Oedipus in Art

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.

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A depiction of Oedipus and the sphinx, taken from an Attic kylix produced by an artist known to modern scholars as ‘Painter of Oedipus’.

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.

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Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (completed in 1827)

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.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Francois-Xavier Fabre (c. 1806)

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.

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Antoni Brodowski, Oedipus and Antigone (1823)

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.

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Oedipus and Antigone by Christian Wilhelm Eckersberg

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.

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Charles Francois Jalabert, Oedipus and Antigone (1843)

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.

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Blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, by Benigne Gagneraux (1784)

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.

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Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

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).

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Max Ernst, Oedipus Rex (1922)

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.

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Salvador Dali, Oedipus Complex (1930)

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.

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Linda Mota, Oedipus Rex

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.

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Alicia Besada, Oedipus

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.

Oedipus the Athenian

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.

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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.

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A bust of Sophocles

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

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?**

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.

A Tragic Sequel

DfurTsKXcAIQiElSchool holidays during the lead-up to summer exams are an interesting time for British teenagers. For the canny teenager, these holidays are a chance to stay productive and focussed on exam revision while enjoying a break away from school. Even for pupils without onerous GCSE or A-level exams to face, the task of putting in good performances in the summer exam room, either with a view to impressing universities they intend to apply to later on, or simply in order to consolidate a year’s work ahead of their GCSEs, tends to be seen as a vital one.

This being the case, I did not expect much interest when I advertised a trip to see the performance of two Greek plays during the June half-term break last term. Maybe, however, I had underestimated two significant factors. First, the Greek plays in question were going to be staged in a very special location: beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford University, outdoors in the beautiful gardens of one of its colleges. Second, the headline character of one of the plays – Oedipus, as depicted by one of Greek theatre’s most brilliant playwrights (Sophocles), is among the most famous and fascinating characters in all Greek tragedy. Perhaps, though, another factor more elegantly explains the attractiveness of the trip: the tickets were refreshingly affordable!

At any rate, as you can see above, there was sufficient interest in the trip for it to go ahead, and what an evening’s entertainment we enjoyed. The encounter with Oedipus – in the lesser known sequel to Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus – was striking and memorable, played as he was by a talented North American student actor who was supported by an excellent cast. The idiosyncratic historian Robin Lane Fox has an interesting review of the play’s performance here, in which (among other things) he wonders how the lead character of the play could ‘strike a chord with readers of the Financial Times’. This was not, I have to say, a question I had in my own mind as I watched, and reflected on, the play…

Closer to my own thoughts was the happy knowledge that for all the pupils who came on the trip, it was their first taste of Greek tragedy in the flesh, and their first (though hopefully not their last) encounter with the story of Oedipus. As a new school year is about to begin, and the cycle toward a fresh batch of summer exams begins to churn into motion, I am struck by the feeling that, although their summer exam performance would probably not have stood to benefit whatsoever by going on this trip, the ‘real’ education of the students who came really did benefit in a way no day spent revising could ever have paralleled.