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Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

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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Another installment in my long-term project to make available copies of old chapters and articles, when I have a spare moment. This one is prompted by another exchange with Will Pooley at Bristol, who asked on the Twitter about modern historians using the dialogue form, whether invented or found. My immediate thought was Keith Hopkins’ A World Full Of Gods, which (if you don’t know it) experiments with a variety of unexpected literary forms to capture different aspects of religions in the ancient world and the numerous historiographical issues involved in trying to study and represent them. As I think I’ve remarked on here before, I’m not convinced that many of Hopkins’ experiments actually work properly – the professional exponents of science fiction do time travel stories rather better, for example – but it’s amazing that it was done at all, and a great shame that this aspect was largely passed over by reviewers as quickly as possible with an air of great embarrassment. (more…)

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Words had to change their meanings in response to events. Mindless aggression became courage. Forethought and hesitation became cowardice. Moderation was unmanliness. Seeing different sides of the question was a sign of an ivory-tower academic ‘expert’. Real men said what they thought, the more extreme the better, and anyone who objected was not to be trusted. If an opponent said something reasonable, this had to be condemned as criminal nonsense. Cheating the system was a sign of cleverness, while honesty and integrity were condemned as simple-mindedness. Law and morality were an unacceptable restraint on the Will of The People.

(Thucydides 3.82.4-5, adapted)

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Why do we trust historians? How far is it (as I’m sure most people, or at least most historians, would claim) solely a matter of evaluating their data, the quality of their interpretations and their adherence to professional norms, and how far do other factors play a role? I was in Hamburg last week, for the biennial Deutsche Historikertag, which is always an interesting conference in part because they seek to focus on a specific theme, without insisting that everyone should conform to this. This year it was ‘Glauben’, and I co-organised a panel with my regular collaborator Christian Wendt from Berlin on ‘Die Glaubwuerdigkeit des Historikers’, with a particular focus (inevitably) on Thucydides and the ways that he becomes an ‘authority’ in modern discourse. If anyone’s interested, there’s a short report on the session from Deutschlandfunk as part of a programme on the Historikertag generally, here, from about five minutes in.

The majority of ‘academic’ readings of Thucydides – and I should stress that I’m talking about those which take him as some kind of authority, whether on facts or method or theory, not philological studies – seem to depend on some degree of recognition of him as ‘one of us’, a colleague with shared professional values even if he also displays a number of idiosyncratic habits. (more…)

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Has Boris Johnson ever given a speech without throwing in a classical reference or two? It’s part of the brand, clearly – and always reminds me of Josh Ober’s classic study of Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Ober noted the surprising readiness of wealthy Athenians, especially those who’ve chosen an active role in public life, to parade their wealth and their difference from the mass of the citizens, even when faced with the task of winning over several hundred jurors drawn from the ordinary population. The ancient equivalent of a modern British politician taking off his jacket and tie, rolling up his sleeves and dropping a few aitches is conspicuous by its absence. (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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