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.
This week I ran a General Knowledge quiz over a succession of lunchtimes at school. The quiz was open to all pupils from across the age range (13-18) and there were around 60 entrants this year (not too bad, in retrospect, although fewer than last). There were 80 questions for pupils to complete, and the quiz was multiple choice (with 4 options). I wrote many of the questions with the intention that, even if the boys didn’t know the right answer, they might be able to form an educated guess and – even if not – pick up information of interest simply from the question itself.
So, for example, in asking a question about the ancient Etruscans, I posed it as follows: ‘The ancient Etruscans leave no written texts: our knowledge of their culture is confined mainly to archaeological finds, including a series of impressive tombs. In which modern country might you find the archaeological remains of the ancient Etruscan civilisation?’
And, when asking a question about the opera Carmen, I framed it like this: ‘Who wrote the opera ‘Carmen’, which tells the story of the seduction of a naive Spanish soldier, Don Jose, by Carmen, a gypsy girl?’
Posing the questions in this way was done (I admit) with the intention not simply of providing a tidbit of knowledge about the subject matter they refer to, but with a view to inspiring further interest or investigation of topics that pupils might not have heard of, or that might not have interested them, before.
What particularly struck me as I was setting the quiz this year, though, was the importance of general knowledge across a whole range of areas of life – from the humdrum and everyday to the way we are able to exercise important individual liberties. I have been thinking quite a bit, in other words, not just about the quiz itself, but about the place of general knowledge in education – and democracies – more generally.
A few years ago, around the time of the election of Donald Trump, I encountered a provocative and very interesting article in the New Yorker by Caleb Crain, entitled ‘The Case against Democracy’ (link here). The opening lines of the article gave immediate pause for thought: ‘Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them’.
This sort of general knowledge deficit is of course not unique to citizens of America’s democracy: a degree of unawareness of political and constitutional realities exists everywhere. The remainder of Crain’s article looks at different ways in which political theorists have tried to grapple with the problem of ‘political ignorance’ among voters in democracies. From considering arguments for weighing the votes of the knowledgeable more heavily, to arguments in favour of outright vote restriction; from trying to ascertain whether there might be a ‘rational’ explanation for political ignorance, to trying to assess the psychological dispositions of those who are both more and less ignorant: a lot has been done to try to understand ‘political ignorance’, and to explore how it might be addressed.
One point that is not considered in Crain’s article is that the existence of something like a General Knowledge requirement for participation/involvement in political/civic life already exists in countries like the UK and the US, in the form of the tests which those applying for citizenship or leave to remain in those countries must complete. The existence of such tests is not widely queried nor do the tests themselves occasion much (if any, from what I have seen) controversy. Why shouldn’t a similar test, checking knowledge of basic political and constitutional realities, be a requirement for all those wishing to exercise the right to vote? And isn’t this the sort of thing schools might provide for all pupils before they leave?
An obvious worry here would of course be with the potential for corruption: making any such test too easy or difficult, or politically biased in some or other direction, for instance. But is it not also worrying that widespread misinformation, ‘fake news’ and disingenuous political campaigning also generate the potential for equally – if not more – serious corruption of the political process? That, arguably, is the situation we must confront.
Arguments in favour of the introduction of tests of political knowledge/ignorance do not seem to have an ancient pedigree. That this is so may seem surprising. For one thing, after all, the arrival of democratic government in the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens seems to have been accompanied by a rising tide of education. Where, previously, only the nobly born could expect to receive an education, increasingly young men (though not women) from across the body of free citizens might now receive one (sometimes very much to the chagrin of Athens’ aristocrats).
And yet: we do not – to my knowledge – possess evidence of any ancient laws mandating education for citizens of democratic Athens from this period. It seems rather that the free-born just recognised something good in literate education, for instance, that seemed to be of value: it certainly wasn’t a requirement, though, that they had to have an education to participate in politics.
Deep in the very history of democracy, then, we find knowledge – at least, that is, knowledge of a sort that is transmitted through an education – being treated not as a fundamental requirement of democratic involvement, but as an optional freedom which citizens might choose, but not be required, to have.
The argument that democratic government in ancient Athens was nonetheless effective at dispersing knowledge among its citizens in ways that produced many desirable outcomes for the city can still, however, be made.* It’s just that – so the argument goes – knowledge emerges among citizens of the democracy more as a product of the Athenian political system and its social networks and institutions – but not in any altogether obvious way out of its educational institutions too.
What significance might there be in the fact that, at the very origin of democratic institutions, rights and citizenship, no special measure was introduced to the effect that a particular kind of education would be the norm?
Figures of significance in the later development of democracy certainly recognised the importance of having an educated citizen body. For John Adams, the American statesman and founding father, writing in his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law in 1765, ‘Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge’.
Adams is worth quoting at length: ‘The preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country…Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government’.
Adams was not alone among the US founding fathers in adopting this sort of view. Indeed, so influential did such thoughts become that De Tocqueville, on visiting the US in the 19th century, made the following observation at the outset of his great work on American politics: ‘In the United States, the sum of men’s education is directed toward politics’.
This, if it represents an accurate assessment, may not, of course, be taken to reflect an altogether healthy state of affairs.
Perhaps, and especially given the parlous state of contemporary US politics, there is good reason to remain suspicious of any attempt to introduce a new test of political knowledge to voters, or into school curricula. Do we want education to have an outright and precisely specified requirement of political knowledge?
If so, do we risk moving in the direction of producing the sort of education Tocqueville identified as characteristic of the 19th century US?
If not, perhaps we will remain in some sense close to the somewhat more laissez-faire democrats of ancient Athens, for whom democratic citizenship and formal education did not need to go together, hand in hand.
