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A running commentary on Thucydides

Saturday, May 18th, 2019

[ posted by Charles Cameron — originally posted on post-online by Katherine Long ]
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Knowing the Zenpundit blog-circle’s interest in all things Thucydides, I’m delighted to be able to introduce Katherine Khashimova Long, guest-posting here with a piece she wrote on Athens and, well, running.

  • KKL’s original posting is here
  • Zenpundit’s Thucydides round-table is indexed here
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    notes from: athens: a running commentary on thucydides

    article by katherine long, originally pub’d september 2014, © 2019 Post-
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    For a city-state that invented the sport of distance running (cf. Battle of Marathon), Athens displays a surprising antipathy towards runners.

    It’s a summer evening—sun setting behind the Parthenon; al fresco hubbub in cafes; awestruck tourists; chattering cicadas; the whole nine yards—and we’re jazzed about doing a run so historic it would make any ivied Classics department proud: from the base of the Acropolis to the port of Piraeus, five miles southwest, along the route of the wall. This is THE wall: the Thucydidean wall—the one that was the spark for the whole shebang called the Peloponnesian War; the wall that will be discussed in every military strategy class until the end of time—but we have a problem! We don’t know what direction Piraeus is in.

    The next, wholly unanticipated problem: No one will tell us. “You’re running to Piraeus? ON FOOT?!” (Shock, awe, opprobrium, etc.). A man kindly directs us to the nearest bus stop, where we can catch the 40 to Piraeus because “please,” he chuckles, “my children, it is too far to walk, let alone run.”

    It is not. It is five miles.

    Eventually we find the way, navigating off a laconic gesture—“Piraeus? Over there.” The run, while not exactly scenic—the view is foreclosed apartment blocks and graffiti-ed benches—awakes within us the flame of history and for a few glorious miles we are running with the ancient Athenians, running to defend the city walls, to defend the spirit of democracy and the Periclean majesty of our Sacred Rock and to get those murderous Spartans until we are stopped dead in our tracks. A woman, taking issue with our running attire, specifically my shorts and Patrick’s bare chest, screams in Greek while trying to pull down my shorts to cover my lower thighs and gesticulating ferociously at Patrick. So we’re basically like “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” but she’s left us with a frightened, frenetic energy that becomes harder and harder to shake over the next two miles—a cloud of tradition and respect that dogs us through the city.

    We’re dashing along the sidewalk, dodging spindly little café tables, and Athenians walking their spindly little dogs, and glares from spindly little women, and it becomes harder and harder to think—no, harder and harder not to think, to disentangle thoughts from action and from one another. It’s overwhelming, this city, packed to the brim with the detritus of a few hundred centuries and the acquisitions of the present generation; this city that never throws anything away but keeps it embalmed and enshrined, a testament to the glory of its citizens—an antique shop or a rubbish heap, take your pick—tumbling gently towards the sea, prompted now and then by earthquakes and financial crises to slouch even further in its worn, comfortable chair.

    God! What we wouldn’t give for a breath of fresh air, an Alcibiadean vinegar to cut through the soup of stodgy self-indulgence.

    We keep running, and running, and running, and a week later we find ourselves running in the hills of the Mani Peninsula, a handful of miles away from the city formerly known as Sparta and now known as Sparti, though it’s really just two streets and a flat place in the road. We never go inside because, what’s the point? We’re here for the cliffs and the trails; the goat paths lined with cobblestones meandering between one-room churches and sandstone monasteries, recent relics, only a few centuries old; pirouetting around brooks; dodging olive trees; slip-sliding over a carpet of eucalyptus leaves; whispering through the tall grass; always with the sea, far below, lapping against the rocky coast, to guide us. No monuments, no walls, no half-standing temples to the gods’ munificence. Just our breathing—in, out—in, out—and the sound of pebbles skipping down the trail as we pass. We’re machines now, arms and legs working thoughtlessly.

    What do you think about when you run? That’s the wrong question. I run in a void; I run in order to acquire a void, Murakami said. What don’t you think about when you run?

    We come to a valley-in-miniature, a wide crevasse, an indentation between two spiraling cliffs filled with pine and cypress shrubs and laded with damp. It’s dark and quiet, except for the whooing of doves, and so still. Even the wind has stopped. Nobody but us. Us, and whoever came before us. They’re in the glade too— there, and there!—heroes or helots, hoplites or who knows—whoo-WHOO, who say the doves—all of us there, in halcyon days.

