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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Yes, it’s been quiet on here recently; a combination of trying to get a chapter written and the recurrence of the bloody virus, and I suspect these things are feeding off one another. In addition, I’ve decided to be the last pompous middle-aged classicist left standing without having written a ‘state of the discipline, burn down classics, don’t burn down classics’ piece, and obviously any blog post is a temptation to do just that. So, this isn’t a proper post – that has to wait until this chapter is finished – but just an update on an interesting bit of Thucydideana. This time, well out of my price range. (more…)

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Power to the People?

Over the last couple of months, one Thucydides quote has been quite widely circulated on the Twitter: “In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.” As I discussed a few years ago, it’s a genuine quote (from 8.89) albeit a pretty loose translation (by Rex Warner) – and since that discussion was in October 2016, I’m guessing that this appears on various websites listing Quotes on Democracy, which the sorts of people who like tweeting quotations refer to every four years. While many of the tweets are completely without context, however, enough of them appear in discussion threads that you can make a pretty good guess at their intended meaning, and what’s interesting is that there are two diametrically opposed uses: on the one hand, there those who (as was the case in 2016) offer this as evidence that sore losers are always going to claim they were cheated, but on the other hand this time around there are significant numbers – probably a majority – who put this line forward in support of the claim that there is going to be something unfair about a vote in a democracy, that ‘they’ are always going to cheat and manipulate the system. (more…)

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Mr X

Portrait of Thucydides, on a Stollwerck card

It’s the most chocolaty time of the year, so it seems like an appropriate time to get round to writing about the latest addition to my incredible small but interesting collection of Thucydideana: a chocolate card! (more…)

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A crucial element of Thucydides’ depiction of the plague in Athens is that it appears as, so to speak, a heuristic crisis: it is an event that no one can make any sense of. It’s not that fifth-century Athenians were unfamiliar with epidemics, in myth, literature and reality, but all of those had an explanation in terms of their inherited concepts and assumptions. In this situation, however, every explanation falls short – belief in the fulfilment of oracular prophecy or other supernatural explanation, rumours of enemy action, even the more recently developed ideas of the doctors. Whatever the actual nature of the disease – and this point holds true even if we follow the idea that there wasn’t actually a single plague, but a multitude of more common diseases, perceived as a single baffling phenomenon – Thucydides shows how its unfathomable and irresistible nature then became the dominant influence on behaviour, sweeping away the traditional institutions of religion, law and social norms by revealing that everything was actually random and unpredictable. Why pray when it doesn’t help? Why deny yourself pleasure when you might die tomorrow? Why obey the law when you probably won’t get caught? Why strive for virtue when it doesn’t bring any reward? Why worry about what the neighbours think when they might be dead tomorrow? (more…)

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Pretty well all my mental bandwidth at the moment is taken up with teaching – learning new computer systems, recording lectures, correcting auto-captions (the variants on ‘Thucydides’ – Through CDC, These Sedatives, Civil Liberties – are a marvel, but isn’t the bloody AI capable of learning from my constant corrections?), checking online discussion fora and wondering why no one is participating, waking at 3 am to worry about the fact that no one is participating… So, an exchange of tweets with the great Shadi Bartsch is pretty well all the intellectual engagement I can currently muster. Even there it’s taken me nearly a week to work out what I actually think, by which point it would seem weird and even rude to push the conversation further (plus, I realised that I was doing this as the Thucydiocy Bot, which is a not-terribly-secret identity but nevertheless not immediately identifiable as me…). (more…)

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On 2nd November 1860, the political scientist Francis Lieber, then professor of history and political science at Columbia College in New York, wrote a letter to his eldest son Oscar. War between the states loomed on the horizon; Lieber was firmly against secession, and during the conflict was in charge of the Loyal Publication Society as well as assisting in drafting military laws, while his two other sons would both serve in the Union army, but Oscar would die in 1862 fighting for the Confederacy. One can imagine the family tensions. Lieber wrote:

It sometimes has occurred to me that what Thucydides said of the Greeks at the time of the Peloponnesian War applies to us. The Greeks, he said, did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke Greek. Words received a different meaning in different parts.

(more…)

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Ah, the research-teaching nexus, how I’ve missed you! As I’ve remarked here before, in different ways I do find that my teaching inspires and supports my research as much as vice versa, and this morning was a reminder – admittedly a fairly minimal one. About three years ago, I ran into a dead end trying to establish the origins of another alleged ‘Thucydides’ quotation: “You should punish in the same manner those who commit crimes with those who accuse falsely”. Weird phrasing which actually seems to be the wrong way round, googling the exact line just produces a set of mutually-dependent ‘Great Quotes’ websites with no references, and googling similar phrases gets nowhere because the words are just too common. The best anyone could manage was Jon Dresner’s suggestion that various Near Eastern lawcodes include vaguely similar provisions. (more…)

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A key issue in much work on ‘classical reception’ is the tendency to over-value and over-interpret classical allusions and references. We pounce on every faint echo, because it’s what we’re trained to do and because it’s what we value – without necessarily considering whether it actually matters, or matters very much, or is any more than background cultural noise. And even if the allusion is definitely present, which isn’t always the case, how much can we assume about its meaning for the audience, or its significance in the wider culture? If you regularly search for references to Thucydides on Twitter and other social media, you do get a clear sense that he is a more significant figure than, say, Polybius. But does that make him an all-pervasive influence on modern thinking about war and politics? Not so much. (more…)

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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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