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Posts Tagged ‘historical analogies’

I am not a gambling man – but I know a pretty sure thing when I see one. David Engels has written a substantial rejoinder to the critique of his ‘The EU Is Doomed, Because Rome’ argument written by Roland Steinacher and me, characterising it as an Althistorikerstreit, and concludes with the suggestion that time will show whether he’s right or not. Fair enough; if over the next 20-30 years Europe collapses into civil war – and it’s worth stressing that this is not about a return to warring nation states, according to Engels’ model, but about conflict between suburbs and districts within different regions of Europe – and then willingly surrenders in toto to a single charismatic autocrat, then he wins, and as the prophet of the new regime will presumably be in a position to have me locked up and my property confiscated. We win if it doesn’t. My real problem is deciding what the stakes should be; let’s say 10 litres of fresh water, as that will be worth its weight in gold in any post-apocalyptical wasteland you care to imagine, and will be perfectly serviceable in any case. (more…)

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“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect. (more…)

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The idea behind a Toga Party is obvious: to elevate the conventional student pursuit of drinking to excess by associating it with the well-established image of Roman decadence. Vomiting down one’s front is legitimised by classical precedent! To paraphrase Marx’s 18th Brumaire, the participants find in ancient history the self-deceptions necessary to conceal from themselves the humdrum nature of their activities. In a similar manner, the spate of Roman analogies for the rise of Trump serves to present our current historical predicament in more elevated terms as the crisis of the Republic and the potential triumph of decadent autocracy, as historical events in the grand old manner, rather than any of that tedious or depressingly complex analytical stuff. We are living in time of Great Men and Terrible Villainy and Heroic Deeds and Grand Gestures! The fact that this all derives from a thoroughly old-fashioned and dubious conception of history, just as the toga party is based on multiple layers of literary representation and reception, is beside the point, except for pedants like me. No, the Romans didn’t spend their entire time eating honeyed dormice, shagging their sisters and changing the course of World History with their speeches or battles – but ‘The Romans’ did, and that’s what matters. (more…)

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This spring, I’m teaching on the Roman Principate, including the nature of political and social life under a capricious autocracy (think not only of the grotesque antics attributed to pantomime villains like Caligula or Nero, but also the air of casual menace in Trajan’s letters that prompts Pliny’s desperate, paranoid grovelling). I’m already wondering what to do about possible Trump analogies, given the prevalence of classical references in current discourse – all the Suetonius-style kinky stuff to add to Caligula’s horse references, consumption habits straight out of Trimalchio and so forth. I’m not (at least at the moment) planning to make any – given everything I’ve already written about the problems of seeing the world in such short-term, individualistic terms – but I can certainly imagine some of my students making such points or raising questions in discussion. Which could be tricky. (more…)

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2016, as I reflected on at least one occasion, was a year that seemed to represent a return to old-fashioned l’histoire événementielle, where world-changing developments occurred at the sort of pace with which we humans feel naturally comfortable (indeed, sometimes a bit faster than we might have preferred) rather than unfolding over decades or centuries. Both Brexit and the election of Trump represented, or appeared to represent, the sorts of dramatic turning-points that make for an exciting narrative, played out on a human timescale. But in addition – and this is something that I noted in passing, but could have made more of – it seems to represent, or can be claimed as, a series of events driven by humans and human-level factors, rather than vast, mysterious and impersonal forces and processes. Indeed, the force of the ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ slogans is precisely that of a revolt against those who surrendered to abstract ideas like globalisation and the march of automation, in the false belief that they are more powerful than any human agency; we are presented with a reclaiming and repurposing of the progressive idea that something else besides eternal capitalism is still possible.

It struck me this morning that there may be a connection here to the sudden popularity of historical analogies, especially classical analogies, for contemporary political developments. (more…)

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Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious. (more…)

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Donald Trump is Cleon (brash, populist, unscrupulous, dangerous). Or Alcibiades (rich, ambitious, unscrupulous, dangerous). He’s the Paphlagonian in Aristophanes’ Knights, or the Sausage-Seller, or both (vulgar, greedy demagogues). Danielle Allen has suggested a switch into the Homeric mode, urging Jeb Bush to step up as Achilles to Rubio’s Patroclus, making Trump… Hector (the enemy who must be slain)? Agamemnon? With Mitt Romney stepping into the fight as Menelaus, or Philoctetes. The great thing about Homer is the sheer number of larger-than-life characters on offer for such comparisons. I can’t believe – nothing came up on Google – that no one has yet done Trump as Thersites, for the torrent of bile and resentment fuelling his candidacy. Maybe that risks making him seem too much like the man of the people he claims to be… (more…)

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