Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category


One of the things I really like about formal gatherings in Germany (okay, extrapolating from a sample of two, plus the father’s birthday party in Goodbye Lenin!, but it’s 100% so far) is the fact that they always seem to feature a jazz combo noodling away in the background before the speeches start. (more…)

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A day or so ago, I remarked that one reason I take a “that’ll do” approach to writing books is the fact that there’s always the next thing that I want to move on to writing about. Yes, butterfly mind and all that. This thought was then powerfully reinforced by the remark of a friend on Facebook: “Anyone else at that age when they think ‘that would be a great project, conference, grant, book…’ and then, ‘hmm, I wonder how much longer I’ve got?’” Oh god yes – and I’m not thinking about retirement, because (1) I suspect retirement ages are going to retreat endlessly into the future as we approach them, as in one of Xeno’s paradoxes, and (2) I have every intention that retirement will enable me to write much more, whatever my wife thinks about finally getting the garden sorted out.

No, we’re talking about death here. (more…)

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When it comes to my own writing, at least, I’ve always been a follower of the “that’ll do” principle; not quite the slapdash approach the phrase might imply (though doubtless there are critics out there who think my books exemplify the slapdash approach), but the art of recognising the point of diminishing marginal returns, when – given that perfection will always remain out of reach – the expenditure of addition time and effort ceases to yield proportionate improvements in the quality of the manuscript, especially when it’s probably already months (if not years) overdue and double especially when there are loads of other things I want to write about as well. It’s all about the jazz idea of creating something in the moment, of the moment, and then moving onto what the next moment calls for, rather than endlessly honing the same thing in the hope of transcending intellectual entropy.

This approach has worked well enough – until now. (more…)

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The Original Shithole

Accordingly Attica, from the poverty of its soil enjoying from a very remote period freedom from faction, never changed its inhabitants. And here is no inconsiderable exemplification of my assertion, that the migrations were the cause of there being no correspondent growth in other parts. The most powerful victims of war or faction from the rest of Hellas took refuge with the Athenians as a safe retreat; and at an early period, becoming naturalized, swelled the already large population of the city to such a height that Attica became at last too small to hold them, and they had to send out colonies to Ionia. (Thucydides 1.2.5-6)

There’s a low-level but persistent Twitter meme that Thucydides shows the dangers of immigration and failure to assimilate. (more…)

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In the recent debates about the Ethics and Empire project at Oxford and its apparently apologetic agenda – see the Oxford open letter, the letter from non-Oxford scholars of empire and colonialism, James McDougall in the Grauniad – ancient historians have kept relatively quiet; Jo Quinn was one of the signatories of the Oxford open letter, and was denounced in the Daily Mail for her pains, but the second letter seems entirely modern in its focus. This is understandable, not from any sort of cowardice or secret imperialist sympathies on the part of ancient historians, but because in the first instance this does appear to be a debate focused on the particular dynamics and problematic history of the British Empire, with the modern postcolonial experience in other regions as the second-ranked concern.

However, as I tend to argue at the drop of a hat, it’s difficult if not impossible to escape the spectre of the Roman Empire when discussing modern imperialism. (more…)

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2017 on the Sphinx

It’s felt like a very, very long year – but also a productive one, especially on the blog; anger is an energy, there’s been plenty to get angry about, but also things worth celebrating with enthusiasm. As I did last year, the aim of this end-of-year review isn’t to parade my most-viewed posts, since I imagine most people reading this will already have seen them, but to look back over some themes and issues, and highlight the things I most enjoyed writing and/or feel most proud to have written. (more…)

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A Thucydides Christmas Carol

No, not a heart-warming story about how the curmudgeonly old cynic came to be persuaded of the essential goodness of human nature and the unshakeable bonds of fellowship – okay, simply writing that out makes it seem like a really good idea, but probably not this year – but a reprise of @Thucydiocy’s little song from the Twitter, in case you missed it…

On the twelfth day of Christmas Thucydides sent to me

Twelve misquotations
Eleven dubious analogies
Ten IR Realists
Nine war college seminars
Eight Auden references
Seven exemplary catastrophes
Six brutal massacres
Tragic irony!
Four hundred oligarchs
Fear, honour and interest
A bipolar conflict
And a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ

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