Sunday, 15 July 2018

Escape to Asclepieion! On Visiting Greece at the Right Time


With Dr L. Papadopoulos and Sarah Poynder
Despite unprecedented Brexit/Trump shithousery at home, or perhaps because I had escaped it physically, this was my best week of 2018 so far. The theatre at Epidauros as usual took my breath away, even though my scheduled lecture in the Small Theatre was doomed by a sudden thunderstorm to be relocated, inappropriately, to an indoor baseball stadium with a tin roof. 

Lecturing at 1000 Decibels
This meant I literally had to shout my lecture on Why are the Erinyes/Furies Gendered Female? at the very top of my voice. My international audience didn’t look as terrified as they should have. 

Then to Rhodes where hundreds of Australian lawyers of Greek ancestry had invited me, along with Profs. Paul Cartledge and Adriaan Lanni, to tell them about the Athenians’ amazingly democratic legal system. Up first, I chose the comedic tactic and enacted, solo, all the roles in the trial in Aristophanes’ Wasps in which one household hound prosecutes another for stealing a Sicilian cheese. 

Cleon-Dog accuses Labes-Dog in Wasps
The Chief Witness is the kitchen’s Cheesegrater, who witnessed the crime being perpetrated and is Chief of Household Accounts. This is actually our best evidence for procedure in fifth-century Athenian courts. Since the death of our wonderful cat Sam last month, which upset me far more than I anticipated, we now have only one cat and one dog, but I intend to reenact the scene upon return home tomorrow.

Hygieia with Head
Then a strange night in a demotic bar watching Croatian footballers hammer Englishmen. I was in company with a Croat, my English daughter, several Australians and many Greeks (a night in which I gradually started supporting the Croatians because of their True Grit). The fun started when I discovered the best thing in Rhodes Archaeological Museum: THE STATUES HAVE HEADS ON. Most were guillotined by iconoclastic early Christians, but on Rhodes they considerately left the heads lying around to be stuck on again later.

Hippocrates, Asclepius, a Koan on Kos
In Kos, founded by Asclepios-worshipping Epidaurians long ago, I took my arthritic left knee to show to the Healing God in his magnificent sanctuary, where Hippocrates, the great medic of the Greek Enlightenment, practised his craft. I did not have time to sleep over ("incubate") in the Asclepieion and experience visitations from gods in my dreams, but my knee has felt better today. 


Kitten under Hippocrates' Plane Tree in Kos
Nor did I have a cock to sacrifice there, like the women in a little-known poem (no. 4) by the Koan poet Herodas who describe Asclepios’ Koan altar, but my conversation with one of many local ginger tomcats seems to have done the trick.

Now watching the World Cup final in Fiumicino Airport, Rome, before returning to Blighty and Brexit Blues later tonight. I have suspended Reality for nine whole days. “It” may not be coming home, but I am, albeit reluctantly. 



Friday, 6 July 2018

Enlisting Lucian in the Aristotle vs. Neo-Stoic Debate

I marked the publication of my book Aristotle’s Way with an article on his route to happiness in the excellent free online magazine Aeon recently. My inbox has since been crammed with protests from people who call themselves Stoics.

I argued that Aristotle’s Peripatetic ethics and natural science stress that humans are animals, even if advanced ones, who need to live together in communities, solve problems, figure out how to live well, respect other life forms, and (in appropriate contexts and degrees) embrace rather than renounce pleasure, physical appetites and emotions like anger. This makes Peripatetic thought better suited to the lives of normal modern homines sapientes facing social-political dissolution and environmental crisis than the austere, self-focussed and pessimistic worldview of the Stoics.

The behavioural-therapy methods that today’s self-styled Stoics recommend on their websites and courses to their adherents are harmless. But this is a branding issue. I just can’t locate these ideas in any of the ancient texts and fragments of the dozen major Stoics. This applies all the way from Stoicism’s founder Zeno of Citium and Cleanthes his successor (perhaps the most anti-joy of them all) to Marcus Aurelius and Gaius Musonius Rufus, who recommended withdrawing from society altogether.

I’ve just found an ally in Lucian, the Syrian who wrote satire in Greek. His neglected satire Philosophies for Sale describes how ordinary people in the 2nd century CE saw each famous school of philosophy. Zeus and Hermes organise an auction of personifications of these schools.

Pythagorean Man is vegetarian, hairy, and silent. He propounds reincarnation, the music of the spheres, and numerology. The Cynic practises scathing humour and asceticism while renouncing home, family, society and material goods. The Epicurean also retreats from the world of affairs but devotes his life to the maximisation of pleasure experienced at leisure. These philosophies are presented as daft and inapplicable to everyday life.

