Sunday 7 July 2024

Classics, Speaking Skills & the Dawn of Hope


One of Keir Starmer’s first statements as PM has been that he wants to reduce the number of people going to prison through renewed efforts to cut reoffending. He has appointed the admirable James Timpson, whose ubiquitous shoe repair chain has a policy of recruiting ex-offenders, to help achieve this goal. This is music to my ears: tomorrow the Durham-based campaign Advocating Classics Education (ACE) that I lead with Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE embarks on its new initiative to explore life skills through classical materials in His Majesty’s Prisons.

Along with appreciating beauty, art, architecture, and encouraging our participants to enact ancient plays about suffering, revenge and violence, we’ll be using Aristotle: his Ethics to ask how being a good person and taking decisions carefully will make you happier, and his Rhetoric to hone communication skills both in writing and orally. Especially but not exclusively in the case of young offenders, we are convinced that the ancient world can help stop people reoffending.

This election mattered for me personally and professionally as never before. My brilliant and witty young Durham colleague Dr Peter Swallow, who has been active on the ACE project, overturned a massive Tory majority in his home constituency of Bracknell to become its first ever Labour MP. His job until Friday was as Research Fellow on my Leverhulme-funded project Aristotle beyond the Academy, and he will be sorely missed. Previously, before teaching in schools, he had done his PhD under my supervision on—guess what—the world’s first political satirist and comic dramatist, Aristophanes! The thesis is now an excellent book.

Peter took holiday leave to run his campaign, which meant that he had to pull out of a philosophy conference in Coimbra the week before last. I had intended to lead a six-strong panel, including also the wonderful colleagues on my other research project The Writing Styles of Aristotle,* talking about how Aristotle’s Rhetoric was written in and for a democracy where ‘ordinary’ people needed strong rhetorical skills for civic debate and in lawcourts, and why these are still important today. Peter’s absence meant that the six-strong panel turned into five, but we found a fresco and statue of Aristotle in slight compensation.

I am filled with cautious optimism by the election, partly as a lifelong advocate of prison reform, a socialist and ardent fan of the NHS, which recently saved my life. But it is also as an advocate of the teaching of speaking skills, to which Starmer is committed, to lower the class ceiling. I am also a proud member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles; Starmer is on record as saying that he is ‘open’ to returning these magnificent sculptures to their rightful home alongside the rest of the total artwork that is the Athenians’ temple of their Maiden Goddess.

An expert on Aristophanes in parliament and a PM whose enlightened views on prisons, rhetoric and the Parthenon align with mine (not to mention the brilliance of Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka, whose Yoruba first name means ‘Adds to Happiness’, which of course pleases this Aristotelian)! Things feel better than for years. I’m off to the first prison tomorrow, then to Cyprus for a theatre production directed by another former PhD student, Dr Magdalena Zira, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Expect another blog next week.

*Total team: Prof. Phil Horky, Drs. Alessandro Vatri & Rosie Wyles, Profs. Holmes-Henderson and Hall

Saturday 27 April 2024

Daisy Dunn interviews me in The Daily Telegraph


‘Face ghosts or they will have their way’

How the ancient Furies escaped from the pages of Edith Hall’s library to cast a shadow across her life

Revenge: Sargent’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1922); below, Edith Hall

Saturday 30 March 2024

Greeks but Few Romans in the Granite City


Four years, an epidemic and a job change after a conference I co-convened with Dr Tom Mackenzie (and blogged about), on the Scottish leader Calgacus, who stood up to the Roman invaders, I have finally returned to Aberdeenshire. The Battle of Mons Graupius  of 83 or 84 CE supposedly took place at Bennachie.

According to Tacitus, Calgacus gave a rousing speech about not surrendering to imperialists before dying in battle fighting Tacitus' father-in-law, the governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. One famous phrase, ‘they make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, Tacitus, Agricola 30.6) has entered modern languages as a proverb.

Fans of the TV drama series Succession may have noticed that in the episode ‘Dundee’ (series 2 episode 8), when the Logan family comes to Scotland, Ewan cites Tacitus. He says of Logan, the mogul brother he loathes, ‘Tacitus comes to mind… He’s made a wasteland, and calls it an empire’; Ewan’s grandson Greg facetiously responds, ‘God, Tacitus … all killer, no filler with him’.

On my own visit, I hoped for a theme park, life-size mannequins dressed in proto-kilts or Roman military gear, or better still, local people reenacting the battle as Caledonian tribesmen routed by members of the Legio IX Hispana. Apparently there was once some such tourist facility, but it made no money and was shut down.

