Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’

Doubling Down

If Thucydides was so bloody clever and full of real insight into human nature, the opening of Book 8 – set in the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Sicilian Expedition, ignominious retreat and surrender of the expeditionary force, execution of its commanders etc. – would have read more like this:

When the news reached Athens, for a long time they refused to believe that their forces had been so utterly destroyed, and would not accept even the unambiguous reports brought back by those who had actually witnessed the events. When these become too numerous to ignore, they declared that these were signs of a period of transition that would lay the foundations for a still more glorious victory in due course, while others insisted that the expedition had now been completed and so it was time to discuss other things. They did not blame their leaders or the others who had persuaded them to the original course of action, because the provocative behaviour of the Syracusans in defeating their army simply reinforced the case for having attacked them in the first place. And when they could not see an adequate number of ships in the docks, adequate funds job the treasury or an adequate supply of grain in the markets, they denounced as the consequence of Spartan overreach when Athens’ hands had been tied by the treaty it had been compelled to sign of its own volition…

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This week I shall mostly be suffering from a filthy cold just when I wanted to be finishing my teaching prep for next week and getting various other things out of the way before term starts. Just after I’d returned from a refreshing break, too… But if I was going to have to come down with something, I suppose it’s better this week than next. And I’m taking the optimistic view that underlying the current floods of snot and phlegm I am actually in a better place, mentally speaking, than I have been for a while, because despite the thickness of my head I have actually come up with an Idea this morning, or if not an idea then a pithy phrase that encapsulates a particular kind of contemporary political discourse. Googling suggests that no one has previously proposed this characterisation, so I might at some point develop it further, but for the moment I just wanted to scribble it down for the record… (more…)

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There’s a long-standing tradition of setting up a contrast between Thucydides and other classical historians, usually to make a point about the ‘true’ nature of historiography. Most commonly, the foil is Herodotus, in a zero-sum game where only one can be the real Founder of History: T as critical, objective, sober, realistic etc. versus some bloke who just wrote down a load of tall tales he picked up in bars down by the Halicarnassus docks, or H as the broad-minded anthropologist of cultural difference versus a narrow, reductivist and chauvinist view of human beings (shout-out to the late great Marshall Sahlins). But there are other possibilities; in the sixteenth century, for example, T might be set against Tacitus on political grounds, for his praise of the enlightened rule of Pericles as opposed to the dangerous hostility to monarchy evident in the Roman, while nineteenth-century critical historians frequently bolstered T’s reputation as one of them by giving Livy a good kicking as the epitome of aimless chronicling of events. (more…)

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A country divided; politics becoming ever more partisan and extreme; increasingly violent rhetoric, with knee-jerk defence of your own side and a refusal to accept the slightest possibility that your opponents – now branded as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’ – might be speaking or acting in good faith. Not (only) Britain in 2019, or 1930s Germany, but ancient Greece. (more…)

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Deal or No Deal

Not many posts at the moment as I’m struggling to keep on top of the teaching prep with two new modules this term, plus having to catch train before 7 am on both Thursdays and Fridays which then leaves me staring blankly into space by lunchtime. BUT! I am still capable now and again of stringing together a series of thoughts on the Twitter, which quite possibly get a bigger audience there, but if I copy them onto here I will at least have a record…

In the Melian Dialogue (Choose Your Own Adventure version), the discussion eventually ends up going in circles. There’s actually no limit on how long this can continue, but it’s pretty obvious after a while that talking has reached its limit. (more…)

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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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