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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Not just at the moment, while my brain persistently refuses to sustain joined-up thought, but as a career-long habit, I come up regularly with ideas that I’m entirely incapable of realising; not only because of lack of time or energy but also because of lack of skill and talent. That’s my entire musical career, obviously – perhaps I should have tried to become a Malcolm McLaren-style impresario instead, finding other people (and other people’s money) to realise my plans – but also plenty of passing whims that swim into view around 4 am, hang around for a few days and then drift off again… (more…)

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This is something of a negative and/or holding post, but it seems worthwhile putting it down as a marker to myself if no one else… As I’ve mentioned before, one of my resolutions for lockdown was that I would finally make some progress on my Thucydides musical project. This hasn’t got anywhere, partly because of the ongoing brain fog issue (in the light of recent scary newspaper reports, I’m trying to take the optimistic view that once again I’ve got off lightly compared to others and so this will pass if I just take it easy, rather than contemplating the thought that this might be permanent), but partly as a result of the jazz composition course I’ve been doing online. As I’ve noted, this has been enormously valuable as an exercise in seeing things from the student perspective (and I really feel for the tutor, as he’s falling into exactly the traps that I would fall into, trying to engage with students in a normal manner although this takes much more time than usual, and trying unsuccessfully to get people to make use of the chat facility between classes). But I have also learnt a lot about jazz composition, especially when it comes to modal approaches. (more…)

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Doubling Down

As the old proverb (sometimes attributed to Solon) has it, gods, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man on the Internet. Am I being hasty and unfair, leaping to judgement on the basis of fleeting interactions with ‘The Mystic’ (brooding headshot with goatee, quote about chaos and perfection, cover image of some heavily tattooed wrestlers) or AwesomeDude (avatar of a dog, cover image of a Dilbert cartoon)?* Yes, quite possibly. But if they not only ascribe that wretched ‘The society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” quote to Thucydides, but firmly reject gentle correction from the Thucydides Bot, they’re gonna get judged… (more…)

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Thucydides doesn’t mention the fact that a statue of the Athenian tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, occupied a prominent position in the agora; almost certainly he didn’t have to, as this would be well known to his readers, but in any case he had a bigger and more important target: the story that the statue was intended to commemorate. “People accept the traditions that they hear quite uncritically, even when it relates to their own country,” he remarked caustically (1.20) – though perhaps he should have said especially when it relates to their own country, in the light of his observation a little further on (1.22) that accounts of the same event might vary “depending on individual loyalties”. Athenians – at any rate the democratically-inclined majority – knew what their past was all about, without any need for inconvenient historical fact, and they would surely have been outraged at any proposal that the statue should be removed because the real story behind it wasn’t quite as straightforwardly noble and democratic as they believed. (more…)

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There’s been an uptick in misattributed ‘Thucydides’ quotes on the USAnian Twitter in the last couple of days, for obvious reasons: “the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself” (journalist Chris Hedges drawing an explicit analogy with Iraq War blowback, which certainly can include the militarisation of the police; interesting, Incidentally, how he tries to focus on “Athenian leadership” not the demos…), and “justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are” (actually Solon, in Plutarch’s Life). There’s also been an interesting interpretation of the Melian Dialogue line “there is justice only between equals” as a plea for equality rather than as an utterly immoral conception of justice.

Do pedantic corrections have any role to play at this time? Well, much more than usual I am very conscious that people are tweeting these lines in good faith because they are powerful and/or useful ideas, and acknowledge this in replying to them (which does take substantially longer than just tweeting derisive emojis), but I’ve decided to carry on doing it; truth still matters, even in such circumstances.

It did bring to mind another of Solon’s ideas, that we ended up discussing quite a lot in my Greek Political Thought class this year: that in times of stasis, those who “out of indifference preferred to let events take their course” should be stripped of their citizen rights (as quoted in e.g. the Ath Pol, 8.5). It’s a line that has been much debated by scholars, given the sense – as seen for example in Thucydides’ powerful depiction of stasis at Corcyra – that a political community collapsing into starkly polarised factions is surely the worst possible scenario, and yet Solon seems to be reinforcing such decisions, calling on everyone to take up arms with one or other side.

One interpretation is that, whatever later centuries thought Solon was saying, the original intent was not to divide the whole polis into two hostile camps but to get everyone to take a stand in resolving the conflict. The true threat is indifference – which we can also understand as selfishness: if the wealthy few are oppressing the poor (and we can update that to recognise other conflicts in modern society: black and white, men and women etc), sitting back to see who wins is an utterly antisocial act, which entirely merits the loss of honour and citizen rights. It echoes Solon’s line about those who are not directly affected by injustice needing to become equally angry; T’s echoed in Pericles’ funeral oration, with the claim that in Athens those who decline to play their part in public business have no place in the political community.

Of course it’s absurdly optimistic; it’s very easy to imagine all the reasons people will keep their heads down (with the risk that, as Thucydides noted for Corcyra, that all the reasonable moderate people, confident in their powers of common sense and prediction, will end up being equally despised and destroyed by both sides). But if your community is riven by injustice, how can you not take a stand?

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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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