A brief survey of recent British history as reflected in the changing title of my putative next Thucydides book…

2015: Thucydides and Modern Political Thought

2016: The Human Thing: Thucydides on Politics and its Failings

2017: Faction, Populism and the Politics of Truth; Hope, Danger’s Comforter

2018: It’s the Melian Dialogue, Stupid (And You’re the Melians)

2019: History Repeating: the Self-Inflicted Death of Democracy; The Human Thing: Why People Make Idiotic Decisions; A Possession for All Time (If Anyone Bothered to Pay Attention)

2020: Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You

As I have noted before, the key to understanding the Brexit debate remains the paradoxes of the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (see previous discussions here and here), which were, it is implied in Plato’s Parmenides, originally composed to support his friend Parmenides’ contention that any perception of change or progress is an illusion designed to distract us from horror of a senseless universe. The relevant passage reads as follows: Continue Reading »

Black, Black, Black

Would it be better if Thucydides had never written, or if his work had been lost altogether? (Not an entirely impossible scenario, given that nothing of his work was available in Western Europe before the 14th century, and any number of Greek works may have been lost when Constantinople fell). I’ve mused on this before, in the context of the stupid Thucydides Trap idea (which, insofar as it’s a well-intentioned policy intervention, seems just as likely to prompt aggressive war preparations as the de-escalation that its author urges), and one might have asked the same question about the US Neocons and their apparent belief that Thucydides licensed a new US world order, in which the Sicilian Expedition would have the right outcome. Continue Reading »

2018 on the Sphinx

It’s been one of those years… As far as the blog is concerned, I’ve managed to keep up a reasonably steady routine of posts – it does help that the WiFi on South Western trains is pretty reliable, so I can get things written on the commute down to Exeter – and the viewing figures have been pretty steady (no weird public controversies, and I managed to resist the temptation to launch unprovoked attacks on any prominent media figures during the slow weeks). I have at various points wondered whether it’s worth it; on the one hand, this remains a great opportunity to write about things that would never make for a proper academic article (or which perhaps might count as groundwork for something more substantial in due course – I am committed to giving a paper about Thucydides on Twitter in February), but on the other hand it is a time commitment, and in a year when it feels like I’ve lacked both time and energy even for the regular work stuff, sometimes it’s felt like that ‘one more bloody thing’ which could turn out to be that one thing too much. Continue Reading »

One of the ways in which the Athens of Pericles is a terrible model for how to manage a just society is the ultra-restrictive citizenship law he introduced in 451, reserving full legal and political status only for those whose parents were both Athenians. At least in part because of a shortage of sources, the context and purpose of this law is much disputed; Aristotle’s suggestion (Politics 1278a) seems as plausible as any, that this is a means of restricting the numbers of citizens in a polis that is expanding, presumably in order not to spread the benefits of citizenship (and, in Athens, of empire) too widely. In other circumstances, the benefits of immigrants are widely recognised; we can see this in Xenophon’s proposals in the Poroi for revitalising the Athenian economy by attracting more foreign traders and other entrepreneurs – though without actually opening up citizenship – and still more in Thucydides’ account of the way early Athens grew through offering a safe haven to refugees from other parts of Greece: “by becoming citizens from the very earliest times they so increased the city’s population that Attica could not contain them and the Athenians later sent out colonies to occupy Ionia as well” (1.2.6). Immigrants as an asset – but sometimes a state decides that it wants all the benefits of their contributions without offering anything much in return, however long they’ve lived there and however much they’ve done for their adopted home…


Jocks and Greeks

Just to prove that I don’t only care about misquotations of Thucydides – though admittedly I came across this one in the course of correcting yet another occurrence of the familiar “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” line. In this case, it was being cited in response to this tweet:

This looked somewhat dubious at first glance, and attempts at googling key phrases just produced lots of people quoting the same thing (or the same thing with “too effeminate”), mostly in support of their sporting philosophies. However, as Sententiae Antiquae (@sentantiq) has identified, it is not completely ungenuine: it’s a paraphrase of Jowett’s translation of the Republic, 410b-412a, simply substituting ‘scholar’ for the original ‘musician’. According to Socrates, the man who can best blend music with gymnastics and apply them both to the soul is not merely the ideal citizen but the prototype of the city’s future rulers. You could even argue that it’s not unreasonable to see music as standing in for the whole range of liberal arts, requiring the admixture of physical training and prowess to make them fulling effective just as athletes need to indulge their inner geek to avoid complete savagery. And actually this seems to be paraphrasing so much text that it seems likely it was never originally intended to be read as a quote – but someone then reproduced it as such… Continue Reading »

Blogs of the Year 2018

It is perfectly possible that I spend too much time on the Internet, and on social media. But there is so much amazing stuff out there – insightful, informative, passionate, provocative, brilliantly written stuff, produced not for profit but for the sake of the ideas and the wish to communicate with others – and if it wasn’t for the Twitter I wouldn’t know a thing about most of it. My ‘best of’ list seems to get longer every year, perhaps because I’ve got into the habit of making notes as soon as I’ve read something, rather than relying on my ever more erratic memory to recall things from earlier in the year – and this is as much about reminding myself and revisiting things as it as about recommending that you should read them too… Continue Reading »