Saturday, 25 March 2017

Rejoinder to a Self-Appointed Policeman of Privilege

This week saw the publication in the Spectator of a splenetic piece of propaganda by one James Delingpole, who makes his living from peddling archly controversial far-right views on climate change and immigration. This time he dilates, with mind-blowing ignorance, on the topic of classical education. The single most serious problem affecting British education, apparently, and one which the Spectator believes it is worth giving airspace to someone of Delingpole’s lousy journalism skills to discuss, is that there are TOO MANY STATE-EDUCATED UNDERGRADUATES READING CLASSICS AT OXFORD.*

I quote: ‘Take, for example, the right-on enthusiasm for recruiting Greats candidates from schools that don’t do Latin or Greek. The theory goes that by the fourth year, these eager state-school kids will have attained the same proficiency as private-school ones who have been hothoused on classics since they were eight or nine. But I gather that only the Oxbridge classics tutors who have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid actually believe this has worked in practice. The rest are worried about declining long-term standards and are also a bit frustrated: if you’re an Oxbridge classics don, you want to teach Oxbridge–level classics — not catch-up for beginners.’
Is this the best Classical Edification  can offer the 21st Century?

As an ex-Oxford Classics don (1995-2001), I can confirm that the last sentence was, at least then, sadly, true. Amongst my former colleagues were too many who took applicants from the private sector in numbers wholly disproportionate to their status as only 7% of the school-leaver population. 

Things have certainly changed for the better since 2001. But this matters little if state-educated people think that Classics remains a snobbish subject, and are too scared to apply to Oxford anyway. This is hardly surprising when Oxford produces arrogant alumni with ropey cognitive skills like Delingpole, who boasts, ‘it really did shape my intellect in a way for which I’ll be eternally grateful.’ Enough said.

But Delingpole’s premise that a life-transforming Higher Education in Classics is only possible after training, from primary school, in Latin and Greek languages, is daft. Not only can people learn Latin and Greek to a dazzling standard fast, but the most precious aspects of the Greeks' and Romans' culture can be learned without any ancient language at all.

They had some bad ideas, including the inevitability of slavery and the inferiority of women. But they also conceived superb ideas, including democracy, freedom of speech, accountability of officials, the social contract, trial by jury, tolerance of a wide range of sexual relationships, rational science, philosophical logic, world-citizenship, cultural relativism, training in public speaking, and the profound responsibility of the makers of art and entertainment to society.

The failure to include classical subjects taught in translation—Classical Civilisation or Ancient history—in every secondary educational institution therefore deprives our future citizens of access to educational treasures which not only enthral, but fulfil what Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) was the true goal of education in a democracy—to enable us to defend our liberty. The past, he argued, is the subject which makes citizens so equipped. 

To stay free requires also comparison of constitutions, utopian reflection, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned via English translations of the succinct, entertaining, original works produced by the lively minds of the authors of the classical past.

Delingpole has needlessly insulted every individual who has ever studied the ancient Mediterranean world wholly or even partially in translation—the thousands who take CC/AH qualifications in state schools, the majority of classics undergraduates in other British universities, not to mention adult learners, autodidacts, and everyone who has ever read a Penguin Classic. He has done so with puerile, ill-informed, oligarchic hauteur. If this has made you as cross as it did me, then please read this article in the Guardian and join my new campaign, ACE, to get classical subjects into every state school in the land. Now I’m off to the People’s History Museum in Manchester to research workers’ campaigns for access to Higher Education.

*I did have a photograph of Delingpole in bathing shorts here but have taken it down after someone quite rightly pointed out that I was stooping to 'body shaming'. I agree and apologise for any offence caused.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Charon's Ferry Fare & Escaping a Criminal Record

'No I don't take credit cards!'
There were no separate first- and second-class seats on Charon’s ferry. Kings and slaves paid the same tiny obol fare for the same wooden seats. Death, as the Greeks knew all too well, was the best leveller of all. 

More than my Jobsworth
They did invent steam power, but not railway trains, and so the myth of Charon’s ferry fare provides the nearest ancient parallel I can identify to the predicament from which I have just escaped. A train company has decided not to argue in court that I should be given a criminal record, as they had previously proposed.

