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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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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A country divided; politics becoming ever more partisan and extreme; increasingly violent rhetoric, with knee-jerk defence of your own side and a refusal to accept the slightest possibility that your opponents – now branded as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’ – might be speaking or acting in good faith. Not (only) Britain in 2019, or 1930s Germany, but ancient Greece. (more…)

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The Thucydides virus continues to spread through British political culture, and has inevitably made the jump from the naturally-susceptible Conservatives (cf. the statistics on the number of MPs with classical degrees) to the wider population. On Monday, Ian Blackford of the SNP came out with a bit of Pericles in the House of Commons: “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” – no, not the most exciting or original quote, but it’s normally the preserve of the E”R”G Sparts, not least because of its association with the Bomber Command Memorial, and a few years ago any sort of classical reference in the House of Commons would have been greeted with mockery. And yesterday Nick Clegg read a substantial portion of the same Funeral Oration as part of the memorial service for Paddy Ashdown in Westminster Abbey. I fear that my new paper for History & Policy on the use and abuse of Thucydides in political commentary has come too late to serve as any sort of vaccine…

The obvious reason for including Pericles in Ashdown’s commemoration (more…)

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I for one welcome our new Thucydides-quoting overlords… Well, no, not really. Back in 2013, when Dominic Cummings publicly expressed his love for Thucydides and his belief that there is no better book to study for understanding politics, I expressed concern that this was one more data point for the proposition that studying Thucydides can be a Really Bad Thing that leads people to Terrible Conclusions. I decided then not to spend any time developing a detailed analysis of the role played by Thucydides (and Pericles) in his essay ‘On education and and political priorities’, aka the ‘Odyssean Education’ piece, as on first reading it seemed that Cummings was mainly taking Thucydides as a model for critical thinking, something with which I wasn’t inclined to disagree too much, even if this idea clearly then led us in very different directions. A few years later, when Cummings resurfaced in the Vote Leave campaign, there seemed more important things to do than re-read the essay – though in retrospect, as discussed below, I now suspect that there were a few clues in there about his approach to politics that could have been worth discussing.

And now? (more…)

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Between the Wars

One of my least favourite novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence is the sixth, The Kindly Ones. I’m not entirely sure why; it offers one of his most sustained bits of classical reception, the Kindly Ones being of course the Eumenides or Furies – but my love of Powell, and personal response to this book, long pre-date any serious classical interest – and is just as full of unforgettable scenes and character sketches. More than likely it’s my habit of over-identifying with certain characters and then feeling vicariously miserable, and perhaps I simply shouldn’t enquire too closely. But in the last year or so it’s been difficult to avoid being reminded of the book on a regular basis, and that is Not Good – finding oneself in The Kindly Ones is akin to the Chinese curse of living in ‘interesting times’. (more…)

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