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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

There’s been an uptick in misattributed ‘Thucydides’ quotes on the USAnian Twitter in the last couple of days, for obvious reasons: “the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself” (journalist Chris Hedges drawing an explicit analogy with Iraq War blowback, which certainly can include the militarisation of the police; interesting, Incidentally, how he tries to focus on “Athenian leadership” not the demos…), and “justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are” (actually Solon, in Plutarch’s Life). There’s also been an interesting interpretation of the Melian Dialogue line “there is justice only between equals” as a plea for equality rather than as an utterly immoral conception of justice.

Do pedantic corrections have any role to play at this time? Well, much more than usual I am very conscious that people are tweeting these lines in good faith because they are powerful and/or useful ideas, and acknowledge this in replying to them (which does take substantially longer than just tweeting derisive emojis), but I’ve decided to carry on doing it; truth still matters, even in such circumstances.

It did bring to mind another of Solon’s ideas, that we ended up discussing quite a lot in my Greek Political Thought class this year: that in times of stasis, those who “out of indifference preferred to let events take their course” should be stripped of their citizen rights (as quoted in e.g. the Ath Pol, 8.5). It’s a line that has been much debated by scholars, given the sense – as seen for example in Thucydides’ powerful depiction of stasis at Corcyra – that a political community collapsing into starkly polarised factions is surely the worst possible scenario, and yet Solon seems to be reinforcing such decisions, calling on everyone to take up arms with one or other side.

One interpretation is that, whatever later centuries thought Solon was saying, the original intent was not to divide the whole polis into two hostile camps but to get everyone to take a stand in resolving the conflict. The true threat is indifference – which we can also understand as selfishness: if the wealthy few are oppressing the poor (and we can update that to recognise other conflicts in modern society: black and white, men and women etc), sitting back to see who wins is an utterly antisocial act, which entirely merits the loss of honour and citizen rights. It echoes Solon’s line about those who are not directly affected by injustice needing to become equally angry; T’s echoed in Pericles’ funeral oration, with the claim that in Athens those who decline to play their part in public business have no place in the political community.

Of course it’s absurdly optimistic; it’s very easy to imagine all the reasons people will keep their heads down (with the risk that, as Thucydides noted for Corcyra, that all the reasonable moderate people, confident in their powers of common sense and prediction, will end up being equally despised and destroyed by both sides). But if your community is riven by injustice, how can you not take a stand?

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As Buffy wisely (but perhaps unhelpfully, given the result) remarked in the very first episode of the series, life is short. A key theme in Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens is its psychological effects precisely in relation to a sense of time and the future: the abandonment of any concern for the longer term, on the assumption that one is more likely than not to die, and hence loss of respect for the law (you’re not going to live long enough to be tried and punished, so who cares?), neglect of traditional virtues like thrift and caution (why save for tomorrow when you might not be there to enjoy it?), and above all disregard for what other people think of you. Honour is something that has to be accumulated slowly, for uncertain benefits beyond the feeling that you don’t want to be despised or jeered by your fellow citizens; in the short term it’s just a restraint on what you want to do NOW. (more…)

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I believe there’s now something of a vogue for schematic accounts of world-historical development, built around some sort of organising trope like ‘killer apps’, with far-reaching, if tendentious, contemporary implications. However, so far these seem to be mostly focused on technology and institutions, or built around grand assertions about human psychology, and inexplicably they deal with classical culture only as the/a beginning of a long process rather than as the fundamental cultural theme it clearly is in reality. It’s time to redress the balance. Yes, this is just a short blog post, but editors and publishers can be assured that I can easily turn this into a polemical op ed or trade book just by adding some striking examples, without inflicting any unhelpful nuance on the core thesis. And of course it’s just about Europe and the West; what are you, some kind of cultural Marxist? (more…)

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Attendance is free, but numbers are limited, so please register HERE. (more…)

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Leadership for Dummies

Suddenly the idea that political power should be allocated on the basis of legitimate descent from generations of ruthless thugs, or even on the whim of a strange woman in a lake handing out swords, doesn’t seem so bad, because apparently the alternative – the unanswerable reason why Labour politicians are unfit for government – is the ability to recite a large chunk of material in a foreign language, learnt by heart back at school.

Not just any material, of course. (more…)

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There’s a persistent belief that simply describing contemporary political figures in classical terms automatically furthers understanding; Trump is depicted as a Roman emperor, Johnson as Pericles, Cleon or Alcibades, as if this offers us vital clues to their personality or to the situation we’re in. I’m not referring to the passing comments or allusions – the endless evocation of Caligula supposedly making his horse a senator, whenever one or other of these modern autocrats makes an especially egregious appointment, for example – but to the longer-form discussions, the essays and op ed pieces, where the classical frame is clearly intended to illuminate (or at the least to indicate the illumination of the author; the audience may simply be expected to nod admiringly at their erudition). (more…)

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This Is What We Do

Even before Friday morning, I was feeling despondent; partly premonitions of doom (local political doom, apocalyptical climate and environmental doom), partly the after-effects of a heavy teaching load this term and of a year in which I seem to have been ill and/or insomniac quite a lot of the time, hence massively behind with research and writing commitments. And now? We’re definitely leaving the EU, and still at risk of a disastrous version of that departure; the culture war will continue and probably accelerate, with Johnson’s ‘bring the country back together’ a form of ‘you lost, time to get with the programme’ coercion rather than a genuine concern about engaging with other views; nothing will be done about climate change, or poverty. (more…)

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