Monday, September 25, 2006

Thucydides weighs in

Sandy Levinson

A reader of Balkinization was kind enough to send me the following quotation from Thucydides:

"To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence . . . and indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second." Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War III, 82, trans. Rex Warner, The Penguin Classics, pp. 209-210.

Interestingly enough, one of the sources I found as I was looking for an exact citation was, which posts a lecture by Pierre Vidal-Naquet. "Who are the Assassins of Memory?" Vodal-Naquet, who died only a few weeks ago, I believe, was a notable historian of the Holocaust and, necessarily, how so much of the issue is linked with the integrity of language.


As someone -- I believe a conservative referring to Bill Clinton's flexible definition of "sex" -- once said, "Words mean things." Given what I've seen over the last few years, I would like to amend that to, "Words ought to mean things." In some ways, I have found the most distressing trend of all to be the proliferation of obfuscatory doublespeak. It would seem possible to sell almost any policy by describing it in appealing terms, and -- especially -- by describing those who oppose it in unappealing terms.

Thank you, Sandy, for reminding us that Thucydides is a far more complex and nuanced thinker than the man so reflexively cited by the Neocons.

Found a similarly FAB quote about the *treacheries* of the Trojan War ("Helen of Troy" by Margaret George - pg 347):

"What it is they said? 'I love treachery, but I hate Traitors!' As If there could be one without the other."

But in this case it's the delusion that they are Not the Traitors, and hypocrisy of pretending to hate treachery...while Loving BOTH Traitors and the Treachery they Perpetrate (as long it's for their SIDE! and Their PARTY!)

Yes! Oh yes! Thank you, I've been trying to relocate that section of Thucydides for about three years.

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