Deeds, not words. That’s the little motto I sometimes call to mind when I’m struggling for inspiration to write, or when I’m trying to remind myself of what matters most. It’s a prompt to remember that life is for the living, and that getting on with things in the world is what, before anything else, gives life its shape and meaning.
The phrase came to mind more than once today, and for quite distinct reasons, as I read through pieces of writing that jumped up at me from various locations on Twitter: from this moving piece on the life of the unheralded Jesuit priest, Vicente Canas; from this superb piece on the controversy surrounding the scholar and Soviet informer Anthony Blunt; and from this beautifully written blogpost on being diagnosed with autism as an adult.
In each case, the writing points to truths about how to live in the world.
With Canas, a rich picture is evoked of a priest who lived in poverty while embracing the culture of an Amazonian tribe. For defending the land rights of the tribe, he ended up dying a martyr. ‘In the eyes of the world’, says the article, ‘he lived an ‘insignificant life’ and he died unnoticed’. Not quite unnoticed, of course – and it’s an honour to pay Canas some notice on this blog.
With Anthony Blunt, a controversy ensued when it emerged publicly in 1980 that he had betrayed his country to the Soviets, acting as an informer. In particular, should his fellowship of the British academy be revoked? Amidst the controversy, the late church historian Owen Chadwick emerges as something of a hero. Chadwick is someone only really known to me through the brilliant books of his that I’ve read: The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th century, Newman, From Bossuet to Newman and Hensley Henson. As a historian, the article fairly characterises him as one who ‘wrote like an angel, and still repays reading for his grace of mind, his delicate judgement, his rich historic instincts, his bleakness about earthly motives and his countervailing generosity of spirit’.
Having already known Chadwick the historian, I could now meet Chadwick the man – practical, wise, humane: ‘He believed both in the reality of repentance and the duty of forgiveness, and that both were fundamental to human decency and self-respect’. Putting his principles into action, Chadwick won the day.
Finally, in Cora Beth Knowles’ reflections on her discovery that she is autistic, I found a deep honesty and humanity: her post confronts in an understated way the nature of the process of diagnosis, and the awkwardnesses and uncertainties surrounding it. She links her desire to be tested, movingly, to a desire to connect with her son, and she reflects – again movingly – on her life and character. The post, for me, is an object lesson in how a deed – here, taking the plunge and doing a test – can invigorate and enrich, while serving also as inspiration to others.
In case all this seems a bit far-removed from my usual posts about the ancient world, there might just be a connection of relevance to point to: an interview I did last week, for Cora Beth’s website (as luck would have it), about an ancient text I sometimes turn to when in need of cheering up: Minucius Felix’s Octavius. The interview can be viewed here.
The Octavius might not seem an obvious text to turn to when in need of cheer: it describes a religious argument between a Christian (Octavius) and a worshipper of the polytheistic deities whom he tries (successfully) to convert. Not exactly bucolic poetry, then. And certainly not a text (I would think) that could enthral devout postmodern secularity.
Then, too, there’s the fact that one might read the Octavius simply as an exercise in persuasion, as a text which confidently, if urbanely, tries to show educated Roman readers how Christianity can become a good and thinking person’s best option as a religious philosophy; though certainly the debate between the speakers can be seen as one which begs as many questions as it answers.
And yet – there are beautifully observed features of the text (as I say in the interview) that capture the imagination and enable the reader really to enter the scene.
So, for example, the children of Octavius are described as being now at an age where they speak innocently and endearingly in half-formed words.
And, as the debaters walk along the beach, they enjoy feeling a gentle breeze blow against their bodies and sense the sand sinking away beneath their feet. And then they see a gathering of small boys skimming stones across the sea water, competing to skim their own stone the furthest.
If there is a winning dimension to this text, it is – for me – in these details, and in the charitable tone its author manages to convey.
And so here again, perhaps, is an illustration of how the ‘deeds, not words’ formula can apply. Since it’s in the context of descriptions of human beings being human in uncomplicated, quotidian ways (toddlers speaking jumbled words, men feeling the elements, boys skimming stones) – their actions in other words – that the text really comes to life and leaves an impression.
The summer holiday has arrived and it’s time to refresh, relax and (in our case) catch a breath and finish the process of moving in to a new place. One activity that will be very much part of this routine will be the removal of various books from my shelves.
As the years pass and more books accumulate, shelving space is increasingly at a premium. It makes sense, then, to try to pass on to others (either through charity shops or online sales) the books I don’t intend to read or rely upon again.
There’s something cathartic about doing this, deciding what will stay and what will go. Exercising control over what belongs on my shelves feels like an enjoyable assertion of my own free will: I’m not going to be kept in thrall by those books I don’t/didn’t enjoy is the thought, and I can follow the thought with decisive action.
In this post I’ve tried to force myself to reflect pretty candidly on the different reasons why the books I’m selling no longer seem to belong on my shelves. Here below is a picture of the books I currently have available for purchase (as displayed on a shelf I’ve allocated to them in the garage). They cover a whole range of subjects, from ancient philosophy to land law to psychology to an educator’s memoir. Below that is a summary of the various reasons why they’re for sale.
a) Books which served a purpose and are not needed anymore: the primary examples here are the law books – mostly textbooks. In some cases they’re now quite out of date, in a field where new textbooks are published each year, and in most cases they’re available pretty cheap. I do retain some books from my period of legal studies – like Treitel’s classic treatise on the Law of Contract, and a textbook on company law (a nice study aide when I wrote a successful mini-dissertation on minority shareholder remedies), but I don’t envisage an imminent need for detailed reading material on criminal, EU, or tort law. Those, then, can go.
b) Books that excited me at the time but that don’t anymore: in this category I’d include some of the philosophy books – Bernard Williams’ Problems of the Self (a collection of essays) and Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Arlie Hochschild’s Commercialisation of Intimate Life, a sociological book with some interesting observations, also falls into this category, as do some history books, for example Mark Bevir’s The Logic of the History of Ideas and RG Collingwood’s classic study, The Idea of History. In each case, these books (or at least parts of them) were enjoyable when I first read them, but I can’t imagine returning to them again anytime soon. Partly, this is because my interest in philosophy itself has dwindled over the years: my reading tastes now focus more on biography and various types of history. Why? I’m not exactly sure but there has certainly been a more general shift from the abstract to the concrete in my choice of reading material over the years (philosophy and theology out; politics, economic history and biography in).
c) Books I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get into: this is perhaps the biggest single category of book on the shelf. Of course, there are probably a lot of books like this on any avid reader’s shelves – and many such books remain, in fact, on my own ‘not for sale’ shelves, mainly because they could be useful as works of reference, or because I might want to give them a second chance. On this shelf, my recently purchased copy of John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom, a sort of primer of ancient philosophy, which just doesn’t flow, is an example of the type; so too Charles Taylor’s large book on Hegel (Taylor picks fascinating topics in his books – many of which I own – but his prose style can be long-winded and trying); so too David Graeber’s book Debt (which held me for the first 10 or so pages before I found myself getting too frustrated with the assumptions he was making). Graeber is almost the opposite of Taylor in terms of prose style: he’s overly punchy. Others? Edward Said’s book on Humanism and Democratic Criticism was okay, but I have better books of his in my possession (and worse: On Late Style was a particularly disappointing read); John Burrow’s Crisis of Reason: European thought 1848-1914 addresses a fascinating topic but does so in a very stodgy way; Terry Eagleton is usually very readable but Trouble with Strangers: a study of ethics is among the least enjoyable of his books – its argument patchy, its prose not as luminous as that of his other books, and ethics is hardly his special field anyway; as for Galen Strawson’s Real Materialism (a collection of philosophy essays), I found both the writing and the subject matter more or less impenetrable.
d) a subset of c): Classics books that didn’t work for me. Here some examples are Neville Morley’s Antiquity and Modernity (a great topic, but the approach of the book didn’t speak to me at all), Irene de Jong’s Narrators and Focalizers (very dry) and Jonathan Hall’s Hellenicity (an interesting argument about the development of Hellenic identity, but a dense read: too dense for me at any rate). William Harris’ book on the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity was another case of an interesting topic that wasn’t a particularly absorbing read (Harris’ other books, which unfortunately are very expensive, read really well, by contrast). Garth Fowden’s Egyptian Hermes – on Hermes the thrice-great – is the definitive treatment of its topic, but again it’s too dense for my tastes and it didn’t feel like an effort was made to bring the subject alive.
e) books it makes commercial sense to sell – I would be quite happy to keep hold of my copy of the collection of essays on Gender and the Body in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Maria Wyke, but if I can make £35 for it (and in advertising it for that price, I am the cheapest would-be seller online) I’ll gladly take the money (the book was purchased years back for £7).
f) books whose wisdom I no longer need: Mike Carot’s book of poker tells and Hwang’s book on pot limit omaha fall into this bracket. Read into that what you will… Also Terence Irwin’s book on Plato’s Ethics is surplus to requirements because this subject is fully covered in a different book I own by the same author (The Development of Ethics, volume 1). A further example here is the collection of essays on animal ethics: I’ve been a fully signed up vegetarian for a number of years now and no longer need to be convinced of the ethical case for vegetarianism.
g) Books I reviewed (somewhat ruefully): I spent far too long wondering about how to review two books on the shelf for journals (a book about the theology of Henri de Lubac and one about gender and ancient religion). These books hold particular memories. Influencing my approach to both reviews was the comment of Mary Beard that ‘you shouldn’t write anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face’. Well, maybe I’ve grown bolder over the years but I’d certainly review both books quite differently now if I were to do so again. In one of the books, for instance, there were issues with dryness, unshapely sentences, jargon and the ‘so what?’ question (i.e. what does this matter?). None of this was mentioned in the review. With the collection of essays, there was an attempt to tie the essays together under a single banner which didn’t really work (the essays covered different topics in quite distinct ways and bore only the loosest of relations to one another) This is a common complaint of many reviewers of such volumes but it’s one my review didn’t manage to touch upon. I suppose I feel now that life is short and that these are the sorts of things (among others) that should just be said without hesitation if they’re what a reviewer feels – and let the chips fall where they may.
h) Duplicates: I already possess JA Mangan’s excellent book on the Games Ethic and Imperialism – an exploration of the place of sport in British education in the 19th century – so this copy is for sale.
So that’s a rough – and admittedly candid, though hopefully not too curmudgeonly – summary of the reasons these books are for sale. I hope I didn’t put you off making a purchase!
My recent bedtime reading has been Nicola Gardini’s fun little book ‘Long live Latin: the Pleasures of a Useless Language‘. The book is a nice combination of personal reflection and linguistic and literary discussion. Gardini focuses on a range of Latin texts he has encountered and on the nature of his personal responses to them over the course of his education and career.
The book has by turns intrigued and frustrated me.
One part of the book I didn’t much warm to was Gardini’s discussion of the prose of Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars (Caesar’s account of a major stage in the Roman conquest of Gaul). This is a text I haven’t read much myself since sixth form days, but my memory of its style is good enough: Caesar displays a special knack throughout the text for conveying the brutal suppression of his enemies and the trials faced by his armies with unnerving understatement and precision.
