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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Doubling Down

As the old proverb (sometimes attributed to Solon) has it, gods, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man on the Internet. Am I being hasty and unfair, leaping to judgement on the basis of fleeting interactions with ‘The Mystic’ (brooding headshot with goatee, quote about chaos and perfection, cover image of some heavily tattooed wrestlers) or AwesomeDude (avatar of a dog, cover image of a Dilbert cartoon)?* Yes, quite possibly. But if they not only ascribe that wretched ‘The society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” quote to Thucydides, but firmly reject gentle correction from the Thucydides Bot, they’re gonna get judged… (more…)

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Not Fade Away

Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser, when we’re just getting old…

We’ve recently started watching The Kominsky Method – yes, two years late, but by my standards that’s finger right on the cultural pulse stuff. If you don’t know it, highly recommended: proper Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, showing off their acting chops in a subtle chamber-piece comedy as an actor (mostly making a living as a coach) worrying about his prostate, and his recently widowed agent. It feels more like a credible (and big budget) indie film than a US television series, including the fact that it’s only eight episodes per season. Lots of dry, dark humour and lots of reflections on age and what it does to you. “You know, I wake up every morning,” says Norman, Arkin’s character, “And my first thought is, what part of me is not working today?” Ouch. (more…)

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It’s a very long time since I had any direct contact with UCAS forms or the whole process of undergraduate admissions. At that time, a vital part of the knowledge handed down by more experienced colleagues was how to recognise examples of what one might call Lake Wobegon School of Reference-Writing: Where all the students are above average, and one of the best I have ever taught, and uniquely well suited to the degree programme in question. We could have filled our admissions quotas many times over with such applicants, which would be fine for the bottom line, but a slightly depressing teaching prospect, especially thinking of the better students we might miss because their teachers were more honest and/or less practised in talking up their charges. Oddly enough, such boosterism was wholly associated with fee-paying schools.* (more…)

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Imperial Sunset

Around twenty years ago, I used to daydream occasionally about a revival of the eighteenth-century Royal Navy. Oddly enough, this coincided with a rather bumpy patch in my role as stepfather to a teenage boy; who of us in such a position wouldn’t sometimes dream of an institution that would take them away for a few years, feed and train them, and then either return them as a mature, disciplined adult with prospects, or not return them at all? I suppose this may be why elderly Telegraph readers occasionally call for the return of National Service to lick delinquent youth into shape, but that always struck me as far too short a period of service. (more…)

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How on earth is it the middle of June already? Whether I think of this in terms of the end of the academic year (since I’ve finished all my marking, and am up to date with external examiner stuff) or of the end of strict lockdown (however temporary that may prove to be), it’s hard not to be seized by a feeling of panic, at all the things I meant to do and haven’t done, and all the things I’m supposed to get done before the end of the summer that I should have started already. Of course there were Reasons – there always are – but I was so confident that I would at the very least make some progress with my Thucydides music project… (more…)

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SCENE: the reception area, morning. Sybil is doing accounts. Basil is painstakingly recolouring a map of the world. One of the members of the visiting cultural delegation from Ghana approaches the desk cautiously. He is ignored.

Stephen: Excuse me?

Basil continues to ignore him.

Stephen: Sir? Mr Fawlty?

Basil: Not. Now.

Sybil: Attend to Mr Assamoah, Basil.

Basil: Oh! Right! Stop whatever you’re doing, Basil, it can’t possibly be important!

Sybil: It isn’t.