*See e.g. Josiah Ober (2008), Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.
What is it, above all, that a good teacher of history is aiming to do? Is it mainly a question of successfully imparting correct or relevant information? Most, I imagine, would say that more – much more – is at stake than this. Is it, then, primarily about developing in pupils a capacity to see patterns of cause and effect, thus enabling them to isolate the important influence or set of factors which lies behind a significant event or occurrence?
What, though, about the interrogation of source materials and the development of a sense of the shape of the surviving documentary record: is it a focus on this, and the development of a keen awareness of its nature, scope and deficiencies – together with an ability to probe and analyse the evidence – that should constitute the key focus of a good teacher’s activity? The chief aim of the teacher, from this point of view, might be to produce pupils with a keen eye for detail, and an ability to shoot down overly-ambitious theories which claim too much on the basis of what’s (not) there.
Maybe the good teacher will emphasise also that reconstruction is the historian’s primary goal. If so, then their main focus is likely be on developing pupils’ capacity to make excellent use of the medium of prose; on knowing what it is to communicate details about the past attractively and cogently, certainly; but with a sense also, perhaps, that a big aim of historical writing might be to perform something like a necromancy. For the historian as necromancer, successful writing will somehow manage to bring back into being for readers things that have died and disappeared. (Why, after all, should this be an aim only of historical novelists?).
But perhaps the truth is that history teaching that really hits the mark, and indeed much of the best historical writing too, will contain something of all of these elements.
I’ve been thinking about these issues over the last couple of days chiefly because I’ve been re-reading the autobiography of RG Collingwood. Collingwood was a renowned philosopher and Roman historian. His autobiography is a subtle and amiable account of its author’s experiences of learning, teaching and writing in Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. Collingwood was fully aware of the idiosyncratic character of many of his philosophical views, as seen in contrast with prevailing trends among his philosophical and Oxford contemporaries. This only adds to the book’s interest.
One area in which Collingwood’s views became well-known was his philosophy of history – an area of philosophical enquiry neglected by many of his colleagues.* And Collingwood is particularly interesting, I think, on the topic of historical method, on what it is that historians should try to do when they approach the past.
For Collingwood, it is all a matter of asking the right questions. In short, the idea is that dealing well with historical evidence – Collingwood uses the example of an archaeological dig – is all about refining the questions one poses in relation to it. At a dig, you might begin with a question like ‘was there a Flavian occupation on this site?’ That question can then be divided into sub-questions, like: ‘are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?’ And so on.
In Collingwood’s discussion, the intellectual activity of the historian in formulating problems and solutions is crucial: the historian must pose good questions, and refine them and answer them well, while making due allowance for any problems presented by the evidence, at the same time as they offer their argument.
What I particularly like about this way of seeing the business of historical research is that the onus is very much on the historian to generate their own avenues of approach, their own web of questions (and – hopefully good – answers). It is a way, that is, to cultivate subjectivity and a habit of free enquiry, informed by one’s own growing sense of how to approach the material.
This, I think, is what successful history teaching can be about. Pupils should find that they have been invited into a world of free-spirited debate and enquiry, in which individuals can begin to form and articulate their own ideas about matters of interest and substance. The centrality of posing, refining and answering one’s own questions in that process matters.
At the same time, Collingwood’s approach isn’t in the slightest complacently presentist, in the sense that it requires the historian actually to engage with the thoughts and ideas of past people seriously. The historian should try to see these ideas in context and make sense of them in their own right. It simply won’t do, he thinks, to dismiss past thoughts on the basis of contemporary opinion or prejudice and (thus) to rule out their importance for understanding past action and behaviour.
For Collingwood, then, doing history is a fundamentally dialogical activity. He sees the process of posing and refining questions in relation to the past as an important ongoing activity, not only for the writing of good history, but also for the ongoing development of the historian as a rational being. This is a point of principle I find myself happy to agree with.
*Many, though not all. Collingwood acknowledges the influence of the philosopher TH Green in this area. He mentions too how many of Green’s pupils – including politicians such as Asquith and the social reformer and historian Arnold Toynbee – made a point of applying the ideas they had learned from their university philosophy tutor in the context of their future careers. Green was known to many as a Hegelian, though Collingwood does not call him this. Collingwood does however describe the widespread opposition to Green’s work among Oxford philosophers of his own time (‘Hegelian’ ideas were, for the most part, successfully repelled at Oxford). He also indicates his own more sympathetic view of Green and some of his disciples. These descriptions feel measured and patient, and perhaps overly so. I suspect Collingwood is culpable of characteristically English understatement at times.
My current holiday reading is Emily Wilson’s recent biography of Seneca, the first century AD Roman philosopher, writer and statesman and – in his later years – tutor to the young emperor Nero. Wilson reconstructs a fascinating picture, in particular, of the pressures and family relationships which shaped the young Seneca, as he was growing to maturity. In doing so, she manages to get a lot of interesting traction out of the somewhat patchy surviving source materials.
One area she dwells on at length is the nature of the personal tuition that was provided for Seneca during his teenage years by a succession of tutors. Eminent Roman citizens like Seneca the Elder, Seneca’s father, would rely on these individuals to prepare their sons for public careers at Rome, where the capacity to speak convincingly and hold your own in front of an audience was highly prized.
A training in rhetoric, which in practice took the form of building competence in declamatory argument, was – in the estimation of Seneca the Elder – of particular value. But the younger Seneca gravitated more toward the study of philosophy, something he says his father ‘hated’, and his interest in this discipline seems to have been captured particularly by a tutor for whom he had high respect: Sotion.
