The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Manu Dal Borgo
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There isn’t a particular ancient author for me. It is, perhaps strangely, a particular way of thinking about the ancients which draws me back. Let me explain. When I am feeling uncertain about the future or the logic of my day-to-day decisions, I turn to Lysias. There is no specific speech which I go to, really, choosing instead to flick through a select few and land on a phrase by chance. I always have my “Lysias: Selected Speeches” edited by Chris Carey, my doctoral supervisor, close at hand at all times. Reading it reminds me of Carey’s kind scholarly advice as well as our heated debates on textual interpretation. Those memories bring me great comfort. In his commentary on Lysias, I am reminded that historical truth is a perspective. What may seem like a good decision today may turn out to be a very bad decision in hindsight. Ultimately there is nothing one can do, other than hope that history chooses to remember your decision today as a good one. (I am really looking forward to reading Carey’s new Green and Yellow on Herodotus book 7!)
When did you first come across this book?
Carey’s “Lysias” first entered my library in 2006 when I started was working toward a masters in the USA.
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
Carey’s “Lysias” is a testament to his pedagogy. His presentation of Lysias is pragmatic – slicing through bias effortlessly. It situates persons according to the facts of the case and then extracts the more fluid truths – identifying blatant lies, effective misrepresentation and the dramatic presentation of otherwise unimpressive facts, all delivered by a seemingly humble uninstructed interlocutor. Lysias’ speeches are Venus fly traps, sweet and deadly. Artifice is a wily trick and it takes a keen mind to unmask it.
What is it about these speeches that appeals to you most?
The way speeches at court twist, exaggerate or minimise the importance of absolute facts baffled and continues to baffle me. How can someone get away with lying outright!? There is a sobering truth to all of it. The very need for an industry of legal speech writers in antiquity demonstrates how vital the presentation of one’s position was for a favourable outcome. This is what inspired me to pursue Thucydides. In the History’s Mytilenian debate, Diodotus chastises the Athenians for not allowing him to tell the truth because a lie would carry more weight! Since then, Thucydides has dominated my academic work. And it was only through my subsequent study of game theory that I discovered that the most persuasive argument is to tell the truth – the last chapter of my doctoral thesis addresses this point. In the long run, the truth is simply impenetrable.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
My favourite activity outside of classics is being with nature, whether it’s gardening or taking long walks through the fens and meadows of Cambridgeshire. A couple of my son’s first words were ‘mint’ and ‘tulip’ for example, in addition to ‘agape’ of course.
Dr. Manu Dal Borgo is a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge in the Faculty of Classics and former Director of Studies and Lecturer in Economics for Newnham College. She is currently co-hosting together with Dr. Cezary Kucewicz a webinar series called Wolfson (Ancient) Warfare Wednesdays for Wolfson College, Cambridge (you can register here). Her academic research focuses on the economics of warfare in antiquity and the strategic behaviour of states and individuals both on and off the battlefield. She is editing a volume with Dr. Roel Konijnendijk on the economics of warfare of the ancient Mediterranean. She has studied and taught in the faculties of classics and economics at the University of Cambridge and at University College London. She also freelances as a science writer on game theory for the BBC and as a popular science speaker for wider audiences, such as, for the New Scientist.
Follow her on twitter for weekly updates on classics, warfare and game theory @m_dal_borgo.
Or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.