One evening just before Christmas I could not get the seat in Second Class for which I possessed a ticket from London to my home station. I sat in First Class.  Since train overcrowding is a national scandal, this has often occurred before.  On all previous occasions, when the ticket inspector appeared, one of four things happened, depending on whether s/he was a human or an officious zombie:

1) S/he officially declassified First Class;
2) S/he ‘let off’ myself and my fellow malefactors and turned a blind eye;
3) S/he accepted my offer to pay the difference between the second- and first-class fare;
4) S/he required me to pay a full first-class fare but advised me I could apply to be reimbursed for the second-class ticket.

Not that night. I was asked to buy a first-class ticket AND pay a large on-the-spot fine for Being Such a Naughty Girl. I refused. What gives a business the right to inculpate and fine a customer when it has not provided the service (a second-class seat) for which the customer has paid?

A barrage of personal questions—why was I on the train? what had I been doing in London? with whom did I live and for how long?—violated my civil liberties. A police officer was hailed who said he would arrest me and put me in a cell until I provided my name and address.  So I reluctantly did.

Soon a letter arrived. I was about to be summoned to a Magistrate’s Court, being charged with ‘intent to avoid a rail fare’ under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889, s.5 (3). The operator always pressed 'for the heaviest penalties'. These included 12 weeks in prison, a 4-figure fine, and the need to disclose forever to any employers or embassies that I had a criminal record for ‘dishonesty’.

Being just about able to afford a lawyer, I did. I could produce medical proof that I have an arthritic knee. I won a moral victory, too, since the matter was settled out of court by paying the ticket and not the fine. But what happens to people without cash available for legal fees? It is iniquitous.

While waiting to hear if this Kafkaesque prosecution had been dropped, I dealt with my fear of prison etc. by researching the 3 ways ancient Greeks said you could cross Lake Acheron without paying Charon AT ALL:

1)   Attack him with your club and take over the rudder (Heracles did this, and it appeals, but today it would risk an additional legal charge for Assault).
2)   Run round the lake instead (Xanthias, Dionysus’ enterprising slave in Aristophanes’ Frogs does this, but my knee would make it difficult).
'Free Transport for All!'
3)   Move to the town of Hermione near Argos. Here the ferry fare was entirely waived by Demeter in gratitude when she recovered her daughter Persephone nearby. She was clearly not only a feminist but a socialist who believed in the principle of free public transport for all. Sadly, this is a pipe dream in our current profit-driven society. 

Aeacus, Transport Magnate
Just like the ticket inspector and his fine-taking credit-card machine, Charon was a minion of the powerful and didn’t even get to profit personally from the ferry fares. He had to hand them over to Aeacus, concierge of the dead and--ehem--a part-time judge. It was Aeacus rather than Charon who was therefore the equivalent of the rapacious privatised railway companies of Britain.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Greek Doctors in Britain Ancient & Modern

Aesculapius and Hygieia
The GMC says there are nearly four thousand doctors trained in Greece working for the National Health Service. This is far more than from any other country in Europe except Ireland.

An affable and highly skilled Greek doctor from Thessaloniki recently conducted what could have been an unpleasant and frightening procedure on me with the utmost tact and efficiency. My mistake was to tell him I spoke some Greek, which meant that he asked me informed questions about archaeology.  I was in no position to answer these sensibly. I had been sedated and had a camera on a hosepipe up my rear.

Hermogenes' Altar Dedication with Greek Characters
What interested him was the information that Greek doctors had been practising in Britain two millennia ago. Inscriptions honouring the healing god Asclepius/Aesculapius in Greek rather than Latin have been found in several places in the north of England, including Lanchester near Durham and Maryport in Cumbria.

At Chester, near what is now the telephone exchange, a doctor named Hermogenes once dedicated a votive offering in well-shaped Greek lettering of the early 2nd century AD. It read ‘Hermogenes the physician (iatros) has set up this altar to the all-powerful preservers (sōtersin hupermenēsin)’, almost certainly meaning Aesculapius and his companion goddess Hygieia (Health). 