    King Canute, Imperial Beach, CA, and rising tides

    Monday, October 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a coastal California town has learned the lesson King Canute either taught his nobles or learned the hard way himself — but what can anyone do about it? ]
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    **

    Okay, here’s the first para of Can a California town move back from the sea? Imperial Beach considers the unthinkable: a retreat from nature:

    At the start of each year, Southern California gets a glimpse into a future of rising seas, through an annual event called the king tide. On that day, the sun, moon and Earth align to create a heavy gravitational pull, leading to the highest tides of the year. If “king tide” sounds ominous, that’s because it is, particularly for a city like Imperial Beach, a small coastal town near the Mexican border surrounded by water on three sides: San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Tijuana River Delta to the south.

    It doesn’t hurt that there’s a king reference there either, from my POV — because?

    **

    Because King Canute.

    As a Brit, I was introduced to King Canute at an early age, along with every last one of the other Kings and Queens of England — and their dates — memorize them! Americans, however, have shaken off the dust of kings and queens, and may not know the tale of King Canute and the waves. Was he, as my gold-embossed, colour-plated richly patriotic children’s book had it, an imperious royal who set his chair in the sand before the incoming tide, and not about to lose one inch of English sovereign soil to the waves, dared the Atlantic to encroach on his royal prerogative?

    Or was he, as Henry of Huntingdon, the original chronicler of the tale has it, a humble and wise, one might say ecologically sound king, who set his chair in the sand to demonstrate to his fawning and flattering courtiers that look, not even my royal command can overrule the laws of God — or Nature?

    **

    So, back to the humbling question — rising tides?

    Currently an anomaly, the king tide is a portent of things to come. Researchers warn that, due to myriad factors including the Earth’s rotation, California will deal with even higher sea-level rise than other locations, as the atmosphere and oceans warm. The oceans are now rising at a faster rate than any time since the last Ice Age, about half an inch or more per decade. While much of this is understood by researchers and informed readers, very little has been done by coastal cities to confront this slow-moving catastrophe.

    And Imperial Beach in particular?

    That is what makes Imperial Beach so interesting. Here, at the southernmost beach town in California, in an obscure corner of the United States, one small city is asking: What if we just got out of nature’s way?

    **

    Sources and readings:

  • High Country News, Can a California town move back from the sea?
  • The Sun, You Canute be Serious

  • Wikipedia, King Canute and the tide
  • New York Times, Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040
  • ipcc, Global Warming of 1.5°C
  • Greed can do it as easily as Religion — or Time Itself

    Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — the passing of time is theft is the passing of all things ]
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    Here’s a quick stop-motion movie of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, in four powerful frames.

    The Temple was originally gloriously decorated..

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    That’s Palmyra’s divine triad: Baalshamin, with the Moon god Aglibol on his right and the Sun-god Yarhibol at left, discovered at Bir Wereb, near Palmyra, 60 cm high (Louvre, Paris) (photo: Emmanuel PIERRE, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The Temple was, in fact, until recently, an impressive ruin..

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    That’s the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, in a photo by Bernard Gagnon, GNU license.

    But then ISIS used explosives for a sacred demolition..

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    Credit for this and the final image goes to Reuters

    …and now there’s not much remaining of the glory..

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    End of film, end of story — setup for the point I want to make.

    **

    Stuff gets made or born, stuff lives or exists.. stuff dies, fades, crumbles, evaporates.. sometimes stuff is reboorn, salvaged, gets a second life..

    Consider the great temple of Angkor Wat, buit by Khmer artists, partly destroyed by centuries of weather and overgrowth, pock-marked by the bullets of insurgents & army.. now given a second life as a tourist destination.. Consider Tibetan mandalas, chalked out in detail, painstakingly painted in sand, then swept away, proof of impermancence..

    Well?

    **

    The establishment of monotheism in Egypt was accompanied by royal command with the destruction of what we might now call religious and cultural works —

    In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt’s traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god.

    — in a manner that calls to mind some of ISIS excesses, their destruction of the Temple of Bel, for a recent and striking instance.

    **

    Indeed, places of worship have not infrequently been torn down:

    Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.

    That’s from England — which suffered under Cranmer (Reformation) and Cromwell (Civil War), both of them politically influential Puritans.. who between them made ruins of many British abbeys — think Glastonbury, Fountains, Walsingham..

