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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides’

One of the many ways in which we can read Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue’ is as a study of trade-offs, and how people calculate and evaluate them. The Athenians explicitly use such language; for example, off-setting the loss of respect and trust among Greek neutrals if they destroy Melos against the increase in fear among their subjects, with the view that the result is a net gain in their security – and their claims about Spartan reluctance to help their allies unless it suits them takes for granted a similar way of thinking. It is of course a paradox of their position, insisting on an unsentimental evaluation of present circumstances rather than speculating hopefully about what might happen in future, that their calculation rests so heavily on assumptions about how people will behave and hence how events will turn out – and Thucydides effectively critiques their assumptions, both by showing the Melians refusing to follow the same logic and by narrating the subsequent events that show how poorly the Athenians actually anticipate future developments. (more…)

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Just Disillusion

The idea of Thucydides as a man without illusions, who sees the world as it really is rather than as he or anyone else might like it to be, is a dominant strand in his modern reception. It lies at the heart of the historiographical representation of him as someone not merely impartial but genuinely objective; it underpins Nietzsche’s rhetorical contrast between Thucydides and Plato, and Arnold Toynbee’s portrait of a man “broken” by the events of his time who then puts himself back together; and of course it’s the foundation of the whole Realist tradition in International Relations.

No illusions, no arguments, no hope; take all that away, and what’s left? Me. (more…)

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Considering how far the Twitter is full of bots or sock puppets pretending to be people, so that’s become the automatic accusation against someone you don’t know spouting stuff that you don’t like, it’s interesting how far proclaiming oneself to be a bot is taken completely at face value. Especially when winding up angry, ill-informed neo-Nazis. (more…)

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I do it to myself, I do – but WHY can’t people provide references to their sources? I’ve just spent over half an hour tracking down a couple of Thucydides quotes which, as is often the case, weren’t immediately familiar but looked plausible. Now, if someone is citing the Melian Dialogue, it’s understandable why they might not bother to give the precise reference, since everybody already knows it – but when clearly the whole point is that this isn’t a well-known line but a newly-extracted bit of wisdom and enlightenment that others won’t have heard before..? (more…)

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Thucydides is The Most Fabulous Author In The World. I don’t mean this as a compliment, but rather as an evocation of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful film Time Bandits, in which a motley band of dwarves and an 11-year-old boy called Kevin – you know, it has only just occurred to me, thirty-seven years later, that this is a snarky Hobbit reference – embark on a quest to find The Most Fabulous Object In The World, concealed in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (which of course demonstrates its desirability). The two key attributes of this Object are, firstly, that everyone sees it differently, as suits their own conception of Fabulousness, and, secondly, that the whole set-up is a trap. (more…)

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There’s a long essay in today’s Grauniad by James Miller, offering a broad-brush overview of the history of democracy, focusing mainly on what political theorists have had to say about it. I’ve come to think of this as rather an odd sub-genre; these essays are almost invariably condensed versions of books rather than written as essays for a specific publication, and they unite the desire of the author and publisher to hype the book and the desire of the newspaper to be publishing Big Provocative Ideas – hence, in this case, the claim of the title and sub-heading that this essay is all about arguing that maybe populism is essential for democracy rather than a threat to it, a thesis that is only touched on in passing in the actual piece.

The process of editing a book down to essay-length may account for a certain tendency to non-sequiturs: (more…)

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It’s been rather an odd weekend. On Friday I had to admit that N.N. Taleb was right about something related to the study of classical antiquity, even if not in the way he thinks he is; on Sunday I came to the conclusion that my eminent and inspiring colleague Edith Hall was completely wrong about something, and I’ve spent the intervening time wondering whether I should just let sleeping dogs lie rather than blogging about it. (more…)

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