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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

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.

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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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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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