Hairy Pythagorean
Democritean belief points to the atomic basis of the physical world; Heraclitans stress fire, flux and change; Socratic thought assumes that our world is a material copy of an eternal world of ideal forms; Sceptics question every assumption, including the belief that we exist. These schools of thought are useless for ‘regular folk’ as well.

Stoicism receives a longer treatment. You can spot a Stoic because he looks miserable, is self-regarding, claims to hold the monopoly on wisdom, courage and justice and that he alone is fitted to be ‘king, orator, millionaire’ (it was the favoured philosophy of fabulously rich Romans such as Seneca): Stoicism works less well for workers who don’t aim to be Top Dog, such as the cook, tanner and carpenter. Stoics are often found in financial industries; they argue that men have little control over fate and that the universe will self-combust. Stoics welcome hardship and endure it rather than pursuing solutions. Stoics teach using deliberate obscurantism in logic to foil opponents' arguments.

But the last school to be studied is presented in a radically different, positive light. Peripatetic philosophy encompasses all branches of knowledge. The Peripatetic is ‘temperate, good-natured, easy to get on with’ and publishes his thoughts in two modes: both ‘esoteric’ specialist treatises and ‘exoteric’ popular pamphlets written so that non-philosophers can understand. 

Aristotle & Peripatetic Colleague Theophrastus invent Zoology
The Peripatetic divides good things into three categories: those internal to the mind/soul (the most important), bodily and circumstantial. He promotes wonderful books on the natural world, especially the environment and zoology, biological reproduction, and what distinguishes man from other animals—all knowledge which is ‘as useful as it is ornamental’. 

Lucian of Samosata had no vested interest, as far as I know, in promoting Peripatetic thought. But he was an informed, lucid and perceptive thinker. I am excited to find him in agreement with me as I try to make the surviving, advanced treatises of Aristotle as accessible to every cook, tanner and carpenter—that is, as ‘exoteric’—as possible.
  

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Sudden Topicality of Shakespeare's BREXIT Cymbeline


Coin of Cynobelinus King of Britain
How about writing a play about a British leader manipulated into leaving a peaceful alliance with Europe and go it alone in barbarous isolation? Oh, hang on—Shakespeare did one. As the Brexit negotiations descend into pandemonium (my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen is a leading Tory rebel), I hereby beg my theatre friends to stage Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, topical as never before, more than 400 years since it premiered.

Shakespeare based Cymbeline on the historical British King Cynobelinus, whose reign began in the first decade CE. The bard admired Cynobelinus’ coins as drawn in the 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia, before which the historical Roman province of Britannia had never before been understood as a physical, material reality. When James I/VIth came to the throne in 1603, he projected himself as the Roman Emperor Augustus, who, after a long period of civil war, brought Rome to peace, alliances, and unity.


Brexiteers Cloten (left) & his mum work on intuitive Remainer Cymbeline
Cymbeline, educated on the Continent, is a happy ally of Rome. His xenophobic new wife wants to secure Brexit, kill him and Assume Total Power with her yobbish son Cloten. In the prescient Act III scene 1, she goads Cymbeline into insulting Caius Lucius, the virtuous and polite Roman ambassador. Anglo-European war is declared.

Fortunately, Queen and Cloten meet premature ends. Cymbeline realises in the nick of time that Britain will be happier Remaining. He closes by inviting his Roman allies to a feast in London, 'Lud's-town':

Publish we this peace
To all our subjects. Set we forward: let
A Roman and a British ensign wave
Friendly together: so through Lud’s-town march:
And in the temple of great Jupiter
Our peace we’ll ratify; seal it with feasts.
Set on there! Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were wash’d, with such a peace.

Self as Caius Lucius, Steve Mastin as Cymbeline
At the annual conference of the Historical Association in Stratford on Avon  last month, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote lecture on Shakespeare’s later Roman plays. Along with wonderful colleagues working with me to persuadeHistory teachers to introduce Ancient History to their schools/sixth-formcolleges, we performed parts of this play substituting EU flags and Union Jacks for the insignia of Augustus and Cynobelinus Rex. Cynical laughter abounded.

A recent Hollywood movie tries to topicalise Cymbeline by representing Rome and Britannia as two rival motorcycle gangs. Despite the usually superb Ed Harris as Cymbeline, it is dismally bad. But contemporary Britain has stumbled into providing this classic drama with a painful sudden relevance. I wish we could follow Shakespeare, put the 2016 referendum behind us in Act III, and move on to the joyous, cosmopolitan finale.



