The Attribute Of Manliness

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 millenia!"

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.

Comments (17)

  1. Patrick McCuller says:

    Glad to see your opinion on this important subject. You know, I’ve seen a general paucity of references to the classics in my career as software engineer. Sometimes it’s downright frustrating, too. For example, my group is planning a tool which downloads bits and pieces of very large software updates over a long period of time, then triggers a “mass update” at some future time. We’re wrapping BITS, of course, but we’re supporting more platforms than BITS does, so it’s nontrivial. Anyway, an email came round asking if anyone had a good name for this project. What’s a project without a catchy moniker? Naturally it occurred to me that Aristophanes coined the perfect word: lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsan-odrimhypotrimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakaechymenokichlepikossy- phophattoperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphe- traganopterygon.lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypotri- mmatosilphioparaomelitokatakaechymenokichlepikossyphophattoperister- alektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon. But the reference went unnoticed. 🙁

  2. Eric Lippert says:

    Just FYI, I have the hardest time telling when people are being ironic, particularly in text.

    I’m therefore going to assume that you’re perfectly serious. And indeed, I agree. 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 Sissyphean task!"

    A silence fell over the conference room. Finally, the intern piped up.

    "Ilan, 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?"

  3. Eric Lippert says:

    (And indeed, the reference is familiar to me — this is a famous big word. In his play "The Ecclesiazusae" Aristophanes coins this word meaning "a stew formed of the last two weeks’ leftovers" by basically listing all the leftovers. A typical translation is "oysters-saltfish-skate-sharks’-heads-left-over-vinegar-dressing-laserpitium-leek-with-honey-sauce-thrush-blackbird-pigeon-dove-roast-cock’s-brains-wagtail-cushat-hare-stewed-in-new-wine-gristle-of-veal-pullet’s-wings" Very witty.)

  4. mike says:

    >I have the hardest time telling when people are being ironic

    As much as some people revile them, those little emoticons do serve this purpose.

  5. Chris H says:

    Read "Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic" by Tom Holland (I just have and it’s excellent). It’s almost funny how close to the bone some of it is – for example, the inspectors who were sent to outlying provinces to ensure no-one was breeding war elephants, and the way the possible capacity for the breeding of war elephants was used as justification for a "pre-emptive" invasion of territories in the modern Middle East.

  6. Eric Lippert says:

    Is there an "I’m being subtly ironic" smiley? That would kind of defeat the purpose of subtle irony I suppose.

  7. Lanie says:

    >>Is there an "I’m being subtly ironic" smiley?

    Not that I’ve ever seen.

    Eric, at the risk of being sappy (which I hate), I must tell you that you’re a very impressive person, at least as you come across in your blog.

    What’s interesting is that the two bloggers I’m most impressed with both have math degrees from U. of Waterloo. What’s embarrassing is that a year ago I’d never heard of the place.

  8. Eric Lippert says:

    Thanks, that’s a nice thing to say. And hardly sappy at all.

    Who’s the other UW alum blogger that you like?

  9. Lanie says:

    Well, I don’t really think I should say since I don’t actually know her and can’t ask permission.

    You probably wouldn’t know her anyway. She’s not a Microsoft employee and (I’m almost positive) is enough years younger than you that you wouldn’t have overlapped in school.

    The confession hidden in here is that I’m a "blurker" of hers, though definitely of the benign variety. I happened to stumble upon her personal blog via a Google search and was instantly impressed with her writing, much as I am with yours. (I’m just a sucker for well-formed prose I guess.)

    So, is this math-geek-with-high-verbal-skills combo a product of the Canadian school systems, the Univ. of Waterloo – or a coincidence? 🙂

  10. Eric Lippert says:

    > can’t ask permission.

    My personal opinion is that anyone who puts their writing on the web does so because they want random strangers reading it. But, hey, whatever.

    > a coincidence

    Two data points do not a trend make. 🙂

  11. Lanie says:

    Checken das email boxen. 🙂

  12. Norman Diamond says:

    8/19/2004 4:19 PM Lanie

    > So, is this math-geek-with-high-verbal-

    > skills combo a product of the Canadian

    > school systems, the Univ. of Waterloo –

    > or a coincidence? 🙂

    Coincidence. For example I used to have moderately above average verbal skills in one language, but I already had them before going to Waterloo. For the same example, my skills have gone downhill in recent decades, and it’s not always due to damage incurred by rewriting the results of Japanese-to-English translators. Most of my work still involves more talking to computers more than to humans.

    For more examples, after marking papers of Waterloo undergraduates, I can assure you that the average was average.

  13. Norman Diamond says:

    > more talking to computers more than to

    > humans.

    More proofreading would help too. I wish there were a "preview" mode on these postings. But sometimes I even neglect to proofread outgoing ordinary e-mail before sending it, when previews are waiting there to be viewed. Sigh.

  14. Alex Angelopoulos says:

    This is embarrassing. All you Anglos using Greek words I’ve NEVER heard of … 😐

  15. David Candy says:

    I’ve always liked the Melian dialog. I find it so sad and so applicable. I’m a melian at heart.

  16. Aaron Nemo says:

    >Is there an "I’m being subtly ironic" smiley?

    Yes.  Right here.


    Happy, sad, funny, contradictory… ironic smiley.

  17. “ Diet Dr. Pepper tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper.” That was a previous advertising slogan for Diet

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