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Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

The physicist Werner Heisenberg opens Der Teil und das Ganze (1969; published in English as Physics and Beyond in 1971), his personal account of the development of atomic physics in the first half of the twentieth century, with a citation from Thucydides; 1.22.1, to be precise (more…)

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We appear to have reached a tipping point, where future historians of this period – not necessarily human – will simply refuse to believe what they find in their sources on the grounds of plausibility. Just as with the Julio-Claudians, we can discuss the discourse of polemic and invective, and the values and cultural assumptions it reveals, but not the historical reality that lies somewhere behind it; we cannot study Boris Johnson as a real historical individual, but only the image of him as cartoonish buffoon constructed by hostile sources… (more…)

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That radical “a plague on all your houses” centrist Thucydides is muttering “I told you so” to himself again…

Factionalism and polarisation became facts of political life, and places that were affected later rather than sooner, hearing what was happening elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in identifying new grievances and new accusations against their opponents. The usual valuation of words and actions was changed. What was once seen as reckless aggression now appeared as the loyalty one owed to fellow campaigners, while forethought and hesitation became cowardly equivocation; calls for moderation meant you lacked decency, while seeing different sides of the question was a sign of secret sympathies with the enemy. (3.82.3-4)

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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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