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Posts Tagged ‘history’

There’s a powerful passage in Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History where he talks about the appalling experience of looking at the past: the display of passions and the consequences of their violence, the rule of Unreason, the evil, vice and ruin that has afflicted every society humans have ever tried to build – and the temptation to find a way in which this won’t affect us so much:

We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.”

Hegel doesn’t endorse such an attitude – but to some extent simply offers an alternative route to the same goal, explaining and justifying all the miseries of history as the working through of a necessary process. I’ve found myself thinking of this passage twice in the last couple of days, firstly in relation to Uwe Walter’s observations, in his discussion of the Mytilene Debate and how this might offer a way back from Brexit, about the excitement experienced (if only momentarily) by historians at the spectacle of a truly momentous event, a single decisive decision rather than the usual compromise, muddling through and can-kicking. Then this morning there was a striking phrase in David Graeber’s commentary on the current travails of the Labour Party and the democratising aims of Momentum: “I cannot help find it a fascinating historical experiment.” In both cases these are honest reactions, not in the least intended to belittle the actual experience of being caught up in these events or their possible consequences – but still, I can’t help feeling like one of the people on the sinking ship, as the crew squabble amongst themselves about who gets to wear the big hat and whether the charts can be trusted, while being coolly observed from the shore…

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I had been planning to write about the debate in Athens in 415 about the proposed attack on Syracuse. Though there is one remarkable contrast between the two situations – whereas Nicias’ sensible older men were faced with the aggression and ignorance of Alcibiades’ pumped-up youths, in our time the pragmatism of the young is confronted with the reckless, après moi le deluge nostalgia of the old – there are significant parallels in the rhetoric used to argue for and against driving the city off a cliff. Nicias urges caution and common sense, and constantly has to defend himself against insinuations of cowardice, self-interest and talking down Athens; it’s a manifestly weak argument in the face of Alcibiades’ boundless self-confidence, optimism, disparagement of foreigners – the Sicilians are weak and disunited, and “most likely they will be happy to make separate agreements with us when we make attractive proposals to them” – and appeals to the true nature of Athens. Indeed, given Dominic Cummings’ well-known predilection for Thucydides, one might wonder how far the Leave campaign is directly drawing upon motifs from his speeches. (more…)

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Your Hxtory

Devastated to discover this morning that, according to Buzzfeed’s ‘Which 90s Indie Band Are You?’ Quiz, I am Belle & Sebastian, for whose music I feel a deep, unqualified and undoubtedly irrational loathing. I think I may have selected one too many answers related to books… Obviously I really wanted to be the Make-Up, or Sleater-Kinney, or at the very least Pulp. And it’s in that spirit of political provocation that this blog is celebrating International Women’s Day by banning ‘history’. At least in this post – if someone can lend me a magic bit of code to change the spelling automatically everywhere else, I’d be very grateful – it’s ‘hxtory’ all the way. (more…)

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RIP Ellen Meiksins Wood (and see also here)

A week and a half into term, and I am already being forcibly reminded of why I didn’t manage to post more than once or twice a month for much of 2015. It’s not as if I don’t have a load of stuff I’d like to write about – not least because Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australian, has just produced a load more Thucydides references in a recent speech, on the (not unreasonable) assumption that this is how to communicate with US foreign policy types these days (cf. Xi Jinping) – it’s just the quantity of other stuff that has to take precedence. But some things do deserve recognition and comment, above all – despite the fact that this blog has started to look like an obituary column – the passing of yet another significant figure in my intellectual pantheon. I have got to find some younger, healthier people to get influenced by… (more…)

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There’s a great scene in the 1990s Welsh teenage drama series Pam fi, Duw? [Why me, God?], where everyone has gone to London (can’t remember why) and the indomitable grandmother insists on dragging the family across the city to visit the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square – to their utter bemusement, as she’s a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, but you don’t argue with Mamgu. When they finally get there, she sticks up two fingers at it and says something to the effect of “That’s for Tonypandy, you bastard!” (more…)

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RIP Christopher Brooke

As I think I’ve mentioned on here before, I was the sort of undergraduate who would give a personal tutor in the modern university nightmares.* Quite apart from the complete lack of social skills and the regular bursts of disappearing into a black hole, and expending so much energy on writing, music and low-level student politics rather than academic work, when I did focus on history I went to virtually no lectures.** It just seemed so pointless, going along to hear someone summarise the textbook when I could work through the material much more efficiently on my own and set it against other reading (and the nightmare moment, when I wondered if I was really in the right place, was when one lecturer cheerfully announced that the lectures would give us all we needed to know without any need to read anything else). (more…)

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Pick of 2015

It’s been an interesting experience to look back over my posts from 2015, deciding which ones to re-promote as representative of my output (not least in the hope of bumping my viewing figures up in order to beat 2013) – and to realise how little I ended up writing for rather a lot of this year, almost entirely due to pressures of work. Once again, my resolution has to be to blog more frequently, given that the world doesn’t show any sign of letting up on the supply of things to comment on.

This post, however, is prompted by one this morning from my Bristol colleague Will Pooley, offering the pick not of his own (eminently pickable) posts but of other blogs he enjoyed this year. (more…)

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