Sotion was an exponent of the Sextian school of philosophy, a school about which – by comparison with some of the major schools of ancient philosophy whose adherents were active in Rome in the first century – not much is known. In Seneca’s own view, Sotion was a kind of Stoic, but Wilson makes clear that this is not really accurate: unlike the Stoics, the Sextians favoured withdrawal from political life; unlike the Stoics, they did not place any weight on logic or abstract thinking; and they rejected the Stoic view that a perfect wise man can never exist.*
It is of course not uncommon for young people to be influenced in important ways by their teachers and Seneca was no exception in this regard. The clearest evidence of Sotion’s impact on his most famous pupil is Seneca’s youthful experiment with vegetarianism, the diet preferred by Sotion himself as part of his commitment to Sextian philosophy.
Perhaps the best known group to embrace vegetarianism in classical antiquity were the followers of Pythagoras, the Pythagoreans, and there were many such followers present in Rome (and elsewhere) at this very time, several centuries after Pythagoras’ own heyday. Some scholars describe Sotion himself as a neo-Pythagorean. But for the Pythagoreans, the justification for vegetarianism hinged on one very simple notion that was not widely shared, either among philosophers or by the population at large: the doctrine of the transmigration of souls between animals and humans.
Sotion did not reject this line of reasoning, but he combined it with additional arguments to make the case for vegetarianism. Eating meat, he taught the young Seneca, encourages a habit of cruelty, since it trains a person to consider unimportant the suffering and death of other living beings. Avoiding meat therefore allows individuals to cultivate personal purity. Furthermore, eating meat is expensive: the wise man should be frugal and avoid it. The conclusion of Sotion’s argument is that meat is eaten by other (less sophisticated) creatures, vultures and lions: seeing that this is the case, is it really much of a loss to give it up?
These arguments impressed Seneca. Their impact on him can be seen, as Wilson notes, not just over the course of his year-long adolescent experiment with vegetarianism. They mattered also in the context of his adult career as a philosopher, where it was central to his ethics to argue that avoiding cruelty is of fundamental importance for human psychological health.
One of the things I like about Sotion’s arguments, as presented by Seneca, is that they retain some cogency today. Admittedly, for a modern person considering the case for vegetarianism, the ancient Sextian arguments in favour of it might not seem as forceful as some of the arguments that can now be made for it. There is no ancient argument for vegetarianism based on observations about the state of the environment or the harm that is done to it by mass-breeding of cattle, for example; nor are the Sextians able to excoriate specific cruel features of modern-day factory farming, though I’m sure they would have done so.
Despite this, the principle that it is important to avoid causing pain or suffering to other living beings remains a central point of principle for many philosophers in the field of animal ethics (as well as in other areas of philosophy). And the economic argument against meat consumption that was voiced by Sotion still holds for much of the meat that is on the shelves of modern supermarkets.
The ancient arguments of Sotion, in other words, continue to resonate – and this is just one example of where ancient ethical thinkers reached positions that still demand our respect and careful consideration.
The end of the school term last week has meant the beginning of full-time baby supervision, Monday to Friday, for me. It’s been busy. I’ve tried to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, in terms of keeping baby occupied and happy throughout the day, as the first day was a bit of a disaster and I didn’t really have a plan of action in place. Among several discoveries I’ve made, it turns out that toys aren’t quite the distraction I thought they’d be: he seems a bit bored by those he has and he’s much more interested in what’s on shelves, and in cords and wires and anything he can shake out of place. All of which means vigilance is key!
Being on baby duty hasn’t left much time for other activities, but yesterday I found myself reaching for some of the books I’d read some time ago, during the early stages of my DPhil, on family life in the ancient world.
A chapter heading of the first book I opened – Keith Bradley’s ‘Discovering the Roman Family’ – immediately caught my eye. ‘Child Care at Rome: the Role of Men’ wasn’t a subject I had any recollection of having read about previously, but when I turned to the chapter in question, there – sure enough – were my pencil markings in the margins. This was a subject with a new relevance for me now.
I suppose my rather casual (and forgetful) working assumption had been that looking after children in the Roman world was – simply – not a job for men; that no matter which tier of society you were talking about, it was women – mothers, family members, nurses, slaves – who looked after the children.
Bradley uncovers plenty of evidence among Roman inscriptions that undermines this assumption. The inscriptions only really preserve information about families in the higher echelons of Roman society – and in such families, male childcarers certainly played their part.
At (modern) primary school age, the men in question might be fulfilling the role of educator or paedagogus, assisting children in the early stages of their education, but also – perhaps – supervising them more generally in their development as future citizens, both within and beyond the home. Supervision beyond the home was an important task if (especially male) children were ever to leave it. The male childminder might among other things have looked out for the physical safety of young boys as they ventured out into the streets of the city, protecting them from potential harassers.
Educator didn’t just mean teacher. Bradley shows that the term had an additional application: as well as being used to designate a private tutor, it could also be used in respect of foster-fathers. In ancient Rome this seems not infrequently to have meant men who brought up exposed children as their own.*
Male childcarers might also have an important role to play in looking after younger children and infants. Such children might have had a (female) nutrix, a word which could mean wet-nurse, attendant or just nurse. But they might also have been cared for by a male nutritor – a male nurse. There is even an example of a male nutritor, Mussius Chrysonicus, who explicitly describes himself as nutritor lactaneus (presumably to mean a nurse who provides milk).**
This sort of childcare was not carried out by Rome’s leading men but by freedmen or slaves. It was important that men, rather than women, were found to do it, Bradley suggests, because children who were beginning to dine in public, to attend public ceremonies, and to receive a proper education, needed chaperons and companions who could move freely in public spaces in a way most servile and lower class women couldn’t.
