Posts Tagged ‘war’

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


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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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One of the ideas from Thucydides that is regularly cited, deployed and abused in contemporary political theory – not least because it’s one of the few ideas in his work that looks like a proper statement of a political-theoretical principle, the sort of thing that we might be expecting to find there after reading I.22 – is the claim, made by two different speakers on two different occasions, that states make decisions based on considerations of honour, fear and interest. This idea is taken as the basis, or offered as justification, for believing (a) that all states are rational and (b) that issues of justice and the like are irrelevant, hence leading in many cases to variants of the Realist view of international relations, and ignoring the possibility that Thucydides’ own narrative spends much of its time apparently questioning the validity of the statement, or at any rate emphasising that states and peoples don’t generally have a very good grasp of what their interests actually are or how best to pursue them. (more…)

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[Guest post from Liz Sawyer (elizabeth.sawyer@trinity.ox.ac.uk)]

If you visit the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, you will find, among the more predictable quotations by Churchill, one attributed to Pericles: ‘Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’ The sentiment rings out proudly with the ideals of self-sacrifice, bravery, and staunch defence of liberty that the memorial was intended to praise, and its rhetorical power is undeniable. Thucydides’ succinct τὸ δ’ ἐλεύθερον τὸ εὔψυχον κρίναντες (literally, ‘after judging freedom courage’) has been expanded in this version into a rhetorical flourish that has been carved into soldiers’ memorials the world over since the end of the First World War, and today is emblazoned across their societies’ websites and email signatures. But where did this translation come from? (more…)

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This blog is going to go quiet for a couple of weeks as I’m off on holiday (and desperately trying to finish scribbling a paper on ‘History as Political Therapy’ for the American Political Science Association conference at the end of the month), but I thought I’d sign off with advance notice of a couple of events related to the Thucydides research project in Bristol in the autumn.

Might is Right? Ancient and Modern Debates

Sunday November 10th, Foyles Bookshop, Cabot Circus, 2pm.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”  So claimed an aide of George W. Bush in 2004, but it’s an idea that dates back to 5th century BC Greece and the historian Thucydides – one of the most-quoted ancient writers in debates about contemporary affairs, including on such topics as the invasion of Iraq and post-9/11 US foreign policy. This public event, part of the University of Bristol’s annual InsideArts week, draws on the work of the Bristol Thucydides project over the last four years: Studiospace, the UoB Student Drama Society, will be staging the Melian Dialogue, the famous passage in Thucydides’ work where he explores different approaches to justice and interest in inter-state relations, and this will be followed by a discussion between scholars working on different aspects of the topic (including Neville Morley and Ellen O’Gorman from Classics & Ancient History, and Torsten Michel from Politics; chaired by Josie McLellan from Historical Studies), and plenty of opportunity for questions from the audience.

Attendance is free, but we do ask you to reserve a place in advance; further details will appear on the project website (www.bris.ac.uk/classics/thucydides/events/) in due course.

Thucydides: Reception, Reinterpretation and Influence

Monday 25th-Tuesday 26th November, Clifton Hill House, Bristol

This final colloquium of the Bristol Thucydides project draws together different themes in the modern reception and influence of Thucydides, in different spheres of activity – history, politics, war and culture. It will probably have a different title at some point, and certainly a much better blurb, but obviously the main attraction is the line-up of speakers…

Geoffrey Hawthorn (Cambridge): Who does Thucydides please?

Aleka Lianeri (Thessaloniki): Time and Method: Thucydides’ contemporary history in nineteenth-century Britain

Christian Thauer (FU Berlin /U of Washington): Re-approaching Thucydides? An Intellectual History Perspective

Edith Foster (Ashland University): Narrating Battles: Thucydides and Ernst Jünger

Seth Jaffe (Toronto): The Straussian Thucydides

Andreas Stradis (Bristol): Thucydides and Vietnam: A Vehicle for Ethical Professional Military Education

Neville Morley (Bristol): The Idea of Thucydides in Western Culture

Ben Earley (Bristol): The Spirit of Athens: Thucydides as a theorist of maritime empire

Christian Wendt (FU Berlin): discussant

If you have any queries about either of these events, please contact me on n.d.g.morley(at)bris.ac.uk.

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Interesting that, more or less the moment I finish writing a piece for Aeon magazine (due to appear 22nd October) on the use of Pericles’ Funeral Oration on war memorials and in remembrance services for the war dead (the short version: this happens a lot, and is somewhat problematic), David Cameron makes his announcement about plans for the celebration of the centenary of the First World War. Don’t I mean ‘commemoration’ rather than ‘celebration’? I wish I could feel more confident about that. Yes, that’s the word he used, but it’s a pretty odd sort of commemoration:

…a commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, from our schools and workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who are as a people.

Yes, he eventually gets round to mentioning the fact that people died – and the mention of 16 million shows that he’s not just talking about the British and their allies – but then he rapidly switches back to the national theme: their “sacrifice” was made for us, and made us what we are today. The notion that the whole thing was a senseless waste of life, exploiting the patriotic feelings of the populations of many nations for the sordid self-interest and over-weening arrogance of their politicians and ruling-classes – a version that is promoted by conservative historians as much as anyone – doesn’t enter the picture. Remembering the dead is an occasion for us to be persuaded to feel good about ourselves as a nation, not an occasion to curse nationalism. (more…)

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