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Interest Free

I’m very conscious of the risk of seeming – or indeed becoming – obsessed with one negative review; I’m sure there are plenty more such reviews to come, probably more carefully framed and less entertainingly vituperative. But my sense is that this review is less about my book than what that book is perceived to represent, from someone who feels outraged by it not just on their own behalf but on behalf of an entire scholarly tradition that feels under attack; and so it’s not unreasonable to reflect on what the review tells us, perhaps inadvertently, about that tradition. Especially to reflect on the bits that seem really odd… (more…)

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Bemusement So, my new book Classics: why it matters has been reviewed on the Classics For All webpage by Richard Jenkyns – I’d asked for a copy to be sent to them (I don’t know if they’re on the regular distribution list for review copies) as they’re a worthy organisation seeking to promote the study of classics in state schools rather than keeping it as preserve of the elite, and that’s one of the points of the book. Jenkyns is one of their patrons, so it’s entirely reasonable that they asked him to write the review – and he didn’t like it much… Okay, I wouldn’t have expected my comments on the place of ancient languages to win much favour with an eminent Oxford classicist, but is it really true, as is implied, that the book only shows any liveliness when it’s attacking classics? How must I have failed to express myself clearly, if someone thinks that I’m recommending David Engels’ prophecies of doom as a model for classical studies, rather than offering them as an example and symptom of alarming politicised appropriation of the ancient world? And as for the idea that Thucydides is straightforward to read in translation whereas such an approach in the case of Tacitus would inevitably lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding… (more…)

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My book has been published (on Friday, to be precise, at least for the UK)! Rather to my surprise, it’s already been getting some attention, with blog posts from Matthew Reisz in the Times Higher Education Supplement and from Mary Beard. Yes, a gratuitously stroppy account of the current state of Classics as a discipline and Why It Matters is more accessible than some of my usual obscure ramblings – but I have written would-be accessible things in the past, which have largely sunk without trace. Maybe it’s the moment.

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Ever since the days of Thucydides, states have used force to get what they want, and have expected weaker states to comply with their wishes. Ever since the days of Thucydides, they have claimed that this is all perfectly justifiable as the way of the world. Ever since the days of Thucydides, men have made confident claims that war is easy, straightforward, risk-free, simply an opportunity to demonstrate one’s greatness and reorder the world in a more congenial manner. Ever since the days of Thucydides, international relations academics and military strategists have spouted cliches like “Ever since the days of Thucydides…” as a cheap source of borrowed authority and gravitas. I just don’t get the part where this is supposed to be reassuring, even if it is delivered by a chiselled jaw and Action Man stare. (more…)

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If ever there was a figure to be taken seriously but not literally, it’s Oswald Spengler. The catty remark of A.L. Rowse, that “because the Germans were defeated, Western civilisation is to be regarded as coming to an end”, is unfair but not completely untrue. There’s a lot more to Spengler’s ideas than that characterisation (not least because much of his framework of thought predated WWI), but they are pervaded with the masochistic joys of apocalyptic expectation, and a sense of superiority over everyone else who hasn’t yet realised that they’re living in decadent and pathetic times. Spengler represents a fascinating offshoot of C19 critiques of modernity, throwing biological analogies and the second law of thermodynamics into the mix as explanations and justifications of feelings of Weltschmerz and cultural malaise. (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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