For Gardini, Caesar is, straightforwardly, the ‘matter of fact’ prose stylist par excellence: he is a rationalist, a pragmatist, someone who wants to ‘recreate the world mathematically and geometrically, as if the obscurity and vagueness of our deeper motives had no place here’ (p72-3).
Well, yes, as far as this goes. But what about the chilling nature of some of Caesar’s descriptions (chilling, that is, precisely because of their lack of graphic description or celebration where some such might have been expected)? There is a good deal more to say about his prose style, I felt, than Gardini does say.
That this is indeed the case was nicely brought to light on (of all places) a Twitter thread recently. A number of classicists aired views on themes and stylistic elements in the Gallic Wars which confirmed (and indeed challenged) my own thinking. The thread, started by John Ma (link below), is worth viewing in full:
Themes for course on Caesar Gallic Wars: 1. Roman things (litcrit; Rom republic) 2. Political-cultural history of empire (rhetoric, othering; theory; slavery) 3. Gaulish history (epigr, ling, numismatics, La Tene archaeology. 4. Reception in France, Nap III, Jullian, Goudineau
The notion (suggested by Llewelyn Morgan) that Caesar’s ‘pragmatic’ style in his writing reflects an attempt to ‘keep it that of a plain soldier’ struck me as a particularly interesting possibility.
My starting (and strong) assumption here is that the Gallic Wars was not a text intended for a readership of ordinary soldiers: why, in that case, write like one? Well, perhaps to identify oneself as a particular sort of character to one’s actual (well-heeled urban?) readers. A character, that is, who might come across as the very opposite of an effete aristocrat, and instead as a down to earth man of the rank and file military. (Quite a threatening posture to adopt in relation to these readers, in other words, and one that fits with the image of a Caesar who was interested in stirring things up in Rome itself).
Certainly I’m more interested now in a range of questions about the relationship between political and military authority and literate communication that I hadn’t considered all that clearly before. So thank you, classical Twitter, for the stimulus to reflection. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit some Caesar this summer (Gardini, an unabashed enthusiast for this writer, would doubtless approve).
The argument has just begun, and it isn’t long before things heat up a little. So far, one party to the argument has been keeping pretty quiet. When he does speak, he gives every appearance of doing so (I think) with a lofty hauteur, suggesting he’s waaaaaay above the trivial and silly insults put forward by his interlocutor, who’s been goading away, doing his best to touch on some raw nerves. Now, something of a breakthrough, maybe.
The following exchange takes place (935f):
‘Is it necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy?’
‘Well how about you, enemy of the gods…what did you include [in your tragedies]?’
What struck me about these lines, when I read through them with my class the other day, is the way an initial question is answered with a further question. Is there a literary term for this phenomenon? If there is, I don’t know of it.
Of course, questions are often asked in arguments, and these questions appear in a pretty big argument. They’re posed in the middle of the Frogs, Aristophanes’ 5th century BC comic play, first performed in 405. The interlocutors are two dead playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides, both legends of the stage. They are having a competition (Gk agon), presided over by the god Dionysus, as to who gets to leave Hades and be taken back up to Athens, where the citizens, we are told, are in dire need of a great tragedian.
In the above dialogue, Euripides poses the initial question, Aeschylus the second. One label that might apply to Euripides’ question, at least, is ‘rhetorical’. Arguably, the question simply answers itself: it should be obvious (both to speaker and interlocutor) that it isn’t necessary to make mention of a cockerel in tragedy.
So, if Aeschylus (who did use a cockerel in one of his tragedies, apparently) had given this question a direct answer, he might have looked simple, perhaps, or even a bit foolish. Better to fire back at Euripides with a question of his own, assuming the front foot and going on the offensive.
Admittedly, it’s striking that this isn’t a tactic (answering a question with another question) that’s used elsewhere in the play.
Answering a question with a question, after all, is a good mode of deflection, if nothing else. And Aeschylus, perhaps, has good reason to deflect, at this stage of the agon. He’s been quiet while Euripides has been jabbing away, landing plenty of scoring shots – scoffing at the grandness and verbosity of Aeschylus’ tragic style, accusing him of being complicated where he could be simple, and pretentious where he could be straightforward. Further on, Euripides even suggests, the Aeschylean style is just not democratic.*
Answering a question with a question, in this context, makes sense.
What most interests me about Aeschylus’ response to Euripides, however, is just how true to life it feels, still today. In the heat of an argument, when an opponent makes a powerful point, or simply one that can’t be easily denied, or that it would be odd to contest, how often do arguers still today deploy the technique that Aeschylus deploys here? Answering a question with a question.
I’ve certainly done it. But I can’t say that each time I’ve done so, it’s been because I’ve been asked a rhetorical question…as opposed to one that’s just difficult to try to deal with.
*Euripides is probably assisted in making this point by the fact that the bulk of Aeschylus’ plays were performed before the democratising reforms of Ephialtes at Athens in the mid-fifth century…. and by the fact that all of Aeschylus’ plays were performed, and indeed Aeschylus himself had died, before the slightly later reforms of Pericles. Meanwhile, Euripides wrote most of his plays in the aftermath of both of these sets of reforms.
A couple of months ago, some words in print from two writers whose work I enjoy – the classicist Mary Beard, and the Observer writer and TV critic Rachel Cooke – caught my eye. In essence, something of a dispute between the pair had emerged. The source of the dispute was Beard’s recent TV series on artistic nudes, The Shock of the Nude.
Cooke hadn’t enjoyed the series and had set out some reasons why in one of her New Statesman TV review columns. Beard duly responded to Cooke in her TLS blog, A Don’s Life (which I’ve enjoyed reading since its earliest infancy). Cooke, for her part, responded at length to Beard in a revealing and thought-provoking piece.
The common thread in all three of these pieces of writing is criticism (a subject I’ve discussed in the past on this blog). With each piece, there are questions to ask about the making of criticisms, the nature of acceptable criticism in our print (and other) media, and the way one handles criticism that has been dispensed.
At the heart of the debate, for Cooke at least, is the question of telling the truth: ‘what is the point of a critic’, she asks in the final piece, ‘if not to tell the truth?’ But beyond this, some further questions might seem important too: what does the job of ‘telling the truth’ involve for the critic? Is it safe to assume, for that matter, that telling the truth is criticism’s central function? And what (if any) ‘truths’ might criticism wish to exclude from its purview? Finally, what – if anything – qualifies one to make criticisms?
The dispute between Beard and Cooke touches, then, on some undeniably important questions. Rather than address these questions directly myself (I need to keep this post manageable!), I want instead to explore some of the points raised by Cooke in her initial review of Beard’s TV series.
When I first saw Beard’s response to this review, I thought she was being prickly and even a bit precious (her admission that the central thrust of Cooke’s review is ‘not stupid’ didn’t exactly seem overly magnanimous). It seemed rather that Beard had simply taken badly to some not-very-constructive criticisms. I’ve since, however, changed my mind.
So, then, to Cooke’s review. The headline is ‘Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude was both weird and exasperating’. The subtitle elaborates: Beard’s ‘conviction that her own ideas are vastly more thrilling than those of the artists she is investigating’ is what will be at issue. Hardly the gentlest of beginnings, then (hat-tip, perhaps, to the sub-editors!) – but hey, this is criticism. And in a negative review, we’re well accustomed to serious negativity!
What to say about this? Probably a major aim – the major aim – of such negativity is to entertain. A key role of the critic might just be to disabuse the criticised of their pretensions and delusions, and to expose them to some stark home-truths. We, the readers, get to look on at this spectacle as it unfolds. Truth? Well, maybe… but a good proportion of readers likely won’t have seen, and may not even wish to see, Beard’s TV series. How, then, can they form an opinion as to the truthfulness of the review? Not easily. What this means, I think, is that the truth or otherwise of the criticisms ventured in most reviews will likely be a secondary (if not entirely irrelevant) consideration for many readers. Perhaps also (dare I say it) for some critics?
Returning, though, to Cooke’s opening salvo. A negative tone is established early. Next, Beard is accused of chutzpah: she’s borrowed part of the title of her series from an earlier 1980s TV series about modern art by Robert Hughes. But she lacks the breadth, wit and pizzaz of Hughes, says Cooke. Tut tut, Professor Beard, for whom my guess is that the accusation ‘lacks breadth’ is not one she has fallen victim to often (quite the opposite, in fact, I would imagine…).
Now, a new line of attack: ‘I accept that our culture rates self-involvement increasingly highly. But still, I find the way that Beard keeps putting herself, almost literally, into the picture both weird and exasperating’. This criticism applies, Cooke says, to the TV series under review – and to Beard’s ‘self-involved’ style within it – but it seems to have a more general application. Beard’s attempts at public history (in toto) seem to be the object of criticism here: Beard herself is too much to the fore in these attempts, Cooke seems to be suggesting.
In this respect, we are told, Beard is symptomatic of a more general cultural trend (i.e. putting oneself at the centre). It’s a well-worn point – the pervasive (western) obsession with the self – but it’s a point many would concede. At the same time, though, my instinct is that in all kinds of ways Mary Beard is in fact utterly asymptomatic of general cultural trends. Why not mention this too? (Answer: there are good rhetorical reasons not to interrupt a nice, punchy negative flow – or perhaps Cooke simply doesn’t believe it).
Cooke doesn’t like the way Beard asks her audience to consider what exactly Titian’s Venus of Urbino might be up to in her naked state (see above). She certainly doesn’t like the way Beard reveals that ‘in my fantasy, I’m with this naked lady’ and ‘we’re both giggling at men leering at us’. Is Cooke prudishly uncomfortable with this idea? Apparently not, but she says she doubts the sincerity of Beard’s claim on the basis of the way she delivers it.
Here I think Cooke could be missing something important. What Beard may be trying to gesture toward with her statements about Titian’s Venus is a sense that she – like Venus – is both subject to, and maybe even drawn to, the male gaze (which is what she is trying to discuss). This might just be an uncomfortable thing to admit (hence the appearance of lacking sincerity, which in fact could be discomfort misunderstood). One can, of course, be sincere in one’s discomfort.
Naturally I could be wrong about this, but it’s my own best guess. (Before I go on… the ‘male gaze’: this is a phrase the determined liberal in me bristles at. Aren’t there many male gazes? Well yes – but I find my own stern inner critic advising me to accept that we can and – alas – must generalise about gendered activity when we try to decode cultural psychology – even if we hasten to add that generalisations don’t apply universally across the board).
Returning to Cooke’s review, where Beard is next taken to task for her discussion of Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (1866). Cooke (rather hastily) concedes that this piece of art ‘does further her [Beard’s] argument that the line between pornography and art is at times non-existent’, before turning to voice some criticisms. In essence, Cooke is underwhelmed because of what Beard neglects to mention: ‘there are other things at play here, too’, she says.
