Posts Tagged ‘Pericles’

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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Interesting to note that the Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell is declining to speak in this afternoon’s Margaret Thatcher Respectful Tribute Slam in Parliament.  “It is not a university and I am not the public orator.  I don’t want it to be thought that I have to get up and make a Periclean speech every time there is a tragedy.”

My initial response was to wonder whether a Cleonic oration might be more appropriate for the occasion; my second was to start thinking about Sir Peter’s use of the term ‘Periclean’.  Of course the Funeral Oration is meant, as the standard go-to for commemoration of the glorious dead in speeches and epitaphs – see Jennifer Roberts’ chapter in Thucydides and the Modern World on the tradition from Gettysburg to the aftermath of 9/11, and a piece I wrote for Aeon on the use of quotes on war memorials.  But that was a speech to commemorate the deaths of a fair number of people in war, and that’s how, more or less, it’s been used since – not least as a means of co-opting those deaths into the national cause, reducing the individuals involved and their grieving families into faceless components of the collective endeavour.  It’s not an obvious choice for memorialising a single individual, which might be a good reason for eschewing Periclean orations in this instance – but my reading of his comment is that Sir Peter doesn’t think that they are inappropriate per se, just that he doesn’t see why he has to be the one to give them every time.


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Monumental Folly

Just a quick cross-platform plug for my new piece on the reception of Pericles’ Funeral Oration over at Aeon, a new online magazine with a whole load of articles well worth reading, besides this one. No comments on it, unfortunately, despite all my efforts last week at getting online – despite being in the depths of the Bayerischer Wald – in case I needed to respond to anything…

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