This makes sense, but, equally, a male (rather than female) educator or paedagogus will surely have been, in general, much easier to find. The influence of gendered ideals may also have been important in determining families’ choices: for the philosopher Seneca, the ideal paedagogus will be a bonus vir (good man). Others will perhaps have agreed.
Was there a role for children’s fathers? If the fathers of upper class Roman children were to have a significant role in their upbringing, there is not much to suggest that this would happen in the context of regular day-to-day supervision or childcare (or education). In a number of ways, I think, such fathers were missing out. At the same time, the obvious point to make here is that ancient childcare – in the absence of nappies, milk machines, running water and so on – would have been a good deal more messy, haphazard and unhygienic than its modern equivalent, and thus not obviously as pleasant an activity as it can be today.
*Bradley, p.49: evidence of this usage is attested in a range of authors, including Cicero, Seneca, Quintilian and Tacitus.
The featured image is a fresco discovered at Pompeii.
Last week two of us Classics teachers accompanied my class of 12 year olds to the Roman remains of Verulamium in St Albans. It’s a fun trip to make, though on this occasion the weather was pretty grisly, which made walking around the site of the ancient town a bit less enjoyable than usual.
The pupils particularly enjoyed seeing the Roman theatre, parts of which have been pretty well preserved, and testing out its acoustics. Next to the theatre lie the remains of a building which archaeologists have labelled the site of several ‘shops’: a carpentry shop, a bronze worker shop and so on.
I asked my pupils to think about how an archaeologist might be able to arrive at this sort of verdict concerning the nature of a Roman building. Just how much evidence of (e.g.) bronze-working did the archaeologists who dug up this building discover? Had they inferred a great deal from not a lot, or had they not had to do much inferring at all? I didn’t actually know the answer to this question myself (I presume the basis of an answer to it can be found lurking somewhere in one of the 1960s excavation reports).
But just keeping such questions in mind matters, I think, when visiting archaeological sites. Our ancient historical picture of a place like Verulamium really can depend on how we interpret individual pieces of evidence (which might conceivably be understood in a quite different way and with startling implications). For a good example of this, in relation to Verulamium itself, see here.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the Verulamium museum for some artefact handling and a look around the museum exhibits. One of the exhibits – a brief video – prompted me to think again about the challenges of interpreting evidence – this time textual evidence. The video in question pronounced confidently that St Alban had died a martyr in the Diocletianic persecution of the early fourth century. Despite having some familiarity with the history of this period, this wasn’t a claim I’d encountered before – so I did a little digging around later that day and came across a number of interesting findings, which I’ve written up below. Things, in short, are a bit more complicated than the museum exhibit was letting on.
The first surviving document to make any kind of reference to St Alban is a work of Latin hagiography written in 480 AD, which was dedicated to another figure altogether – Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre – and was written by Constantius of Lyons. This text makes reference to the tomb of the ‘blessed martyr Alban’. The text makes no reference to any martyrdom, however. It simply recounts that Germanus ‘prayed to God through the saint’ (i.e. with Alban’s intercession) and that he was thus afforded a safe voyage back to Gaul.
A text of the sixth century monk Gildas, written in Latin in Britain, contains the earliest surviving account of Alban’s martyrdom, which he places in the Diocletianic period. In this text, Gildas suggests that Alban hid a Christian confessor in his home and that he then disguised himself as the confessor, thereby saving the confessor from persecution but sacrificing himself in the process.
Gildas writes affectionately of Alban, but his account does not go into much detail. By the eighth century, when St Bede was composing his Ecclesiastical History, a more elaborate story of Alban’s encounter with his Roman persecutors could be told. Was this the product of additional, otherwise unattested source material that Bede had managed to access? Or does it rather reflect an increasingly imaginative engagement with the figure of St Alban on the part of later antique Christians, for whom it mattered to try to enter into the viscerally lived experience of one of their heroes in as much detail as possible?
A common approach among historians is to assume that some version of the latter question is the one most worth asking when considering the development of hagiographical traditions in late antiquity. But the former question can be, and often is, worth posing too. And in this case it is indeed: three manuscripts which seem to predate Bede’s account but which closely match many of its details were brought to light in 1904 by the German scholar Meyer.
In Bede’s more elaborate account, which features (among other things) a dialogue between Alban and the judge who sentences him, references to local topography, and a story about a soldier who blinds Alban, the martyrdom of Alban is placed not during the Diocletianic persecution but during the much earlier reign of Septimius Severus.
In the 12th century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, Alban’s martyrdom is specifically connected with the reign of Diocletian once again.
All of the surviving written accounts of Alban’s life and death were written at something of a remove from the earliest Christian centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in particular, was writing at a considerable distance from the early fourth century. For all their colour, the extent to which these (increasingly elaborate) accounts of Alban’s martyrdom represent the truth about the historical figure who seems to have inspired them is obviously a vexed question. There is also a very large question mark as to whether the persecutions under Diocletian ever took place in the western Roman empire (it is clear there were at least some persecutions in the east, but good reasons to doubt that they also happened in the west). These are the sorts of vexed questions that bedevil the study of very many early Christian figures and the written accounts that purport to record their experiences.
What can be said with conviction, I think, is that the museum exhibit I chanced upon at Verulamium was just a bit too confident in its definitive placing of St Alban’s death in the reign of Diocletian (and thus too confident too in the trustworthiness of Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth).*
*For the history of the development of the written accounts of St Alban’s life and martyrdom, I relied here on the introductory chapter of J. Van der Westhuizen (1974), The Lives of St Alban and St Amphibal by John Lydgate, which can be accessed digitally here. Relevant portions of the Latin texts of Constantius, Gildas and Bede are all included.
