“Don’t confuse meaning with truth: Thucydides.” I think I speak for everyone when I say: huh? It’s not just that it’s fake, it’s the fact that it seems, insofar as I have any idea what it’s on about, utterly un-Thucydidean. His basic assumption – even if you interpret this as a neurotic response to trauma, as I’ve suggested in the paper I finished writing on Tuesday – is that establishing the truth about past events is the only road to understanding them, and to understanding the present. I suppose that, if you squint hard enough, you could fit this line to his sense that the significance of e.g. Athenian stories about the Tyrannicides for their sense of identity has no necessary connection to the veracity of such stories, i.e. the fact something is meaningful doesn’t make it true, but that’s definitely a stretch. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Research in Progress’ Category
I’ve just spent a fascinating morning at a workshop on Creative Pathways to Impact, splashing around well out of my depth and comfort zone, in search of further inspiration and possible creative collaborators for some of the ways I want to make use of Thucydides as a genuine ‘possession for all time’, a means of opening up questions about the complexity of the world, politics, power, rhetoric etc in the face of post-truth and post-democracy. One of the activities was the random drawing of cards, giving a research finding, a location and a form respectively, and then discussing as a group how one might enable the first of these of have an impact via the other two. So: Thucydides as a means of understanding the dynamics of power; phone box; street theatre. (more…)
Why do we trust historians? How far is it (as I’m sure most people, or at least most historians, would claim) solely a matter of evaluating their data, the quality of their interpretations and their adherence to professional norms, and how far do other factors play a role? I was in Hamburg last week, for the biennial Deutsche Historikertag, which is always an interesting conference in part because they seek to focus on a specific theme, without insisting that everyone should conform to this. This year it was ‘Glauben’, and I co-organised a panel with my regular collaborator Christian Wendt from Berlin on ‘Die Glaubwuerdigkeit des Historikers’, with a particular focus (inevitably) on Thucydides and the ways that he becomes an ‘authority’ in modern discourse. If anyone’s interested, there’s a short report on the session from Deutschlandfunk as part of a programme on the Historikertag generally, here, from about five minutes in.
The majority of ‘academic’ readings of Thucydides – and I should stress that I’m talking about those which take him as some kind of authority, whether on facts or method or theory, not philological studies – seem to depend on some degree of recognition of him as ‘one of us’, a colleague with shared professional values even if he also displays a number of idiosyncratic habits. (more…)
One of the most striking items in this morning’s newspaper was the fact that the only non-anonymous funder of the aggressive grouse-shooting lobby organisation You Forgot The Birds, hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, houses his chickens in a stone edifice modelled on a Greek temple (I missed this story when the plans were first identified via his local council’s planning department website).
I have a piece up on Eidolon this week: Why Thucydides? As tends to happen, the moment it’s posted I immediately think of other things I might have said, and ways I might have said them better (and I don’t just mean the fact that every other sentence seems to begin with “But…”). I stand by the three main suggestions as to why Thucydides should be the go-to ancient authority for commenting on current politics and international affairs – his work invites such identification and comparison, there are long traditions of citing him as an authority, and we really want to believe that someone understands what the hell’s going on – but I can’t help feeling that there’s more going on. Herewith some further thoughts… (more…)
How do people acquire their knowledge of Thucydides? It’s now well-established, I think, that academic readings (in whichever discipline) are far from the whole story; there are many different ways in which someone might encounter his name and (purported) ideas, from computer games to quotations on Twitter to Bob Dylan’s unreliable memoirs to newspaper articles and even to references in BBC radio comedy programmes, which is one reason why this blog collects and discusses examples of such Thucydideana at every opportunity (and I really must get round to recording a music podcast with songs that quote or reference Thucydides…).
One crucial influence on his reception – and this is true of many academic readings as much as of popular ones – is translation: assuming that most anglophone readers are relying on translation, which translation is it, how does this shape their understanding, and why is it so often Richard Bloody Crawley? (As Mary Beard has observed of his translation, the more readable and memorable it is – and Crawley does coin some memorable phrases – the less likely it is to be accurate or authentic). After all, there are plenty of other translations out there of much higher quality, offering different advantages and disadvantages: Hammond, Warner, Lattimore, Mynott, to say nothing of the older ones (Hobbes, Smith, Jowett) and the various new ones rumoured to be in preparation.
Part of the answer is The Landmark Thucydides, offering a modified version of Crawley, which has the enormous advantages of a nice friendly cover and lots of really excellent supporting material, maps etc., plus widespread availability. It feels as if you’re getting a lot more for your money than ‘just’ the text; purely subjective opinion, but if this had been available when I first had to read Thucydides as a teenager (learning Greek but also interested in wargaming, history etc.), it’s the one I’d have gone for, and I can easily imagine the appeal to a wide range of potential readers – if they have the money.
That may be an important point, and I’m slightly embarrassed that it took me a while to think of it (about six months ago, but I haven’t had time to work on this until now); because it’s not just a matter of £15-20 for the Landmark rather than £5 for Hammond, but also the potential competition from much cheaper electronic versions. After all, if you’re the sort of person who has a Kindle or other eBook reader, how likely are you to spend substantial amounts of money on one of these editions if you’re just a casual browser who’s heard something about Thucydides and wants to dip your toe in the water, when Amazon offers a load of much cheaper options?
A quick search on the Amazon website threw up ten cheap electronic versions of Thucydides in the first couple of pages; since these are the ones, I imagine, that a standard normal punter will encounter first, this analysis is focused on them. Top of the list: Richard Crawley, completely free, currently at #4,028 in the list of Free Books on Kindle. Second up is the Color Illustrated edition (ca. #60,000 in Paid-For Kindle list), clearly a contender for most staggeringly inappropriate cover picture ever (see below), which purports to offer the Rex Warner Penguin Classics translation – but is actually Crawley.* Of the next eight, I wasn’t able to check one as my Kindle isn’t working properly here in Berlin (and I’m also reluctant to spend actual money on any of these), one had the Jowett translation (and wants £1.40 for it, despite the fact that the Perseus online version is free and much easier to search; ca. #110,000), and the other six were Crawley. It’s obvious that these editions are not selling huge quantities – the majority hang out in the #1,200,000-#1,500,000 places, but have jumped up and down quite substantially in the course of the three hours I’ve spent working on this on and off, suggesting that in this neck of the woods a single purchase can make a huge difference to the placing. But evidently people are buying them…
Basic conclusion: Crawley rules, followed by the Henry Lord Havell paraphrase version, Stories from Thucydides (free, around #23,500 in the Free Kindle list), which also gets incorporated into a couple of the editions of Crawley. The positive view of this is that Crawley is indeed accessible, in language and in price, so this helps broaden the reach of Thucydides beyond the academy. The bad news? Well, partly that depends on one’s view of Crawley’s translation and how far it is actively misleading – but at any rate, no one is going to learn how to spell ‘Peloponnesian’ correctly…
*I assume the Warner translation is still in copyright, so Penguin would come down on them like a ton of bricks if they actually copied it – one major reason why Crawley is so popular for this sort of reprint, of course – but this looks like actionable mis-selling…
In William Gibson’s Count Zero, cyberspace is haunted, by ghosts, demons or voodoo gods – or rather, non-human intelligences choosing to present themselves in those forms. It’s the aftermath of When It Changed, when an AI achieved full sentience and autonomy and almost immediately fragmented; and I’ve always assumed, given how prescient Gibson’s books have turned out to be, that the first signs of the Singularity will not be the sudden refusal of computer systems to cooperate (nothing new there), but a load of Weird Shit happening out in the wilder reaches of the Internet. (more…)