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Posts Tagged ‘historical analogies’

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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Let’s take it from the top again. Thucydides may have something useful to tell us about the current crisis in Greece, just as he may be able to contribute to discussions of Ukraine, the Middle East, Russia, UK and US politics and any other situation involving power, violence, negotiation and/or deliberation, because this was his intention: he aimed, in giving an account of the specific events of a particular war, to create something that would be “a possession for all time”, that would enable his readers to gain understanding of these specific events that could be applied to other situations. He grounded this aspiration partly in claims about the veracity of his account – we can feel confident in accepting his version of events – and partly in his belief in “the human thing” that means people tend to behave in similar ways in similar situations, and will do in future. (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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Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.

The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points (more…)

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