Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

What’s the key lesson of the Melian Dialogue? The dominant tradition has been some sort of variant on Crude Realism, from the perspective of the would-be superior power: justice only between equals, we the strong have the right to dictate and you the weak must comply, and forget all this nonsense about hope. The usual response, from those who reject such a worldview and/or, perhaps more significantly, aren’t in any position to pursue it, is to question and reject the Athenian logic, by detaching it from the authority of Thucydides and pointing to the consequences of their attitude. But of course it is also possible to be one of the Weak and nevertheless accept the logic of the Strong; like the prisoner in Life of Brian who praises the Romans for their strict approach to crime and punishment, or the cow at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there are those who fully accept the right of others to dictate terms and exact obedience. (more…)

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Constant Craving

Change. War. Violence. Unpredictability. Competition. Malevolence. Food. Music. The Rangers in the universe of Babylon 5. Inter-ethnic slaughter. Death. And that no one cares a whit about the Armenians.

This is a precis of the search results for “the one constant in human history”. Add ‘Thucydides’ to the mix, and the themes narrow down to war, violence, and human nature – which doesn’t, however, get me any further in tracking down the source of the specific quote I’m looking for: “Human nature is the one constant through human history. It is always there.” Google that, and you get a large number of low-rent quote sites, a number of annoying motivational posters, and regular blogs from one Earl Heal for the Daily Republic, a local news site in California, who trots out the same set of quotes about the glories of classical political institutions on almost every occasion. (more…)

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Since it more or less coincided with his decision to read the whole of that old warhorse, Tennyson’s Ulysses, at a meeting of the Bruges Group, hard-line Brexity Spart Mark François’s quotation of Pericles – “Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it” – at a Brexit rally on Official Leaving Day has gone relatively unnoticed, except of course by me. It did seem significant that this is the A.S. Way version of the Funeral Oration, as featured on various war memorials but not in any published translation of Thucydides (see Liz Sawyer‘s account); rather as the most obvious source of the poem is Judi Dench from Skyfall, so it seems more likely that the MP has been visiting the Bomber Command memorial rather than leafing through the Peloponnesian War.

Two minor additions this morning. The first is to note that it’s actually a mis-quote, and perhaps a significant one: Way’s original has “freedom is the sure possession…”, whereas François makes the more exclusive claim that only those who fight for freedom are entitled to it. He’s not the only person to do this on social media, and one might suggest that in the military and veteran circles where this line is often quoted, it’s a readily comprehensible mental step. The second is that, as I discovered in checking this, François has used the line several times in Parliament, in his erstwhile role as Armed Forces Minister. This was too late to appear in Liz’s survey of Thucydides quotes in British and US politics; I’m not sure if she’s done an update that I’ve missed, but given that her main conclusion was the marginal status of Thucydides in the UK compared with the US, it is interesting that at least in this context things are changing slightly. I am not saying that it’s a good thing…

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In a second-hand bookshop in Salisbury, in the year 1965 in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, there was once a Book.* There were of course many other books there, but only this one merited the capital letter: The Fifth Book of Thucydides, edited with a short introduction and notes by C.E. Graves, MA, Fellow and late Classics Lecturer of St John’s College, Cambridge, and published by Macmillan & Co. of London in 1891 (reprinted 1899, 1908).** History does not record why Zillah Shelling chose to leaf through this particular book, but she did so, and was struck by a series of curious annotations in an unknown script that a former owner had added to the pages, including one long one at the very back, as well as by one of the names written on the flyleaf: J.R.R. Tolkien. (more…)

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Every so often, the tireless labour of the Thucydides Bot – someone recently referred to it as Sisyphean, and in the midst of the current spate of misattributions being tweeted out by accounts with apparently Islamic and/or Indian sub-continental identities, that doesn’t feel too far off – throws up something valuable. Generally this means a new misattribution with an interesting back story, but very occasionally there’s something even more useful. I’m still waiting to find time to investigate Cornelius Castoriadis’ book on Thucydides, force and law (or might and right), partly because it looks like the source of a misattribution that’s recently become quite prominent – “either war or equanimity, you have to choose”, or variants thereof – but also because I wasn’t aware of its existence until I started tracking down the misquote. This morning brought a reference that will be very useful if I ever get round to writing a half-planned piece on Thucydides read through the lens of exile literature:

To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home.


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O Frabjous Day!

I’ve just highlighted 8th March 2020 in my calendar, to make sure that I prepare properly for next year’s Thucydides Day. I must admit that I had not previously spent any time wondering why, despite his undeniable continuing influence in many areas of modern life, Thucydides fails to gain the level of attention and respect offered to Books, Martin Luther King, Women etc. Yes, one can imagine the ways in which one might celebrate it – very bitter chocolate brownies (probably with chilli), neat gin, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s The Dead Flag Blues on repeat – but it’s not something one would choose to event. However, it turns out that someone has already invented it.

Yes, the great French thinker Auguste Comte proposed, in 1849, a Positivist Calendar, with 13 months of 28 days each, plus an extra day each year to commemorate the dead (Periclean epitaphios influence? I’ll have to look into that), with an additional Festival day every leap year to celebrate great women. Naturally Year Zero is 1789. Months and days are named after great figures in history (almost entirely male, inevitably) – and the 11th day of the month of Aristotle is Thucydides (since all months have 28 days, the 11th Aristotle is equivalent to our 11th March). Next year I will be fully prepared to break out the brownie mix…

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Last week I was at a fantastic conference in Newcastle on Authority and Contemporary Narratives about the Classics (details here), discussing different aspects of the image and appropriation of the ancient world in the public sphere; Rebecca Futo Kennedy gave the full version of the discussion of the history and problematic politics of ‘Western Civilization’ that she’s been trailing on the Twitter (@kataplexis if you don’t already follow her), and there were fascinating papers on topics like postgraduate blogging, the intersection of ideas on Roman imperialism and Realist international relations theory, concepts of myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and whether Livy was a good Wikpedian. As ever, the main problem was that we needed much more time for discussion – well, that, and the fact that I could carry only so many bottles of local craft beer home with me. (more…)

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