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Posts Tagged ‘Melian Dialogue’

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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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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…)

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Well, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly this past year or so has seen Thucydides achieve a rather higher media profile: a series of appearances on BBC Radio 4 (including Tom Holland’s adaptation for Book at Bedtime), and ever more mentions in the context of the Greek economic crisis, including at the head of Channel 4 News the other night. There’s still a long way to go before Thucydides can be taken for granted as an authority figure in general current affairs discussions in Britain, compared with his established status in the US – one of the things that’s struck me is the extent to which almost every person mentioning him (see e.g. the letter in today’s Grauniad) feels the need to sketch in a load of background, and appears to assume that this is the first time Thucydides will actually have been mentioned. But we do seem to be getting there.

This isn’t simply a product of events in Greece; the groundwork was already being laid… (more…)

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Sometimes you recognise immediately that you’re in the same situation as before, but can still do nothing about it; sometimes it starts differently, and you realise only gradually that events are playing out just as they have in previous nightmares, and that they will continue to play out in exactly the same way to the end, or until you can tear yourself away. Another week in the ongoing agony of Greece and Europe, another Thucydides reference. Why is it always the bloody Melian Dialogue? (more…)

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