So instead we visited the site of a nearby Roman marching camp at Oyne, in driving sleet. It too had closed down. But my intrepid family climbed in and took a photo of the sole remaining evidence that the dilapidated Roman ‘archeopark’ had ever existed. At least I got to see a photo of some locals pretending to be Roman soldiers.

Frustrated, I visited Aberdeen’s beautiful Museum and Art Gallery, which has an intense history of engagement with both classical knowledge and social class in Britain. It was founded on money made by a former crofter named Alexander MacDonald, who was inspired by Ptolemaic sculptures to invent steam-powered polishing machines to lend a gloss to the local granite. His business subsequently helped fund such great Victorian/Edwardian acquisitions as John Price Waterhouse’s ‘Penelope and the Suitors’.

And, as we left, I heard the news of the appointment of Nicholas Cullinan, the new Director of the British Museum. Aberdeen’s fine plaster replica of the entire Parthenon frieze is cleverly displayed at an appropriate height, around an entire rectangular hall and to be experienced as a narrative whole, not unlike the Acropolis Museum in Athens.  

It attracts many appreciative admirers and schoolchildren and is a local pride and joy. It might give Cullinan some useful ideas when he next enters the musty, disastrously lit, aesthetic abomination that is the BM’s Duveen Gallery. We live in hope of reunification!

Sunday 17 March 2024

Day of Drama in Dublin


Green was everywhere. The elation was palpable. Half the people on the flight from Stansted were dressed as leprechauns and the other half in Ireland rugby merch. But I wasn’t going for St Patrick’s Day or the Six Nations showdown. In a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence and treat, two friends of mine of decades-long standing had their plays in performance at the historic Abbey Theatre.

One was Marina Carr’s brand new and brilliant Audrey or Sorrow, directed with pitch-perfect sensitivity and vision by Catriona McLaughlin; the other was Conor Hanratty’s direction of the oldest surviving play in the world, Aeschylus’ Persians. The two plays, written two and a half millennia apart, are linked by ghosts, bereavement, and delusion.

The ghost in Persians is the great King Darius, raised in a thrilling necromantic ritual to explain to his wife and councillors why they have suffered such appalling fatalities in their doomed invasion of Greece. His deluded son Xerxes believed he was entitled to invade and conquer Hellas. It was impossible not to be reminded that, just five minutes away, a large and peaceful Free Palestine demonstration was in full vocal form along the banks of the River Liffey.  As Marina said to me, ‘As a once-colonised, starving nation, the Irish have to speak out’.

I got to know Marina’s exquisite work because, like so many great Irish writers, she has found inspiration in the ancient Greeks—Medea in By the Bog of Cats, the Oresteia in Ariel, and Hippolytus in Phaedra Backwards, just for starters. But Audrey is a modern Irish tragedy with a Beckettian absurdist edge and a noirish psychological detective plot about the ineradicable domestic presence of children who die. Yet it is often hilarious: Marina has a perfect ear for the casual cruelty that members of nuclear families inflict on one another and the lies they tell themselves. I was left speechless by the denouement, even though I half saw it coming.

Marina's Beckettian ghosts

Conor’s production is scintillating for several reasons. One is that the first ever production of Persians at the Abbey has been a long time coming. Edwardian Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray was well aware that the play, in the right context, was political dynamite, for in a letter to Yeats in 1905 he suggested a production in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, ‘with a seditious innuendo’.  In Yeats ‘The Statues’, Easter 1916 became a victory of civilisation over barbarism as the Irish rebels won a spiritual victory over the English. It was men, ‘not the banks of oars/that swam upon the many-headed foam at Salamis’ who ‘put down/All Asiatic vague immensities’,

It is therefore even more appropriate that Conor has realised his long-held conviction that this ancient text would be well served by performance in the ancient tongue of Ireland (I was so proud that my own 1996 translation was used for the surtitles, which I didn't realise until halfway through). And the acoustic effect is a revelation. As the mist swirls over Darius’ tomb and his spectre comes into view, it feels like a metaphor for the entire history of theatre, where we raise the ghosts of the past to speak to us once again in our ancestral languages.

The final quarter of Persians features Xerxes, in despair, singing a long antiphonal lament with his bereaved compatriots. He is the only character in all Greek tragedy who never speaks, but only sings. In a master stroke, Conor cast a young sean nós singer from the Gaeltacht region of South-West Donegal, Naoise Mac CathmhaoilThe sweet, heartrending, melodic phrasing of this ancient dirge idiom was hypnotically beautiful. You know when a performance has spellbound its audience when there is a long silence before they break into applause. At the end of the Irish Persians, the silence was profound.