**For my pupils, I hope this post can serve as an object lesson in why you should try to read and listen in a questioning frame of mind, even in contexts you might usually consider reliable. I hope it helps also to show that summaries in places like Wikipedia – which has an extended, and in some ways quite helpful, section on St Alban – might be in important ways misleading.
One of the more tantalising references I came across over the course of my doctoral research was to a poorly attested ritual of early Christianity: the love (Gk agape) feast. A number of early Christian writers do make reference to such feasts, but none really spells out in detail what they took their significance to be or what they understood them to entail. Some scholars have assumed the love feast was essentially a parallel and/or coterminous practice with what would in the fullness of time become known as the Eucharist. Another point of view is that love feasts were a separate practice altogether which simply died out.
Some ancient observers felt that love feasts were occasions for controversial goings-on. The second century Christian author Tertullian, writing in Carthage, suggests that some non-Christians suspected Christian love feasts of being occasions for debauchery. Both Tertullian and another second century African Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, suggest that some participants in love feasts were prone to going over the top – indulging themselves a bit too much in the act of feasting while forgetting their modesty (whatever exactly this might mean). Scattered comments of this kind are not generally taken as a reliable source of information, but they perhaps reveal something of the sorts of rumours and comments that observers might make about those who took part in the love feast ritual.
My less than perfect memory of the meagre documentary record on ancient Christian love feasts was brought to the forefront of my mind yesterday by an unexpected source: a poem by WH Auden.
Auden is a poet I like. Apart from the crisp elegance that characterises much of his best work, there’s also his willingness to bring together contrasting moods and effects in his writing. Humour can be intermingled with seriousness, for example, and he manages to create scenes of everyday events which paradoxically convey – or try to convey – a sense of the transcendent. Likewise, what seems ephemeral can be related to what feels more permanent in his poems, and human foibles and human depths belong together, not apart, in what he has to say. In fact, he can at times seem to suggest that it is through our foibles that our depths may somehow become most visible to us.
The overall effect of such juxtapositions, I think, is to produce a poetry that is at once fully engaged with the quotidian ordinariness of so much human activity, while at the same time capable of finding mysteriousness, beauty and profundity in that very same ordinariness. The Love Feast, a poem which directly references the world of early Christian ritual, is for me a clear example of this:
In an upper room at midnight
See us gathered on behalf
Of love according to the gospel
Of the radio-phonograph.
Lou is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.
Catechumens make their entrance;
Steep enthusiastic eyes
Flicker after tits and baskets;
Someone vomits; someone cries.
Willy cannot bear his father,
Lilian is afraid of kids;
The Love that rules the sun and stars
Permits what He forbids.
Adrian’s pleasure-loving dachshund
In a sinner’s lap lies curled;
Drunken absent-minded fingers
Pat a sinless world.
Who is Jenny lying to
In her call, Collect, to Rome?
The Love that made her out of nothing
Tells me to go home.
But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . . .
I am sorry I’m not sorry . . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.
What interests me particularly about this poem is how it adopts the language of the early church within its description of a twentieth century drinks party. Each stanza describes some feature of the atmosphere at the party: the concerns and activities of different individuals are highlighted. But in each stanza too, there are allusions to the life of the early church.
In the first, there is a reference to ‘love according to the gospel’, a phrase which is used not with a specifically religious connotation but to denote the music at the party (‘of the radio-phonograph’). The second stanza contains a reference to worship, and the third to catechumens (i.e. individuals under instruction awaiting entry into the church’s sacramental life). By this stage of the poem, a religious analogue to the revelry of the party is starting to become clear.
The second half of stanza four (‘the love that rules the sun and stars’) is redolent of the famous phrase of Dante’s Paradiso (‘L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle’), while ‘Permits what He forbids’ is a phrase with obvious theological connotations (both the capitalised H of He and the underlying idea that divine prohibitions do not limit human free will).
Stanza five’s references are to a ‘sinner’s lap’ and a ‘sinless world’. I find the latter phrase slightly puzzling. Is it a (to me, rather unintelligible) reference to the dachsund’s back of the same stanza? Does it denote the mindset of the archetypal sinner (i.e. someone who sees no sin in the world)? Or does it mean something else altogether?
Jenny’s collect call to Rome in Stanza six could also have a religious significance. Beyond the literal meaning of the text, could an allegorical meaning here be possible? Jenny might here be a Catholic – perhaps even a Catholic convert – who is viewed as having farmed out her spiritual life to the Church of Rome, in a way that the more self-reliant, self-determining Anglican never would. This may be to read far too much into the phrase, but it’s an interpretation that attracts me nevertheless.
What seems to me altogether less contentious, though, is to take it as a given that the phrase ‘The Love that made her out of Nothing’ in the same stanza denotes the classical theistic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This is a weighty phrase for Auden to use and it is interesting that he uses it to identify what moves him, the poet within the poem, to act as he does (i.e. in deciding to go home – though perhaps love is what moves him more generally).
The playful final stanza of the poem alludes to a phrase of St Augustine’s Confessions (‘Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet’), a phrase which leaves the reader in doubt about which version of St Augustine (the blooming youth or the more sexually restrained older man) he is going to emulate.
The theological references in each of these stanzas are of course underscored by the title of the poem itself, a title whose ancient Christian resonances I’m sure Auden would have wished to invoke. The cumulative effect of the language of the poem is that Auden’s love feast is an environment in which ancient ideas find fresh expression. Auden moulds Christian ideas into a living tradition. Contrary to how Christian theology is often conceived and practised within institutional religious settings, here it is presented in an experimental and unfamiliar way within the most relaxed and informal of contexts.