Basil: But the colours are all wrong! They should be pink! And what’s happened to Rhodesia? (more…)

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Thucydides doesn’t mention the fact that a statue of the Athenian tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, occupied a prominent position in the agora; almost certainly he didn’t have to, as this would be well known to his readers, but in any case he had a bigger and more important target: the story that the statue was intended to commemorate. “People accept the traditions that they hear quite uncritically, even when it relates to their own country,” he remarked caustically (1.20) – though perhaps he should have said especially when it relates to their own country, in the light of his observation a little further on (1.22) that accounts of the same event might vary “depending on individual loyalties”. Athenians – at any rate the democratically-inclined majority – knew what their past was all about, without any need for inconvenient historical fact, and they would surely have been outraged at any proposal that the statue should be removed because the real story behind it wasn’t quite as straightforwardly noble and democratic as they believed. (more…)

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Wicked Game

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over the last week or so in conversations with colleagues about how we’re going to manage teaching next year. One takeaway from this is a reminder of how dedicated, imaginative and insightful the aforementioned colleagues are. It’s fair to say that we’ve got a spectrum from those who see this as an exciting opportunity to try out new approaches and radically change some of our traditional teaching styles, and those who are focused on ways to maintain more conventional teaching approaches in dramatically new and uncertain circumstances. But there’s nobody who is insisting on privileging their convenience over flexibility, or unwilling to countenance radical change if that’s what best suits student needs. (more…)

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There’s been an uptick in misattributed ‘Thucydides’ quotes on the USAnian Twitter in the last couple of days, for obvious reasons: “the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself” (journalist Chris Hedges drawing an explicit analogy with Iraq War blowback, which certainly can include the militarisation of the police; interesting, Incidentally, how he tries to focus on “Athenian leadership” not the demos…), and “justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are” (actually Solon, in Plutarch’s Life). There’s also been an interesting interpretation of the Melian Dialogue line “there is justice only between equals” as a plea for equality rather than as an utterly immoral conception of justice.

Do pedantic corrections have any role to play at this time? Well, much more than usual I am very conscious that people are tweeting these lines in good faith because they are powerful and/or useful ideas, and acknowledge this in replying to them (which does take substantially longer than just tweeting derisive emojis), but I’ve decided to carry on doing it; truth still matters, even in such circumstances.

It did bring to mind another of Solon’s ideas, that we ended up discussing quite a lot in my Greek Political Thought class this year: that in times of stasis, those who “out of indifference preferred to let events take their course” should be stripped of their citizen rights (as quoted in e.g. the Ath Pol, 8.5). It’s a line that has been much debated by scholars, given the sense – as seen for example in Thucydides’ powerful depiction of stasis at Corcyra – that a political community collapsing into starkly polarised factions is surely the worst possible scenario, and yet Solon seems to be reinforcing such decisions, calling on everyone to take up arms with one or other side.

One interpretation is that, whatever later centuries thought Solon was saying, the original intent was not to divide the whole polis into two hostile camps but to get everyone to take a stand in resolving the conflict. The true threat is indifference – which we can also understand as selfishness: if the wealthy few are oppressing the poor (and we can update that to recognise other conflicts in modern society: black and white, men and women etc), sitting back to see who wins is an utterly antisocial act, which entirely merits the loss of honour and citizen rights. It echoes Solon’s line about those who are not directly affected by injustice needing to become equally angry; T’s echoed in Pericles’ funeral oration, with the claim that in Athens those who decline to play their part in public business have no place in the political community.

Of course it’s absurdly optimistic; it’s very easy to imagine all the reasons people will keep their heads down (with the risk that, as Thucydides noted for Corcyra, that all the reasonable moderate people, confident in their powers of common sense and prediction, will end up being equally despised and destroyed by both sides). But if your community is riven by injustice, how can you not take a stand?

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Is this the moment when the Trump administration decisively repudiates one of the great traditions of American politics, honoured by both parties for over a century? I’m not thinking of the executive order to denounce Twitter and Facebook, since all manner of presidents have sought to manipulate or gag the media over the years (but, hey, can they both lose?). No, this is a subtler but perhaps more significant shift in behaviour and attitude, signalled in a US State Department paper on Arms Control and International Security, published under the name of Dr Christopher A. Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation and currently moonlighting as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, on US National Security Export Controls and Huawei.

Now, I must admit that I don’t read a lot of State Department papers, but I may have to change that habit if this one is typical, because the opening section is hilarious. (more…)

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