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Humanities Day looks to ancient Greece for insights into today’s foreign policy

by Cindy Weiss - April 3, 2006

The first of what is expected to be a yearly celebration of the humanities will be held in the Nafe Katter Theatre April 7, with a day-long focus on an event that occurred nearly 2,500 years ago and the perspective it provides on American foreign policy today.

“A Day in the Humanities: Staging Invasion” will examine the aftermath of the Athenians’ invasion of Melos in 416 B.C., and the use of war to spread democracy.

“It really resonates today because of Iraq,” says Richard Hiskes, a professor of political science, who will moderate the panel discussion.

Organized by the Humanities Institute in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in collaboration with the drama department in the School of Fine Arts, the day will begin with a stage reading of a new play, The Olive Grove, by Gary English, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of dramatic arts.

The play reflects on the Peloponnesian War and the invasion of Melos.

“Our goal is to create a discourse on how different disciplines in the arts and the humanities approach and analyze a specific theme,” says Françoise Dussart, associate professor of anthropology and acting director of the Humanities Institute.

An afternoon panel discussion, “Staging Invasion: The Use and Abuse of the Past,” will include Eleni Coundouriotis, acting director of the Human Rights Institute; Brenda Murphy, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English; Penelope Pelizzon, director of the Creative Writing Program; and Roger Travis, associate professor of modern and classical languages and ancient Mediterranean studies.

It will be followed by keynote speaker Donald Kagan, the Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, who will discuss “The Teaching of Thucydides on the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.”

Kagan delivered the 34th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington, D.C., last spring and received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2003.

His four-volume study of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is considered a classic.

In 2000 he co-authored While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness and the Threat to Peace Today.

The day also includes a “talk back” between the audience and cast of the play reading, led by Gay Smith, a professor of drama at Wesleyan University.

The Olive Grove, the play written by English, was inspired by the invasion of Melos and Thucydides’ Melian dialogue, a conversation between Athenian generals and Melian magistrates.

“The Athenians argue that they’re there because it’s necessary to be there – they’re strong and the strong do what they can, the weak do what they must,” English says.

“It establishes this notion of political necessity.”

He became interested in the dialogue because of parallels to America’s role in the world today. The Athenians laid siege to Melos, an island oligarchy 100 miles off the coast of Greece that was aligned with Sparta.

They eventually killed or enslaved its people in the name of spreading democracy.

“Even in those days it was considered an atrocity,” says English.

His play examines what happens to the Athenians as a result of losing their moral footing, and the effect on their democratic institutions.

It also involves the parallel story of a family in Melos that is caught in the tragedy.

“Everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing, and everybody fails ultimately,” he says.

Hiskes says the Melian dialogue is required reading in international relations courses today, because of the tension it reveals between realism and idealism in international relations, a tension that resonates throughout American foreign policy.

“Iraq is the current best example of it,” he says.

Travis, who teaches Greek civilization and a course on Thucydides, says Thucydides was concerned with the effect of demagogues on foreign policy and thought they swayed Athenians to make bad decisions they later regretted.

“There’s an amazing amount of stuff in Thucydides that’s pretty much applicable to our geo-political situation,” he adds.

Kagan, the keynote speaker, has stated his belief in U.S. leadership – as opposed to U.S. domination – and has called for the use of U.S. power to preserve a peaceful world order.

In his Jefferson lecture last May, he said the ancient Greeks offer a perspective on events that is removed from current prejudices.”

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