This is a technical, not a political, current-events, linguistic or academic blog. (You know of course that as soon as I say that, it’s because I’m about to post something that is political, timely, linguistic and academic. Foreshadowing: your sign of a quality blog!) Despite all that, I was so struck by this passage I read last night that I felt I had to share it. We’ll get back to error handling in VBScript or some such topic later this week.
The writer is discussing semantics, specifically how word meanings and popular opinions change in political debates during wartime. The writer is… well, I’ll just let him say it, and talk about the writer afterwards.
Words had to change their ordinary meaning:
- reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally ; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice
- moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness, frantic violence became the attribute of manliness
- ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any
- cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense
- the advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent was a man to be suspected
- the fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence
- revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation
The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded violence.
Thus Thucydides of Athens, 2435 years ago. (Translation by Richard Crawley. I’ve changed the formatting and trimmed it a bit — Crawley gets a little wordy, but I love the balanced sentences.)
The first reaction I had upon reading this was “isn’t it astonishing how modern Thucydides sounds across the ages? If he’d only thought to coin the snappy term ‘doublespeak’, he’d have scooped Orwell by a couple millennia!”
And then I gave my head a shake, because of course I was reasoning backwards. This shouldn’t be astonishing in the least; I live in a culture where general opinions on government, politics, warfare, sports and art are more or less just as they were in Classical Greece. It would be more astonishing if Thucydides insights into human nature were not applicable today.
Commentary from 2020:
I do not recall precisely what triggered this post but it was some disingenuous statement by President Bush or another federal politician on the subject of the ongoing then, and ongoing now, pointless then and pointless now, American invasion of Afghanistan.
The comments on this article were mostly from other fans of ancient Greece, rather than engaging in the modern political situation that inspired it. I did mention in the original comments a funny conversation I once had with a member of the VB compiler team when I was an intern:
I recall having a meeting when I was an intern. One of the devs said:
“We can’t ask the users to understand this Byzantine documentation. It’s a Sisyphean task!”
A silence fell over the conference room. Finally, the intern piped up.
“Did you by any chance attend a private school in England when you were growing up?”
“Why yes, but what does that have to do with anything? And how did you know?”