Chester Legio XX Reenactment Society
Perhaps Hermogenes was official doctor to the 20th Roman legion, who built and resided in the camp at Chester.  But it so happens that the doctor who looked after the dying Emperor Hadrian was named Hermogenes. This famous Greek had good credentials, since he seems to have been trained in the medical school of the peerless anatomist Erasistratos. Erasistratos, who came from Kos, the island where Hippocrates himself had practised, was Aristotle’s grandson, no less.

Cassius Dio 69.22 tells us that when Hadrian was dying slowly from dropsy, Hermogenes helpfully pointed out to him the place on his chest which, if an attendant struck a blow, would allow him to die fast and painlessly (in the event Hadrian could persuade nobody to help him out, and ended up eating and drinking himself to extinction).   

My own friendly Greek doctor, in the best tradition of Greek hospitality, ended up inviting me and my whole family to a meal any August we found ourselves in northern Greece. The embarrassing nature of the procedure I underwent means I am unlikely ever to accept the invitation. But if he happens to read this blog, I would like to record my gratitude. I hope there will still be such excellent Greek doctors practising in Britain in another two thousand years’ time.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Lyceum Goose Mystery

Athens Lyceum Mural
Two weeks ago I gave a speech in the great hall of the National and Capodistrian University of Athens, a spectacular neoclassical building. I used the occasion to explore a question which has bugged me since my first visit to Greece, when I was nineteen—why, on the  famous mural in the porch, was Aristotle painted waving a knife at a goose? In no other picture of his Lyceum, for example the mural of similar date by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, in the University of Halle, is a goose part of the narrative.
No Goose on Halle Uni Mural

Geese were certainly important in ancient Greece. They were farmed, domesticated as pets, and associated with heroines and she-gods: Penelope, Aphrodite, Athena, Kore/Persephone, Artemis/Hecate, Nemesis and later Isis. They are involved in another ancient mystery tale, the Goose Plot in Greek comedy. Two vases show an otherwise unknown play or plays in which a goose figured prominently—one alive (in Boston), one dead (in New York).

Goose Plot in Greek Comedy-Live Goose by Basket
One possibility is that the mural designer, Carl Rahl, knew how important medicine was to Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle’s father Nicomachus had been a doctor, and doctors and medical analogies abound in all his works. Goose fat and other goose products were ubiquitous in ancient Greek medical preparations, and mentioned often in the texts of Hippocrates. Rahl will have been aware that Medicine was one of the original four faculties of this university.

Yet geese, unusually intelligent birds, do have weird connections with ancient philosophy. Aristotle’s Cypriot disciple Clearchus (who also happens to feature on the mural) wrote a book about sexual pathology called Erotica. It mentioned a goose who was infatuated with a boy (fr. 27). Aristotle’s friend Theophrastus’ On Eros also mentions a goose infatuated with a beautiful boy called Amphilochus. But sadly I don’t think the mural suggests that Aristotle, angry with his followers for their obsession with goose-human relationships, killed a goose in revenge.

More promising is what Pliny Senior writes about such love affairs. A beautiful youth from a town in north-western Peloponnese attracted a goose's passion, as did a young woman named Glauke who was harpist to King Ptolemy.  Pliny remarks, ‘one might almost be tempted to think that these creatures have an appreciation of wisdom (sapientia): for it is said, that one of them was the constant companion of the philosopher, Lacydes, and would never leave him, either in public or when at the bath, by night or by day.’
Lacydes' Goose Reads Nicomachean Ethics

Another version of the story, by Aelian, adds that Lacydes was a philosopher of the Peripatetic school—that is, an Aristotelian. The sapient goose was devoted to its keeper: when Lacydes went for a walk, it went too; when he sat down, it would remain still and would not leave him for a moment. And when it died Lacydes gave it an expensive funeral as if it were a family member.

Aristotle is on the mural's right-hand end
But I suspect that the true explanation is that Carl Rahl believed that Aristotle had dissected a goose. In the History of Animals, a goose appears in Aristotle’s discussion of male reproductive anatomy in animals which have blood.  Because he says here that the goose’s reproductive organ is difficult to see except straight after copulation, most scholars infer that a goose was one of the numerous different organisms he dissected. This seems even more likely since in Generation of Animals he claims that no bird has a penis. He has discovered it in the goose by careful laboratory observation.  