With Naoise and Conor


I first went to Ireland in the early 1990s. It was so different. My car was searched by surly armed soldiers at the border checkpoint driving from Belfast south. In the Republic, divorce was prohibited, women had to travel secretly out of their own nation to obtain an abortion, and I was assured last night by someone who has inside information that the national broadcaster RTÉ refused to allow Father Ted to air. But the sheer energy and merriment palpable in the streets of Dublin this weekend seem down to far more than a victory in the rugby. In a world of so much darkness, watching such an ancient culture grow into its liberal, lively, fun-loving, irreverent, woman-friendly maturity is an absolute joy.


Sunday 10 March 2024

Pope Francis on Ukraine: What Has His Holiness been Reading?


'You've got to be in it to win it' goes the adage cited by academics working overtime to submit lengthy applications to the lottery for external research grants in order to save their jobs. But Pope Francis is telling Volodymyr Zelensky, 'You've got to be able to win it to justify being in it'.

What the war-weary population of Ukraine, an Orthodox country, do not need is being told to surrender by the head of the largest Christian church on the planet, to which fewer than 3% of them belong. His Holiness made these reckless remarks last month in an interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI. A transcript was made available yesterday to Reuters. It is to be broadcast on March 20.

When asked if he thought Ukraine should surrender to Russia, he apparently responded, ‘I think that the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates’. International Powers could help: ‘The word negotiate is a courageous word. When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate’.

Zelensky meets Pope Francis in 2023

Hmm. Leaving aside the question of why this individual thinks he has the right to demoralise the Ukrainians at such a precarious moment in their history (which I personally think is highly irresponsible of the former bouncer, janitor and food technician), we can ask whether his unsolicited and (I am certain) unwelcome advice to Volodymyr Zelensky has any doctrinal basis in Roman Catholic ‘Just War’ theory.

The answer is ‘well sort of’, but only if you take seriously what Cardinal Thomas de Vio, aka Cajetan (better known as the spokesman for Roman Catholic opposition to the teachings of Martin Luther) decreed in 1540, after a millennium of RC Just War discourse.

In City of God Augustine said that war is a tragic necessity in a sinful world, but that it those waging it need to hold the just intention  of restoring peace, which is surely the Ukrainians’ goal. Perhaps the Pope has been reading the 11th-century Benedictine cardinal Peter Damian, who, in a letter to Bishop Olderic deploring priests making war on each other, reminded his correspondent of Matthew 18.21-2. When asked by Peter ‘How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’, Jesus responded that he should forgive ‘seventy times seven’.

Damian then reported an incident in Gaul where an abbot and a nobleman  confronted one another in battle. The abbot ordered his monks to face the opposing cavalry completely unarmed; his opponents were filled with the fear of god, threw down their weapons and begged for forgiveness.  I fervently hope that Pope Francis is not so daft as to expect that Vladimir Putin’s army would respond in the face of Ukrainian submission like those Gallic militiamen.

I heard a religious commentator say on radio this morning that Thomas Aquinas had stipulated that the prosecutor of a just war needed to be able to win that war. But this is not the case. In Summa Theologiae 40, Aquinas actually modifies Augustine’s view, permitting other goals than peace: ‘True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good’. If some Ukrainians are motivated by a desire to punish the Russians, I for one am not bothered.

It was in fact a commentator on the Summa Theologiae, the aforementioned Cardinal Thomas de Vio, who in 1540 was the first to (mis)understand Aquinas as saying that a war is only justly waged if it is won.

'Cajetan' v. Luther

The far more intelligent Roman Catholic who suggested that the suffering caused by the war to one's own side should be proportionate to the advantages the war confers (a subtle point not made by Il Papa) was the Granada-born Aristotelian expert Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). He is to be admired for his questioning in de Indis of the violence of European colonisers, and his argument that the islands of the Indies be viewed as sovereign states legally equal to Spain as members of a worldwide community of autonomous nations. I suspect he would have disapproved of Russian aggression in Ukraine. But in his Disputatio de Bello, Suárez may  have given the Pope the ideological ammunition to underpin his potentially catastrophic comments, if unintentionally:

‘For a war to be just, the sovereign ought to be so sure of the degree of his power, that he is morally certain of victory. The first reason for this conclusion is the fact that otherwise the prince would incur the evident peril of inflicting upon his state losses greater than the advantages involved… Furthermore, he ought to balance the expectation of victory against the risk of loss, and ascertain whether, all things being carefully considered, expectation is preponderant’.

Francisco Suárez

But Suárez was writing about pre-democratic states ruled by monarchs. His point was that the absolute ruler must ask whether a war benefits his subjects. If it harms them, the ruler is behaving like a tyrant. Suárez also sensibly points out that certainty about the outcome of a war is an impossibility. Moreover, thinking about this issue may delay the end of the war. 