What she has in mind is that Courbet produced his art at odds from ‘what he regarded as repressive bourgeois taste’; that his paintings were ‘often deemed unexhibitable on political grounds’; that he both embodied and was at odds from his time. Cooke wants a richer, more layered discussion of Courbet.
She anticipates that Beard might counter that she isn’t trying to present all available interesting detail about her subject matter: she’s pursuing a single theme. This, for Cooke, won’t wash: it’s boring! Cooke wants Beard to capture the ‘multifaceted’ nature of ‘great art’, whose meaning changes all the time. Beard seems only to be interested in her own point of view.
I think a more interesting take than this is possible. A counter-argument in favour of Beard’s emphasis on her own perspectives might be that she’s trying to model for her viewers what an active, 21st century engagement with the artwork she’s discussing might look and feel like.
The richness, the detail, the multifaceted nature of the art: sure, yes – Cooke isn’t wrong – this all matters. But what might matter also is trying to engage people for whom the art under discussion is all a rather impenetrable and not very interesting set of historical artefacts.
Beard wants to show the visceral ways in which the past can live and speak to present-day subjectivities not so different from those of ordinary viewers. Complex lessons in art history can wait for another day. This, I think, is the nub of the matter – and it is a shame that Cooke doesn’t engage with it in her review.
Cooke’s final charge is that Beard is lily-livered, in that she doesn’t make her case clearly, and that she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. She hangs these claims on the observation that Beard isn’t sure whether Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs should stay up on the wall of Manchester Art Gallery. Beard should (but doesn’t) challenge the interviewee who claims this is a painting which is ‘symbolic of some problems’, Cooke thinks.
But, then, if there is a blurred boundary between art and pornography, and if for many people pornography is ‘problematic’, why not treat the interviewee’s statement as a simple illustration of the issue? As Beard does.
Beard’s (slightly, if understandably, prickly) response to Cooke’s review was barely longer than a sentence in length. In return, Cooke penned the long piece I’ve linked to above, insisting that critics are truth tellers who need to be respected. It’s a good piece but it strikes me rather as overkill.
I certainly don’t always find myself in agreement with Mary Beard, much as I admire what she does as a public face of classical studies. On this occasion, though, I find myself very much in sympathy with her.
‘Our manner of speech is in flux’: these are the words of Varro, the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist, as mediated through my slightly loose translation. Varro wasn’t thinking of individuals’ use of language when he wrote this – though, no doubt, his is a point that applies over the course of the life of an individual, just as it does over the course of a language’s life. Instead, he was participating in a highly self-aware Roman discussion about the developing use of the Latin language.
For many people who know some Latin today, it is easy enough to imagine the language as an impressively logical system – of clearly defined grammatical tables, of distinct word endings, and (more generally) of order and rational control. This image of the Latin language is in significant measure a product of the habits of teaching and learning favoured by 19th century educators: hefty Victorian grammatical textbooks are just one tangible artefact of their influence.
What I hadn’t really been aware of before this week was how the Romans themselves imposed considerable (conscious) control over the nature and structure of their language. This comes through in a range of first century BC discussions – in authors like Varro, Cicero and indeed Julius Caesar – of which I’m now aware. And it reflects an older Roman (and Greek) tradition of thinking about language use.
My education in this area has come about through reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution, a text I’ve had on my shelf for several years but which I’ve only just found the time to get into.
Romans of the first century BC were sometimes acutely conscious of linguistic differences in the way Latin was spoken (and written). Just as modern English speakers can effortlessly spot the differences between regional accents, national accents, formal and informal speech (etc), so too ancient Latin users would have spotted similar differences. But what were the boundaries of correct usage in amongst the (perfectly natural) linguistic variety that could be observed?
This is a question, Wallace-Hadrill suggests, that assumes an importance only with Rome’s – and Latin’s – imperial extension in the first century BC: ‘hand in hand with an insistence that others use one’s language is the establishment of authoritative standards by which to lay down what that language is’.
For Cicero, writing in his Brutus on the history of oratory, there was a pure use of Latin which all good orators – and indeed all good speakers of the language – should aim to practise. There was a time, Cicero thinks, when all Romans would speak this pure form of the language as a matter of custom. So what changed? A flood of people of diverse origins, he explains, has entered Rome. They have tainted the language, polluting its proper use!
Cicero’s explanation is strikingly reductive (and prejudiced!) – but it is interesting that he seems to assume that ‘proper’ Latin was only ever spoken at Rome (and that non-Romans were never in command of pure Latinitas). Wallace-Hadrill makes short work of Cicero’s argument, pointing out the myth of ‘purism’ while noting also that ‘purism’ can only be imposed on a language by the imposition of an external authority (e.g. a grammarian!).
Varro, unlike Cicero, was a realist about linguistic change, just as he was about other changes of custom. Old practices can give way to new ones in clothing, building and furniture. Traditional usage in these and other areas has been replaced. The same is true for words. Consuetudo – custom, then (whether linguistic or otherwise), can itself be remade: it is not forever set in stone, as a Cicero might have preferred.
By the end of the first century BC, the power to define consuetudo, when it came to language, seems to have begun to move away from influential patrician figures like Cicero and Varro, who had previously been the key voices in its constitution. From this point, upper class influence on correct Latin usage was no longer to have quite the weight it once did: instead the foremost authorities when it came to defining what was ‘correct’ Latin would soon be professional grammarians. This is an area about which I have more reading to do.
In these difficult times, I’ve found there are worse ways to maintain spirits than trying to remember fun moments in the classroom over the past term. It’s disarming to think that teachers could by now have had their last lessons in person with the pupils they’ve taught during the current academic year. Well, below, I’ve tried to record a fun portion of one of my lessons, in which discussion ranged widely – across food and drink, sea creatures, grain supply and Roman sanitation.
My year 7 class and I had been talking briefly about Roman food and drink, and about the grain-heavy diets that many ordinary Romans had. The class had recently learned about garum – Roman fish sauce – and about the Roman fondness for wine, olive oil and various other foods and tipples. We’d had a little help along the way from an amusing episode of the series, ‘What the Romans did for us’, by Adam Hart-Davis.
‘But what about delicacies?’ someone asked. Good question – so we started a discussion about the sorts of meats and seafoods that ancient Romans might (more occasionally) have eaten.
‘Octopus?’ suggested one class member. Probably not for most people, most of the time, I answered! But I do have a question for you about the octopus. ‘What is its plural?’
‘Octopi!’ This was the answer most of the group felt pretty confident with – especially since they’ve done a good job of learning their 2nd declension Latin noun endings (which have a -us ending in the nominative singular and an -i ending in the nominative plural). But a small smattering of class members tentatively suggested ‘octopuses’: octopi wasn’t the only pick.
Well, I asked, what if neither of those options is strictly accurate? Accurate, that is, if we treat ‘octopus’ as an ancient word. Confused looks.
Good, I said: this can be a little topic for you to do some research on later. Is there an additional possible plural of ‘octopus’ – and what might it be, and why?
The answer, jubilantly reported by some of the pupils in their next lesson, is that because of the Greek (not Latin) roots of octopus, the plural might best be given as octopodes.
They’d done well. Octopus does indeed have Greek roots – but, so it appears, the word doesn’t actually have an ancient provenance. Greeks certainly knew about the cephalopod we call the octopus, but the name they used for this animal was polypous (i.e. many footed creature). It was this word that Romans borrowed to give the Latin word polypus…and this is the word they used to designate the creature we know as the octopus.
It was only much later – in the 16th century. according to our best information – that the word octopus itself starts to appear for the first time, and it appears then in the English language. A nice discussion of this development is available here.
From our rather inconclusive discussion of the octopus (how should you talk about more than one of them?) we turned to start talking about a separate topic relating to Roman diet: the Roman grain supply. This was crucial for Rome’s development and stature as a city during the high period of its empire. In order to feed the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, emperors would import huge quantities of grain, all the way across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, for ordinary people to eat. It was given out as a hand-out.
Some of the class were shocked by this revelation. ‘Free food. Really?!’ Not exactly free, of course, but to the Roman plebs, it must have felt like it. This in turn set off a conversation about how modern governments don’t really do this sort of thing – and maybe it would be helpful if they did?
I asked the class to reflect on another key area of Roman urban life that they might find surprising: hygiene. Walking into the city of Rome in the 1st or 2nd century AD, I asked, what – perhaps more than anything else – might have imposed itself on your senses. One pupil saw immediately where I was going with this question: ‘the smell’, she said.
I remember reading a passage somewhere in one of Keith Hopkins’ books where he really insists on this point. The smell on the streets of the ancient city would have been ghastly, overpowering, horrific. City dwellers in the developed world today have no point of easy comparison.
But this, I told the class, brings us to another topic you may wish to do some research about: the Roman sanitation and sewage system (particularly the Cloaca Maxima). Despite the toxic stench of their city, the Romans possessed a remarkably advanced sanitation system, featuring underground tunnels and drainage. Without this, the city would surely have smelt a whole lot worse.
I’ve noticed over the course of my time as a teacher that pupils in the 21st century classroom tend to assume that the story of historical development has been a pretty linear one of relentless progress: a sort of whiggish optimism, in other words, is pretty widespread. The history of Roman sanitation, of aqueducts and the provision of running water to urban centres, and of the Roman genius for engineering more generally, is a nice counterpoint here.
In these areas, Romans produced technologies that were not (in Europe, at least) to be matched for many centuries (over a milennium, in fact). With the demise of the Roman empire, some of the technology went out of use altogether, without being replaced by anything superior. Far from it. I’m sure my pupils now have a sense of this, even if they’re not exactly clear (as I myself am not) which word to choose if they want to talk about more than one octopus. Sometimes not even teachers have all the answers.
Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.
This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.
I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).
I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.
By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.
Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off – was part of this process.
For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.
Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.
Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.
Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.
His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.
Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.
Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).
Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!
But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.
Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.
In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.
Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.
Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.
You’re ambling along one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Rome, minding your own business, with not a lot on your mind. It’s a route you know well and, despite being a pretty important figure round these parts, you’re blending fairly well into your surroundings: no one is really noticing you.
Though of course someone does. Oh dear. A pest, a bore, a social climber, a wannabe literary type strides up. He peppers you with conversation, having grabbed your hand with a note of urgency, and he insists on addressing you with an uncomfortably over-familiar greeting: ‘Dahhhhhling’. The campness of the greeting doesn’t offend but the presumption does.
So what can you do here? Naturally, you must do your best to deflect him: you suggest (not perfectly) politely that you really must be getting on now, that you’re due on the other side of town, that you need to see someone who’s not very well and whom he definitely doesn’t know. Your implication is that there won’t be a welcome for him at the end of it if he follows you on your journey.
The truth is that this bore, this try-hard, this nobody wants you not for your conversation, but for your contacts. He doesn’t seem to care sincerely for your everyday affairs, nor for your welfare more generally… still less does he show any sign of caring to praise or discuss your poetic genius! Hmmph.