Saturday, 9 June 2018

A Deadly Serious Blog about Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide


Two high-profile suicides in a week have left many of us rattled. I know nothing of fashion and hadn’t heard of Kate Spade. I was scarcely aware of Anthony Bourdain, despite enjoying cookery shows. But I’ve been shocked to find myself compulsively reading about their close relationships.


A suicide in the family (and I am not including deliberated euthanasia by the terminally ill) inflicts a lasting community wound. My maternal grandmother committed suicide when I was three and a half. I do not believe that my mother, who died a natural death in 2016, ever recovered.

I starkly remember the day the news arrived, my mother’s howls, and how much I missed her when she disappeared to Scotland for what seemed an eternity. But most of all I remember her saying, when I was older, how bitterly she regretted giving me her mother’s name, even though one motive had been to try to alleviate Edith Henderson’s depression.

The ancient Greeks had the concept of an inherited curse to help them understand how suicide and other violence runs in families. I am sure Antigone found it easier to put that noose round her neck because her mother Jocasta had done so before her.  Suicide seems a more feasible option where there are precedents close to home. My grandmother had previously lost several relations to suicide.

I have experienced three periods of acute depression myself. One was post-natal and the symptoms were not self-destructive. But I did consider suicide during two depressions as a young woman, before I'd identified my life’s project and when I still believed, partly because of my own tense relationship with my mother, that I was psychologically incapable of good-enough parenting.

Allowing myself to have a child required seven years of therapy, Aristotelian Ethics and a tolerant boyfriend. I feel desperately sorry for everyone who suffers from depression. It’s just that I feel even sorrier for those they leave behind.

Aristotle disapproved of suicide because we are all part of communities and the violent death of a member of any group, whether by suicide or murder, is in a sense an assault on the other members. He can’t have fully understood the torment that depression can inflict. The pain can be as bad as physical agony and the need to escape it just as urgent.

But I do think that the survivors of suicide by loved ones need far more support than in my experience they are offered. Otherwise the repercussions may be felt across the generations. In the UK there is an admirable organisation Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. It is just as important that we spread this information as it is to help people in suicidal crisis. 

Monday, 4 June 2018

The Cynical Spin-Doctoring behind the British Museum's Rodin Exhibition


I’m pleased by Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he supports the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in their rightful Athenian home. I vote Labour but I’m also a proud member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and have blogged about this issue before.

I’ve been saddened by the gushing responses across press and media to the current Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum.  Few journalists have seen the cynical motives underlying the jamboree.

Suspicions that opinion-management was at work should have been aroused by the mounting pressure on museums worldwide to acknowledge the colonial rapine involved in amassing their collections. Even louder alarm bells should have been rung by the identity of the financial sponsor, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. BAML has its own desperate PR offensive at the moment—a bid to mend its ravaged reputation only weeks after having to hand over $42 million in settlement for defrauding customers between 2008 and 2013.

The two premises the Museum’s spin doctors ask its viewers to accept are contentious: (1) that without a visit to the British Museum’s amputated fragments of the art of the Parthenon and Acropolis Rodin might not have become the great sculptor he was (why couldn’t he have gone to Greece? He visited Italy to study Michelangelo); (2) that ‘sculpture’ always means freestanding individual works conceived, displayed and revered as autonomous works of art, like Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ or ‘The Thinker’. 

The category apparently excludes magnificent public monuments like the Parthenon and the other temples of the Acropolis, which combine serial images in different material media aesthetically celebrating an entire community’s aspirations, spirituality and political identity.
Cast from Rodin's Design for Gates of Hell at Stanford Uni

Alas poor Rodin—I am sure he would have been appalled at such blatant ideological abuse of his own work, especially given that many of his most famous statues, including ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker’, were originally designed as part of a public monument, ‘The Gates of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. They were commissioned by the French State as the portal to a new museum of the decorative arts which was in the event never built.

"Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone"
My own favourite Rodin sculpture is his ‘Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone’, originally designed for the top of the left pilaster of ‘The Gates of Hell’. I like to think that that the shocking sense of deracination and lapsarian despair she induces in the viewer was Rodin’s response to the miserable isolation of the solitary Caryatid from the Athenian Erechtheion stranded in London’s British Museum.

She's two thousand miles away from her sisters in the Acropolis Museum, named the The Best Museum of the World in a 2010 British poll. 

