Saturday, 16 May 2015

Robots & Utopia Ancient & Modern

Google have just announced that their robot cars will be driving on public roads by this summer. I will be visiting California at the end of June and do hope I can flag one down. I have always hated driving. Since I can’t multitask, driving safely precludes even lively conversation, let alone marking essays or admiring the scenery. I prefer the sipping-champagne-in-the-back-of-the-limo approach to road transport. I don’t understand why Bob Hoskins’ character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) had to sit at the wheel when Benny the Cab was a sentient being.

Why did Benny Need to be Steered?
The ancient equivalents of robot cars are the self-steering, intelligent ships of the Phaeacian islanders in the Odyssey. Their king, Alcinous, promising to sail Odysseus home to Ithaca, explains that their ships have no helmsman. The ships use telepathy to learn the desired destination, and their knowledge of universal geography to reach it safely.[i] 
    
But the Phaeacian ships still needed energy to propel them. It was provided, as for any  penteconter, by fifty oarsmen. Robot cars may diminish fuel consumption, because theoretically they will lead to fewer total hours spent in cars by any given population. But the other advantages are debatable, besides freeing up drivers to sip Bollinger: they may or may not lead to fewer road traffic casualties.

Insurance is a problem. If someone is hurt by a robot car, who will be liable? The passenger? The manufacturer?  The Athenians had the answer: a special court, the Prytaneum, where inanimate objects like rocks and statues could be put on trial. The statesman Pericles and the philosopher Protagoras once spent an entire day debating whether a javelin could be held criminally responsible for the death of a youth who had run accidentally into its path. Will the Californians ever charge a Google car with Manslaughter?

Hephaestus & his Robots imagined by Fuseli
But Google’s news is still exciting. Despite the ethical issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence, I remain convinced that robots offer respite from the hard labour to which 90% of humans have usually been condemned.  Utopian robots were another Greek invention: Hephaestus is already served by robots he has made himself in the Iliad, a passage which prompted Aristotle to realise that slavery could indeed be abolished ‘if shuttles wove and plectrums played harps of their own accord’.

Lafargue & Laura Marx Busy Doing Nothing in 1870
No wonder Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who was of mixed African, Amerindian, Jewish and French heritage, was also inspired by the robotic mechanisms of Homer and Aristotle to argue that winning the ‘right’ to sell their labour was no victory for the lower classes. He expressed this view in Le droit à la paresse (The Right to Idleness, 1883), in its time the second most widely read Marxist text after The Communist Manifesto. Re-reading it in the back of a robot car with a well-stocked fridge is now one of my dearest ambitions.


[i] See further my book Introducing the Ancient Greeks, published in the UK last month, which I am delighted to say has had almost embarrassingly stellar reviews and last week made no. 4 on the Evening Standard’s non-fiction bestseller list. Alcinous’ name means ‘Strong in Mind’ and his father’s name was ‘Nausithous’, ‘Swift in Ships.’ The story is related to the Greeks’ awareness that they had immeasurably expanded their intellectual horizons by their maritime adventures. They  strongly associated intellect (nous) and travel by ship (naus).


Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Woman Demosthenes Told to Run for President

Woodhull, Demosthenes' Mentee
In a year when we have a real chance of the first XX-chromosome president of the USA, let us celebrate Victoria Woodhull, who stood for this office in 1872.  Raised in a one-room wooden shack in Homer, Ohio, and the recipient of less than three years’ education, her rise to prominence was overseen by her spirit guide, the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Victoria’s father, Buck Claflin, was a working-class mid-western charlatan. He sold his daughters’ paranormal powers in boarding-houses for $1 per consultation—Victoria practised as a medium, and Tennessee (‘Tenny’) as a ‘magnetic healer.’

Victoria claimed that she had always been aware of her clairvoyant gift and could remember her own birth. She was radicalised by an unhappy first marriage and by talking to women left widowed and starving by the Civil War. She read Wollstonecraft and Mill. She became a socialist and feminist during her fruitful second marriage to another spiritualist as well as a freethinker, abolitionist and suffragist.

