Historical Questions in St Albans

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.

1600px-Shops_near_the_theatre,_a_carpenter_shop,_bronze_workers_shop_and_wine_shop,_Verulamium,_St_Albans_(16224369717)
A view of the shops in question

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.

St Albans
Watching a video at the Verulamium museum

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.

alban martyr
A 13th century manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin, showing the execution of St Alban

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.

An Ancient Christian Ritual in WH Auden

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.

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.

290px-Sandro_Botticelli_-_St_Augustin_dans_son_cabinet_de_travail
St Augustine, by Botticelli

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.

Martha Nussbaum’s Socrates

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.

160725_r28418.jpg
Martha Nussbaum

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.

The Languages that made Latin

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. 

AN01188399_001_l
An inscription in Oscan

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.

linearb
The Linear B script

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.

Against Sophistry: Philosophers and Politics in Plato’s Republic

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.

51Rd9B87yTL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

75567-004-6585DB51.jpg
Nelson Mandela, who many hold up as a model of good statesmanship in the modern world.

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).

seaworld026.jpg
Plato likens the citizens of Athens to a large and powerful animal, and he describes the sophists as their trainer

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

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

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.

plato
A bust of Plato

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?**

1_Zey30peZtQulTcxbAnj1-Q.jpeg
Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

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 selected by 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.

trireme
A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

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.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.

Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat, from Plato to Popper via Arginusae

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
Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

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.

1258
A bust of Socrates

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_6
A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

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.