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Posts Tagged ‘war’

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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The ‘Thucydides Trap’, having infiltrated both Australasia and China from its incubation in the USA, now appears to have turned up in the UK, with a piece in the Independent (not sure if it’s just on the webpage, or… Actually, is there anything else?) entitled ‘The Next World War Will Be In The South China Sea. Ask Thucydides’. It’s our old friend, Graham Allison’s analysis of the confrontation of the hegemonic power and the rising power, with added apocalyptic noises about the imminence of nuclear war (whereas the role of the nuclear deterrent in reducing the impact of the supposed dynamic of Great Power rivalry is something many critics have put forward as an objection to Allison’s transhistorical claims) and some especially amusing asides. “And as has happened in international summitry since the time of Pericles, sweet talk, fraternal visitations and hearty dinners proceeded in tandem with steely military build-ups  on both sides.” Yes, Thucydides is full of that sort of thing.

I live in hope that someone will ask me, or someone else from the classical side, to write a piece on why this is a dubious reading of Thucydides; I do have a draft that I’ve been meaning to finish at some point… In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to post links to the various things I’ve written on this in the last couple of years, in one easy-to-access post…

The Thucydides Trap (October 2012)

The Tao of Thucydides (April 2014)

The Real Thucydides Trap (May 2014)

Who Laid the Thucydides Trap? (August 2015)

Stuck in the Middle (September 2015)

Absence of Evidence (October 2015)

 

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Here we go again? As plenty of people have already observed, the debate around whether or not the United Kingdom should join the bombing campaign in Syria feel terribly familiar. For most, this suggests 2003 all over again; in today’s Grauniad, for example, Martin Kettle notes the resemblances but claims that MPs have clearly learnt important lessons from last time, while Ewen MacAskill‘s analysis of Cameron’s case offers clear evidence that the government, at least, hasn’t (or doesn’t care). For ancient historians, and international relations theorists who have fallen under the spell of Thucydides, it is tempting to identify a much longer and more inexorable cycle of repetition, one that is inherent in human affairs.

Thucydides’ work could be characterised in part as a series of arguments for war, or at least for military intervention and the exercise of violence: multiple variations on a single theme. (more…)

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The great thing about Google NGram – which, if you haven’t previously encountered it, is a rather neat online tool for counting the frequency of different words and phrases in books published since 1800 and displaying the results in graphical form – is that it feels a bit like a game, where you get to play with lots of different parameters and see what happens*, but can still be chalked up as a research activity; just the thing if you’re feeling slightly under the weather but not ill enough to take the day off.** I remain a little sceptical about some of the results (especially as books mentioning classical examples are always such a small part of the total corpus of publications, and I don’t currently feel well enough to calculate whether a shift in references to Thucydides from 0.0001958557% of the total corpus in 1940 to 0.0002307328% in 1945 is statistically significant or not), but if you keep in mind that it’s all about relative prominence then you’re less likely to place undue weight on the results, and can just have fun.* (more…)

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Saturday night was Berlin’s Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften (‘Long Night of the Sciences’), where all the different institutions of research and higher education open their doors to the public for exhibitions, workshops, seminars and lectures – apparently over 25,000 people took part this year, so clearly this is a pretty spectacular bit of public engagement. I was actually busy having dinner (and a very nice Chateau Latour) with a colleague that evening, but did make a small contribution to the exhibition being staged by the TOPOI research cluster (where I’m currently a research fellow for two months) on ‘War and Peace in the Ancient World’, supplementing their display of ancient quotations on the theme of peace with yet another choice example of Pseudo-Thucydideana.

Krieg und Frieden

(more…)

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Is there any topic that a Thucydides quote cannot illuminate? In this morning’s Observer, Vic Marks turns to the Melian Dialogue (what else…) to comment upon the current state of world cricket:

I suppose that if the notion of “might is right” was good enough for the Athenian Empire, it will do for the ICC. As dear old Thucydides pointed out in the pre-Boycott era, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Let’s not dress up the machinations at the ICC in any other way.

It’s tempting to think of other Thucydides quotes that might be of assistance in this matter (of course, the best line on Kevin Pieterson clearly comes from the same war but a different author; Aristophanes on Alcibiades, “Best not to rear the lion’s whelp within your gates; but if you do, it’s best to learn to tolerate its little ways”). And at the same time, the analogy with cricket can work in the other direction, shedding light on Thucydides’ narrative technique. Both war and cricket, as his account shows, proceed within an apparently clear and straightforward framework (the alternation of summer and winter echoing the change of the bowler’s end every over), the combat is the accumulation of countless individual events, which are rarely in themselves absolutely decisive – even the catastrophe of Sicily did not prevent the Athenians, as we see in Thucydides’ eighth book, from mounting a successful rearguard action and comeback, so we should see it not as the fall of the final wicket but as the unexpected (well…) collapse when both batsmen had seemed to be well in, leaving the question of whether the brilliant but thoroughly unreliable Alcibiades can forge a successful long-term partnership with the number eight, or will simply throw his wicket away and start sending chummy text messages to the opposition…

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There is a persistent habit among readers of Thucydides of focusing on the character and biography of the historian – despite the shortage of evidence on that subject. This resort to the personal is often employed as a means of giving Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, and/or the more general theories that he supposedly derived from the events, greater authority: Thucydides was a general whose views on military matters therefore need to be taken seriously, a politician who therefore understood democracy from the inside, and he was unjustly exiled from Athens and yet shows no vengefulness in his account of the Athenians which shows his astonishing objectivity and impartiality, and so forth. Often, Thucydides’ character is established through a reading of his work – all the familiar adjectives like austere, realistic, rationalistic etc. – and that is then offered as a key to interpretation.

Certain readers also seek to explain the genesis of the work through biography. By far the most interesting and provocative example of this was Arnold J. Toynbee, and his conception of the ‘broken life’. (more…)

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