The publication of Yanis Varoufakis’ And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in paperback has been heralded by a short video in which James Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Jeffrey Sachs offer their praise; the latter presents him as “the Thucydides of our time”, and Vintage have taken that as a key line for their publicity. It’s an interesting indication of the contemporary standing of Thucydides – but also a little puzzling. (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘Melian Dialogue’
I’ve just spent a fascinating morning at a workshop on Creative Pathways to Impact, splashing around well out of my depth and comfort zone, in search of further inspiration and possible creative collaborators for some of the ways I want to make use of Thucydides as a genuine ‘possession for all time’, a means of opening up questions about the complexity of the world, politics, power, rhetoric etc in the face of post-truth and post-democracy. One of the activities was the random drawing of cards, giving a research finding, a location and a form respectively, and then discussing as a group how one might enable the first of these of have an impact via the other two. So: Thucydides as a means of understanding the dynamics of power; phone box; street theatre. (more…)
Death. Death. Crisis. Death. Crisis. Death. Death. That was 2016, that was. Good riddance, apart from the uneasy feeling that it may have been just the overture, and next year we won’t have the all-too-brief comic relief of England v. Iceland to cheer us up.
It’s all been very serious German novel. One of the themes on the blog this year has been the avoidance, if not fervent denunciation, of crass historical analogies, so I’ll save my next discussion of Volker Kutscher’s excellent Krimi series set in 1920s and 1930s Berlin [pervasive atmosphere of impending doom and dramatic irony] until the Tom Tykwer adaptation starts next year, by which time I may have caught up with the latest volume. Rather, I’ve been reminded all too often of Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant Aller Tage Abend (and I still dislike the English title End of Days without having a good alternative suggestion), in which the central character dies again and again – as a baby, as a teenager, at various stages of adulthood – with a constant dialectic between the hopeful counterfactual (if only this, then she would have lived…) and the inevitability of death, against a backdrop of twentieth-century horrors. That was 2016, that was… (more…)
The Melian Dialogue, in which Thucydides imagines the exchanges between the powerful imperialistic Athenians and the defiant-but-deluded Melians to whom they’ve issued an ultimatum (see my adapted version in Disclaimer magazine, for example), is a founding document in game theory and the analysis of power relations. Indeed, one vaguely hopes that the UK’s newly appointed negotiators for sorting out future relations with the EU and with other potential trading partners have read it (though admittedly his in-depth knowledge of the Dialogue didn’t seem to help Yanis Varoufakis that much in the Greek economic crisis last year…).
On closer scrutiny, however, the analogy starts to fall apart, as analogies often do; not because the issues raised by the Melian Dialogue are irrelevant to the situation, but because the parts become confused. At least going by the recent statements of various Conservative ministers, these Melians seem to be convinced that they’re the ones with the advantage, and hence try to speak the Athenians’ lines as often as their own… (more…)
There was an interesting interview in Saturday’s Grauniad with the translator Michael Hofmann, that I rather wish I had seen before doing the final revisions to the latest iteration of my adaptation of the Melian Dialogue (just published in Disclaimer magazine). Of course, my piece isn’t a translation in the conventional sense, but an attempt at a distillation, trying to capture and intensify the essense of the original.* This means I don’t have quite the same fear (experienced by most translators, but bullishly dismissed by Hofmann) of criticism for introducing anachronistic language – that’s actually part of the point, and I would *love* to hear the Melian Dialogue converted into a rap battle or similar contemporary idiom (any classically-inclined MCs out there, feel free to get in touch…). (more…)
One major reason for the versatility of Thucydides’ account as a source of insight into the present, as noted before, is its lack of specificity. That is to say, we’re presented with a detailed, multi-faceted account of specific historical events, having been primed to expect that we’ll spot resemblances and analogies with later events and our own situation – but without any authorial direction as to what resemblances and analogies we should expect to see. As Hobbes observed, Thucydides doesn’t teach a lesson but simply makes us spectators of events, free to draw our own conclusions (but encouraged to do so). His work is not so much a mirror as a Rorschach blot; you see universal principles of inter-state relations that speak to tensions between the USA and China, I see a complex meditation on uncertainty and anticipation that is (as Simon Schama has been astute enough to observe recently) perfectly suited to a well-paid consultancy with the insurance industry. (more…)
A recent discussion of the likely foreign policy tendencies of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s new prime minister as of yesterday, cited an earlier article that included the fact that he’s been known to cite Thucydides:
Turnbull is alive to such risks, and he seems to favor a conciliatory path to resolving U.S.-China tensions. He reviewed quite favorably a book by a leading Australian academic arguing that the U.S. should give up its primacy and instead find an accommodation with China in which the two countries share power in the Asia-Pacific (Turnbull also notes in passing that Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims are not “without any legal merit”). There is a strong streak of realism in Turnbull, who has quoted the Thucydides line that “justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”
Interestingly, several of the people who’ve mentioned this piece on Twitter have chosen to emphasise the Thucydides aspect, and it’s difficult to avoid the sense that this is operating as some kind of code – with remarks such as “this sheds a different light on MT”. (more…)