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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

There’s been a minor flurry of references to Thucydides in the context of the BBC’s bizarre decision to give Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech the historical monument treatment. It’s an interesting variant on the argument put forward by opponents of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and similar campaigns to protect the legacies of racism and imperialism, that something can be simultaneously incredibly important for historical understanding (and so must be preserved) and yet absolutely separate from contemporary concerns (and so shouldn’t be attacked). The claim is that Powell’s speech matters because of its role in history (so celebrating it now has nothing to do with contemporary politics, honest, and we’re going to be really critical of it), and yet the only reason anyone pays any attention to the racist pronouncements of a failed politician is the persistence of such racism as an undercurrent in British society ever since, with the increasing tendency of mainstream political parties to treat it not as a problem and source of shame but as Very Real Concerns that Should Be Addressed. A healthy, modern society would be one in which Powell’s speech was of purely historical concern – in which case this anniversary would be of interest only to a tiny number of specialists. Ours clearly isn’t – but that doesn’t mean the BBC should be pandering to such tendencies. (more…)

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Ever since the days of Thucydides, states have used force to get what they want, and have expected weaker states to comply with their wishes. Ever since the days of Thucydides, they have claimed that this is all perfectly justifiable as the way of the world. Ever since the days of Thucydides, men have made confident claims that war is easy, straightforward, risk-free, simply an opportunity to demonstrate one’s greatness and reorder the world in a more congenial manner. Ever since the days of Thucydides, international relations academics and military strategists have spouted cliches like “Ever since the days of Thucydides…” as a cheap source of borrowed authority and gravitas. I just don’t get the part where this is supposed to be reassuring, even if it is delivered by a chiselled jaw and Action Man stare. (more…)

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Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. (more…)

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Thucydides 5.84ff

…and sent envoys to enter into discussions. They spoke as follows:

Athenians: Since these negotiations are not to go on before the people, so that we may speak without inconvenient interruptions and continue trying to deceive the ears of the multitude without listening to any counter-arguments, please don’t bother with any set speeches, but let us discuss things in a civil manner without reopening the question of the valuation agreed in January.

Melians: How can we have a proper discussion when you’re not willing to discuss the central issue? We see you have come to be judges in your own cause, and all that we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is continuing conflict and disruption to students, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and otherwise we just become your slaves. (more…)

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How does democracy die, and can the process be stopped? It’s a pressing question at the moment, not only in the United States – the focus of Levitsky & Ziblatt’s new book, How Democracies Die – but across much if not most of the rest of the world, from South Africa to Germany to India, and even at a more local level, such as the steady marginalisation of all but a tiny clique in the management of universities, despite them still being presented as communities of teaching and scholarship – the reason why I’m writing this blog post when I would normally be talking about such issues in the context of Thucydides and his account of the crisis of Athenian democracy with my students.

It’s a shame, then, that a book with the subtitle “What history reveals about our future” is so lacking in historical perspective. (more…)

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Der Wiki’ser

One of the things that I’ve meaning to do for ages, in the event that I had any spare time or energy, is to contribute something to Wikipedia. The basic principle of the collective creation of a gigantic repository of knowledge is inspiring, the overall quality of entries has improved so much over the years so that we academics need no longer discourage students from drawing on it (as a first step, and without citing it, of course, let along copying it…) – and it has been very helpful at times, when trying to correct Thucydides misquotations and misattributions on the Twitter, to be able to point people towards the small Misattribution section within the entry on Thucydides, which gives the correct source for the ubiquitous ‘Scholars and Warriors’ quote.

Don’t bother looking for it; it’s not there any more. (more…)

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Atrocity Exhibition

Things happen out in the world, and someone, somewhere, then tweets a bit of Thucydides. (I’m aware that my perspective on this is skewed, because I actively monitor it, but it does happen). Over the last week, two different events have prompted such a response. The murders at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, brought this thoughtful post from the ever-interesting Sententiae Antiquae, quoting 7.29-30 on the massacre of schoolboys in Mycalessus by a gang of Thracian merceneries who’d been let go by the Athenians. As SA notes, when we think about this passage in relation to school shootings in the US, it is the differences between the situations that seem most productive and disturbing. (more…)

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