Monday 31 December 2018

Hope for 2019 from The People's Plutarch

This very day a long-awaited London University volume I have an essay in, co-authored with Dr Rosie Wyles, is published: The Afterlife of PlutarchPhilosopher, priest of Apollo, magistrate and ambassador, Plutarch is one of the most influential ancient Greek authors, especially via Shakespeare’s dramatisations of his lives of Caesar, Mark Antony, and Coriolanus.

Plutarch’s accounts of the Gracchi brothers who died trying to redistribute land to poorer Italians were turned into rousing plays by both French and Anglo-Irish revolutionaries, and we show how these stage works were brutally censored. If anyone wants a pdf of our article, just email me at my two names separated by a dot

But Plutarch didn’t just write biographies. While lying low, finishing A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity, a Very Big Book co-authored with Dr Henry Stead, I’ve discovered the role Plutarch’s essay On Superstition played in radical politics after Peterloo.
Wedderburn: From Plantation to Blasphemy Trial

Julian Hibbert, an excellent Greek scholar and freethinker who published an edition of it 1828, closes his preface ‘by consigning all “Greek Scholars” to the special care of Beelzebub’. He attaches dazzlingly erudite polemics on how religion is used to sedate what Burke called ‘the swinish multitude’, and on all the individuals falsely accused of impiety from Xenophanes, Socrates and Aristotle to the 19th century.

Leverage from Plutarch
Hibbert was active in radical politics, as well, furnishing the arguments from Plutarch used by Robert Wedderburn, the mixed-race son of a Scottish planter in Jamaica by his African slave woman, when tried for blasphemy in May 1820.  Wedderburn’s court appearance persuaded the jury to recommend ‘mercy’, resulting in a sentence of ‘only’ two years in Dorchester jail. Plutarch is cited when arguing that it is better to deny the existence of a Supreme Being than to ‘entertain degrading and dishonourable notions of him.’

Pompey Being Kind for Once (to Tidius Sextus)
And for a visual treat, I’ve found the beautiful engravings by the unofficial artist laureate of the late Victorian and Edwardian Left, Walter Crane, in the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould’s Children’s Plutarch (1909). Gould had taught in board schools in poor London districts from his mid-twenties to his mid-forties, and developed a programme for teaching secular ethics with the help of classical instead of Christian literature.

 I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the arrival of a new calendar year, in a political climate where so many across the world feel powerless and mystified, than remembering how ancient Greek clarity of thought has helped democrats and progressives in previous epochs.  And here’s a New Year’s Resolution: A People's History of Classics will be finished any day now.

Υγεία, δημοκρατία και ευτυχία

για όλους

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Leadership Crisis Lessons from Ancient Persia

Image result for house of commons vote toriesGiven today’s British political emergency, let’s look at ancient history for ideas about a more strong and stable government.

I propose that the House of Commons tonight follow the example of the government of ancient Persia when it was once in meltdown. Mad King Cambyses and his younger brother/heir were dead. A Zoroastrian priest-magician who had pretended to be the little brother had been killed by seven conspirators.
Image result for cambyses killed 
Like many Top Tories, the conspirators were all posh and deadly ambitious but Had No Plan What To Do Next. So they held a snap debate (no tedious deliberation, obvs.) on what sort of constitution to pick. They chose hereditary monarchy. But which one of them was to be King?  Simples.

Sawrey Gilpin, 'The Election of Darius'
Next morning they would ride out together to the outskirts of the city. The one whose horse neighed first after sunrise would be the winner. One conspirator, Darius, had a clever groom who fixed it so Darius’ stallion neighed first, either by tethering a mare on heat nearby or sticking her scent up the stallion’s nostrils. Or so says Herodotus.

Image result for boris horseback johnsonAll of this gives a new meaning to the term STABLE government (sorry), and it sounds fun and more likely to produce a competent leader than the Tory MPs’ vote tonight. May and her rivals could ride out in a posse to e.g. Huntingdon racecourse. Huntingdon is near me (I want to watch), and Oliver Cromwell, himself a bit of a Regime Changer, was born there.

Image result for boris horseback johnsonWith our new horseback leader we can then solve the Brexit agony once and for all by invoking the ancient Persian custom of always holding a second referendum. They only made decisions of national importance after two votes coincided, one made when they were all sober and one when they were all drunk.

Image result for persians drinking ancient
Ancient Persians Going to a Second Referendum
Assuming that the majority of UK voters were not inebriated on 23rd June 2016 (although that might be one explanation for the result), we must now hold a second referendum after a compulsory national bender. Christmas Eve, before we all stagger along to Midnight Mass, seems a suitable choice of occasion.

