Posts Tagged ‘Pericles’

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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One of the hazards of studying references to Thucydides in contemporary public debate is that, after a while, you start to anticipate them, and develop pre-emptive analysis. Clearly there are people who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of a Peloponnesian War analogy; I seem to be turning into someone who can’t see an international crisis without thinking of what Peloponnesian War analogy these people are likely to think of – which occasionally means I end up drawing parallels that no one else bothers to develop. (more…)

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[Guest post from Liz Sawyer (elizabeth.sawyer@trinity.ox.ac.uk)]

If you visit the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, you will find, among the more predictable quotations by Churchill, one attributed to Pericles: ‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’ The sentiment rings out proudly with the ideals of self-sacrifice, bravery, and staunch defence of liberty that the memorial was intended to praise, and its rhetorical power is undeniable. Thucydides’ succinct τὸ δ’ ἐλεύθερον τὸ εὔψυχον κρίναντες (literally, ‘after judging freedom courage’) has been expanded in this version into a rhetorical flourish that has been carved into soldiers’ memorials the world over since the end of the First World War, and today is emblazoned across their societies’ websites and email signatures. But where did this translation come from? (more…)

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