Scholarly debate surrounds the topic of Auden’s Christianity. Certainly he was for much of his life a practising Anglo-Catholic, but just how sincere was his devotion? A common view seems to be that Auden was in his later years only really captivated by Anglo-Catholic ritual, ceremony and aesthetics. Church teaching was a different matter.
A more complicated story than this, however, can be told (see here). And, at the time Auden wrote The Love Feast in 1947, aged 40, a renewed embrace of his childhood Christianity had come to seem possible.
In 1966, now an older man, he delivered a sermon in Westminster Abbey which contained the following words: “Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.” Auden’s Love Feast may perhaps be read as a glowing and gently suggestive example of precisely this reticence.
Every so often, I come across a writer whose work compels me to read more of what they have to say – and quickly. Typically, this involves a sense of wishing to read more than just the particular book that’s gripped me: I tend to want to go beyond this with the aim of gaining access to the writer’s whole oeuvre, or at least to the interesting-looking parts of it. What will the insightful, intelligent and subtle approach I have chanced upon in one book reveal when it addresses other subject matter elsewhere? And what kind of life experience lies behind its arresting authorial voice? These are the questions that motivate me to find out more.
I’ve found that the experience of being gripped by an author can happen across a range of different types of writing: novels, historical and philosophical writing, literary criticism and theology – and, recently (and, for me, rather exceptionally), popular science. Obviously it’s exciting to find a writer who can capture the imagination: when this happens, it can leave a permanent impact.
By this I do not mean that the niceties of an author’s detailed arguments stay permanently fixed in my mind. That would hardly be realistic. It’s rather that something of their worldview becomes discernible in its broad outlines so that this in turn provides a set of reference points – both about the author’s personality and the subjects with which they deal – to which I can return in future.
I first came across the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work a number of years ago when I bought a copy of her book The Fragility of Goodness while I was a graduate student. This was a carefully written, precisely argued text, but it felt somehow too careful and too slow-moving at the time, and I didn’t get very far into it before feeling that it didn’t contain enough punchy passages to keep me fully engaged. That, I guess, could have been that: the end of my experiment in reading Nussbaum.
Not so. Late last year, when browsing some shelves, I came across a collection of Nussbaum’s reviews, Philosophical Interventions. Here was the same measured style that I remembered from her previous work. But the cool, level-headed approach to argument and the accompanying willingness to pick carefully through complicated (and controversial) territory somehow felt much more arresting than it had done previously.
Perhaps my reading tastes had simply changed (matured?). Or perhaps I had found evidence of how Nussbaum’s talents were just more clearly and emphatically on display when she addressed herself to the task of evaluating others’ writing in her reviews. Perhaps a little of both.
The fact is that Nussbaum’s collection of reviews also keeps things interesting by addressing a vast array of different topics and personalities: ideals of women’s education, various works on feminism and philosophy including a cutting perspective on the work of Judith Butler, Allan Bloom’s notorious 1980s text The Closing of the American Mind, the philosophy of Charles Taylor (the Canadian professor, not the Liberian dictator), and a biography of the master expositor of 19th century utilitarianism, Henry Sidgwick.
On the strength of my enjoyment of these reviews, I bought another Nussbaum book: Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education, first published in 1997. In this book Nussbaum argues that the desire to pursue reform in the world of contemporary education is a desire that can be seen to have authentic roots in the ideas of ancient Greece – and, in particular, the ideas of Socrates.
In her opening chapter, Nussbaum suggests that three of the core values of modern-day liberal education – critical self-examination, the ideal of the world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination – were all promoted by Socrates in fifth century Athens. If these core values are increasingly characteristic features of contemporary education in the humanities, she argues, then this should be seen not as a betrayal of ancient learning (as some, she alleges, are apt to assume) but as a development entirely in keeping with the spirit of both Socrates and a number of other distinguished ancient thinkers.
The opponents of this position whom Nussbaum has in mind are the likes of Allan Bloom, for whom ancient thought is something like a repository of timeless knowledge and wisdom, which gets skewed out of perspective and intellectually marginalised if it is filtered through or (at worst) replaced by the dominant cultural and political trends of the present moment.
Nussbaum is very much concerned to argue against this sort of position. She is anxious to demonstrate that Socrates and his ilk would not be on the side of any kind of staid traditionalism (such as that represented by Bloom) when it comes to critical self-examination. Critical examination doesn’t simply mean finding a way to become a reactionary, with a little help from Plato. That, she thinks, is how Bloom would have it. On the contrary, she suggests, Socrates would be in favour of vibrancy and development: being genuinely Socratic, she suggests, is about being able to combine philosophical questioning and self-awareness with working to effect good outcomes within your sphere of influence in respect of the big issues of the day.
For Nussbaum, this is not however a matter of left versus right: ‘tradition is one foe of Socratic reason. But Socrates has other enemies as well’. Risking the charge of anachronism, she continues by maintaining that ‘his values are assailed by the [contemporary] left as well as by the right’.
Nussbaum then confronts directly those who adopt the ‘fashionable position in progressive intellectual circles’ that ‘rational argument is a male Western device, in its very nature subversive of the equality of women and minorities and non-Western people’. Here, she writes, ‘Socratic argument is suspected of being arrogant and elitist’. The disinterested pursuit of truth, goes the argument, can function as a handy screen for prejudice.