Jan Weenix, 'Dead Goose' (1700)
Carl Rahl, Designer of the Mural
This goose, however, is just one in a list which includes fish, snakes, ring-doves, partridges, lizards, turtles, tortoises, dolphins, elephants, hedgehogs, and pigs. Theoretically, at least, we could have had any of these portrayed on the mural. And this is where Rahl's tastes came in. I think he chose a goose from that list because, like all European painters then, he had been trained in the Dutch ‘Still Life’ tradition and liked painting the feathered wings of dead game birds. It is a shame, though. A hedgehog, pig, or elephant would have made the mural far more fun.

Friday, 24 February 2017

'Populist' versus Academic Obscurantists

"Open the Lyceum Doors to the Public Now"
Obscurantism was the theme of a lecture I gave at Northwestern University near Chicago today. Aristotle, who wrote some challenging 'esoteric' books, also gave accessible public lectures at his Lyceum to explain his work (they were called 'exoteric' and sadly have not been preserved). This was good academic practice.

Scholars today use unnecessary obscurity when communicating with one another. We make far too little effort to express our findings in ways that non-specialists can understand. For hilarious examples, see the submissions to the 1990s Bad Writing Contest, which I would like to re-establish.

Occluding Truth Can Appear Impressive
Academic obscurantism happens for three reasons. First, laziness. It takes less effort to express complicated ideas in the dialect of people sharing our assumptions than to express them in the dialect of other tribes. Second, careerism: we are sometimes rewarded for displaying command of specialist jargon, especially if it conceals a lack of anything significant to say, to cheering peers. Third, elitism. Making ourselves incomprehensible to most of our fellow citizens can help us police the ownership of intellectual ideas and access to university places and jobs.

But we are at a point in history where custodianship of the truth, and skills in critical analysis of public discourse, have never been more important.  For obscurantism, justifiably associated in the public imagination with wildly out-of-touch professors and pretentious art critics, is also an invaluable instrument in the toolkit of tyrants. Plato knew this when he defended the ‘Noble Lie’ as propagated by State Guardians.  

At its crudest, 'populist'-tyrannical obscurantism takes the form of inventing terrorist attacks or straightforward concealment of the truth. It can obfuscate the nefarious workings of capitalism: the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) invented by American banks, which precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, were simply a clever label for the illicit hiding of debts.  

"Who Said I Had No Sense of Humour?"
This week, Stephen K. Bannon, who is committed to the wholesale public obfuscation of real financial and political hierarchies and injustices, cracked a joke. This was pointed out by my my friend Sara Monoson, Head of Northwestern's Department of Political Science.  

Bannon told the Conservative Political Action Conference that his goal was nothing less than the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’  Being, perhaps unexpectedly, a bookish person himself, he knows that the word ‘deconstruction’ is intimately associated by the public, even if they have not heard of Jacques Derrida, with their stereotype of the smug left-liberal intellectual snob. 

With Professor Monoson
Bannon, an arch-obscurantist, may not have had them rolling in the aisles with his pun. But he has brilliantly co-opted the very term which is emblematic of what Trump’s supporters see as the ‘irrelevant’, unpatriotic and privileged intelligentsia, moving seamlessly between elite universities, the hated media and the Washington ‘political class’. 

The Obscurantism Wars have been declared. We need to stand up for what Aristotle would have called the median virtue of clarity between the Scylla of wordy academic obscurantism on the one hand, and the Charybdis of political obscurantism masquerading as 'ordinary-person-commonsense-speak' on the other. It’s time for academics to step down from their Ivory Towers, stand up for old-fashioned values like clarity and truth, and do some plain speaking for once.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

On Receiving an Honour at Athens

After a winter beset by flu and medieval problems which I’ll divulge in due course, I ran away to Athens. Despite the obvious increase in homelessness and darned clothes, even since I last visited in October, the Athenians are resilient and still go for strolls to enjoy their lovely sunsets. Sunlight there has not (yet) been sold off to any global corporation.

