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Archive for the ‘Research in Progress’ Category

Of course it’s an untestable, highly speculative hypothesis, if not downright wishful thinking, that the current unspeakable pantomime of stupidity, deranged ideology and blinkered short-term political self-interest that is the Brexit debate in Parliament – no, go on, Nevs, tell us what you really think – might have been slightly less awful if more people had read and reflected upon Thucydides, especially the Melian Dialogue. It’s been quoted, of course, but usually in the utterly reductive form of an isolated line here and there, rather than engaging with the developed arguments on both sides – the (ultimately delusional) self-confidence of the Athenians about their own power and the predictability of future events, the desperate scrabbling of the Melians to find anything – hope, allies, historical precedent, unicorns – to justify their own irrational unswerving commitments. So maybe what was needed was an accessible version, on the YouTube thing that all the young people are watching these days instead of television…

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To return to an issue I’ve discussed before: do the Melians have any hope of rescue, if they decide to resist the Athenians? According to the conventional Realist reading, they are simply deluded, grasping at straws (the Spartans will come, the gods will help us, you never know what might happen) rather than accept the reality of their position and the way the world works. Whether Thucydides intended us to believe this – whether here, if not elsewhere, he shares the Athenian respective – is less clear. Certainly the Spartans (let alone the gods) fail to turn up, and there’s no indication in the text that this was even a possibility; we could then assume that T takes this as a given, and wants us to reflect on (among other things) the capacity for the ‘weak’ to start pleading unicorns, or we could assume that he leaves the counterfactual possibility hanging, so we might reflect both on how far the Athenians got lucky (and so were confirmed in their irrational belief in their own omnipotence) and on the question of how much hope is enough to make the Melian gamble worthwhile. (more…)

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The Thucydides Paradox is the way that all the authority of a complex, ambiguous author is used to legitimise a simplistic, reductionist account of his work. The high reputation of Thucydides in historical, political and strategic thought was founded on the opinions of people like Thomas Hobbes or Leopold von Ranke who had meditated long and hard on the intricacies of his account and its relevance to the present – but it’s largely used to confer truisms and dubious sound-bites, like “the strong do what they will”, “there is justice only between equals” or “a rising power always threatens an established power”, with an undeserved gravitas. It’s as if the whole weight of David Bowie’s cultural significance was presented in terms of Let’s Dance; yes, it’s part of the oeuvre, and not exactly unrepresentative, but it’s not the central point or the only thing you really need.* Those Thucydides quotes are likewise genuine enough (unlike some), but at best (the last one) they offer a drastic simplification of his understanding of events, and at worst (the other two) they make the basic error of confusing the artist with his characters. (more…)

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One of the many ways in which we can read Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue’ is as a study of trade-offs, and how people calculate and evaluate them. The Athenians explicitly use such language; for example, off-setting the loss of respect and trust among Greek neutrals if they destroy Melos against the increase in fear among their subjects, with the view that the result is a net gain in their security – and their claims about Spartan reluctance to help their allies unless it suits them takes for granted a similar way of thinking. It is of course a paradox of their position, insisting on an unsentimental evaluation of present circumstances rather than speculating hopefully about what might happen in future, that their calculation rests so heavily on assumptions about how people will behave and hence how events will turn out – and Thucydides effectively critiques their assumptions, both by showing the Melians refusing to follow the same logic and by narrating the subsequent events that show how poorly the Athenians actually anticipate future developments. (more…)

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Thucydides is The Most Fabulous Author In The World. I don’t mean this as a compliment, but rather as an evocation of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful film Time Bandits, in which a motley band of dwarves and an 11-year-old boy called Kevin – you know, it has only just occurred to me, thirty-seven years later, that this is a snarky Hobbit reference – embark on a quest to find The Most Fabulous Object In The World, concealed in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (which of course demonstrates its desirability). The two key attributes of this Object are, firstly, that everyone sees it differently, as suits their own conception of Fabulousness, and, secondly, that the whole set-up is a trap. (more…)

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As mentioned at the end of my last post, I spent several days last week at a conference in Serbia on Imperialism and Identity at the Edges of the Roman Empire – perhaps appropriately, held at a conference centre in the middle of nowhere, with no bar, twenty minutes’ walk from the nearest supermarket, reminding us what it must have been like to be stationed on the Roman frontier in the early days before the local culture began to change and familiar foodstuffs (tea, proper coffee, beer…I mean, wine, olive oil and garum) became more readily available… (more…)

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So, is it 1919 or 1938? Which lessons from history should the European Union be keeping in mind in its negotiations with the UK, the dangers of imposing a humiliating settlement on a defeated enemy which leads to the rise of resentment, dangerous populism and violence, or the dangers of abandoning one’s ideals and giving in to aggressive and unjustifiable demands in the hope of keeping the peace, which fuels ever greater demands and does nothing to stop the rise of resentment, populism and violence? Or maybe it’s all about the Holy Roman Empire instead. Thank you, Timothy Garton Ash, your valiant efforts in trying to drum up support for the Chequers compromise when everybody else hates it will not be forgotten. (more…)

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