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I for one welcome our new Thucydides-quoting overlords… Well, no, not really. Back in 2013, when Dominic Cummings publicly expressed his love for Thucydides and his belief that there is no better book to study for understanding politics, I expressed concern that this was one more data point for the proposition that studying Thucydides can be a Really Bad Thing that leads people to Terrible Conclusions. I decided then not to spend any time developing a detailed analysis of the role played by Thucydides (and Pericles) in his essay ‘On education and and political priorities’, aka the ‘Odyssean Education’ piece, as on first reading it seemed that Cummings was mainly taking Thucydides as a model for critical thinking, something with which I wasn’t inclined to disagree too much, even if this idea clearly then led us in very different directions. A few years later, when Cummings resurfaced in the Vote Leave campaign, there seemed more important things to do than re-read the essay – though in retrospect, as discussed below, I now suspect that there were a few clues in there about his approach to politics that could have been worth discussing.

And now? (more…)

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Funny Games

Two apposite remarks on the Twitter this morning. David Henig (@DavidHenigUK) noted the current Brexit paradox (which might easily be added to my ongoing collection of fragments of Zeno of Elea) that prospective Tory leadership candidates compete for the role of delivering Brexit by adopting positions that make it ever less likely that Brexit could actually be delivered; he’s responding to a thread by Simon Usherwood (@Usherwood) that includes the comment that “a more useful way to do this would be one of those fables, where the king sets the suitors a task in order to win the hand of the princess: results before reward”. For some reason this idea is then dismissed as impractical. Is it really? (more…)

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The great advantage of classicists getting involved in the analysis of contemporary political rhetoric, given that it seems to be full of classical references at the moment (Johnson going on about Punic terms, the die-hard fanatics of the E”R”G – yes, the lunatic fringe’s lunatic fringe – going under the name of the Spartans, a Tory MP called David Jones citing chunks of Tacitus, including Latin, in a meeting of the influential 1922 Committee) is that they’re highly sensitive to nuance, allusion, and the history of reception of different figures, ideas and phrases. The disadvantage of classicists getting involved is that they’re highly sensitive to nuance, allusion etc etc. In other words: it’s not that these references are imaginary, but perhaps they aren’t as important as we tend to think they are. Or at least not as important to others, including those who made them in the first place, as they are to us, seeing classical antiquity yet again being besmirched by its appropriation by people with distasteful and dangerous politics. (more…)

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We Belong?

Everybody so often, a student will come up with something that is simply perfect – they may not do it perfectly, but the idea is just so right. This week, it was the student in my Greek Political Thought class who organised their short presentation for a seminar on citizenship around the UK citizenship test; yes, they could have put more emphasis on the analytical side, comparing and contrasting the assumptions inherent in the questions with the assumptions we see in ancient sources rather than just working through the whole of a practice quiz, but it still raised so many important issues in interesting and accessible ways – as well as, for me, offering an insight into how young people think about such things. The complete incredulity among the students that anyone should need to know about Boudicca to qualify for citizen rights – let alone their reaction when I sketched out the old Tebbit Cricket Test – suggests a radically different conception of Britishness from that which continues to dominate public debates. (more…)

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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

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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: (more…)

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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. (more…)

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