On Tuesday I received the greatest compliment of my life, an Honorary Doctorate from Athens University. There is no institution in the world from which I would rather my work received recognition. Inducted by Professor Walter Puchner, I was given a beautiful scroll and a sash, blue with white goose feathers: serendipitously, my acceptance speech explored the possible reasons why it is a goose that Aristotle is waving a knife at on the university’s famous fresco.

Before the ceremony, the Rector and Deans took me upstairs to make sure I was lent the right size of gown. These are elaborate in design, reminiscent of stage stereotypes of Japanese or Chinese authority figures.  Looking back at other Athens Honorary Doctors gives me impostor syndrome, so vastly more important has been their contribution than mine. But it was size that was on my mind. It is obvious I did not wear exactly the same costume as tall Derek Walcott, nor the much lamented six-footer Umberto Eco. 

Vladimir Putin is less tall. I fear that I wore the very same garment as he did  in 2001. I hope I do not develop ambitions to invade Crimea. I do not know the height of soon-to-be fellow-Hon-PhD-Athens, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi; is it too much to hope he will wear the same one as I did and it transmits to him some sympathy for the Greeks’ plight?

Despite staying out late on a dance floor slurping Pina Colada, I scaled the Acropolis on Wednesday, with daughter Sarah, long-time co-conspirator Dr Rosie Wyles and her husband Mr Holmes. On the plane home I dreamed I was being directed by Mike Leigh in a performance of the Mikado’s song My Object all Sublime. Is it a sign of incipient megalomania that in the dream I was bursting with joy?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Xenophon, Hallucinogens & the Hydra

Having gone down with flu the weekend Trump was inaugurated, I've just emerged from twelve days when I thought that the news reports penetrating my feverish consciousness were just the paranoid hallucinations of a Lemsip addict. Then yesterday I got out of bed  and discovered they were true.

This coincided with opening the new Cambridge Companion to Xenophon, edited by Professor Michael Flower of Princeton, a beautiful book in which I have a  brief say on the huge influence exerted by the writings of this Athenian soldier-adventurer. That article is available free on my website, as are as many of my other books & papers as I dare.

The Sea, the Sea!
Xenophon's most famous book was his account of his journey upcountry (Anabasis), when with ten thousand comrades he was stranded near Baghdad at the heart of the hostile Persian empire. The Greeks took two years to stagger to the Black Sea coast and ships to freedom. The Anabasis has been crucial to American military culture and national identity: George W. Bush’s covert plan to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein was codenamed the ‘Anabasis Project’. 

But the story resonates for different reasons now. The speech of the week was the Baghdad-born Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi lamenting that his sons, who are studying at Princeton, feel stranded at the hostile heart of the USA but dare not leave it for fear they will be forbidden to return. 

The Xenophontic text with even more painful relevance today is Memorabilia 3.4.1. Socrates argues that a businessman can make a good statesman. In an excellent blog published before the election, Dr Jon Hesk discussed what this might say about Trump.

A skill which Xenophon’s Socrates suggests a businessman could bring to statesmanship is delegation to well-qualified specialists. But even this skill has bypassed Trump. He has appointed climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. An advocate of ‘Dominion Theology’ and schools privatisation, Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos, breathtakingly, is his Education Secretary.

Kellyanne Conway is the sole appointment where the individual is almost over-qualified. The Presidential Counsellor is petrifying (and I do not choose this word lightly—several journalists have compared her to Medusa because of what they perceive as her frequent ‘bad hair days’). This super-sophist for the digital age understands Big Lie theory perfectly. Even Jess McIntosh, Hillary Clinton’s Director of Communications, grudgingly admires Conway: ‘You have to be operating at Jedi mind-trick-levels of punditry to not sound completely insane while saying the sky is green, and she manages to do that.’  From a defeated rival, this is high praise indeed.

But I would read ‘Hydra’ for ‘Jedi’ here; it is to the head-sprouting Hydra that Socrates in another text, Plato’s Euthydemus, compares uber-sophists who can ‘prove’ that black is white: ‘the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of dispute in place of each one that was cut off.’ I fear that there are hundreds more hydra-heads equivalent to ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Bowling Green massacre’ remaining to sprout before we're done.