speech, Thucydides’ was the only name about which Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles seemed to hold any reservations. Somehow, the mention of Thucydides seemed to jar with a notion of plain-speaking, despite the high calibre of the audience, ranging from other high-ranking diplomats, military personnel, journalists and scholars, right down to budding Thucydideans like myself with rather questionable backgrounds in political science. And yet the kernel of what Thucydides actually had to say was worth the initial distaste that had clearly been anticipated and feared.
Crucially, this fear was based on the expectation of a divergence between the audience’s image of Thucydides and his actual message. Sir Sherard’s caveat suggests his listeners might have thought the Peloponnesian War incomparable to the modern day, an anachronism, or a mere embellishment. Or, worse still, a subterfuge, to cover argumentative weakness with an esoteric reference. Nor was Sir Sherard educating from scratch, as indicated by his ‘Many of you I hope will know…’ before launching into a discussion of Thucydides’ ‘Methodology’ section in Book I. His mention of pomposity and pretentiousness must therefore concern the way in which Thucydides is commonly seen to be used. A not altogether positive history of usage was felt to exist by Sir Sherard and his audience alike.
Sir Sherard’s caveat speaks volumes about the reception of Thucydides. Why ‘pompously’? Because of the common affectation of grandeur, whether resting on some sense of understanding so ‘difficult’ a writer or resting on the satisfaction of having pointed out so painfully an obvious parallel. And ‘pretentiously’, because outside of Classics itself, Thucydides is perhaps used too often for the weight his name gives to an argument rather than on the strength of his argument alone.
One might take a disheartening message away from all this. It may be that Thucydides’ reputation precedes him to the point of obscuring the substance of what he wrote. On the other hand, Sir Sherard’s caveat proves that some are conscious of this disparity, and are willing to brave the reflex of disapprobation by putting his words to good use in plain speech.