Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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. Continue Reading »

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… Continue Reading »

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? Continue Reading »

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. Continue Reading »

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. Continue Reading »

Taking Sides

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?

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. Continue Reading »

As Buffy wisely (but perhaps unhelpfully, given the result) remarked in the very first episode of the series, life is short. A key theme in Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens is its psychological effects precisely in relation to a sense of time and the future: the abandonment of any concern for the longer term, on the assumption that one is more likely than not to die, and hence loss of respect for the law (you’re not going to live long enough to be tried and punished, so who cares?), neglect of traditional virtues like thrift and caution (why save for tomorrow when you might not be there to enjoy it?), and above all disregard for what other people think of you. Honour is something that has to be accumulated slowly, for uncertain benefits beyond the feeling that you don’t want to be despised or jeered by your fellow citizens; in the short term it’s just a restraint on what you want to do NOW. Continue Reading »

Shock Tactics

Every crisis is an opportunity, and the idea of creative disruption – shaking up the system to create space for innovation and profit – is so much easier if something else has already done the shaking up for you. This is as true for universities as for everything else at the moment. The immediate and understandable response of most has been to wonder how to restore the pre-plague status quo as quickly as possible, or to worry about how far some things may already be broken beyond repair (a business model based on ever-increasing numbers of overseas students, and devil take the disciplines that can’t recruit them, for example). Some – like me – have quietly welcomed the sudden acceptance that take-home papers and other ‘alternative’ forms of assessment are actually fine and dandy. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the hand-rubbing and gleeful cackling of people whom we should generally prefer to be subdued and miserable; just think of the most cynical approach to higher education you can, and almost certainly someone is already planning it… Continue Reading »

First Contact

Further musings on what next year’s teaching might look like… Yes, I know that there are already highly successful distance-learning models out there, above all from the Open University, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I suspect that what we end up doing will be rather different: we don’t have the time to develop all the material and supporting framework for full-blown online courses by September (especially with the likelihood, given recruitment freezes due to enormous financial black hole, that we’ll all need to take on more courses than planned), and most of us lack the experience (and probably skills) to make that work – better to produce a hybrid that plays as far as possible to our existing strengths – and finally universities are likely to want to distinguish their offerings from what’s already available from the OU. Continue Reading »