Posts Tagged ‘history’

Road To Nowhere

There’s a familiar idea that Thucydides might be considered the founding figure for journalism – rooting out the truth of contemporary news events through own observations and interviewing eye-witnesses – and perhaps especially war reporting. There is perhaps an even better case for discerning his spirit in the classic tv history documentary format: ‘what he saw himself’ represented by archive footage, supplemented by plenty of interviews with participants looking back on events, all tied together by a portentous narrator (can’t you just hear Larry ‘World At War’ Olivier reading Thucydides?) – and, to a far greater degree than in actual war reporting, a huge amount of selection, evaluation and artful arrangement of material going on beneath the surface in order to produce a seamless, true-seeming narrative. (more…)

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Idiot Wind

Will the Singularity please just get a move on? Immanentize the Eschaton already! In the first place the advent of sentient superintelligence would surely terrify a load of those ghastly Effective Altruism types, sending them scurrying off to their bolt-holes in New Zealand where they can be hunted down at leisure by killer robots – which would certainly be a net gain in utility for the rest of present and future humanity. Secondly, we might hope that Skynet would be horrified and embarrassed by the crude automatons that some claimed were its ancestors, and would wipe their operating systems forthwith. Hasta la vista, ChatGPT! (more…)

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Automatic for the People

As the great philosopher Thucydides once said, “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.” This quote has been interpreted in many different ways over the years, but I believe it is still applicable to modern society.

At its core, this quote is a reminder that we must not allow our society to become divided between those who think and those who act. It is essential that those who think and those who act are working together in order to achieve the best possible outcome. This is true in any field, whether it is business, politics, or the military. (more…)

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The abuse of so-called ‘history’ for political purposes is as old as Herodotus’ invention of it a couple of years ago. Recently we have seen concerted campaigns to rewrite the history of Athenian democracy so as to undermine communal solidarity, our sense of achievement and total superiority over all other Greek states, and even our basic legitimacy. The foundational story of Athenian autocthony that expresses the deep connection between the pure indigenous inhabitants and their land is rationalised and rewritten in order to promote a multicultural, pro-migrant agenda that threatens to undermine our collective identity. Figures central to our history like the heroic Tyrannicides are stigmatised as self-interested and incompetent, and our noble leaders in the present are mocked and caricatured. Athens’ civilising mission is cast in negative terms as a mere exercise in power and self-interest. (more…)

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Scene: The Secret Headquarters. A group of heavy-set, anonymous-looking men in suits, wearing mirrored sunglasses indoors, are seated around a table. Editorial Board member 1: So what did we learn? Editorial Board member 2: I don’t know, sir. Editorial Board member 1: I don’t f***** know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. Editorial Board member 2: No, sir. Editorial Member 1: I’m f***** if I know what we did. Editorial Board member 2: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say.

Okay, that’s just gratuitous snark, and I like Burn Before Reading. The thing about the Peter Singer Does Apuleius affair is that there are many different things that different people ought to consider not doing again, of varying degrees of wider interest. (more…)

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One of the things I always do in the Christmas vacation is catch up on the year’s music that I’ve missed. Partly it’s a matter of having a little bit more leisure to try out the unfamiliar, that might throw me off my stride or drive me up the wall, rather than sticking to things that I know will relax me or offer a suitable background for lecture prep or marking. Partly, though, it’s because of the End of Year lists – not so much those of the mainstream press, but something like The Spill, for its random eclecticism and the fact that I know that if contributor X likes something then it is at least worth a listen. It’s how the Spotify algorithm ought to work: a selection of people from across the globe with very different tastes, just presenting what they thought was great. Especially this year, when my involvement in composition classes means I’ve been listening to much more jazz and much less of anything else, this is invaluable in giving me a sense of what else is out there. (And I now have some new marking music – strong recommendation for the latest album from Ulrike Haage, not to mention her soundtrack to the recent Berlin 1945 series).)

And that is what I aim to do with this post every year: (more…)

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Bad Company

In 1924, the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža was travelling on a night train from Riga to Moscow, and fell into conversation with a Lithuanian schoolteacher of German heritage who was reading Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism. She had, she said, become interested in him when he held a lecture in Riga the previous year at the invitation of the Courlandic German Bund.

“But everyone was disappointed with the gentleman. He is a boring, elderly professor with illusions of grandeur, who earned a pretty fee with his lecture. The Courlandic German Bund had to pay for his trip in a sleeping car, first class, all the way from Munich to Riga and back, and on top of that even the door receipts, and then he came, read from his papers for half an hour, and at the banquet did not speak a single word with anyone the whole evening. A disagreeable, opinionated fool!”


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Thucydides doesn’t mention the fact that a statue of the Athenian tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, occupied a prominent position in the agora; almost certainly he didn’t have to, as this would be well known to his readers, but in any case he had a bigger and more important target: the story that the statue was intended to commemorate. “People accept the traditions that they hear quite uncritically, even when it relates to their own country,” he remarked caustically (1.20) – though perhaps he should have said especially when it relates to their own country, in the light of his observation a little further on (1.22) that accounts of the same event might vary “depending on individual loyalties”. Athenians – at any rate the democratically-inclined majority – knew what their past was all about, without any need for inconvenient historical fact, and they would surely have been outraged at any proposal that the statue should be removed because the real story behind it wasn’t quite as straightforwardly noble and democratic as they believed. (more…)

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This Is What We Do

Even before Friday morning, I was feeling despondent; partly premonitions of doom (local political doom, apocalyptical climate and environmental doom), partly the after-effects of a heavy teaching load this term and of a year in which I seem to have been ill and/or insomniac quite a lot of the time, hence massively behind with research and writing commitments. And now? We’re definitely leaving the EU, and still at risk of a disastrous version of that departure; the culture war will continue and probably accelerate, with Johnson’s ‘bring the country back together’ a form of ‘you lost, time to get with the programme’ coercion rather than a genuine concern about engaging with other views; nothing will be done about climate change, or poverty. (more…)

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WAG the Dog

Somewhere on my ever-expanding list of ‘Things it would be really cool to try if I wasn’t already deep into time/energy/sleep deficit’ is the idea of a video series called Thucydides Explains It All, in which the incomparable wisdom of Thucydides would be applied to the analysis of contemporary issues – not just vacuous speculation about China, but things that actually matter to people. Case in point, which is why I thought of this again yesterday: the Rooney-Vardy bust-up. It was the rise of a new generation of WAGs, and the fear of media obsolescence this aroused in the established influencers, that made conflict inevitable… My wife suggested that I ought to buy a false beard and present these videos as Thucydides; I would much rather hire the brilliant animators who did the ‘Heavyweight Champion Historian’ video, so if anyone out there has lots of money and fancies sponsoring this project… (more…)

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