Let’s be clear, then: it’s influence, introductions, and a route upward he’s after. And you represent a nice networking opportunity. Which is to say you’re a cog in a machine here: not a figure of veneration, nor – frankly – any kind of inspiration.
This might just be an example of the cost of your literary celebrity: dealing with people who care about your connections, not your talent. Well, sort of. In a way – and let’s admit this very quietly – this whole interaction is in fact a nice reminder that you matter. That you know important people and that important people care about your work.
But shhhh. Back to what an ordeal this whole thing is. That feels safe and modest. And yes, it’s awkward being you, right now, in this situation. But then again: you’re good at doing awkward. It is, in fact, one of your talents (if you do say so yourself!).
Now, before you rejoin the conversation, consider this: doesn’t this pest remind you of someone? Well, ummm yes. Because of course there was a time not too long ago when you yourself weren’t exactly flavour of the month among the Roman cognoscenti. Could this be the reason, then, why you’re not quite able to summon the brusqueness his impudent outpourings deserve? Why you’re (just about) prepared to indulge him where others would have given him a brisk dismissal?
See, this is why you’re good at awkwardness: you like finding yourself in your adversaries.
And so there you have it, maybe. Now: allow yourself to be peppered! And don’t pretend there’s nothing of creative interest here for you. Because, actually, this might just be the scene of a poem for a talented poet like you. A walk down the Via Sacra with this character might well titillate your regular readers, if skilfully done. And if you go to print, then future pests will have a way to know what you’re really thinking!
Looking back on 3 weeks of reading Horace’s Satire 1.9 with my sixth form classes, I thought it might be fun to try to give a sense of the scene we’ve been looking at together. Above was my hasty attempt to do just this. In it, I wanted to try to capture something of the delicate sensibility and subjective awareness I think we encounter in the poem, but also to bring to light a few further ideas and issues that may simmer beneath the surface of the poem in a way Horace himself does not.
While we’ve been looking at the satire together, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the full range of experiences that pupils (and teachers) might hope to have when reading it.
A big focus when looking at the poem has been on its stylistic and literary features: the way words and phrases are used and manipulated, the way the writer creates effects. There is a subtle genius to the way Horace presents his account of the encounter with the literary pest that is made manifest through close study of his Latin.
One feature of the poem I’ve tried to emphasise is that it’s useful to think in terms of 3 voices being in play in the poem: the voice of the narrator (Horace) when he’s speaking with the pest, the voice of the pest himself, and then the voice of the narrator when he’s not speaking with the pest (that is, when he’s relaying to the reader his inner thoughts about their encounter).
I stressed the interest of thinking about these different voices, about how Horace plays them off against each other – but also about how we get a very interesting (and uncannily contemporary-feeling) sense of the narrator’s subjective consciousness as a result of this style of writing.
On this latter point, it strikes me that the poem calls to mind something of what it’s like dealing with everyday interactions for us, still today. For it shows an example of a context in which we might say one thing and think another, and it gives an example of how and why a person might be led to do this.
Its central theme, maybe, is the subtlety and complexity that can be at stake when dealing with everyday human interactions of the kind we might find tricky or awkward, as we try to negotiate them. Rather than trying neatly to dissolve (or resolve) any of this trickiness, Horace just takes us into one such situation, and shares an account of dealing with it (or not dealing with it). It’s an invitation, perhaps, to reflection.
And so maybe, then, I should have asked pupils to think in terms of 4 voices being important for their reading of the poem: the fourth being their own. Because there is an implicit invitation from Horace to join him in the poem, to try to wrestle with the situation involving the pest, with him. I suppose this post has been my attempt to take part (just a little) in this very process, and to give an expression to my own ‘fourth voice’.
5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale
A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.
4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity
Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.
3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer
This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.
2 Martial, Epigrams
I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.
1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.
As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.
Moving house means moving possessions and, amidst the upheaval this has involved, I’ve found a few spare moments to reacquaint myself with some possessions I haven’t paid much attention to in a while. Tucked away in a bag of books, I discovered the other day a hardback I once received as a gift, way back around 20 years ago, which I’ve barely looked at since.
The book is a series of interviews with the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a thinker whose ideas struck a chord with me when I first read about them as a teenager. I found in Gadamer’s ideas an attractive alternative to the deconstructionist philosophy of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose writings – which I didn’t warm to – were very much in vogue at the time (and still are, to some extent). I particularly liked Gadamer’s concept of the ‘fusion of horizons’ (described briefly here), which represented a more optimistic alternative to Derrida’s radical hermeneutical pessimism.
But this book – Gadamer in Conversation – I remembered as something of a disappointment: for the teenage me, Gadamer was really too impenetrable a thinker, and his reflections on his career frankly didn’t hold all that much meaning for me. So the book was filed away and left pretty much unopened – until now.
I think it’s fair to say I’m in a better position to enjoy Gadamer’s conversations today than I used to be. And, on opening the book, I immediately noticed a chapter – ‘The Greeks, our Teachers’ – which caught my attention. The chapter takes the form of an interview between Gadamer and the classicist Glenn Most – and in it, Gadamer makes a number of interesting arguments and comments about the nature and influence of ancient Greek philosophical thought, some of which caught my eye. What follows now is my attempt to do them justice.
Although Gadamer is known chiefly for his book, Truth and Method, he mentions that his training was in ancient Greek philosophy (and in Greek and Latin): he wrote his PhD thesis on Plato and his early publications were all on subjects in ancient Greek philosophy. For Gadamer, ancient Greek philosophical practice can be favourably compared, in some respects, with the practice of modern philosophers.
The cardinal emphasis placed by many Greek philosophers on writing protreptikoi (works designed to encourage people to follow a particular school of philosophy), and of intervening in the life of the state, are things he approves. The contrast between these Greek practices and certain dominant tendencies in the present, where philosophy – particularly analytic philosophy – has become very professionalised and encapsulated, and relates only to itself, is described by Gadamer as a ‘real danger’. The danger here, presumably, is of a move toward an increasingly solipsistic philosophy which stands further and further aloof from what might be labelled ‘public reason’.
A striking phrase Gadamer uses when he appraises the way the Greeks did philosophy is this: ‘discovering contradictions is a good weapon for a lazy reason [Vernunft]’. This is a point that appeals to me for several reasons.
As a teenager, I used to love to test out the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and to (try to) rip into what I considered silly claims. Of course it is important to be able to dismiss silly claims with good reasons – but, at the same time, I remember feeling that I’d made a real step forward when I encountered a (university) teacher who wanted to force me to make (only) constructive arguments in my writing, and to minimise my inclination to spend time on paper exploding others’ not particularly silly claims (this could almost always be done, I came to see, either implicitly, or gently in footnotes). So Gadamer’s words chime on that front.
They also chime because, just as Gadamer doesn’t have ‘a very high opinion of the denials of the unity of reason that have become stylish in this age of narrowed rational perspectives’, neither do I. What Gadamer describes as a style of thinking that sees ‘everything as embroiled in contradictions’ is a style of thinking that is a pretty normal feature of the postmodern modes of thought that are observable in some quarters in contemporary western societies: for Gadamer, this is a style of thinking ‘that does not see far enough beyond its own contradictions’.
And when some fellow philosophers show signs of a commitment to this sort of view, Gadamer avers, they depart from the example of the ancient Greek philosophers, for whom the unity of reason was never in doubt. Of course they may do this self-consciously: they may even locate ‘what is ‘modern’ precisely in being doubtful about the unity of reason’ (in Most’s words). This sort of position really takes off with Nietzsche – and it flies in the face, Gadamer thinks, of ‘the rich cultural heritage’ (not only that which stems from the Greek philosophers!) we have – and could do a better job of enjoying.
In spite of the fragmentation of academic research into different subdivisions and specialisms which is characteristic of contemporary intellectual life, Gadamer nonetheless maintains that ‘our whole image of the world, and also the turn to mathematics [in modernity], rests on the [ancient] Greek view of a numerically harmonious world’. And in spite of modern science’s instrumental use of mathematics, Gadamer argues, ‘research today still remains oriented to the Greek visions of a simplicity, unity and beauty’ in the world, ‘a world ordered and regulated in itself’.
Gadamer’s claim here is that, in spite of the fragmented nature of contemporary academic study and, for that matter, in spite of the presence of the Nietzscheans, the Greek tradition that links together natural science, ethics and aesthetics, and insists that a unity of reason is possible among them, in a sense persists. Moreover, although academic disciplines may indeed be increasingly subdivided and fragmented, Gadamer notes that we nevertheless face a situation in which ‘the modern world is gradually coming together into a functional unity through science and technology’. The move toward functional unity, I myself suspect, may yet prove fatal for even the stubbornest exponents of what might be labelled postmodern Nietzscheanism.
So what role will the study of Greek philosophy have in shaping world culture in the future? In all likelihood, a very significant role, Gadamer thinks, because he knows of ‘no substitute for the immediate conceptual power of Greek as a spoken language’. There is a polemical edge to this comment – ‘all modern languages of international exchange are becoming bland’, he adds. But, really, what Gadamer wants to argue is that, through coming to know the ancient Greek language and ancient Greek convictions about the unity of reason, points of solidarity may be created and discovered among future people.
This is a nice idea, but Gadamer is certainly not naively expecting a sort of Greek renaissance. He expects that there may also be things in the traditions of ancient India or China that will rival the Greek tradition, and that discovering these things will be good for (our understanding of) the ancient Greek sources – and perhaps good for ‘us’ too.
I began my journey in teaching soon after leaving school, working initially in my old primary school providing some classroom assistance, before going off to teach at a farm school on a gap year in South Africa. These initial experiences were enormously uplifting ones. So much of what I found out about teaching then continues to be central to my enjoyment of the job today… the chance to combine learning and fun in the classroom; the satisfaction of managing to convey things to pupils that they might find tricky; the feeling of somehow being able to bring a subject alive, of helping others come to see things in new ways; and the chance to watch children grow in confidence and develop toward adulthood before your very eyes. All these things are not just enjoyable: they are privileges of a job I love.
For the past 10 terms I’ve been enjoying doing these things at Bedford school. It is a special environment in which to work, and a place in which life beyond the classroom really matters: out on the sports field, in musical or artistic activities, extra-curricular clubs and societies, in the theatre, and in the chapel. The food and scenery are great too.
I had a clear sense when I was a teenager that I didn’t want a job that involved seeing the same 4 walls of an office every day. I briefly considered joining the marines, and would have loved to have tried professional football (but wasn’t good enough). I also liked the idea of life as an academic or in the church, but ended up feeling neither was for me for various reasons. Teaching was also in my mind.
In teaching, and certainly in teaching at Bedford, life is never dull: there are opportunities to get involved in multiple pursuits at school every day and there is always something new to try, something interesting to experience. That is something I’ve valued immensely and it informs my sense that it’s really important to show pupils that living something like a rounded existence – with interests in different areas of endeavour – is important (and possible!).
I will miss the school, my colleagues and pupils. I have some great memories from my time there – of coaching teams, of assemblies and lessons, of breakthroughs in the classroom, and of lots of laughter.
