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Posts Tagged ‘Corcyra’

On 2nd November 1860, the political scientist Francis Lieber, then professor of history and political science at Columbia College in New York, wrote a letter to his eldest son Oscar. War between the states loomed on the horizon; Lieber was firmly against secession, and during the conflict was in charge of the Loyal Publication Society as well as assisting in drafting military laws, while his two other sons would both serve in the Union army, but Oscar would die in 1862 fighting for the Confederacy. One can imagine the family tensions. Lieber wrote:

It sometimes has occurred to me that what Thucydides said of the Greeks at the time of the Peloponnesian War applies to us. The Greeks, he said, did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke Greek. Words received a different meaning in different parts.

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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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So, is it 1919 or 1938? Which lessons from history should the European Union be keeping in mind in its negotiations with the UK, the dangers of imposing a humiliating settlement on a defeated enemy which leads to the rise of resentment, dangerous populism and violence, or the dangers of abandoning one’s ideals and giving in to aggressive and unjustifiable demands in the hope of keeping the peace, which fuels ever greater demands and does nothing to stop the rise of resentment, populism and violence? Or maybe it’s all about the Holy Roman Empire instead. Thank you, Timothy Garton Ash, your valiant efforts in trying to drum up support for the Chequers compromise when everybody else hates it will not be forgotten. (more…)

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Listen, I don’t spend my time concocting spurious parallels between ancient history and contemporary events so that I can indoctrinate my students and subvert society under the guise of teaching. I open up my copy of Thucydides to prepare for this week’s seminar, the topic of which was set three months ago, and there parallels are…

mail (more…)

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We appear to have reached a tipping point, where future historians of this period – not necessarily human – will simply refuse to believe what they find in their sources on the grounds of plausibility. Just as with the Julio-Claudians, we can discuss the discourse of polemic and invective, and the values and cultural assumptions it reveals, but not the historical reality that lies somewhere behind it; we cannot study Boris Johnson as a real historical individual, but only the image of him as cartoonish buffoon constructed by hostile sources… (more…)

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That radical “a plague on all your houses” centrist Thucydides is muttering “I told you so” to himself again…

Factionalism and polarisation became facts of political life, and places that were affected later rather than sooner, hearing what was happening elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in identifying new grievances and new accusations against their opponents. The usual valuation of words and actions was changed. What was once seen as reckless aggression now appeared as the loyalty one owed to fellow campaigners, while forethought and hesitation became cowardly equivocation; calls for moderation meant you lacked decency, while seeing different sides of the question was a sign of secret sympathies with the enemy. (3.82.3-4)

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It’s ages since there’s been an episode of Poetry Corner here – mainly because, oddly enough, Thucydides doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of poetry. But there is not none, and every so often a new poet draws on the same powerful images of conflict and the crisis of civilisation that inspired W.H. Auden in 1 September 1939. Thucydides is, as ever, the dark prophet who anticipated our fate, not least in his terrifying account of civil war and social breakdown in Corcyra.

A storm had brewed over Corfu Isle

Thunder roared with the sounds of revolt

Moods had fashioned this weather a while,

All that was needed was a bit of a jolt.

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To echo the immortal BtVS: Peter Jones has written another column in the Spectator. There are words on the page referencing Thucydides. This is never good. (more…)

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Words had to change their meanings in response to events. Mindless aggression became courage. Forethought and hesitation became cowardice. Moderation was unmanliness. Seeing different sides of the question was a sign of an ivory-tower academic ‘expert’. Real men said what they thought, the more extreme the better, and anyone who objected was not to be trusted. If an opponent said something reasonable, this had to be condemned as criminal nonsense. Cheating the system was a sign of cleverness, while honesty and integrity were condemned as simple-mindedness. Law and morality were an unacceptable restraint on the Will of The People.

(Thucydides 3.82.4-5, adapted)

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I had been planning to write about the debate in Athens in 415 about the proposed attack on Syracuse. Though there is one remarkable contrast between the two situations – whereas Nicias’ sensible older men were faced with the aggression and ignorance of Alcibiades’ pumped-up youths, in our time the pragmatism of the young is confronted with the reckless, après moi le deluge nostalgia of the old – there are significant parallels in the rhetoric used to argue for and against driving the city off a cliff. Nicias urges caution and common sense, and constantly has to defend himself against insinuations of cowardice, self-interest and talking down Athens; it’s a manifestly weak argument in the face of Alcibiades’ boundless self-confidence, optimism, disparagement of foreigners – the Sicilians are weak and disunited, and “most likely they will be happy to make separate agreements with us when we make attractive proposals to them” – and appeals to the true nature of Athens. Indeed, given Dominic Cummings’ well-known predilection for Thucydides, one might wonder how far the Leave campaign is directly drawing upon motifs from his speeches. (more…)

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