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Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Here We Go Again

Just for the sake of completeness – I occasionally refer back to posts here on examples of Thucydideanisms in the media, and I imagine that others may do so – I note the piece in today’s New York Times by Robert Zaretsky, Professor of French History at the University of Houston, entitled What Would Thucydides Say About The Crisis In Greece?. Yes, of course it’s a summary of the Melian Dialogue, along the now-familiar lines. One might have hoped that the developing polarisation within Greek society, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations about the forthcoming referendum, would mean that we could move on to the Corcyrean stasis for a bit, to be followed eventually by the Sicilian expedition (leaving aside the well-attested capacity of the EU to keep kicking that can down the road so nothing ever gets anywhere near an actual resolution), but no… (more…)

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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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Of course there’s a fine line between observing possible resemblances between classical antiquity and the modern world, and deploying arguable readings of classical antiquity in support of a specifically modern political agenda; on reflection, it is perhaps remarkable that Peter Jones’ Ancient and Modern column in the Spectator does the former so much more often than the latter. Today, however, is not one of those days. “Why do Greeks want to keep the euro, or remain in the European Union?” he asks rhetorically at the beginning. “The combative, creative, competitive, mercantile classical Greeks throve on independence.” The evidence for this is Hesiod’s Works and Days, and its praise of the good form of Eris, strife, which drives men to compete with one another in the race for riches. This then slides more or less imperceptibly into the depiction of democratic Athens as likewise ruled by competition, this time between politicians for the favour of the people, which is seen as the root of their confidence and of the Glory that Was Greece, until that was demolished by the arrival of Macedon and Rome. “No Greek should fear leaving the euro, or the EU.” (more…)

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The Melian Dialogue in Thucydides has been of interest to game theorists since the earliest development of the field; it was discussed on several occasions by John von Neumann, generally accepted founder of this approach, and it appears in the work of a leading game theorist like Thomas Schelling. It’s entirely understandable: the dialogue presents two sides in a high-stakes, zero-sum conflict, pursuing very different strategies with a limited number of possible outcomes, and – if you want to push the boundaries of game theory a bit further, it also offers interesting examples of how each side seeks to anticipate and influence the decision-making of the other, and raises some fundamental questions of rationality. I fully expect to find lots of other examples when I have time to pursue this theme in depth, but for today I want to focus on one case of a game theoretical discussion of the Dialogue, written by the current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (1997; revised version 2014: 262-83). It is in itself an interesting reading of the situation, in relation both to Thucydides and to the normal assumptions of game theory, but there are also some striking implications for the current negotiations between Greece and the EU, especially Germany, which I will consider in the final section. (more…)

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Apologies yet again for the lack of posts, not least the lack of a continuation of the User’s Guide to Thucydides (just start at the beginning, folks, and at some point I’ll get round to telling you when you can begin skipping tedious accounts of maritime manoeuvres to get onto one of the famous set-piece episodes), but I remain horribly busy – and am now wary of writing much here because of the number of people who could legitimate send me annoyed emails, demanding to know why I’m doing this instead of getting on with the chapters I was supposed to have submitted months ago. However, the latest twist in the use of classical analogies in characterising the Eurozone crisis seemed too good to miss: Larry Elliott in this morning’s Grauniad, describing the German attitude in current negotiations as offering Greece a Carthaginian peace. That is: surrender absolutely and without conditions, or we’ll wipe you off the face of the earth anyway. (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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A couple of weeks ago I commented on the fact that Thucydides had been cited as part of a critique of German/EU policy towards Greece and its debt crisis, and made a disparaging comparison with the conviction of long-disregarded political economist and Thucydides worshipper Wilhelm Roscher that he’d learnt as much about economics from Thucydides as from any other author. I really must stop being so condescending; two references in one week to Thucydides on economics suggests that he may indeed be the authority on absolutely everything that many people assume.

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