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Posts Tagged ‘Pericles’

Whom would you rather have make a speech about the death of one of your loved ones, Donald Trump or Pericles? For Simon Schama over on the Twitter yesterday, there’s no contest: “Grief obliges eloquence or silence. Pericles. Lincoln. Then ‘evil losers'”. It’s certainly true that there’s no contest when it comes to eloquence and rhetorical skill, or even basic grammar – but the differences aren’t so stark when it comes to the ends of such speeches. For Trump, the deaths of children, teenagers and their older relatives in Manchester are fuel for his confused, ill-directed crusade against ‘radical Islwmic terrorism’, fuelling suspicion of Muslims in general. For Pericles, the deaths of Athenian soldiers were weaponised to urge the survivors to sacrifice themselves for the city as well, with the grief of their families waved away. The issue with Schama’s contrast isn’t that Pericles lost the war or was responsible for starting it, as various people responded to him; it’s that the contrast isn’t as stark as he implies. As for his “Thucydides would block you and so will I”, nice line, but would the man willing to face up to the full ghastliness of human weakness and violence really filter reality like that?

Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse the sub-tweet, I feel ever more disturbed by the sorts of people who choose to incorporate Thucydides into their Twitter identity, and the violent right-wing views many of them seem to hold – and what this says about the modern image of Thucydides, if not necessarily the work itself…

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How minimal and commonplace can a quotation or allusion be, and still be traced back to its source with some degree of confidence? Labour’s adoption of “For the many not the few” as its election slogan provoked comments on the Twitter (e.g. from Jonathan Freedland of the Grauniad) about whether Jeremy Corbyn realised he was quoting Tony Blair’s revised version of the infamous Clause IV – doing away with references to the common ownership of the means of production etc. – followed by the argument from Phillip Collins of the Times that this was actually taken from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the famous line (as included in the preamble to the draft European Constitution!) that “our constitution is called a democracy, because it is administered for the sake not of the few but of the many [or: of the whole people]” (2.37).

I don’t actually recall any discussion, back in 1994/5, of the possible sources of Blair’s new wording, and I haven’t found anything helpful on the internet – any suggestions or information gratefully received! (more…)

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Do classicists and ancient historians have a particular relationship with Europe or special reasons to fear a British exit from the European Union, compared with other academic disciples? I’ve been asked this question in relation to the newly-founded Classicists for Europe, which aims to add our voice to the campaign for the UK to STAY, and my answer would be: basically, no. We may perhaps be more likely than some to feel an affinity to Europe, given that most of us work on material from other European countries in close collaboration with continental colleagues, while the cultural inheritance of classical antiquity clearly transcends national claims or identities. But even if this gives us a slightly different outlook from historians of early modern England or analytical philosophers, it’s clearly about Europe rather than the EU; when it comes to the latter, our fears are those of researchers, teachers and students in all the other sciences – the threats to mobility, funding and infrastructure, the consequences of prolonged instability and uncertainty – and so the message of the campaign is ‘Us Too!’ rather than ‘We’re Special!’ (more…)

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Here we go again? As plenty of people have already observed, the debate around whether or not the United Kingdom should join the bombing campaign in Syria feel terribly familiar. For most, this suggests 2003 all over again; in today’s Grauniad, for example, Martin Kettle notes the resemblances but claims that MPs have clearly learnt important lessons from last time, while Ewen MacAskill‘s analysis of Cameron’s case offers clear evidence that the government, at least, hasn’t (or doesn’t care). For ancient historians, and international relations theorists who have fallen under the spell of Thucydides, it is tempting to identify a much longer and more inexorable cycle of repetition, one that is inherent in human affairs.

Thucydides’ work could be characterised in part as a series of arguments for war, or at least for military intervention and the exercise of violence: multiple variations on a single theme. (more…)

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Thucydides citing Pericles (2.37.2): “We show no animosity at our neighbours’ choice of pleasures, nor cast aspersions that may hurt even if they do not harm.”  Even if you don’t go so far as to change the final word to “ham” (thanks for that, @JohnPowersUS), the relevance of this line to today’s wild-fire of an unsubstantiated rumour seems obvious. But we could take it in different ways. Read straight, as an accurate reproduction of Pericles’ noble rhetoric, this can seem like a judgement on our own trivial. tabloid-driven society, in which the idea that ‘the personal is political’ becomes an excuse to ignore serious debate in favour of gossip; it’s only a day or so since people, largely the same people as are now giggling about this story, were denouncing the tabloid attacks on things that Jeremy Corbyn said or did decades ago. But then one might reasonably reply that someone who was quite happy to join in presenting Corbyn in the most lurid terms as a threat to national security has given up his right then to get huffy about other people’s muck-raking and occupy the moral high ground. And that’s before we get to the fact that Pericles was someone with an obvious reason for wanting to insist on the irrelevance of private pleasures to public life – and that Thucydides was perfectly aware of those, and could imagine that enough of his readers knew about Aspasia to hear that line and, sniggering, think “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he..?”

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Free and Easy

I don’t really have time for this post – I’m off to Berlin tomorrow for a research fellowship with the TOPOI Exzellenzkluster, and so desperately scrambling to get everything sorted out before abandoning my duties – but there are times when the only reasonable response to something is to say, very loudly, ‘¡No pasarán! Like this:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. (David Cameron, 13/5/2015)

I imagine that this is coincidental – as Liz Sawyer has charted, in her contribution to the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, British politicians (unlike US ones) are not prone to quoting Thucydides in speeches – but this does seem like a direct response to, or repudiation of, some of the sentiments of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (especially Thuc. 2.37).

Just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life we do not get in a state with our neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the sort of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings… We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.

Of course this isn’t a completely new and dramatic lurch into illiberal policies when it comes to civil liberties, but it does seem like a shift: not just an explicit intent to intervene in the private sphere, but also a change from passing more and more laws to criminalise additional areas of behaviour to announcing, apparently, that illegality is now irrelevant if the authorities decide that they don’t like something, and encouraging everyone else to pile in. And of course Cameron then goes on to include freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law among the British values that his government will seek to promote by, erm, ignoring them when it comes to certain people.

“Our constitution is called a democracy… We abide by the rule of law.” Not any more.

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Plutarch wrote a work On the Malignity of Herodotus, explaining all the ways in which Herodotus did down the noble Greeks and was unacceptably positive about barbarians. To judge from a fascinating seminar paper in Bristol yesterday, Liz Irwin of Columbia University is planning to write On the Malignity of Thucydides, explaining all the ways in which this brilliantly manipulative writer persuades us to accept dubious ideas, not least the idea of his own absolute trustworthiness. She began with Thucydides’ emphasis on the hard work involved in gaining a true knowledge of the past, which most people don’t bother with; this also applies to Thucydides’ own work, which most people take largely at face value as he’s done all the hard work, whereas in fact we need to work incredibly hard to see the reality that lies behind his misleading presentation – otherwise we’re just like hoi polloi (and perhaps specifically hoi polloi of Athens) who’ll accept any old story, now including Thucydides’. She went on to develop a reading of the first two books or so of the work, showing the gaps between Thucydides’ presentation of events and the reality of what really happened – or at least the alternative interpretations that we can derive from other sources or from what seem to be significant absences or tendential claims in Thucydides. (more…)

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