Saturday 17 November 2018

Why Blogging is Hard Right Now

Irine's Aristotle's Way Cake!
For the first time in years I haven’t blogged for six whole weeks. I’ve been no busier than usual at the beginning of the academic year, but in an odd psychological state. One reason is that the nestlings who have been under our roof more than half my adult life left home for university on September 22nd. I feel badly disorientated.

The public sphere has been as nonplussing as the domestic. It’s not that I don’t have views. But what we don’t need right now is yet another opinionated, self-styled public intellectual virtue-signalling, policing others' thought-worlds or sounding off about Brexit or Trump. Yet more acrimonious social-media ranting helps nobody. 

Minoan Headgear
So, for distraction's sake, here’s an old-fashioned travelog instead. In September I returned to Tblisi, where Prof. Irine Darchia has almost single-handedly rescued Georgian Classics from disappearance during post-Soviet Reconstruction. At my State University lecture she presented me with a cake iced to match Aristotle’s Way and the head-dress of the Cretan Snake Goddess. Not all at once.

British Delegation in Kazan
The next escape was to the Uni at Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, where Lenin met Trotsky. I went with British Friendship Delegation including old comrades Prof. Richard Alston of Royal Holloway and Dr Henry Stead, with whom I’m now finishing the book of the Classics & Class project. It was billed as the first ever conference on Classical Reception in Russian Federation. I recall an extraordinary city and a vodka tsunami administered by Vladimir from Omsk.

Rick, My Dutch Publisher in Schipol Airport Bookshop
Third stop was the Netherlands. Rick van Rijthoven is the most effective publicist I’ve ever worked with. The Dutch title of the Dutch version of Aristotle’s Way translates as What Would Aristotle Do?  At public events I was asked What Would Aristotle Do (a) to help a stutter; (b) if he had £100,000 but a terminal illness; (c) if he debated Brexit with Spinoza. I kept praying there is no afterlife in which I'll ever have to face Aristotle in person.

Cerberus, art from HMS SENTINEL (pic by O. Baldiwn)
Other highlights included Portsmouth Naval Museum, where with PhD student Oliver Baldwin I investigated ships’ classically-themed badges and figureheads. There I met some Grumpy Old Salts and discovered why many British ships in the Battle of Trafalgar had classical names.

Classical Name-Choosing
When Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, was bored/drunk at the gambling table, he used to call for Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and choose names he fancied for new frigates. This was so exhausting that he got hungry. Since one hand was thumbing the book he asked for his meat to be brought enfolded between two slices of bread.

Is it still OK for a Bremainer to say she likes British humour? 

Saturday 29 September 2018

Why Aristotle would support a Second Brexiterendum

I’ve travelled a lot this year, and everywhere the question has been the same: what would Aristotle have made of Brexit?  He didn’t write much about confederacies between sovereign city-states, so I don’t know how he would have voted. But I’m sure he would say that the first referendum had been so inadequately deliberated that it was as good as completely invalid.

There was so much wrong with the first referendum: the Electoral Commission says that the Brexit campaign broke the law, and what should have been a lengthy process of public deliberation, informed by cool-headed journalism, was a hate-filled bawling-match marred by cynical lies and misinformation and appeals to base prejudices.

When Mind-Changing is Virtuous
Aristotle was a fan of democracy, but only when decisions were properly deliberated according to his 8-point formula for decision-making: calibrating all likely outcomes, verifying all information, researching all precedents, etc. He used a tragedy by Sophocles to show how important it was to revise one’s opinion in the light of new information. When Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes comes to understand the inhumane consequences of abducting the disabled hero, Aristotle praises him for his openness to revising his views.

Antigone & Haemon: Young Adult Victims
In another play, Antigone, Sophocles showed that error-laden, precipitate lawmaking can be corrected if the ruling powers are persuaded to rethink. Creon does change his mind about executing Antigone, when given new information by Tiresias, but he changes it too late. She is dead already. That play also insists on the importance of listening to the opinions of young adults, and large numbers of our own, who are the ones who will have to face the long-term consequences, did not have the opportunity to vote in 2016. They include my two daughters.*

Another Athenian writer, Thucydides, describes the fiasco when the Athenians vote in too much hurry, on the basis of passion, to execute all the men of the rebel city of Mytilene. The very next day a second Assembly is called, which rescinds the brutal decision.

All three men had direct experience of the Athenian democracy, and supported it. They had absolutely no problem with the idea of a second vote on important matters. Neither do 86% of the Labour Party and many Tories, including my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen, who always talks good sense.

So let’s continue pressure, by any peaceful means possible, for a second Brexerendum, accompanied by a public enquiry led by disinterested experts on the likely consequences of a choice either way. I happen to be a Remainer, but I have many rational, benevolent and well-informed friends who are not. If the mass citizenry of the UK really wants Brexit, it will vote accordingly. So what are those who refuse to consider an idea that Aristotle, Sophocles and Thucydides would all have supported, really so afraid of?

