Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

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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There’s a new Thucydides quotation out on the streets, or rather the internet, bringing him into debates about the candidacy of Donald Trump, and it seems like a good, if probably pointless, idea to try to nip this in the bud.

To get the really pedantic bits out of the way first (more…)

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I’ve never seen the whole of The Phantom Menace,* only odd five- or ten-minute snatches here and there, generally with the sound turned down, but over the years this has been enough to build up an overall impression of the film. This has tended to confirm the comments of various critics that it’s basically a number of show-piece action sequences interspersed with long discussions of galactic politics and trade embargoes with the Naboo, that could easily have been edited down into something a bit punchier. Some critics have said similar things about Thucydides – though in this case the temptation is to skip the battles and action sequences** to get to the meaty political debates, rather than vice versa. There is also, thankfully, no equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Thucydides doesn’t really do comedy, even if it seriously cuts his margins on the merchandising.

How should one read Thucydides? Or, as I put the question at the end of the last blog post, do you really have to read all of it? (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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Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.

The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points (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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My only real engagement with Paul McCartney’s birthday celebrations this week has been to re-read the classic Charles Shaar Murray interview from 1975, reprinted in his Shots from the Hip. It took place after the release of Wings’ Venus and Mars, which CSM regarded as a truly terrible album, and a symptom of artistic decadence. “It’s the whole lilies-that-fester syndrome: basically, nobody gives a shit if someone they’ve never heard of unloads a turkey because it’s just another bad album. For someone of McCartney’s level/status/importance to deliberately trivialize his talent is something of a blow.” The entire interview then becomes a nightmarish exercise in trying to cope with this problem: “What can a person such as myself say to a… to a… to an ex-Beatle who’s just made a crappy album?”

Where am I going with this? Well, over on the political philosophy blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians there’s a contribution to a symposium on John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness by Deirdre McCloskey, that focuses not on Tomasi’s own arguments but on the critiques of others, specifically those that argue for the need for the state to play a role in policing the workings of capitalism. (more…)

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