I will also look back on my time at the school with some sadness, because it was while I was working there that I lost my mother: I know that she was happy to see me happy at the school, and indeed the senior staff at the school were wonderful in making it possible for me to spend time with her during her final illness. I will always be grateful for that.
So it’s a fond farewell to Bedford school and to Bedford the town, which has been our home for the past 3 and a half years. It’s been nice knowing you.
I’m asked fairly often by the boys who visit my classroom about the books they see on its shelves: about whether I myself have read them all (I reply that I certainly haven’t); about what a particular book that catches their eye is about (sometimes this can lead into an interesting conversation); and, perhaps most commonly of all, about whether I myself have a favourite book… and if so, could I recommend it?
As someone who loves books, this last question is not one I find it particularly easy to answer. There are just so many great books to choose from, and I prefer to try to tailor any recommendations I make to individuals, having worked out what they’ve read and enjoyed in the past and/or what they’d like to explore in some new reading.
This all being said, I’ve also been thinking a bit recently about the books that I myself found exciting as a teenager, and in this post I’m going to consider whether these might be good texts to recommend to a teenage reader still today.
Before I start, a necessary admission: my memory of my teenage reading is far from perfect, and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent its true scope and nature. I had been a voracious reader up until about 13/14 years of age, mainly of fiction and history. Standout favourite reads in my pre-teenage years had included Richmal Crompton’s series of Just William books (I seem to remember that the sight of me reading these books would irritate the headmaster of my prep school, who regarded them with scorn for some reason), various animal themed books by Colin Dann, and (when I was about 12) the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I also remember enjoying both The Great Gatsby and Buchan’s 39 steps when we studied them in English.
However, for 3 or so years after that (until I started my A levels) I found that the tasks of keeping on top of academic work, learning two musical instruments and playing a lot of sport didn’t really leave much time for anything apart from ‘fun’ reading (particularly footballers’ biographies and autobiographies).
Nevertheless, one text I did read during this time stands out in my memory for the impression it created: Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. This book managed to combine a simple storyline about an inquisitive young girl with an introduction to some of the key western philosophers. I greatly enjoyed the book, which I remember as having a thoughtful tone, and I liked especially its exploration of the life and philosophical approach of Socrates.
When I reached the sixth form, I had time and space to do a little more reading, and I was lucky that my parents’ bookshelves had plenty of titles to investigate if/when I was feeling intellectually curious.
Undoubtedly the single most important book I discovered on these shelves was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. From page one, I was gripped – not just by Russell’s prose style, which I still find to be both grand and acute, but by the scope of the book. I realise this is a common experience for those who read Russell for the first time (and I know that reading Russell is not an altogether unheard of formative experience for intellectually minded teenagers).
My honest recollection is that I felt that Russell’s book really did pull the rug out from under much of the learning/studying I had been doing at school. Why weren’t school classes considering what seemed to be the fundamental questions that Russell and these other thinkers had devoted their lives to? And why did so many people around me seem to live without paying much attention to these incredibly important questions? Another abiding memory of reading Russell is that I was completely entranced by his exposition of the thought of the early Greek philosophers. I think the book remains worth reading for those chapters alone.
I was compelled to go out and find more Bertrand Russell to read and managed to get hold of two further books, both of which I liked a lot: two essay collections, Unpopular Essays and Why I am not a Christian. For a while, as a 17 year old, my goal in life was to become a modern day Bertrand Russell.
Studying both Virgil and Horace at school as part of Latin A level had given me a sense that there was a lot of fascinating material waiting to be explored in classical literature – and I was lucky to be presented with an Oxford Classical Dictionary as a Christmas present during the sixth form. I spent quite a lot of time with my nose in this, though I remember struggling to sustain an interest in a number of the minor biographical entries. (For my sins, I also used to enjoy browsing an English Dictionary and learning new words before I went to bed at night).
Perhaps my number one fiction read from this time was Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I found to be absorbing and well-written. It was good also that Conan Doyle’s stories were short, as I didn’t have much patience for long drawn-out fictional tales at this point in my life.
So that’s about it: a brief survey of some of the standout reads of my own adolescence. I think I’m still happy to recommend these books to anyone who asks for a recommendation today (well, perhaps not the OCD if a page-turner is what’s required). Strangely, though, I’ve never put any of these books in the hands of pupils who’ve asked me for recommendations to-date (though I have mentioned them). I’m not completely sure why this is: perhaps because I don’t retain my copies of Russell or Conan Doyle any longer on my shelves. There are certainly, though, many other good books to try instead.
I don’t know the whereabouts of my copy of Pascal’s Pensées. I imagine it’s lying somewhere in one of my parents’ spare bedrooms, its tricky French languishing there unread, awaiting the time when I discover the urge to locate and read it once again. I won’t pretend. I’ve never spent much time on Pascal. But he’s still a figure who interests me (I have a large soft spot for any good pre-enlightenment philosophe), and I remember reading a particularly interesting and lucid exposition of his famous ‘wager’ in a book by the philosopher John Cottingham.
Pascal’s wager was a topic that came straight to mind early this morning, in one of my A level Classical Civilisation classes. We are currently reading Euripides’ Bacchae, the famous play in which the king of Thebes, Pentheus, refuses to recognise or honour the god Dionysus, despite warnings that he must do so from all and sundry around him. The result of Pentheus’ failure to recognise the god is dreadful: he is brutally dismembered by the worshippers of Dionysus (a troupe of women known as maenads). Before this terrible fate unfolds, Pentheus unwittingly rejects an opportunity to avoid this terrible conclusion, by dismissing the arguments of some of the wise old men of his city – Kadmos and Tiresias.
The arguments of both old men are interesting, but that of Kadmos particularly caught my eye today. Doubtless I haven’t been paying enough attention to the text of the Bacchae when I’ve read it in the past, but I didn’t before realise that right there, in Euripides’ text, is a clear intellectual antecedent of Pascal’s wager itself, placed on the lips of wise old Kadmos.
‘My boy’, says Kadmos, addressing Pentheus, who has already shown himself to be an individual who is going to be difficult to help. ‘Live as we [i.e. Kadmos and Tiresias] do, and not beyond the order of the laws’. ‘Even if this is not the god’, he continues, ‘consider him a god and call him such!’. Kadmos proceeds to warn Pentheus that failing to worship the god could result in a terrible fate, similar to that of Actaion, the hero of Greek myth, who is torn to shreds by dogs. Pentheus is not persuaded.
There is a clear parallel here with Pascal, whose most famous argument (very loosely) is that individuals have very little to lose by believing in and worshipping God (and much, potentially, to gain) – whereas there is much, potentially, to lose by not believing in him (i.e. for Pascal, eternal damnation), and very little to gain…therefore you should believe in him! (A proper and thorough explanation of this wager is offered here for anyone dissatisfied with my cursory description).
Anyway, I found myself feeling surprised by Euripides’ prescience – though maybe I shouldn’t have been. At least one internet encyclopedia of philosophy comments that Pascal’s wager is anticipated in Euripides’ Bacchae – so I certainly can’t claim any great insight in noticing the connection. Nonetheless, I find it a bit strange that some of the most eminent commentators on the text – Dodds, Segal – don’t comment at all on what seems to me a quite remarkable argument (‘worship someone to avoid something terrible – and don’t worry too much if they’re not in fact a god after all!’).
Reading around this topic a little this evening, I am now particularly struck by Eric Csapo’s observation that the whole of the Bacchae, as a play, has occasionally been seen as evidence of a kind of deathbed conversion on the part of Euripides. Euripides is a poet who has often been seen as decidedly anti-theistic. By contrast the Bacchae itself, says Csapo, has been seen as a ‘last cynical Pascal’s wager’ on the part of the poet, particularly on account of its vivid portrayal of the terrible fate that may await an individual like Pentheus who refuses to honour or recognise the gods.
I suppose the lesson of my encounter with the Bacchae today might be summed up like this: there are always new things to discover in ancient texts; or, rather, there are new old things to discover in ancient texts, and unexpected connections to notice too.
I am left to wonder whether Pascal may in fact have read Euripides. This is a question whose answer I haven’t yet been able to find.
Like so many figures in Greek mythology, Oedipus has been the subject of numerous works of art down the centuries. In this post I’ve collected together a few examples of depictions of Oedipus that I find interesting as part of my ongoing project to keep the experience of reading Sophocles’ play fresh for me after five straight years of doing so.
An immediate thought about bringing these pieces together is that this isn’t the sort of collection one would expect to see in a typical display in a gallery or museum. Museums and galleries (at least in my experience) tend to group artwork by period or by artist. Thematic organisation – the tracing of depictions of a famous mythological figure, such as Oedipus, over time – is not something I’ve really seen very often. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention: in any case, for me as a student of history interested in the longue durée, this is a nice way to approach art history.
My first piece is taken from ancient Greece. It is an Attic kylix (Attica being the land around Athens; Kylix being a type of wine-drinking cup) which was produced around 470 BC. It can be seen today on display in the Gregorian Etruscan museum in Vatican City. In this scene, Oedipus is addressing the Sphinx, the mythical being – half-human and half-lion, who blocks the road to Thebes, refusing to allow anyone to pass unless they can solve its riddle. Oedipus – uniquely – manages to solve the riddle: as a consequence, the sphinx (dramatically) kills itself. One thing I like about the scene depicted here is Oedipus’ contemplative pose: his hand is on his chin, his legs crossed. The sphinx, meanwhile, is in a sense unreadable: he has no eyes! He also stands high over Oedipus, on top of a column, but of course his supremacy will not last. Contemplative Oedipus – who certainly doesn’t look like any kind of aggressor or dethroner in this scene – will emerge triumphant over the sphinx in due course.
There have been many artistic depictions of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx. Perhaps the most famous is a painting by the French symbolist Gustave Moreau. I happen to prefer this, by another Frenchman, Ingres. It’s a rich scene: the use of light and dark colour is obviously striking, and the narrowness of the pass into Thebes (which can be seen in the background) is clearly evident. Oedipus himself attracts the eye: he is quite young here, but strong, and his pose exudes confidence and boldness. He also looks like he has no trouble being matter-of-fact. He’s dealing here with a riddle you almost sense he can solve – and I think the rather perturbed expression on the face of the sphinx reflects this. What, meanwhile, is the reaction of Oedipus’ colleague in the background supposed to signify? Fright, in all likelihood: at the bottom of the picture, a skull and crossbones clearly show the unfortunate fate of those who fail to solve the sphinx’s riddle. This draws Oedipus’ phlegmatic daring all the more clearly into focus.
A quite different depiction of Oedipus’ meeting with the sphinx is presented by Fabre here. Here again Oedipus is strong and muscular, but this time he seems assertive rather than contemplative. He is also set more against the background of the wider (pleasantly rustic) landscape, high up in the mountains, with the city nowhere in sight. The body position of the sphinx makes it look almost ready to pounce on Oedipus, yet this sphinx seems somehow less imposing and menacing: its bodily dimensions aren’t as intimidating as they might be, and (for me) it doesn’t command the space of the painting in a way the sphinx of Ingres – from its dark corner – does.