*See the excellent new book by my former PhD student, Dr Matt Shipton, The Politics of Youth in Greek Tragedy (Bloomsbury).

Sunday 2 September 2018

How Not to Submit a Chapter for an Edited Volume

Just before new term hits, I’ve finished editing one book (New Light on Tony Harrison, OUP) and co-editing another (Greek Theatre and Performance around the Ancient Black Sea, CUP). 

The work of editors of themed collections, a format which has much enhanced and publicised international collaborative research in Classics, is inspiring, arduous, and occasionally downright irritating.

Tragic Chorus in a Vase from Olbia, Ukraine
Allow me a whimper after a sweaty August at the keyboard. There is an etiquette about how to talk to one’s editor. Here are my top nine grumbles, in case they help less experienced colleagues:

1             Writing, ‘I haven’t checked all the references to the ancient text—could you help out as I’m very busy’ (especially irritating from a retired person).

2             Writing, ‘I expect some of the dates in my bibliography are wrong—could you help out as I’m very busy’ (ditto).

3      Writing in a footnote, ‘There have been no studies published of this issue’, when you as editor published a prize-winning monograph on the topic four years ago.

4             When citing twenty publications, including eighteen of your own and only two by other scholars.

5             In the ‘Biographical Notes’ section, requiring your editor to change the entire entry under your name no fewer than five times when you’ve given another lecture.

6             At proof stage, when the book is already being indexed so pagination can’t be changed, inserting large chunks of new text without even an apology.

7             When requiring several images, saying at the last minute that you need the editors to find sums in three and even four figures to pay for reproduction permissions and demanding that the editor write to the museums and galleries themselves.

8             Being rude about corrections the editor has made, when they are simply rectifying factual falsehoods or grammatical errors. Disputing the English-speaking editor's grasp of English idiom when it is your second language incurs special animosity.

9         Using bullying language in correspondence beginning with phrases like ‘Only a fool could fail to see that…’

Most contributors do none of these. Some even add lovely footnotes thanking the editor for all their hard work and attentiveness. But some do all of them, and yes, it’s usually more senior colleagues who narcissistically exploit their supposed eminence to justify their shocking manners.

Of course I’m not naming any names, but, as the watchman says in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. ‘A big bull stands on my tongue... I'm happy to speak to those who understand, and be taken no notice of by those who don’t'.

I'm  only ever editing one more collection, and that solely because it's already under contract (on Aristophanes' comedy). Posting this blog means I've made that resolution publicly!

Wednesday 22 August 2018

A Short History of Class Divisiveness in British Classics

2018 has seen the irruption into the public sphere of longstanding disagreements within the British Classics education world about the content and purpose of our courses. If you’re confused, here’s a potted history. 

c. 1700     The terms ‘Classics’ and ‘Class’ both acquired the meanings in English they now bear, ‘study of ancient Greece & Rome’ and ‘position in socio-economic hierarchy’.

by 1730      Latin and Greek, which are time-consuming and therefore easy to withhold from working and working-class youngsters, become adopted by all elite male educational institutions as the preferred curriculum. The use of Classics in social exclusion and divisive rhetoric is inaugurated.

1944         Butler Education Act brings secondary and indirectly tertiary education even in Classics to a small proportion of working-class and lower middle-class students via grammar schools.

by 1955    Courses in Classical Civilisation begin to be rolled out enthusiastically in non-grammar-non-private-secondary sector by enlightened educationalists, only to be sneered at by self-styled ‘proper’ Classicists.

Peter Jones
1975         Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations spell twilight of availability of non-elite teaching of Classical languages but an increase in state-sector Classical Civilisation courses.

2010         The Charity Classics for All, at that time no supporter of Classical Civilisation courses, founded at instigation of Telegraph / Spectator journalist and former university lecturer Peter Jones.

2017      Advocating Classics Education project is launched to support teachers of Classical Civilisation and Ancient History as well as those of classical languages, and works officially and amiably with Classics for All.

2018      Divisions harden COMPLETELY UNNECESSARILY in response to things commissioned by Peter Jones for the Classics for All website.

14th May    It posts an inflammatory review by Oxonian Richard Jenkyns (a well-known defender of elite classical values), commissioned by Peter Jones, of Exeter Uni Professor Neville Morley’s brilliant and progressive Classics: Why it Matters. Jenkyns writes that the book is ‘an attack on Classics’.

25th May     Morley’s calmly inclusive response to Jenkyns’ review is published by Classics for All: ‘it’s not that I wish to destroy his language-focused approach to Classics, but I do see it as just one element of a much broader, inclusive and multi-disciplinary approach’.

