Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Fake News?

There are ‘Thucydides’ quotes that immediately raise suspicions, and generally they are easiest to eliminate as being fake – “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day” is so obviously a modern fiction that it’s scarcely worth worrying about, even before you notice that it was originally attributed to Book 9. Most, however, are at least plausible – and, given that Thucydides’ difficult Greek can almost always be translated in multiple ways, it can be extremely difficult to establish that a quote really isn’t genuine if you can’t track down the phrase in another source that is manifestly not Thucydides. I suppose one could argue that the burden of proof should be on those who propagate dubious quotations to justify the claim that they’re from Thucydides (more…)

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So, when I announced my Exeter inaugural lecture a few weeks ago, I was persuaded to arrange for it to be recorded, for everyone who wasn’t in a position to trek down to Devon on a Thursday evening. It has turned out to be surprisingly and annoyingly difficult to make this happen, but we have the technology…

This is offered to the general public with the usual caveat that it was written far too hastily while trying to do too many other things at the same time, and so it would have been much better if delivered in different circumstances; and the slightly less usual caveats that (1) it was recorded from the very top of a rather weird, extremely precipitous lecture theatre, which is why you mostly see the top of my head from a steep angle, and (2) my watch was ever so slightly slow, so my brilliant timing actually meant that the recording cuts off literally seconds before the end. (more…)

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All too many of the quotations attributed to Thucydides on the internet fall into one of three categories: not quite what he said, not really what he meant, or not actually Thucydides at all. Or, more succinctly, sad, bad, or mad. Okay, as a would-be ‘Morley’s Law of Thucydides Quotes’ that is pretty thin and equivocating, but anything more assertive would be too easily falsified with reference to the numerous bland but basically innocuous citations of “the secret of happiness is freedom, the secret of freedom is courage”. Yes, I do understand that the Royal Road to a world-straddling media profile, enormous book sales and the adoration of thousands of beautiful women is to pick an intellectual gimmick and defend it to the death, but I’m just too much of a British academic for that. (more…)

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A measure of the success of an idea, or at least its temporary trendiness, is when it crops up in completely irrelevant and inappropriate places. It can only be a matter of time before ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ starts getting referenced in sports reporting (Bayern versus Red Bull Leipzig?) or pop music (Taylor Swift versus someone we haven’t heard of yet?), but at the moment it does appear compulsory to mention it in any discussion whatsoever of inter-state relations in Asia. This morning’s example comes from a piece by John Blaxland of ANU in East Asia Forum asking ‘Do the lessons of Thucydides apply to Singapore?’

Tl;dr: nope. The real question: why did anyone imagine that they would? (more…)

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That radical “a plague on all your houses” centrist Thucydides is muttering “I told you so” to himself again…

Factionalism and polarisation became facts of political life, and places that were affected later rather than sooner, hearing what was happening elsewhere, went to ever greater extremes in identifying new grievances and new accusations against their opponents. The usual valuation of words and actions was changed. What was once seen as reckless aggression now appeared as the loyalty one owed to fellow campaigners, while forethought and hesitation became cowardly equivocation; calls for moderation meant you lacked decency, while seeing different sides of the question was a sign of secret sympathies with the enemy. (3.82.3-4)

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There is one crucial question about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ model of power transition and the confrontation of rising and ruling powers* that has not yet, so far as I’m aware, been asked: what sort of trap did Thucydides have in mind? Mouse? Elephant? Bear? Rat? Lobster? Honey? Because clearly this must affect how we imagine the process of being captured and the possibility, if any, of escape – and indeed the likelihood of realising that one is in a trap in the first place, before it’s too late. A basic starting assumption for such an analysis is that the idea must be based on ancient Greek hunting technology, and so, in the absence of any comment on the subject from Thucydides himself – we can safely assume his familiarity, as an Athenian aristocrat, with the basic techniques – we turn to a comparable figure in the next generation, Xenophon, and his treatise Cynegeticus, or Hunting with Dogs. (more…)

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It’s ages since there’s been an episode of Poetry Corner here – mainly because, oddly enough, Thucydides doesn’t inspire an enormous amount of poetry. But there is not none, and every so often a new poet draws on the same powerful images of conflict and the crisis of civilisation that inspired W.H. Auden in 1 September 1939. Thucydides is, as ever, the dark prophet who anticipated our fate, not least in his terrifying account of civil war and social breakdown in Corcyra.

A storm had brewed over Corfu Isle

Thunder roared with the sounds of revolt

Moods had fashioned this weather a while,

All that was needed was a bit of a jolt.


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