    Well, all that’s background, simply to establish that time’s river allows for the buildup by a wide variety of means and sweeping away of all manner of things animate and ootherwise, in a continual flux, a continual emergence, a continual impermanence..

    **

    But my point, remember?


    Photo credit: via Trib Live

    My point is that the thief of Pittsburg’s unique and valuable book antiquities deprives us of treasures of the mind in much the same way that ISIS does with its explosives in Palmyra. In the latter case: impassioned religion; in the former: simple greed.

    Appraisers discovered missing items and books that had been “cannibalized,” with entire portions removed, according to the affidavit.

    and the alleged thief:

    is charged with theft, receiving stolen property, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, conspiracy, retail theft, theft by deception, forgery and deceptive business practices.

    Items of high value and greed, idolatry and iconoclasm — the cutting up of books from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh including a copy of Newton’s Principia is nend ot in the too different from what ISIS’ Kata’ib Taswiyya batallion did to Palmyra.

    Not too different, either, from the activities of Tibetan monks.. or, I suppose, wind, rain, and a thousand years..

    **

    Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    “The Gold Standard of Dictatorships”

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

    [mark safranski / “zen“]

    The Hoover Institution interviews historian Stephen Kotkin about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Kotkin, a professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University,  is 2/3 of the way through writing his three volume biography of the life and times of Stalin. The first two volumes are each groundbreaking and monumental and if the third is their equal then Kotkin will have written the definitive work in the field.
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    Part I.
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    Part II.
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    Stalin’s only true peers are Hitler and Mao. Kotkin’s second volume – subtitled Waiting For Hitler – does not seek to reprise Alan Bullock’s work or those of Richard Overy or Robert Gellately – Hitler is important not as a direct comparison to the Soviet dictator but as a geopolitical and military threat posed by Nazi Germany with which Stalin was forced to account even as he pursued his internal purges or faced military provocations by Imperial Japan. Stalin feared Hitler and admired him in a backhanded way without really understanding the Fuhrer. In Hitler’s shoes, Stalin never would have gambled so recklessly and most of his brutal policies were bent toward increasing Soviet security as he saw it, even devastatingly counterproductive ones like the purges or the Winter War.

    Hat tip to Scott Shipman

    Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928    Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941

    Happy Fourth of July to all ZP readers

    Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — from all of us at Zenpundit ]
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    From President Woodrow Wilson‘s Independence Day speech, July 4th, 1914:

    Mr. Chairman and Fellow-Citizens:

    We are assembled to celebrate the one hundred and thirty-eighth anniversary of the birth of the United States. I suppose that we can more vividly realize the circumstances of that birth standing on this historic spot than it would be possible to realize them anywhere else. The Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia; it was adopted in this historic building by which we stand. I have just had the privilege of sitting in the chair of the great man who presided over the deliberations of those who gave the declaration to the world. My hand rests at this moment upon the table upon which the declaration was signed. We can feel that we are almost in the visible and tangible presence of a great historic transaction.

    Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence or attended with close comprehension to the real character of it when you have heard it read? If you have, you will know that it is not a Fourth of July oration. The Declaration of Independence was a document preliminary to war. It was a vital piece of practical business, not a piece of rhetoric; and if you will pass beyond those preliminary passages which we are accustomed to quote about the rights of men and read into the heart of the document you will see that it is very express and detailed, that it consists of a series of definite specifications concerning actual public business of the day. Not the business of our day, for the matter with which it deals is past, but the business of that first revolution by which the Nation was set up, the business of 1776. Its general statements, its general declarations cannot mean anything to us unless we append to it a similar specific body of particulars as to what we consider the essential business of our own day.

    **

    If you’re a strategist or historian, these sentences may be of particular interest:

    Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence or attended with close comprehension to the real character of it when you have heard it read? If you have, you will know that it is not a Fourth of July oration. The Declaration of Independence was a document preliminary to war.

    Ahem, and if you’ll permit me my own reading, the key sentence here for my purposes is:

    We can feel that we are almost in the visible and tangible presence of a great historic transaction.

    WHile for factual purposes, 1776 and 1914 are separated by the intervening history, for the purposes of myth, dream, and psychological impact, that “almost” evaporates and the two moments merge, synchronous in a diachronic world.

    **

    Take whichever meaning you will, and accept it with our best wishes here at Zenpundit for a fireworked and festive Fourth!

    h/t War on the Rocks.


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