Before anyone says anything, yes, I know it was a mistake to search for ‘Thucydides’ on Twitter. And to keep searching every couple of days. And to start replying to all the people who insist on quoting the line from William F. Butler’s 1889 biography of General Charles Gordon – “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools”, or words to that effect, so bring back national service and/or replace all the professors with retired military men – as if it was written by Thucydides, to correct them. Whether or not it was a mistake to embark on trying to create an autonomous twitter account, The Thucydiocy Bot (@Thucydiocy) to do all the searching and responding for me, time will only tell (especially once I’ve worked out the technology to make it genuinely autonomous). But there really seems to be only one place this is leading…
So far I have learnt several things, some of which are not wholly useless. There is clearly a whole subculture out there of tweeting words of wisdom, mostly misspelt (“The secret of oappiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is couragi.”) that I simply don’t understand. That line seems to be by far the most popular, followed at a distance by the aforementioned Butler quote, followed by “Ignorance is bold”, followed by various others at a frequency of one per day or fewer – including the famously apocryphal “a collision at sea can ruin your whole day”, which I haven’t seen in the wild for some years.
One also comes across yet more appropriations of Thucydides in unexpected contexts. The idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ now seems to be ineradicable in any discussion of China, as in the completely pointless invocation of the phrase at the opening of a discussion of Chinese tech policy (basically, a simplified version of Graham Allison’s already fairly simplified reading). This may also explain a tweet that I found otherwise incomprehensible, from @funsofdavid: “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) excluding USA; New Development Bank (NDB) excluding the West. I’m calling it Thucydides’ Bank.”
Marginally more substantial is the use of Thucydides to denounce the nuclear deal with Iran:
The future may consider it a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that the president did not take time to read Thucydides before sending his negotiators off to Vienna. Over 2,400 years ago, the master historian stripped away false hopes such as those embraced by Obama with a clarity that has never been surpassed. In the very first speech of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War appears the following admonition: “Concessions to adversaries only end in self-reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.” (I:1.34) It is a bitter truth in an anarchic world. Unpalatable as it may be, nothing more can be added to a maxim that has been universally proved for nearly two and a half millennia. Only a profound ignorance of history could lead one to believe that this time will be different.
Speaker in a speech in Thucydides taken as voice of Thucydides himself: check (and I’m really not sure that the Corcyreans are necessarily people whose claims you would want to take at face value). Thucydides’ opinion accepted as universally valid without any consideration of changing circumstances: check. World assumed to be anarchic, history assumed to be dark and miserable: check. Granted, one can imagine Thucydides being quietly sceptical of an excessively optimistic view of one’s opponents’ intentions – but I don’t think he would necessarily have been on the side of those who refuse to accept any possibility of compromise or peace. Finally, another case where the translation from The Landmark Thucydides (I assume it’s Crawley) may be a bit more colourful than the original Greek necessarily warrants; Jowett has “For he passes through life most securely who has least reason to reproach himself with complaisance to his enemies”, which has a similar message but is rather less absolute.
But finally I did find this, from @TheBrianCheeks, and it’s cheered me up no end: “”Gangsta’s do what they want, sucka’s do what they can” hey man you can’t steal the words of Thucydides and still be gangsta nope”. The reception of Thucydides in contemporary hip hop…
[Update: just to emphasise Thucydides’ ideological malleability, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that a couple of years ago the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, was citing him to show the feasibility of successful negotiations with Iran, on the basis that all states are basically rational and driven by fear, self-interest and honour.]