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Posts Tagged ‘Melian Dialogue’

The Thucydides Paradox is the way that all the authority of a complex, ambiguous author is used to legitimise a simplistic, reductionist account of his work. The high reputation of Thucydides in historical, political and strategic thought was founded on the opinions of people like Thomas Hobbes or Leopold von Ranke who had meditated long and hard on the intricacies of his account and its relevance to the present – but it’s largely used to confer truisms and dubious sound-bites, like “the strong do what they will”, “there is justice only between equals” or “a rising power always threatens an established power”, with an undeserved gravitas. It’s as if the whole weight of David Bowie’s cultural significance was presented in terms of Let’s Dance; yes, it’s part of the oeuvre, and not exactly unrepresentative, but it’s not the central point or the only thing you really need.* Those Thucydides quotes are likewise genuine enough (unlike some), but at best (the last one) they offer a drastic simplification of his understanding of events, and at worst (the other two) they make the basic error of confusing the artist with his characters. (more…)

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One of the many ways in which we can read Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue’ is as a study of trade-offs, and how people calculate and evaluate them. The Athenians explicitly use such language; for example, off-setting the loss of respect and trust among Greek neutrals if they destroy Melos against the increase in fear among their subjects, with the view that the result is a net gain in their security – and their claims about Spartan reluctance to help their allies unless it suits them takes for granted a similar way of thinking. It is of course a paradox of their position, insisting on an unsentimental evaluation of present circumstances rather than speculating hopefully about what might happen in future, that their calculation rests so heavily on assumptions about how people will behave and hence how events will turn out – and Thucydides effectively critiques their assumptions, both by showing the Melians refusing to follow the same logic and by narrating the subsequent events that show how poorly the Athenians actually anticipate future developments. (more…)

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How should we imagine the Athenians at Melos – coldly rational technocrats, bombastic neocons, sardonic British imperialists..? (As I’ve mentioned before, one of my embryonic projects is to explore different ways of presenting the Melian Dialogue, to bring out different facets). One obvious – probably too obvious – possibility is the comic book supervillain, not least because this draws attention to the ultimate hollowness of their words – we know that there’s going to be a weak spot in their master plan, probably intimately connected to their arrogant self-confidence, even if there’s a lot of explosive special-effects destruction to come first. Conversely, comic book supervillains do have a tendency to talk like bad versions of the Melian Dialogue, in capital letters: “MWAHAHA! SOON MY DEATH RAY WILL DESTROY METROPOLIS! THE STRONG DO WHAT THEY WANT AND THE WEAK WILL BOW BEFORE THORAXIS!”

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So, is it 1919 or 1938? Which lessons from history should the European Union be keeping in mind in its negotiations with the UK, the dangers of imposing a humiliating settlement on a defeated enemy which leads to the rise of resentment, dangerous populism and violence, or the dangers of abandoning one’s ideals and giving in to aggressive and unjustifiable demands in the hope of keeping the peace, which fuels ever greater demands and does nothing to stop the rise of resentment, populism and violence? Or maybe it’s all about the Holy Roman Empire instead. Thank you, Timothy Garton Ash, your valiant efforts in trying to drum up support for the Chequers compromise when everybody else hates it will not be forgotten. (more…)

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The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must…

A familiar line, but context and performance are everything. How do you picture the speaker? A calm, rational, ruthless dictator? A super-villain with a death ray? This is the sort of thing such figures tend to claim – which doesn’t mean that we necessarily accept it at face value. What about a fallen tyrant, a Lear or a Nero, still asserting such arrogance as their world falls apart around them? What if a super-hero was the speaker? (Echoes of Miller’s Batman or Alex Ross’s far superior Kingdom Come). What if it was a woman – whether downtrodden or triumphant? The line becomes less of a statement about the world, and more of a statement about the person speaking… (more…)

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Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. (more…)

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Thucydides 5.84ff

…and sent envoys to enter into discussions. They spoke as follows:

Athenians: Since these negotiations are not to go on before the people, so that we may speak without inconvenient interruptions and continue trying to deceive the ears of the multitude without listening to any counter-arguments, please don’t bother with any set speeches, but let us discuss things in a civil manner without reopening the question of the valuation agreed in January.

Melians: How can we have a proper discussion when you’re not willing to discuss the central issue? We see you have come to be judges in your own cause, and all that we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is continuing conflict and disruption to students, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and otherwise we just become your slaves. (more…)

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