Nussbaum counters that Socratic reason and argument, far from being the enemy of democracy, as many who adopt this dim view of it seem to assume, is essential to it, and essential too to the claims of excluded people. ‘In order to foster a democracy that is reflective and deliberative, rather than simply a marketplace of competing interest groups, a democracy that genuinely takes thought for the common good’, she writes, ‘we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs’. The failure to do this, she maintains, leads people to talk at one another without ever having a genuine dialogue. In such an atmosphere, moreover, bad arguments pass for good arguments, and prejudice can all too easily masquerade as reason. ‘To unmask prejudice and secure justice’, she argues, ‘we need argument – an essential tool of civic freedom’. And argument relies on dialogue.
Nussbaum’s Socrates could thus be described as a kind of free-thinking liberal provocateur, one unprepared to embrace dysfunctional tribal politics and one determined to question and critique unthinking arguments, especially those that set little to no store by dialogue, whether they are advanced by voices on the right or left.
I have only just finished the opening chapter of the book and am now looking forward to seeing how convincingly Nussbaum manages to elaborate this thesis in greater depth. It has so far been interesting to see her understanding of the historical Socrates foregrounded in a dramatic way in her writing – not as a person accessible only in the context of past debates and events, but as a model of intellectual and civic life for the present.
This is far from being an unfamiliar approach, but Nussbaum’s version of it has so far felt particularly powerful. Equally, I know that for many contemporary Classicists (and educators more generally?) Socrates is by no means always regarded as the paradigmatic educator Nussbaum takes him to be. So I am looking forward to seeing how she addresses in detail the challenges that are sometimes voiced against him.
*The featured image is ‘Socrates Reproaching Alcibiades’, by Anton Petter.
Yesterday’s lesson with my twelve year olds involved a few interesting moments. At one point, I found myself explaining to the class that the Latin language is not unlike other languages (including English) in that it had a number of ancestor languages out of which it developed. This seemed to surprise most, if not all, members of the class: I think their assumption had been that Latin was something like a primordial language, or, at least, one which somehow hadn’t been subject to a process of development of comparable complexity to modern English and Romance languages.
Correcting this misapprehension was one thing, but having done so I quickly ran up against some rather large grey areas (ok – gaps) in my own subject knowledge when I was asked to elaborate. ‘So which languages fed into Latin then?’ came the inevitable question.
My answer to this (in hindsight, pretty much inevitable, if entirely appropriate, question) started with a classic hedge, though one which I *think* does approximate justice to the state of research in the field: ‘Well, this is an interesting question and scholars aren’t *entirely* clear on it’, I began. I hope this is fair!
I then mumbled something about how we have only a quite incomplete picture of a number of languages which are close relatives of Latin – like Oscan and Umbrian – before mentioning that the linguistic relative of Latin that we know best is Ancient Greek and that Latin adopted a number of words from Greek.
I then talked briefly (and, if truth be told, quite unconfidently) about Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor language of Latin and a whole group of other ancient languages (including Greek), before mentioning Linear B as the oldest known linguistic relative of Latin that we have evidence of.
So what did my mercifully brief and very scratchy attempt at philological exposition miss? Well, one obvious thing I didn’t mention at all is that the Latin language can itself be periodised and seen as a socially varied linguistic form. I think I am right in saying that classical philologists divide it (roughly) into early, middle and late forms** – and of course its character could vary profoundly depending on who was speaking it and where they were speaking. So an obvious example of what fed into Latin was, well, older, or socially varied forms of Latin itself.
Beyond this perhaps rather pedestrian-seeming (though important) point, there’s quite a lot more to say. And, from the cursory glance I’ve had tonight at a few pieces of research in this area, I realise my current knowledge-base is not even remotely close to where it would need to be to try to write any further with anything approaching conviction. So I’ve resolved to try to find time this summer to address this with some remedial reading (my intended purchase is James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks’ History of the Latin Language). More to come on this, perhaps, in a future post…
For the time being, I am going to present my 12 year olds with an extension task challenge: can they find any brief, interesting, accessible and reliable reading materials on the languages which influenced the development of Latin to share with their classmates (and me) to teach us all something new? I have no doubt that some of them are resourceful enough to succeed in this endeavour and I am looking forward to seeing their findings. This isn’t the first time a set of twelve year olds has led me to learn something new and it’s of course a teacher’s privilege that a good question from a pupil (however young) can help both fellow pupils *and teachers* find out new and interesting things.
*The featured image is of a Linear B inscription.
**I am referring here to Latin in antiquity, NOT to medieval and subsequent forms of the language.
In Plato’s Republic, the ideal politician is also the ideal kind of philosopher. This politician-philosopher is an honest individual who is never willing to accept anything but the truth (Rep. 6.485f). He – and for Plato in fourth century Athens, it will always be a he – is a lover of wisdom and learning. He is self-disciplined, someone who avoids reckless spending, and isn’t greedy. He isn’t narrow-minded or petty, forgetful, cowardly or boastful. And he won’t ever drive hard bargains or act unjustly.
Since childhood, he will have been notable not only for his sense of fairness and his kind disposition, but also for his excellent memory and the speed with which he acquires knowledge. He will be refined, with a developed understanding of ‘order’ and ‘grace’ – and he will be courageous, someone prepared to make a full contribution to the world around him. He will, in short, be an impressive figure indeed, an all-round good human being. And in Plato’s view, his virtues will make him ideally suited – together with a small group of equally impressive colleagues – to running the state.
In this way, Plato openly doubts the capacity of most individuals to play a part in government. Sound political decision-making, he thinks, plainly rests on special capacities of judgment and wisdom, capacities which most people simply don’t possess. Best, therefore, to leave this decision-making to those with the right skill-set (which he feels he can identify).