Pope Francis would do well to keep his Renaissance scholastic disputations to himself, because they may have the dangerous effect not only of delaying a just outcome to this war, but of altering its course in favour of the unjust party. Where Vladimir Putin’s concerned, you’ve always got to be in it, and supported by the international community, to win it.

Sunday 25 February 2024

1772: James Somerset versus Aristotle


I’m leading a project exploring the ubiquity of Aristotle outside the Academy. He has often been mobilised in progressive causes, but nothing can be done to rehabilitate the muddled thinking of the first few chapters of his Politics; despite acknowledging that some of his contemporaries regarded slavery as contrary to nature, he justifies it, especially in the case of Greeks enslaving non-Greeks whom they have conquered. These chapters were incessantly cited by apologists for slavery in Europe and North America, as has been superbly analysed by Professor Sara Monoson

With Profs. Patrice Rankine, Sara Monoson, Henry Stead

And in 1772, Aristotle’s argumentation was at the centre of an era-defining case that came before the King’s Bench in London.

James Somerset, born in West Africa, was purchased in Virginia by the merchant Charles Stewart. Stewart moved to London in 1764. He sold or leased his other slaves, but took James, then aged about 23, with him. The young man met London’s thousands-strong free Black community and white Abolitionists and was adopted by two; they became his godparents when he was baptised in Holborn in 1771; shortly afterwards, he left Stewart’s service and refused to return.

Stewart, incandescent, had Somerset kidnapped and imprisoned on board a slave ship to be taken to Jamaica and sold. But Somerset’s godparents made an application for a writ of Habeas Corpus before the King’s Bench; he was released pending the trial. The defendant, the person illegally detaining Somerset, was the ship’s captain, James Knowles.

Somerset’s legal team was financed by inveterate antislavery campaigner Granville Sharpe, one of the earliest and most assiduous Abolitionists. There was great tension in the court when the first of them, John Alleyne, rose to speak at the hearing on May 14th 1772. He introduced Aristotle into his argument almost immediately, in part using Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Law (1748), sensing the importance of refuting the chief authority underpinning the slavers’ apologias: 

          ’Tis well known to your Lordships, that much has been asserted by the ancient philosophers and civilians, in defence of the principles of slavery: Aristotle has particularly enlarged on that subject. An observation still it is, of one of the most able, most ingenious, most convincing writers of modern times, whom I need not hesitate, on this occasion, to prefer to Aristotle, the great Montesquieu, that Aristotle, on this subject, reasoned very unlike the philosopher. He draws his precedents from barbarous ages and nations, and then deduces maxims from them, for the contemplation and practice of civilized times and countries.

Alleyne now subjected Aristotle’s prose to his lawyerly scalpel. First, if a man has spared a man in battle, whatever rule of war ensured that he did so must also make him return his liberty. Secondly, the question of a contract (Locke’s proposal) in this context is absurd, since in all contracts both sides must have full power to agree to it. If a man agrees to dispose of all rights vested in him and his descendants, he effectively stops being a moral agent and has no rights to invalidate those of his descendants. Most importantly, slavery is not natural: it is ‘a municipal relation; an institution therefore confined to certain places, aid necessarily dropt by passage, into a country where such municipal regulations do not subsist’.

A month later, on 22 June 1772, the ruling was made in Somerset’s favour by William Murray, Lord Mansfield of Kenwood and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench (Murray happened to live with a great-niece, Dido Belle, the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Mansfield’s nephew). 

The public inferred that slavery was now illegal in England. This historic and public refutation of Aristotle made slave-owners across the world shudder. 

England became an attractive destination for people who had escaped slavery anywhere else. And the following Saturday evening, according to the Public Advertiser, ‘near 200 Blacks…had an Entertainment at a Public-house in Westminster, to celebrate the Triumph which their Brother Somerset had obtained over Mr. Stuart his Master. Lord Mansfield’s Health was echoed round the Room; and the evening was concluded with a Ball’. I would like to have been in that pub.

‘Granville Sharp the Abolitionist Rescuing a Slave from the Hands of His Master’ by James Hayllar, 1864, 

Professor Monoson and I are discussing this, and other moments when Aristotle was central to constitutional and Abolitionist debates, at the University of Chicago, on the invitation of Professor Patrice Rankine, on Thursday 4 April: here’s an AI image I generated to publicise it. Aristotle is here getting refuted by Frederick Douglass, who himself visited Britain several times while campaigning for Abolition. I’m sorry Aristotle’s hair came out a bit bouffant, which makes him resemble Karl Marx. Teaching this old lady new AI tricks is proving a little difficult.