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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Is this the moment when the Trump administration decisively repudiates one of the great traditions of American politics, honoured by both parties for over a century? I’m not thinking of the executive order to denounce Twitter and Facebook, since all manner of presidents have sought to manipulate or gag the media over the years (but, hey, can they both lose?). No, this is a subtler but perhaps more significant shift in behaviour and attitude, signalled in a US State Department paper on Arms Control and International Security, published under the name of Dr Christopher A. Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation and currently moonlighting as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, on US National Security Export Controls and Huawei.

Now, I must admit that I don’t read a lot of State Department papers, but I may have to change that habit if this one is typical, because the opening section is hilarious. (more…)

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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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Fear Itself

The Thucydides Bot (@Thucydiocy) is not monolingual, but I remember only occasionally to check variant spellings like Thukydides and Thucydide, and to be honest I very rarely remember Tucidide. It’s therefore taken me a while to realise that there is a new iffy quotation in town, that is circulating almost exclusively in Italian media and social media (with one slightly surprising reference from an Albanian language school in Kosovo), so that even the couple of citations of the line in English use Tucidide rather than Thucydides. (more…)

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Toxic!

#HowCoronavirusDemonstratesTheEternalRelevanceOfThucydides Part 752… There are still few signs that the infection curve is flattening out; no sooner had I finished a snarky Eidolon piece on the proliferation of ‘Thucydides and the plague’ hot takes then a couple more appeared – thankfully, without doing anything to undermine my general claims about the pointlessness of most of these discussions. I did quite enjoy Jennifer Roberts’ ventriloquism, perhaps a distant cousin of my occasional donning of a fake beard to make Thucydides videos.

The positive aspect of all these different evocations of the Athenian plague has been the fact that they’re mostly accurate summaries (the repeated assumption that democracy came to a permanent end after the Peloponnesian War aside); the problem is what this summary is supposed to signify. But this morning brought an exception, which seemed worthy of remark; not an entire article on Thucydides and plague, but one of those ‘Ever since the days of Thucydides…’ openings, familiar from international relations pieces, in a bizarre Washington Times article on coronavirus as bio-terrorism.

The idea of biological warfare has been with us over the centuries. You can start with bits of Thucydides’ vividly ugly description the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E…. Mycotoxins, biological agents that can occur in nature from rotting or spoiled food or grain, would produce that sort of horrible death. Thucydides briefly considered the possibility that the enemies of Athens mixed toxin-laden grain in shipments to Athens. 

Yeah, but no. What we have here is a confusion of something that Thucydides did mention – the rumour, at the beginning of the outbreak in Piraeus, that the Spartans had poisoned the wells – and one of the innumerable modern theories about the nature of the plague, given the bewildering range of symptoms Thucydides recorded, namely ergot from spoiled grain. As far as I can recall, there is no suggestion in the latter discussion that this was deliberate – after all, if Athens’ enemies had known enough about the dangers of toxic grain to concoct such a plan, the Athenians would have known enough to recognise the problem – but the idea of accidental poisoning, like the idea of an epidemic as a devastating natural occurrence, doesn’t fit with an article whose basic aim is to present Covid-19 as a deliberate Chinese plot, abetted by the World Health Organisation.

It’s an interesting example of the garbled transmission of second- or third-hand information (writes and then deletes ‘Chinese whispers’…) and inadequate fact-checking. As a reception of Thucydides, however, it’s rather dull; he’s the ever-reliable reporter and authority figure, and if he noted the possibility of enemy action (and not as “this is what some foolish people believed”, which would be more accurate but less convenient) then we all ought to be on our guard…

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People respond to crisis, not to say imminent apocalypse, in different ways. I’d been expecting to struggle through the final two weeks of term, staggering punch-drunk out of the maelstrom that was 150 Greek History essays into the need to write the final classes – an interesting exercise to view the expansion of Rome from the perspective of the eastern Mediterranean, but to be honest I wasn’t looking for new intellectual experiences at this time of year – and hours of consultations, about dissertations, essay feedback, final essays and the Bloody Impact Case Study. I was planning to spend most of next week asleep.

Instead, I find myself strangely full of energy. (more…)

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Doom! Doom!

What is the point of these proliferating ‘Thucydides and coronavirus’ takes? Besides giving different academics a chance to get an article into one or other prestigious publication, obviously – never let a good crisis go to waste… This was one of the key themes that emerged in the course of an online discussion this morning with at least some of my final-year Thucydides class, for the final session of the year (and I can’t quite believe how emotional I feel about having a chance to interact with some students, rather than just creating discussion topics that no one comments on and launching audio files into the void…).

If there is a point besides self-advertisement, it’s not a consistent one. Some takes seem focused on reassurance – if only that Thucydides was able to make sense of such events, 2500 years ago, so we should feel okay about it. Others take the opposite tack, seeing the new Plague as the thing that will finally trigger the Thucydides Trap they’ve been confidently predicting for some years – or as something that will sound the death-knell for democracy (whatever happened to the fourth century..?). It makes me feel like a bit of an outlier, since – in my contribution to the ongoing flood, an interview for a podcast at the War on the Rocks website – I took the line that the Plague seems to have had remarkably little effect on the ability of the Athenians to wage war, apart from the possible consequences of the death of Pericles.

Obviously if Xi does get Corvid-19 and is replaced by a new generation of more aggressive and reckless leaders, indulging the demands of the people for an aggressive strategy, we should all start worrying.

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People Are Strange

Has the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) read Thucydides, or Camus? The indications aren’t promising; on the basis of the publication yesterday of the evidence supporting the UK government’s rapidly evolving (sic.) strategy to handle the epidemic, this is the Scene That Celebrates Itself, with a list of scholarly literature mostly consisting of publications by members of the group (way to massage the h-index, guys!). Yes, a major plank in the case for deploying behavioural science to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is an op ed article arguing for the deployment of behavioural science to desk with the coronavirus outbreak… (more…)

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