5th August         One patron of Classics for All, Boris Johnson, writes in a derogatory way about a small and vulnerable group of Britons in the Telegraph. Two other patrons, Charlotte Higgins and Natalie Haynes, write to Classics for All to say they will resign as patrons if Boris Johnson doesn’t. They are also both committed patrons of ACE and often speak in public about how important Classical Civilisation courses are.

Arlene Holmes-Henderson, one of the editors
15th August       Peter Jones uses the opportunity of reviewing an excellent new book about teaching Classical Civilisation AND classical languages, Forward with Classics, to ignore all its articles on Classical Civilisation and all those by women, while inexplicably attacking the Labour Party and all classical subjects with 'no grammar'. 

9th October       Classics for All Trustees will meet to discuss What To Do About Boris. Given the line-up of Trustees and their self-descriptions, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

Natalie Haynes
The meeting could decide our subject’s future. Will British Classics entrench itself  deeper into the class war after 320 years, or form a united public front? Unity would mean no more disrespecting of either Classical Civilisation courses or any British citizens. This matters. Six nerve-wracking weeks to go.


Wednesday 15 August 2018

A Short History of the Term Demagogue

Greek cartoon version of Knights
With loudmouthed ‘populist’ leaders everywhere in the news, we often hear the pejorative word demagogue. But the earliest instance of the compounded stems dēm- and agōg- in surviving literature occurs in Aristophanes’ Knights of 424 BCE (line 191) WITH NO ADVERSE NUANCE. The men who want to make a Sausage-Seller leader of Athens, instead of the (allegedly) uncouth Cleon now exerting power, say that ‘leading the people (demagogia) is no longer a job for the educated or well-mannered man’. 

In English texts until the Civil War, the term dispassionately describes leaders of popular factions within ancient republics.  It was the beheading of Charles I in January 1649 that irrevocably affected the meaning. In Charles’ purported spiritual autobiography, the Eikon Basilike published ten days after his execution, he says everyone knows who aroused the people against him: ‘Who were the chief Demagogues and Patrones of Tumults’ who had tried ‘to flatter and embolden them, to direct and tune their clamorous importunities?’ 

But Milton saw what this Royalist propaganda had done to the term demagogue. His response, Eikonoklastes¸ remarked on ‘the affrightment of this Goblin word’ and said that these Demagogues were actually ‘good Patriots’, ‘Men of some repute for parts and pietie’ for whom there was ‘urgent cause’. 

Paul Cartledge
Despite Milton’s protest, the word, with sneering associations, became standard currency in English thenceforward. This in turn affected the way historians read ancient Greek. So through a toxic, uncritical dialogue with Thucydides and Aristophanes, Cleon became not the archetypal leader of the people, but the archetypal ‘patron of tumult’, or as Don Marquis perceptively put it, any ‘person with whom we disagree as to which gang should mismanage the country’.   Men who have been accused of being ‘demagogues’ occur on all points of the political spectrum: Charles James Fox and Tom Paine, Robespierre and Boulanger, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, Adolf Hitler and Arthur Scargill.

A new book How to Do Things with History has just been published in honour of my friend of thirty years, Professor Paul Cartledge.* My own essay (of which I’m happy to send a pdf to anyone emailing me at my two names separated by a dot argues that we have let our prejudiced sources on the Ur-demagogue Cleon, a resolute supporter of the poorest category of Athenian citizens (thetes), taint our picture of everyone who stands up for the rights of the under-classes ever since. Aristophanes and Thucydides do a hatchet job on him, but both had personal reasons to dislike him and his loyal following immensely.** 

By uncritically adopting their assessment, we forget (a) that Cleon’s supporters thought that ‘leader of the demos’ was an  honourable title and (b) that if any of their working-class views had survived they would have told another story. A proportion of them may have been newly emancipated slaves as well as those born into the thete class: Aristotle tells us that freedmen, if asked to whom they would choose to entrust their affairs, would automatically answer ‘Cleon’.***

There is also one precious source which shows that a much more positive picture of Cleon circulated even in mainstream, non-thetic citizen circles (Demosthenes 40.25).  Plato probably didn’t follow Aristophanes and Thucydides in attacking Cleon because Socrates respected Cleon and was loyal to his memory, having fought on Cleon’s successful campaign to retrieve Athens’ imperial territories in the north.  Socrates stood in the battle lines at Amphipolis, as he says in the Apology (28e).

It is possible to be a People-Leader with integrity. It is even possible to be a great orator with integrity. So let’s be very careful with this “goblin word”.

John Milton: Knew his Greek Better than Charles I

OUP, ed. by Danielle Allen, Paul Christesen, and Paul Millett.
** I’m not the only or first person to argue this: see Neville Morley’s ‘Cleon the misunderstood?’ Omnibus 35 (1997) 4-6. 
*** Rhetoric 3.1408b25.