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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

I’m in two minds about scribbling this, and may change my mind about publishing it by the time I’ve finished; something that has always, quite irrationally, infuriated me about academics on social media is the way that some of them just use it to celebrate their successes and forthcoming media appearances. Non-specific sighs and laments in search of sympathetic responses are entirely forgivable in comparison… (more…)

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Nouvelle Vague

“Knowledge without understanding is useless.” Duh. It’s exactly the sort of banal truism that excites my paranoia; the idea isn’t important, but rather what someone making such a statement then wants to do about it. You could deploy it in opposition to rote learning, and the idea that there’s a list of Essential Facts and Dates that every child ought to know by heart, to argue for a focus on analysis and interpretation. But you could also – and this comes to mind with the publication this week of a new report on post-18 education in the UK, with implications for the health of the whole university system – deploy it in an attack on high-falutin’ book learning in general, or on studies that aren’t directly engaged with the Real World – it depends on whether you imagine that understanding comes through the acquisition of knowledge, or derives from a separate source (practical experience, ideology, religion…) which is independent of actually knowing things. (more…)

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How Not To Write

I’m doing the final polish of this piece while wondering why watching Meet Me In St Louis seemed like a good idea – THIS is one of the classic movie musicals?!? – and ignoring the cats, who are NOT getting fed until half eight. It was sketched out last week, between rewatching Independence Day (far superior to Meet Me In St Louis despite lack of songs and some common themes), then drafted in between cooking vindaloo and chana masala, sitting on the train into work, and eating homemade muffin (proper English muffin) while being yelled at by cats who want to be let outside to intimidate the local wildlife. (more…)

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What’s the key lesson of the Melian Dialogue? The dominant tradition has been some sort of variant on Crude Realism, from the perspective of the would-be superior power: justice only between equals, we the strong have the right to dictate and you the weak must comply, and forget all this nonsense about hope. The usual response, from those who reject such a worldview and/or, perhaps more significantly, aren’t in any position to pursue it, is to question and reject the Athenian logic, by detaching it from the authority of Thucydides and pointing to the consequences of their attitude. But of course it is also possible to be one of the Weak and nevertheless accept the logic of the Strong; like the prisoner in Life of Brian who praises the Romans for their strict approach to crime and punishment, or the cow at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there are those who fully accept the right of others to dictate terms and exact obedience. (more…)

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There’s an interesting contrast of different dynamics of classical influence in two articles that I happened to read this morning. The first is George Monbiot‘s denunciation of capitalism in the Grauniad, in which he mentions an alternative principle of socio-economic organisation he’s been promoting for a couple of years: private sufficiency and public luxury. The more times I see this phrase – I was more sceptical when it first appeared – the more it looks like something derived from classical thought, and in particular the line from Cicero’s Pro Murena that the Roman people hates private luxury but loves public munificence; it’s not just the neat rhetorical antithesis, but also the recourse to value terms like sufficiency and luxury, and the idea that wealth is not good or bad per se, but it depends on whether it’s being deployed for public benefit. (more…)

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One does have to admire, in a teeth-gritting sort of way, the unscrupulous ingenuity of university press offices: selling a story about the discovery of a rabbit leg bone* at Fishbourne villa dated to the first century CE** by linking it to the Easter Bunny, despite the fact that the earliest mention of the Osterhase comes in an early modern German text and no one has ever suggested either that it was a Roman custom or that it originated in Britain. All credit to Esther Addley in the Grauniad for dutifully summarising all the quotes from the academics, including “this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week” from the project leader, Naomi Sykes, and then adding a note of scepticism at the end. (more…)

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Constant Craving

Change. War. Violence. Unpredictability. Competition. Malevolence. Food. Music. The Rangers in the universe of Babylon 5. Inter-ethnic slaughter. Death. And that no one cares a whit about the Armenians.

This is a precis of the search results for “the one constant in human history”. Add ‘Thucydides’ to the mix, and the themes narrow down to war, violence, and human nature – which doesn’t, however, get me any further in tracking down the source of the specific quote I’m looking for: “Human nature is the one constant through human history. It is always there.” Google that, and you get a large number of low-rent quote sites, a number of annoying motivational posters, and regular blogs from one Earl Heal for the Daily Republic, a local news site in California, who trots out the same set of quotes about the glories of classical political institutions on almost every occasion. (more…)

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