Brodowski’s Oedipus and Antigone (above) depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Here Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, guides her father as he wanders around in exile outside his city. The dark clouds and dark rock in the background betoken the gloom that has descended upon Oedipus, but also the darkness that affects him personally: he is now blind. The pair look courageous and strong, despite Oedipus’ predicament. Other paintings of this scene depict Antigone looking lovingly at her father: here she is unabashedly leading the way, looking ahead (or to the side), perhaps, to see where they might go next. She, the daughter, is now the lead figure in their relationship.
In this quite different painting of Oedipus and Antigone from 1812, Eckersberg presents a more doting and concerned Antigone and a more elderly Oedipus who is visibly more frail. This Oedipus nonetheless shoulders the burden of carrying some heavy clothing on his back, while Antigone walks more freely, albeit while expending energy tending to her father. I love the bright colours in this scene, but also the way Eckersberg manages to capture the melancholy of both characters and the tenderness between them. On they go, in sadness, across the bridge.
My final Oedipus and Antigone conjures an altogether different impression. Here, in Jalabert’s painting, they walk together through the crowded and chaotic city streets. Antigone leans in toward Oedipus, as if for protection, while towering Oedipus stands strong and tall over the other figures they pass by. His dominant physique suggests his regal credentials and yet, of course, he is now blind and dependent on his daughter. Others – presumably aware that he is a cursed figure – pull away from him in seeming disgust, or, in the case of the woman depicted in the bottom right of the painting, stare at him forbiddingly while pointing toward him. This is a sobering reminder of how Oedipus, once the hero of his city, is now an outcast.
Gagneraux here presents another scene from Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, mourned by his distraught children, seems on the brink of death here. A number of others – a soldier, a beggar woman, a mother and child – loiter around the edges of the family, perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in confusion. We see the city once more in the background, and the artist conveys with clarity how deeply loved Oedipus is by his family members.
Another French neoclassical painting with some very clear stylistic similarities to Gagneraux, Giroust’s Oedipus at Colonus depicts a similar scene of mourning. This time only Oedipus’ son Polynices and his daughters Ismene and Antigone attend to him in his distress, while he sits outside what looks like a temple. Polynices wants Oedipus to return to Thebes: he needs help to defeat his vengeful brother Eteocles, who has seized control of the city since his father’s departure. (Tragedy, alas, will mar the fortunes of both brothers, and indeed both sisters: it is not just Oedipus who will suffer).
From French neoclassicism, I turn now to this quite different piece by the surrealist Max Ernst, which was composed at a time when the work of Sigmund Freud (featuring the Oedipus complex) had caused the Oedipus story to be viewed in new and different light. An extended reading of what might be going on in the painting is offered here. Simpleton that I am, I find it baffling.
Continuing the Freudian (and surrealist) theme, here is Dali’s Oedipus Complex. This painting seems to be not so much about Sophocles’ Oedipus as it is about Freud. As with so many of Dali’s paintings, it’s difficult to figure out what is going on and I would be lying if I said I found it one of his most captivating pieces. I am tempted to speculate, though, that the large yellow object depicted at the top of the painting could be a depiction of the human brain, with holes signifying areas of unconsciousness. But I shouldn’t speculate, as I’m probably wrong.
Linda Mota’s terrifying contemporary piece marks a renewed focus on Sophocles’ Oedipus himself, here depicted in frightening agony. Blood streams down his face and his facial features are distorted, in a way that reminds me of the facial disfigurement experienced by the central protagonist of the film Vanilla Sky. This Oedipus seems almost trapped within the painting itself, stuck there in agony.
Finally, Alicia Besada’s recent Oedipus evokes the pity of Sophocles’ character. He cowers, shielding himself from the light, apparently naked. I particularly like the funky elements in his skin tone here, but also the way Besada offers a vision which is somewhat redolent of older depictions of Sophocles’ hero, which capture his sadness, desolation and misfortune.
So that’s it: my (very) brief and incomplete survey of Oedipus in art. Perhaps I should just add that I’m certainly no art historian – but I guess that will be obvious to anyone who has read this far.
One of Bernard Knox’s major suggestions in the opening chapter of Oedipus at Thebes (his major study which I have already begun to discuss in a previous post here) is that Sophocles’ Oedipus, despite being a king, seems to have a ‘democratic temper’. Knox explores this feature of Oedipus’ character, and indeed other ‘democratic’ features of Sophocles’ play, at length in his book’s second chapter.
He makes a rich and bold argument – which he establishes through close reading – to the effect that the tragic story of Oedipus the man resembles the tragic situation of Sophocles’ own contemporary Athens. The play itself, he suggests, is a tragic vision of Athenian splendour and vigour but also of the city’s inevitable military and political demise. Oedipus himself, moreover, is constructed as a character to embody the qualities – but also the limitations – of Athens itself.
In this post I am going to sketch the main outlines of Knox’s argument, before offering some suggestions of my own. Although I find it fascinating, I am not completely convinced by Knox’s argument that Oedipus as a character can somehow be said to embody in microcosm the Athenian cultural and political mindset.
Knox begins his discussion by focussing on the word ‘tyrannos’, which is used to describe Oedipus throughout the play. Why is Oedipus described as a tyrannos (tyrant) rather than a king (basileus)? One part of the answer here is that Oedipus emerges, over the course of the play, as a tyrannos.
Tyrannies were no longer a live political reality in fifth century Greece (when Sophocles wrote). Nevertheless, they were remembered by citizens of the Athenian democracy as a very bad thing. Indeed, to guard against the possible re-emergence of tyranny in the city, anyone seeking to restore tyranny to Athens itself was cursed in recitals of prayers in the city assembly (ecclesia).
The moment in the play where Oedipus’ credentials as tyrannos come most clearly to light, perhaps, is in the aftermath of his discovery of the terrible truth about himself, when the chorus comes to know him as tyrannos – someone they describe as a man of violence and pride’ (line 880). The chorus, previously supportive and even in awe of Oedipus, reaches this judgment on the basis that much that is new (to their ears) has just been revealed about him. That he had come to Thebes with blood on his hands; that he had killed at least one man of some importance; that his response is to say – with apparent pride: ‘I killed the whole lot of them’. Oedipus has revealed himself as having some of the characteristic hallmarks of a tyrannos: the citizens of mythical Thebes react negatively to these, just as the citizens of democratic Athens will doubtless have done too.
Knox notes, however, that there are plenty of good reasons for the chorus (and the audience) not to cast Oedipus as tyrannos: Oedipus doesn’t outrage his city’s women; he doesn’t break any ancestral laws; he doesn’t plunder from his people; he doesn’t distrust what is good and delight in what is bad; and he doesn’t live in fear of others around him. And, as already noted, he has a ‘democratic temper’! How, then, is this apparent contradiction to be resolved?
For some fifth century Athenians, it was possible to speak of the city of Athens itself as a tyranny. Pericles, as reported by Thucydides, gives voice to this very idea in his funeral speech: ‘we are called a democracy, but you call tyrannis to mind’. Other fifth century authors use this same language.
For Knox, this is the key to understanding the tensions within Oedipus’ own character in the play: he is just like Athens, a citizen body and political state in which elements of both democracy and tyranny – and the perception of each – co-exist.
Knox sees Sophocles, then, as writing ‘not historical but contemporary drama’. He points to the overlaps between (mythical) Thebes and (Sophocles’ contemporary) Athens in the play: common to both cities are their use of ships and their use of nautical language, common to both is the experience of plague, and there are important resemblances too between Oedipus and the figure of Pericles, the great Athenian leader.
But further than this, Knox suggests, the character of Oedipus and the character of Athens (in terms of its self-identity as a city) can be viewed as in essential harmony: ‘the character of Oedipus’, he writes, ‘is the character of the Athenian people’. A long list of parallels is enumerated: both Oedipus and Athens are busy and courageous (and pride themselves on both qualities); both take pride also in their powers of speedy decision making and their intelligence, their impatience and their confidence in discussion as a preparation for action. Both also have a keen nose for plots and conspiracies, for acting with confidence as good amateurs who can snuff out the pretensions and mistakes of ‘professionals’. Both are also capable of serious anger.
Knox fleshes out these parallels with reference to the writing of a range of fifth century Athenian authors. More specifically, he suggests that our literary portrayals of a range of leading Athenian citizens – Pericles, Cleon, Themistocles – also invite comparison with Sophocles’ Oedipus.
The final part of Knox’s argument that the play as a whole is an exemplification of Athenian values concerns the legal/legalistic investigation that Oedipus conducts as he interviews those around him in search of the cause of his city’s pollution. Athens, Knox observes, loved its legal institutions, traditions and arguments. In the perspective of some outsiders, Athens was a ‘city of lawcourts’. He goes on to enumerate a range of parallels between Athenian legal processes and those we see in Oedipus (the behaviour of boards of judges, Tiresias’ assertion of his right to a defence speech, Oedipus’ forensic tone, various procedural similarities, the treatment of witnesses etc.). There are indeed many parallels.
For me, Knox’s analysis in all of the above respects is both interesting, well done and convincing. However, for me, there is one major question mark that threatens his overall position. Just how thoroughgoing is Sophocles’ use of themes, character traits and political and legal parallels likely to have been? Was he really trying to create an Oedipus who stood to represent Athens? Or can this quite bold hypothesis be resisted simply by saying that Oedipus can indeed seem very Athenian in certain sections of the play, while pointing out that this – arguably – is pretty much inevitable. If Sophocles is going to depict Oedipus as a figure who will seem heroic in the eyes of his fifth century audience, how can he do this unless he presents an Oedipus whose heroism matches – in some degree – Athenians’ own ideas about heroism?
There is all the difference in the world, I think, between an Oedipus who is designed to appeal in various ways to Sophocles’ audience, and who indeed exemplifies some of the qualities that Athens itself took pride in – and an Oedipus who is the very personification of Athens itself. I am sceptical, then, with respect to the bolder part of Knox’s reading, even as I am impressed by the force of his analysis.
*The featured image is ‘Oedipus and Antigone’ by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
This year I find myself teaching one of the great plays of Greek theatre – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King – for the fifth year in a row for Classical Civilisation A level. Usually, teaching the same play 5 years in a row would not happen (unless one opted to do so beyond the syllabus): exam specs change frequently nowadays, and new texts are prescribed. However, Oedipus – uniquely – featured not just on the old (and much missed) AQA Class Civ A level spec for Greek theatre, but on the new OCR spec that all schools now follow. Arguably, this is no bad thing. If you were to pick a Greek play that all students should read and get to know, Oedipus would be a very good choice.
However, the fact is that now, after 5 years, I can feel myself starting to run out of steam a little with the play. Its brilliant dialogue no longer charms in quite the way it did before; its storyline doesn’t quite bewitch; and its characters don’t fascinate in the way they did a few years back. The dazzle of this great play – which it was once the highlight of my teaching week to explore with students – has dimmed a little.
