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Posts Tagged ‘Alcibiades’

There’s a long essay in today’s Grauniad by James Miller, offering a broad-brush overview of the history of democracy, focusing mainly on what political theorists have had to say about it. I’ve come to think of this as rather an odd sub-genre; these essays are almost invariably condensed versions of books rather than written as essays for a specific publication, and they unite the desire of the author and publisher to hype the book and the desire of the newspaper to be publishing Big Provocative Ideas – hence, in this case, the claim of the title and sub-heading that this essay is all about arguing that maybe populism is essential for democracy rather than a threat to it, a thesis that is only touched on in passing in the actual piece.

The process of editing a book down to essay-length may account for a certain tendency to non-sequiturs: (more…)

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Donald Trump is Cleon (brash, populist, unscrupulous, dangerous). Or Alcibiades (rich, ambitious, unscrupulous, dangerous). He’s the Paphlagonian in Aristophanes’ Knights, or the Sausage-Seller, or both (vulgar, greedy demagogues). Danielle Allen has suggested a switch into the Homeric mode, urging Jeb Bush to step up as Achilles to Rubio’s Patroclus, making Trump… Hector (the enemy who must be slain)? Agamemnon? With Mitt Romney stepping into the fight as Menelaus, or Philoctetes. The great thing about Homer is the sheer number of larger-than-life characters on offer for such comparisons. I can’t believe – nothing came up on Google – that no one has yet done Trump as Thersites, for the torrent of bile and resentment fuelling his candidacy. Maybe that risks making him seem too much like the man of the people he claims to be… (more…)

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Here we go again? As plenty of people have already observed, the debate around whether or not the United Kingdom should join the bombing campaign in Syria feel terribly familiar. For most, this suggests 2003 all over again; in today’s Grauniad, for example, Martin Kettle notes the resemblances but claims that MPs have clearly learnt important lessons from last time, while Ewen MacAskill‘s analysis of Cameron’s case offers clear evidence that the government, at least, hasn’t (or doesn’t care). For ancient historians, and international relations theorists who have fallen under the spell of Thucydides, it is tempting to identify a much longer and more inexorable cycle of repetition, one that is inherent in human affairs.

Thucydides’ work could be characterised in part as a series of arguments for war, or at least for military intervention and the exercise of violence: multiple variations on a single theme. (more…)

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One of the hazards of studying references to Thucydides in contemporary public debate is that, after a while, you start to anticipate them, and develop pre-emptive analysis. Clearly there are people who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of a Peloponnesian War analogy; I seem to be turning into someone who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of what Peloponnesian War analogy these people are likely to think of – which occasionally means I end up drawing parallels that no one else bothers to develop. (more…)

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Is there any topic that a Thucydides quote cannot illuminate? In this morning’s Observer, Vic Marks turns to the Melian Dialogue (what else…) to comment upon the current state of world cricket:

I suppose that if the notion of “might is right” was good enough for the Athenian Empire, it will do for the ICC. As dear old Thucydides pointed out in the pre-Boycott era, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Let’s not dress up the machinations at the ICC in any other way.

It’s tempting to think of other Thucydides quotes that might be of assistance in this matter (of course, the best line on Kevin Pieterson clearly comes from the same war but a different author; Aristophanes on Alcibiades, “Best not to rear the lion’s whelp within your gates; but if you do, it’s best to learn to tolerate its little ways”). And at the same time, the analogy with cricket can work in the other direction, shedding light on Thucydides’ narrative technique. Both war and cricket, as his account shows, proceed within an apparently clear and straightforward framework (the alternation of summer and winter echoing the change of the bowler’s end every over), the combat is the accumulation of countless individual events, which are rarely in themselves absolutely decisive – even the catastrophe of Sicily did not prevent the Athenians, as we see in Thucydides’ eighth book, from mounting a successful rearguard action and comeback, so we should see it not as the fall of the final wicket but as the unexpected (well…) collapse when both batsmen had seemed to be well in, leaving the question of whether the brilliant but thoroughly unreliable Alcibiades can forge a successful long-term partnership with the number eight, or will simply throw his wicket away and start sending chummy text messages to the opposition…

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