Let’s look beyond the media hype so expertly engineered by the Rodin exhibition, and use it instead as an opportunity for a serious public conversation about allowing her and the rest of the Athenians’ Acropolis sculptures to be reunited at last and seen as part of the Gesamtkunstwerk for which Pheidias & Co. originally designed them.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Jumping Frog: A Shocking Tale of Scholarly Plagiarism


I’ve been waiting for May 13, Jumping Frog Day, to roll round, so keen am I to relate a dastardly tale of plagiarism by a renowned teacher of ancient Greek. In his Introduction to Greek Prose Composition with Exercises (1876, but still in print), A. Sidgwick, who announced himself on the title page to be ‘Assistant-master at Rugby’,  included a text for translation into ancient Greek entitled ‘The Athenian and the Frog’.

One man beats another in a competition to test whose frog can jump further by secretly feeding the opponent’s frog small bits of stone or shot to weigh him down.

Sidgwick had taken every detail of the tale, besides substituting an Athenian and a Boeotian for two men in California, from Mark Twain’s short story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. The first of many versions was published in the New York Saturday Press in 1866. Its later incarnations were published under the title The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.


When Twain met Sidgwick in 1899, the pedagogue admitted that exercise XXI on p. 116 of his famous textbook was borrowed from Twain. He had seen no need to say so in print.

Twain was disappointed, but not because he hadn't been credited. When he'd first heard about the exercise in Sidgwick, he had inferred that there was an original Aesopic fable of this kind. Moreover, he decided it was exciting proof of the universality of frog-jumping competitions across human history, or at least in both ancient Greece and modern California, and published this theory in The North American Review,  No. 449 (April 1894).

Sadly, there is no such ancient Greek fable extant, although maybe one was told on Seriphos, home to a particularly fine species of Anura Neobatrachia, portrayed on the island’s ancient coinage. Sidgwick however provided an elegant Greek translation of his own English text to help teachers. Unfortunately I was unaware of this when I composed my own version in 1977 at Nottingham Girls' High School, for which I recall Miss Reddish gave me an Alpha minus bracket minus.  

Apparently the world record frog jump was achieved in 1986 by Rosie the Ribeter, who jumped 21 feet, 5 and three quarter inches. But I still don’t know why Frog Jumping Day is celebrated on May 13th. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.



Saturday, 12 May 2018

Campaigning for People's Classics: Interim Report

It is exactly a year since work began on ACE, the project I’ve been funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to lead, encouraging the introduction of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in secondary education across the nation.  Huge strides have been made—I've visited many schools, and events to publicise the campaign have been run in Kent, Belfast, Glasgow, Bristol/Bath, Exeter and Leeds. We have identified plenty of teachers of other subjects keen to give the ancient world a go.

Cambrian Pottery Designs
This week we went to Swansea, crucial to my previous (related) project, Classics and Class in Britain. It was in the South Wales Miners Miners’ Library that colleague Dr Henry Stead and I became aware of the miners’ extensive reading in classics and ancient history. And the Swansea Museum houses several of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn’s famous line of inexpensive ceramics imitating ancient Greek models, produced in his Cambrian Pottery, in the mid-19th century.

Swansea's Dr Stephen Harrison in action
Our tireless partners at Swansea University bused in dozens of teenagers from all over the region to think about ancient Greece and Rome for a day. Did women in Greek myth get out of the kitchen/boudoir into heroic action? Which city had the coolest foundation tradition—Athens or Rome? And is the laughably racist depiction of Xerxes in the movie 300 true to the ancient Greeks stereotype of Persians? I got to retweet my first ever text in Welsh, celebrating the idea of Classics for the Many not the Few!

With our Keynote Speaker, Prof. Chris Pelling
Best of all was the keynote speech by Christopher Pelling, retired Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, who honoured us by returning to what he always calls God's Own Country. He confided in us about growing up in Cardiff and eventually deciding to be a scholar/teacher rather than a lawyer. Fascinated by modern as well as ancient history, he gradually became aware that the ancient world could be used for good causes, like fighting tyranny (as in many productions of Antigone) or very bad ones, like fomenting hatred (Enoch Powell quoting the Aeneid in 1968).

Some of the Swansea Attendees
Next week the ACE event is at Reading, and both the project’s Research Fellow, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I are speaking at the annual conference of the Historical Association, hoping to persuade hundreds of history teachers that introducing Ancient History or Classical Civilisation can only benefit everyone in their schools and 6th-form colleges, the world, the universe and space.


Between now and early July our partners in Warwick, Nottingham and Durham are also running events. And even better is the news that Arlene will be continuing in her role, at King’s College London, until at least 2021. The campaign continues. To quote Freddie Mercury in Welsh, Peidiwch รข rhoi'r gorau i mi nawr! DON’T STOP ME NOW!