Few surprises here, perhaps. You can’t expect the same level of freshness and enjoyment when you read a text – any text – time after time. At least, I can’t – and I’m surprised when others seem able to flout this (for me) cast iron law. At the same time, I’ve decided that it might be possible to do something about my fading fascination with Sophocles’ Oedipus by reading, and writing, something new about it. The current post is the first instalment of what I hope will be a short series of posts that will bear the fruit of my resolve to do just this.
For the enhancement of my appreciation of Oedipus, I am very much aware that there is no shortage of astute academic commentary available. There are some excellent pages on the play, for instance, in Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, a now classic treatment written in the 1980s, which I always ask pupils to read. And there is much that is compulsively readable in the work of the American critic Charles Segal and in the lively and punchy work of Edith Hall. However, one of my personal favourite writers on all things ancient Greek – Bernard Knox – also happens to be the author of a renowned book on Oedipus, first published in 1957, that I have never before read: it’s to this text that I’ve decided to turn to reinvigorate my enthusiasm.
What I’d like to offer in this post is a journey in my reading of the first chapter of Knox’s book on Oedipus. The chapter is called ‘Oedipus the Hero’ – hence the title of this post. Rather than (just) offering a dull summary of Knox’s argument in the chapter, I’m going to try to give something of a sense also of how reading the chapter – which is very far from dull – has contributed to my pre-existing understanding of the play (it has done so in several ways).
For Knox, Oedipus the hero is, above all, a many-sided, subtly complicated character: indeed, he is ‘surely the greatest single individual in all of Greek tragedy’, Knox thinks. (We may, perhaps, take this not just as a sober scholarly judgment, but as an existential claim on the part of Knox himself: for this reader, it seems likely that it is Oedipus, above all, who manages to speak to the depths of Knox the man).
Oedipus’ tragedy, as is well known, is that, owing to a cruel turn of events to which he is initially oblivious, he has managed to kill his own father and marry his own mother. Oedipus gradually uncovers this terrible reality over the course of the play through his quizzical intelligence and his forensic questioning of others around him. He needs to find out the truth because he needs to work out who – or what – has ‘polluted’ his city, Thebes, inflicting a plague on his fellow citizens. The answer, he discovers to his horror, is that it is he, Oedipus himself, the king of Thebes, who is responsible.
Oedipus’ unfortunate fate had long ago been predicted by a grim prophecy, of which he himself had been blissfully and tragically unaware. From birth, then, he had been fated to marry his mother and kill his father, in accordance with divine diktat. Cruel Apollo had foreordained that Oedipus would do this. So Oedipus himself is his city’s pollutant – and by killing his birth-father, whom he didn’t previously realise was his birth father, Oedipus has brought Thebes to its knees. Understandably, he struggles when confronted with his new reality when he realises the truth. And he resorts to extreme self-harm – blinding himself, before leaving the city (distraught, dethroned, alone) at the end of the play.
In what does Knox think Oedipus’ greatness – his heroism – lie? In a number of things.
On one level, Oedipus embodies something of a contradiction: he is at the same time a monarch, a ruler and a despot: the solitary tyrannos in overall control of his city. It is he who makes the law, who dictates state affairs and who – single-handedly – leads the search to find the solution to his city’s plague. At the same time, he is a monarch with identifiable democratic instincts – a ‘democratic temper’, as Knox puts it. He wants what is best for his city, for his fellow citizens. He identifies with their suffering and is driven by a clear sense of public duty and public spirit. His incessant questioning in order to find a solution to the problem which confronts him is part of who he is, certainly: a self made man of action, as Knox emphasises. Self-made because he has won his kingship by freeing his city from a curse; a man of action because he is so restless to get things done. But Oedipus is certainly also motivated by unselfish instincts. And this part of his identity is very much in keeping with the spirit of fifth century democratic Athens – where Sophocles wrote, and where the play was first performed.
This much was already clear to me from my previous readings of the play. Knox, however, adds some further shrewd observations which have helped to enlarge my field of vision.
Oedipus is ‘quick’ (tachys): this is a word Sophocles repeatedly uses to describe him throughout the play. Quick in the sense of his intellectual agility, quick in the sense of being in a hurry (he is in a rush to make things better), and quick in the sense of being quick-tempered with people who stall his progress. Indeed, he hates others’ slowness.
He is also fiercely intelligent: he dismisses both Tiresias the blind prophet and his own royal relation Creon as ‘stupid’ (moros) when they don’t answer his questions to his satisfaction. And he trusts his own intellect deeply. He is a forensic cross-examiner, someone who sees himself as a reasoner who can ‘beat the professionals’ (the professional in this case being Tiresias the professional prophet).
Some of these points of detail, for me, represent slightly new slants on what I had already perceived about Oedipus’ relentless questioning and his impatience with others.
Knox also offers a careful appraisal of what we might label Oedipus’ ‘tragic flaw’ (in Aristotle’s terms, his hamartia) as a character. This lies not, Knox thinks, in Oedipus’ sense of responsibility to his people, or his energy, or his anger, or in his refusal to follow his wife/mother Jocasta’s advice not to press further in his questioning. (All of these are important features of his character, but no single one of them trumps the others). Instead, Knox says, Oedipus’ actions which produce catastrophe stem from all sides of his character. The catastrophe of Oedipus is the catastrophe of the total man, and – here’s the rub – the total man is more good than bad.
That, Knox proposes, is Sophocles’ counter-intuitive proposition for his audience: a hero whose whole character is tragically flawed is nevertheless more good than bad. I hadn’t really thought to construe the character of Oedipus – or his flaw(s) in this way before. Nonetheless, I find myself feeling that Knox manages to crystallise and articulate explicitly my somewhat more inchoate understanding here: I agree with him.
Knox’s most interesting proposal, however (and here again he forces me to flesh out my understanding), is that Sophocles’ handling of the story of Oedipus needs to be set firmly within the context of religious questioning and debate in fifth century Athens. It was in fifth century Athens that the whole idea of religious prophecy had been laid open to radical question – undermined, doubted and rejected from a variety of angles. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, the playwright Euripides, the philosopher Protagoras: all of these impressive intellectual figures, and many more like them, had set out their stall against the chicanery and superstition they identified in prophecy, and against the ‘cynical excesses of professional prophets’ (many of whom had gained a reputation as money-grubbing charlatans desperately trying to augur their way to a quick buck).
Within this climate of cool, dispassionate fifth century rationalism, Sophocles comes down for prophecy (and not just for prophecy, says Knox, but, by implication, for the whole traditional religious worldview of which prophecy can be taken as an instantiation). Tiresias, the strange and mystical prophet, is shown by Sophocles to be radically right in his dealing with Oedipus, while Oedipus the arch-rationalist with political power on his side is revealed to be radically in error.
The man who rejected prophecy, Knox says, is the living demonstration of its truth: the rationalist at his most intelligent and courageous is the unconscious proof of divine prescience. This reversal is fully realised when, before he discovers his identity, Oedipus rejects Jocasta’s claim that ‘man must live by chance’. After having made his shattering discovery, however, he comes full circle, proclaiming himself a ‘son of chance’. Chance stands here to indicate the absence of human control over ultimate reality, rather than mere randomness, I think.
Knox also makes the perceptive point that the story of Oedipus would be – frankly – uninteresting and untragic if Oedipus were simply a bad man. The fact that he is a good, rational man is what makes his character and his experience so compelling. Indeed, in one sense, Oedipus is not really at fault at all: he learns his ignorance (and is determined to learn it, as the good rationalist should), even as – by doing so – he comes to appreciate the reality of divine prescience and the existence of an order beyond his understanding. The importance of learning to know what you don’t know: this, admittedly, is a doctrine that also has good fifth century Athenian credentials in the teaching of Socrates.
At any rate, Knox’s big claim is that Oedipus’ discovery of his identity is both a catastrophic defeat (for him personally, but also for his determinedly rational worldview), and also – paradoxically – a great victory. This, then, is what makes him such a complex and great hero. I’ve found it difficult not to sympathise with these arguments – and I sense already that my enthusiasm for the play is beginning to be rekindled.
Over the past few days, I’ve been reading Josephine Kamm’s 1959 biography of the renowned Victorian educators Miss (Frances Mary) Buss and Miss (Dorothea) Beale, ‘How Different From Us’. The subject matter of the book has some relevance to me personally: I will soon be moving to work at one of the schools founded by Miss Buss, and I want to get to know the life of the founder (and the school’s first headmistress) before I arrive. But I’ve also enjoyed reading a number of biographies of other Victorian educators in the past (last Christmas I read about the life of the Victorian scholar Mark Pattison and wrote about the experience of doing so here, and I’ve read a fair bit too about the life of John Henry Newman), so Kamm’s biography isn’t wholly unfamiliar territory for me.
I wanted to jot down a few thoughts here about what I’ve taken from the biography. I’ve learnt quite a bit about the history of Victorian education from the book, certainly, but I’ve been most interested, I think, by some of the things I’ve learnt about the characters and experiences of Miss Buss and Miss Beale as individuals – and it’s these that I’m going to focus on in this post.
Frances Mary Buss blazed a trail in women’s education in the mid-19th century. Her first school began with just a handful of pupils in 1850 and was staffed by, among others, members of her own family. Buss had been born into a middle class family and perceived a need to provide girls of her own sort of background with an education to match in quality that which their brothers could expect to receive. This meant study of the full range of academic subjects, from Maths and Science to Latin and Greek. It also meant confronting head-on a range of unpropitious entrenched stereotypes about girls and women, their aptitudes and interests. Buss, like Beale (who also founded her own school), was adamant that girls could – and should strive to – reach the same standards as boys in their studies.
Being an educational trailblazer wasn’t – and, no doubt, still isn’t – easy. In spite of her successes as a pioneer of women’s education (and there were many – her schools thrived and changed the landscape of Victorian education), as an individual Buss faced countless challenges and difficulties. Part of this can be put down to the fact that she was a fantastically busy and active individual; part of it was the nature of the job she was doing – and it was an increasingly demanding job; and part of it no doubt comes down to the particular psychological pressures she faced, both in relation to her own life, and from outsiders.
What comes across clearly from Kamm’s biography is that both Buss and Beale were formidably strong, determined and inspiring figures, with a great deal of conviction about their educational missions. But they are also fully human figures – vulnerable to self-doubt and worry, certainly, and subject to the full range of human feelings – while being also modest and kind, public figures who managed to combine feeling for others and an understanding of what their schools, and pupils, needed, with straightforward and down-to-earth common-sense.
