Posts Tagged ‘democracy’


Does it make any difference if it’s the Greeks citing Thucydides with respect to the current crisis, rather than non-Greek (mostly anglophone) commentators? Of course; not because they have any special claim to his ideas, but because they’re speaking of their own problems and sense of identity using the cultural resources that seem best suited to the purpose, rather than imposing lazy classical stereotypes on another. If nothing else, it’s likely to be more interesting… As noted in a previous post, classical references seem to have been fairly few and far between in Greek popular discourse around the crisis (though I should stress that my ability to read modern Greek is so poor that I’m entirely reliant on colleagues for this impression, and maybe it bears more investigation), but then that isn’t very surprising: Thucydides has almost always been a writer for the intellectual few rather than the slogan-chanting many. I am enormously grateful, therefore, to @kirjalax for passing on a reference in the first report of the Truth Committee on Public Debt established by the Greek Parliament in April. The introduction concludes:

In response to those who impose unjust measures, the Greek people might invoke what Thucydides mentioned about the constitution of the Athenian people: “As for the name, it is called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interests of the many, not of the few” (Pericles’ Funeral Oration, from the speech in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War)

Interesting as an indication of the line that was subsequently taken in calling for a referendum to bring the people directly into the process of deliberation and negotiation. Interesting also that this was the quote (in a different translation) chosen for the opening of the ill-fated draft European Constitution – maybe a coincidence, maybe an attempt at a subtle reminder to the rest of Europe of the values that supposedly underpin the whole community…

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One aspect of the Melian Dialogue that is mentioned relatively rarely is the fact that the exchange of views between the Athenians and the representatives of the Melians takes place in private – at the request of the latter. This has a bearing on the question of whether Thucydides could have had accurate knowledge of what was discussed (A: no, he made it up), but it is clearly also important for understanding the dynamics of those negotiations, and for thinking about how this might affect attempts at employing the Dialogue as a model or template for other situations. In brief, in the real world no such exchange is ever entirely hermetically sealed off; the protagonists ‘represent’ their wider communities (politically, and for us readers also as a synecdoche), but their decisions must be shaped by their consciousness of a possible gap between themselves and the people whom they may be committing to certain actions or fates. The Athenian generals, we can assume, must be conscious that their decisions will be subject in due course to the scrutiny of the Assembly, with the possibility of exile or worse if the demos is displeased. The Melian leaders, however, seek to avoid any such scrutiny, and indeed this becomes one of the Athenian arguments against their choice of defiance rather than surrender: What do you think the rest of your people would say if they knew you were condemning them to inevitable death or slavery? What right does any elite, however legitimate, have to commit the rest of the people to suffering that they never signed up for?

The contrast with the current Greek situation is striking. (more…)

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Free and Easy

I don’t really have time for this post – I’m off to Berlin tomorrow for a research fellowship with the TOPOI Exzellenzkluster, and so desperately scrambling to get everything sorted out before abandoning my duties – but there are times when the only reasonable response to something is to say, very loudly, ‘¡No pasarán! Like this:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. (David Cameron, 13/5/2015)

I imagine that this is coincidental – as Liz Sawyer has charted, in her contribution to the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, British politicians (unlike US ones) are not prone to quoting Thucydides in speeches – but this does seem like a direct response to, or repudiation of, some of the sentiments of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (especially Thuc. 2.37).

Just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life we do not get in a state with our neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the sort of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings… We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.

Of course this isn’t a completely new and dramatic lurch into illiberal policies when it comes to civil liberties, but it does seem like a shift: not just an explicit intent to intervene in the private sphere, but also a change from passing more and more laws to criminalise additional areas of behaviour to announcing, apparently, that illegality is now irrelevant if the authorities decide that they don’t like something, and encouraging everyone else to pile in. And of course Cameron then goes on to include freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law among the British values that his government will seek to promote by, erm, ignoring them when it comes to certain people.

“Our constitution is called a democracy… We abide by the rule of law.” Not any more.

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Two brilliant papers on the second day of the conferences, by Gerry Mara (Georgetown) and Christine Lee (Bristol), engaged with the idea of Thucydides as a democratic theorist, or at any rate as a theorist of democracy. This is an unfamiliar role for him, for a number of different reasons. For the historiographical tradition, the idea of Thucydides as a ‘theorist’ of any kind, as opposed to a historian of a more or less familiar sort (whether an ideal, objective-scientific historian or a cunning mythographer), is pretty well anathema. Those who do want to see him in a tradition of political thought, meanwhile, tend to focus on reading him in terms of international relations and world order; insofar as he is seen to comment on civic society, or as his narrative of events is seen to encode political ideas, his views are interpreted as thoroughly anti-democratic, with his praise of Pericles and his portrait of Cleon and post-Periclean Athens serving equally to undermine any optimism about a democratic system. It is striking that George Grote and John Stuart Mill, who both saw Athens as a positive model for present-day society, were forced to rework or ignore Thucydides when it came to this theme, despite the fact that his account was so central to the rest of their reconstruction of ancient Greece. In brief, if Thucydides appears to offer any sort of political theory, it seems to be a pessimistic and elitist one. (more…)

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By far the most frustrating aspect of our recent two-day conference Thucydides our Comtemporary? (I’ll come back to that question mark at some point…) was the fact that I was chairing every session. Often, of course, such duties entail desperately thinking up more-or-less intelligible questions and comments on topics one knows little about in the hope that the speaker won’t actually notice that no one has anything much to say and would far rather call it a day and head down to the pub. Not this time; I spent my whole time arbitrating on split-second finishes between three different people raising their hands at once, juggling the wish to keep the thread of debate going with the need to avoid neglecting people who had other things to say, and trying to keep vaguely to the scheduled programme. Despite the fact that every speaker stuck pretty well to time, and we’d scheduled lots of space for discussion, I had to cut things short time and again. Bringing people back at the end of refreshment breaks was even worse, as clearly these were taken as opportunities to engage in more depth, free from the interfering headmaster type threatening to withhold everyone’s dinner if they didn’t stop talking. And the problem was that actually I could happily have taken up the whole discussion time with my own questions and comments, if I hadn’t had to be all selfless and disciplined. Still, at least I have this blog to play with, and over the next few weeks (probably) I aim to give a sketch of the different papers, for everyone who couldn’t or didn’t make it to the conference, and to give me a chance to develop my own thoughts. Obviously the authors of the different papers bear no responsibility for what I’ve made of them… (more…)

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