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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

Unreliable Memoirs

I had completely forgotten – it’s well over thirty years since I read it – that the second volume of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Rommel? Gunner Who?, opens like this (thanks to @riversidewings on the Twitter for the reference):

I have described nothing but what I saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular enquiry. Thucydides. Peloponnesian War.

I’ve just jazzed mine up a little. Milligan. World War II.

It’s the Jowett translation, interestingly, rather than the more popular and widespread Crawley. I do wonder whether this might be a legacy of Milligan’s school education, but have too much else on to try trawling through biographies; I am also resisting the temptation to work through every episode of The Goon Show looking for echoes of the Melian Dialogue… (more…)

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How should we imagine the Athenians at Melos – coldly rational technocrats, bombastic neocons, sardonic British imperialists..? (As I’ve mentioned before, one of my embryonic projects is to explore different ways of presenting the Melian Dialogue, to bring out different facets). One obvious – probably too obvious – possibility is the comic book supervillain, not least because this draws attention to the ultimate hollowness of their words – we know that there’s going to be a weak spot in their master plan, probably intimately connected to their arrogant self-confidence, even if there’s a lot of explosive special-effects destruction to come first. Conversely, comic book supervillains do have a tendency to talk like bad versions of the Melian Dialogue, in capital letters: “MWAHAHA! SOON MY DEATH RAY WILL DESTROY METROPOLIS! THE STRONG DO WHAT THEY WANT AND THE WEAK WILL BOW BEFORE THORAXIS!”

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Let’s assume that Brexit goes ahead in some form – a depressing thought, but serious people suggest that there simply isn’t time between now and the end of March to set up a second referendum even if the will was already there to do it, so the only hope would be an extension of the Article 50 period, if the will was there to ask for that. Let’s take the further giant imaginative leap and assume that Brexit turns out to be less than wonderful for most people and for the country as a whole. What might we expect – a revival of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ of courage and grit in the face of adversity? Seems unlikely, however much imaginary nostalgia for those days may be underpinning the “of course we can go it alone” project, given that it was all a myth and propaganda exercise in the first place. (more…)

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So, is it 1919 or 1938? Which lessons from history should the European Union be keeping in mind in its negotiations with the UK, the dangers of imposing a humiliating settlement on a defeated enemy which leads to the rise of resentment, dangerous populism and violence, or the dangers of abandoning one’s ideals and giving in to aggressive and unjustifiable demands in the hope of keeping the peace, which fuels ever greater demands and does nothing to stop the rise of resentment, populism and violence? Or maybe it’s all about the Holy Roman Empire instead. Thank you, Timothy Garton Ash, your valiant efforts in trying to drum up support for the Chequers compromise when everybody else hates it will not be forgotten. (more…)

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The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must…

A familiar line, but context and performance are everything. How do you picture the speaker? A calm, rational, ruthless dictator? A super-villain with a death ray? This is the sort of thing such figures tend to claim – which doesn’t mean that we necessarily accept it at face value. What about a fallen tyrant, a Lear or a Nero, still asserting such arrogance as their world falls apart around them? What if a super-hero was the speaker? (Echoes of Miller’s Batman or Alex Ross’s far superior Kingdom Come). What if it was a woman – whether downtrodden or triumphant? The line becomes less of a statement about the world, and more of a statement about the person speaking… (more…)

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Here is Donald. Here is Vladimir.

Donald is scared. Donald is greedy. Donald wants everyone to admire his big red balloon.

Vladimir has a ruthless, clear-sighted sense of his personal interests.

What do you think is going to happen, children?

Pat the dog is hiding under the duvet.

Here is America. Here is China.

America is an established power. China is a rising power.

Are they going to fight?

Donald is strong.

Donald thinks the strong can do what they want.

Is he going to launch an expedition against Syracuse?

This is Sebastian.

Sebastian doesn’t really know anything about Thucydides either.

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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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