A good example of the latter qualities in action comes in a description of Beale’s scornful attitude toward the sort of teacher who ‘feeds the moral nature of a child from her own life’, making the child into a ‘parasite, unable to live apart from her’. Buss herself aimed to have an energising impact on her pupils, but she was entirely opposed to ‘hero-worship’ (something which she thought might happen naturally enough in children, but which a good teacher should know how to guard against). Buss offered the following common sense advice to a young teacher who was struggling to deal with being idolised by a pupil: ‘the quickest way to stop that sort of behaviour’, she counselled, ‘is to let the girls get to know you. Once they see you as you really are, they will stop idolising you’. This remains, I suspect, wise advice which can apply equally to the education of boys.
One of the most difficult periods in Frances Mary Buss’s career came in the early 1870s, when – as headmistress – she found herself wrestling to maintain responsibility and control over her school. The challenge to her freedom to act as she wished as headmistress came from certain school governors, who wanted to have some say in the school’s day-to-day running. The interest of this episode, for me, lies in the way Buss received and benefitted from the advice of two important friends concerning it – and the way their advice differed.
One friend, Annie Ridley, warned her that any ‘impetuous’ behaviour toward these governors could damage her position – not just as headmistress, but as an advocate for girls’ education across the country more generally. She advised Frances Mary ‘never to give way to anger or indignation except before one of her more understanding friends’. She assured her that all of her own instincts ‘were to dash headlong [with Buss] into open warfare against the Chairman [of governors], yet she nevertheless maintained that the good of the school should come first and that ‘it is greater in you…to rise above all that’.
Another friend, Emily Davies (who, with Buss’s support, founded Girton College, Cambridge), was altogether less conciliatory than this. ‘In a case like this [i.e. Buss’s antipathy towards the chair of governors]’, she wrote, ‘I feel that plain speaking, painful as it must be, and trying to do justice to the other side is the best help one can give’. Davies knew that these words would ruffle feathers: ‘I know what I have said must hurt you. You would not be human if it did not’. The result of this advice, in Kamm’s analysis, was nonetheless positive: Buss now demonstrated ‘caution, if not reserve’ with the governors.
There are several interesting things about these two pieces of advice, I think. First, they highlight clearly the importance of a supportive and gentle tone when giving advice: Emily Davies’ heart may well be in the right place, and her advice may well end up being acted upon, but she manages also to create distress in giving it, in a way that the more sympathetic and careful Annie Ridley does not. Second, both pieces of advice highlight the importance of, well, advice. Buss, evidently, did not try to react to the challenging features of her work in a psychological vacuum: she relied too on conversations with her friends and confidantes. Finally, I think, there is something moving as well as interesting about the tenderness and kindness of Annie Ridley’s approach: she expresses solidarity with Frances Mary’s emotional outlook, while also managing to zone out and look at the situation within a broader context when delivering her advice. She achieves a combination of tactfulness and perspective, then – an example, perhaps, of the best kind of friendly advice in microcosm.
Josephine Kamm’s biography was published in the 1950s, and it doesn’t handle the gender dimension of its subjects’ careers with the kind of careful attention that a contemporary writer would hope to give it today. A modern biographer would have a good deal more to say than Kamm does, I think, about Buss’s feeling that ‘it tears me apart to have to be always asserting myself’ (in the context of her wrangling with the governors). Self-assertion, Buss confides to Annie Ridley, is something she feels she must do if she is to enjoy ‘a certain amount of freedom of action’.
Yet her discomfort with self-assertion, a contemporary observer might feel, must have had a lot to do with the presumably awkward business of adopting an opinionated, outspoken or demanding stance in interaction with powerful Victorian men (such as the governors of Frances Mary’s school were). The experience of doing just this, she herself reports, brought her in mind of the ‘Mystery of Pain’ and made her sob herself to sleep like a child.
This, we might say, was just one of the psychological difficulties of being a woman with a public role in a man’s world, a world where assertiveness and femininity did not – and were not exactly expected to – belong together. Yet, in looking over the career of Frances Mary Buss for the first time, I find myself feeling that she somehow managed to square this particular circle – no doubt with the help and sage advice of friends like Annie Ridley along the way, but also because of the sheer extent of her personal commitment to public educational initiatives.
She was on the Council of half a dozen training organisations, including the Cheltenham Ladies’ College (Miss Beale’s school), the College of Preceptors, the Women’s branch of Swanley Horticultural College and the Cambridge Training College for Teachers (which she helped to found). She was also a governor of UCL and of the London School of Medicine, and a number of other girls’ schools, as well as being an associate of a number of organisations concerned with girls’ education more generally. With this incredible range of public commitments, it seems unreasonable to doubt her capacity to believe in herself as an assertive public figure. It is also easy to see why so many people were so in awe of her.*
*I have taken references from Josephine Kamm’s biography, pages 76, 134-5, 142-3, 176, 185.
There is no greater tyranny, wrote Montesquieu, than the one that is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice. I wonder what Montesquieu would have made of the career of the ancient tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled over the city of Athens for a period of more than 30 years, from 562 to 527 BC.
It is difficult, perhaps, for citizens in contemporary democratic societies to conjure an image of life under any tyrant – particularly an ancient political tyrant – as anything other than harsh, brutal, and repressive, as well as marked by the non-existence or withdrawal of essential freedoms. For several reasons, however, we need to do better than this when it comes to assessing the tyranny of Peisistratos at Athens.
First, because of the very nature of our evidence; second, because of the political features of Athens that we are told Peisistratos left intact; and third, I would argue, because of the sheer length of time he managed to hold sway in the city despite the continuing existence of potential threats to his personal power. Moreover, there is no real sense in the surviving source materials that Peisistratos managed to cling to power through special harshness or brutality: the relative stability of his tyranny invites other possible explanations.
To assess Peisistatros’ tyranny at Athens, it is important to remember that this was a tyranny that took place in the aftermath of some momentous reforms at Athens: the reforms of Solon, which seem to have been introduced in 594/3 BC. These reforms served, in the words of one scholar, to ‘reboot’ whole areas of Athenian society – its politics, its economy and its laws.
Among numerous changes he introduced, Solon enabled debtors to cancel significant debts: men who had had to sell themselves into slavery were able to gain their freedom as a result. On a similar theme, Solon outlawed the possible enslavement of anyone unable to pay back their debts (those who fell into financial ruin had often found that enslavement was the simplest way to ‘pay back’ what they owed). He created 4 new political classes that were defined by the annual income of their members: members of the top three of these classes, moreover, were eligible to participate in a range of civic roles at Athens. This marked a significant change from the more aristocratic system which had preceded the reforms, in which members of the well-born (the eupatridai) dominated the significant offices of state. And among Solon’s legal reforms was a crucial one: he introduced the right to appeal – not to the long-established Council of the Areopagus, which was run by the aristocrats of Athens – but to a separate body (the Heliaia), which was manned by Athenian citizens from a cross-section of the city’s population.
Solon’s reforms created a period of unrest and political uncertainty at Athens. Solon himself left the city soon after introducing them. Before leaving, Herodotus records, he made the Athenians swear an oath that the reforms would not be undone. The chief opponents of the reforms, unsurprisingly, were Athenian aristocrats: they had lost something of the tight grip they had previously had over Athenian civic life, and their capacity to recover debts from their fellow citizens had been seriously undermined.
In the aftermath of Solon’s departure from Athens, a period of protracted wrangling between various power factions eventually culminated in the instalment of Peisistratos as tyrant of the city in 562. The transition to tyranny was not seamless, however: twice in the early years of his reign Peisistratos was thrown out of office, and twice he managed to regain power. It is clear also that competition for power among Athens’ aristocrats continued throughout the period of the tyranny too.
In view of the sustained period of political uncertainty which followed Solon’s reforms, and indeed the acrimony with which they were greeted by many of Athens’ leading citizens, it would be easy to suspect that Peisistatos would wish to make it a priority to undo what Solon had done. As an aristocrat himself, it would hardly have been surprising if Peistratos had wished to re-introduce the old privileges of the pre-Solonian settlement. This is not, however, what he did. Instead, our authorities tell us, he sought to keep in place and shore up the reforms Solon had inaugurated. The same approach was adopted, moreover, by Peisistratos’ son, Hippias, when he took over as the city’s tyrant after his father’s death in 527.
So Peisistratos didn’t abolish Solon’s reforms. By leaving the reforms intact, he instead preserved a feature of Athenian politics that many historians – both in antiquity and since – have seen as a crucial pillar in the development of the Athenian democracy.
Yet the period of Peisistratos’ tyranny is not of interest simply because Solon’s reforms remained effective throughout its duration. It is interesting also because, on what is now a pretty conventional view among scholars, so much else seems to have flourished at Athens during the period of his tyranny.
Yes, there is an absence of sustained historical narrative in our surviving accounts dealing with the period. Ancient authors (like Herodotus and Aristotle) who traced the ‘rise’ of Athenian democracy were more interested in talking up the careers of the great ‘democratic’ reformers, Solon and Cleisthenes, Ephialtes and Pericles, than they were in celebrating the likes of Peisistratos and his sons – and this leaves something of a gap in what they wrote when they turned their attention (briefly) to the careers of the latter.
At the same time, there are some clear signs in the surviving evidence that there was a kind of cultural efflorescence at Athens during the period of Peisistratos’ tyranny.* Provisions were made, for instance, for the reorganisation of the main festival of Athena, goddess of Athens: the Panathenaia. A racetrack was constructed and impressive, large vases were created as prizes for winners of races at the festival.
Peisistratos seems also to have had a significant hand in the building of religious sculptures and buildings for Athena on the Acropolis. A new building was also constructed for the celebration of the famous Mysteries at Eleusis, near Athens, during his reign. And the City Dionysia festival, dedicated to the god Dionysus, was also reorganised under Peisistratos’ auspices. The first Greek tragedies, it seems, were performed in the context of this festival – not at the height of Athens’ period of democracy, but under Peisistratos’ tyranny. (So often, the development of theatre at Athens is understood as a paradigmatic symbol of the city’s democracy, later in the fifth century: the origins of theatrical performance in the context of tyranny sit in interesting tension with this perception).
Finally, in addition to all the religious activity that characterised the tyranny of Peisistratos, much artwork of lasting note was also created during this period: stunning Attic black and early red figure vase paintings, for instance, were created by some of the biggest names in Athenian pottery and painting: Nearchos, Euphronios and Euthymides.
It is easy to see, then, why contemporary historians find it easy to assess Peisistratos’ tyranny as a period of rule notable for cultural and religious achievement at Athens.** Certainly this tyranny serves as a stark reminder that democratic governments – whether ancient or modern – have not been the only ones to sponsor and give rise to influential cultural developments. It also represents an important interruption in the succession of ‘great men’ – from Solon to Cleisthenes, and on into the fifth century, to Ephialtes and Pericles – who brought democracy to Athens. It thus serves as an important reminder of the complex and historically unpredictable character of the emergence of democracy at Athens – both in terms of the city’s democratic institutions and of the key figures who laid the ground for them.
*I rely here on the excellent summary of Oswyn Murray, Early Greece p270f.
**This remains the dominant perspective in spite of recent attempts to probe the evidence – as, for example, in Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, ed. (2000), Peisistratos and the Tyranny: A Reappraisal of the Evidence.