This vision of oligarchy, in which a highly educated and morally virtuous elite rule over their peers, offers nothing short of an affront to our contemporary sensibilities. It is a profoundly anti-democratic vision, as Plato himself knew all too well: a major part of his goal in offering it was to propose an alternative to the democracy of which he himself was a member in ancient Athens.
This alternative was not put into practice, then or subsequently. Despite this, Plato’s political programme has continued to remain a topic of discussion and debate ever since it was first formulated. In a previous post, I explored how one recent strand of interpretation even identified in Plato’s political ideas an important intellectual influence on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.
In this post, I want to offer some brief thoughts about what a charitable interpretation of Plato’s vision of politics – featuring rule by philosopher-kings – might look like today. For centuries, Plato’s negative view of democracy at Athens was accepted and endorsed by his readers: this began to change in the 19th century, and since then, Plato’s criticisms have been viewed in an altogether different – and usually much more critical – light.*
So what might a charitable reading of Plato’s politics look like in the light of this dramatic shift? In sketching out a few thoughts on this, I am interested in trying to make sense of Plato’s ideas in a way that assumes they are not the simple product of a malign or bigoted point of view – but rather of a sophisticated mind trying to confront serious problems with a view to finding solutions that would be to everyone’s benefit.
It is no doubt easy to sympathise with Plato’s preference for politicians who are honest, courageous, kind and wise. And who could complain about the sort of politician who doesn’t spend recklessly and isn’t greedy? On the face of it, Plato’s ideal politicians sound plausible and attractive enough: indeed their qualities wouldn’t go amiss among some of the politicians of today.
Having said this, I recoil from Plato’s suggestion that only a small group of highly educated individuals should enjoy political power – though even here I would still argue that the motivation underlying his point of view deserves some sympathy. Put simply, Plato wants to find a way to ensure that the best sort of politician really will get to exercise power – and to ensure that people lacking in the qualities required of good leaders (as he sees them) don’t.
Oligarchy, he assumes, is the best way to achieve this – accompanied by a ruthless selection procedure that enables only the very best leaders to be put in charge. We may disagree with some of Plato’s ideas about the qualities required in leaders – and indeed about his sense that such qualities are present only in a few people. But his sense that the best leaders should lead, and that there should be a rigorous process for determining who they are, is uncontroversial enough. Plato’s high standards might even hold lessons for the ways in which we set the bar (not high enough?) for political leadership today.
Importantly, and perhaps despite appearances, it is not (or at least not solely) a snobbish elitism that motivates Plato, but a desire to find a way to ensure that ordinary citizens enjoy the best kind of governance. Plato thinks that his form of oligarchy will produce the best potential for happiness for all citizens: it is a way of ensuring the common good. On this basis, some interpreters of Plato have seen him as a kind of utilitarian.
Plato’s scepticism about the capacity of democracy, as he saw it practised in Athens, to deliver the best outcomes for the city’s citizens is grounded in a number of reservations he had about how he saw the Athenian democracy working in practice.
One big problem, as he saw it, was that ordinary Athenians were too much in thrall to an influential group of individuals he regarded as charlatans: the sophists. These sophists were in some respects similar to philosophers like Plato himself. They were involved in offering education to the city’s young, but they seem to have had a special interest in providing a particular kind of training: teaching people to speak persuasively in Athens’ democratic assembly.
They did this in a way that Plato himself found alarming. In Plato’s estimation, all that the sophists really impart to their pupils is a capacity to argue convincingly in favour of any given proposition. They do not try to instil in their pupils a sense of what is really true, what is really good and what is really just. The sophists are highly skilled and convincing arguers, but – for Plato – they lack any real moral compass, and they produce pupils (and political opinion-formers) with this same deficiency.
For Plato, the false views that could be detected among many of his fellow Athenian citizens, far from being attacked and exposed by the sophists, were in fact often (indirectly) attributable to them. He even compares the citizens of Athens to a large, irascible but dim-witted animal and the sophists to an animal trainer who has mastered the art of pandering to the animal’s preferences, without really seeking to improve its behaviour (Rep. 6.493).
A clear issue here, for Plato, is that the sophists are not trying to get their fellow citizens to think accurately with a view to arriving at good decisions, and they are not looking after their genuine best interests. Rather, they are part of a culture in which superficial cleverness and rhetorical sleights of hand are having a corrosive impact, leading citizens to disregard – or to misapprehend altogether – what is best for themselves and for their fellow citizens.
The fairness of Plato’s attack on the sophists, and the extent to which he accurately represents their views, have both been subjects of extended scholarly dispute. If, however, Plato has a point when he says that the Athenian democracy was in the grip of a school of thought that placed no discernible emphasis on what is true, good, or right, then we may find some sympathy with his attempt to confront this state of affairs, even if we stop short of accepting his conclusion that democracy as a whole would need to be sacrificed to ensure that its malign influence could be prevented.
*This process is neatly charted in Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts
In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).
In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.
The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.
Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.
My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?
I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.
Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.
On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**
Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.
Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).
I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.
The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?
A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.
The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selectedby lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.
Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.
This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***
*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.
**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.
Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.
A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.
Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.
For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.
Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said; sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.
In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.
I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.
In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.
Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.
An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.
Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.
Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.
Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.
Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.
But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.
While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.
*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.
**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.
***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.
I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.
De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.
The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.
I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.
Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).
In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.
A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.
So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.
Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.
In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.
As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).
The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.
Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.
Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.
‘Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask…there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of Sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain…more than this, there is about Sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.
Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*
Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).
He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.
A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.
I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.
Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**
It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.
But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.
I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.