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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Not From Concentrate

A very minor footnote to current debates about the treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border… The emotive phrase ‘concentration camps’ has been used a fair amount, and whenever that happens you can guarantee that someone on the Twitter will come up with the “well actually they were invented by the British in South Africa” line – not, I think, with the aim of relativising the Holocaust or playing down the outrage, but perhaps to side-step invocations of Godwin’s Law and emphasise that respectable Anglo-Saxon democracies can do this sort of this as well.

This week brought a new variant: well actually it wasn’t the British but the ancient Greeks, see Thucydides’ account of the Athenian prisoners kept in terrible conditions in quarries after the Syracuse disaster (7.87). Hmm. The obvious objection is that, however inhuman their treatment, these were prisoners of war, whereas the hallmark of the modern concentration camp is the internment of civilians. The obvious question is: What function does such a claim serve? In the actual Twitter exchange it comes across less as an attempt to exculpate the British than simply as the provision of yet more historical information. But it still feels like a distraction, a missing of the point, or at least a dissolving of the point into a general ‘humans have always done this to each other’ sigh of despair rather than a focused attack on the choices of a particular state.

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Another new pseudo-Thucydides quote – an increasingly rare event, not because the level of misattribution is dropping to any measurable degree but because it’s the same couple of familiar misattributions every time – as French Minister of Economy Bruno le Maire commented* in a private meeting for French businessmen about Trump’s imposition of sanctions on Iran and the funding of international terrorism: “money is the nerve of war”, attributing this to Thucydides. (more…)

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Hope is an expensive commodity. It makes better sense to be prepared. Thucydides

A new addition to the taxonomy of Thucydides misquotations! This popped up on the Twitter for the first time this morning, though I see from Google that it already features on a couple of the dodgier quotes websites and – rather unexpectedly, at first glance – in a couple of books on topics like Biosecurity and ‘making Chemistry relevant’. (more…)

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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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