"Move to Manhattan and stand for the Presidency!"
In 1868 Victoria had a vision in a hotel in Pittsburgh. Her ‘guide’ appeared to her, and wrote the name DEMOSTHENES on the marble table at which she was sitting ‘in English characters which gradually outlined themselves from indistinctness to incandescence so brilliant as to light up the entire apartment.’  Demosthenes, clearly fluent in English, bade her hasten to 17 Great Jones Street, Manhattan, where ‘she would find a house swept and garnished for the commencement of the work she had to do.’ So she moved to the specified brownstone, where she found a copy of the Orations of Demosthenes conveniently awaiting her in the parlour.

The following year, Demosthenes presented her with the text of a petition to Congress when she was asleep. He wrote on a scroll ‘The Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull,’  claiming under the Fourteenth Amendment the right of women as of all other ‘citizens of the United States’ to vote and demanding that the State of New York, of which she was now a citizen, should be restrained by federal authority from preventing her exercise of this constitutional right.

Douglass, nearly Woodhull's Co-Nominee

So along with her sister she set about her mission. They set up the first female-led stockbroker firm in the US, and made millions. This allowed them to found a feminist journal, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which also supported workers’ rights and published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto. In its very first issue, Victoria’s candidacy for presidency was announced. She was constitutionally ineligible being under 35 years old. But she received the presidential nomination of the Cosmo-Political or ‘Equal Rights’ Party (Frederick Douglass was nominated to be their vice-president, but turned it down).


The patriarchal ruling elite was having none of it. She spent the election behind bars, arrested on obscenity charges (she campaigned for Free Love and enjoyed exposing the hypocritical adulterous liaisons of the very male authority figures who objected to her advocacy of women’s sexual freedom). Ulysses S. Grant won the election in a landslide.


"The Death of Demosthenes"--not such a great role model
But Woodhull had put women’s exclusion from politics at the centre of the public radar. Just fifteen years later, a woman became mayor of a US town—Argonia, Kansas—for the first time in history. 

Those of us who would like to see a woman finally become president must hope that Hillary Clinton does not get stitched up on obscenity charges before November 3rd 2015.  I also recommend she acquire a better netherworld mentor than Demosthenes, whose own political career ended in suicide on the run after the Macedonian conquest. I have personally been visited in dreams by both Aeschylus and Aristotle, but then I have no current plans to run for president.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Odysseus, the EU, & the Dispossessed of Lampedusa

The last month saw hundreds of migrants drown while crossing the Mediterranean in fragile vessels, so desperate are they to flee intolerable situations. Both cadavers and survivors often wash up on the prizewinning tourist beaches of Lampedusa, where prosperous northern Europeans tan themselves.

Capsizing between Libya & Lampedusa
The Mediterranean, once crucial to European colonial domination, is now an aquatic equivalent of the electric fence excluding Latin Americans from the USA. International waters are misused as liquid prisons to confine and exclude people whose plights are by no means unconnected with European policies past and present.

Nicolini: Moral Hero
The 6,000 residents of Lampedusa, led by their humanitarian mayor Giuseppina Nicolini, have been requesting the EU to replace the military ships patrolling the sea with search & rescue vessels, and send funds to enable the island to treat its struggling guests properly. Nicolini quotes Pope Francis: ‘Lampedusa is the door to Europe, not its exit.’   

How different is she from the vindictive resident nymph of Lampedusa, Lampetie, best known for being turned into a tree in Ovid's Metamorphoses. But in the Odyssey, where her island is called Thrinacia, she is a grimly suitable personification of Fortress Europe. Adverse winds have confined Odysseus’ crewmen to the island for weeks. They are starving. They eventually slaughter the cattle of the Sun-God which Lampetie, his daughter, herds, but they gratefully promise to build a fine temple to Helios on Ithaca when they return. 

But Lampetie, the most spiteful snitch in Greek epic, who could have interceded on behalf of the hungry mortals weeks earlier, now runs to her daddy, who run to Zeus. Once the humans set sail, Zeus rouses a tempest, and blasts their ship with a thunderbolt, killing all but Odysseus. The men ‘floated like sea-gulls in the breakers round the black ship. The gods had robbed them of their homecoming,’ a passage tragically prophetic of photographs of African boat people whose ships have capsized. 

Romare Bearden, 'Cattle of the Sun God'
The Odyssey is an instruction manual on good and bad ways to behave both when arriving as a desperate wanderer and when receiving strangers on your shores. There is a speech in a later episode which Lampedusa’s mayor might deliver to the EU bureaucrats who refuse to help. Imagine them represented here by the vicious slave Melantho, who loads insults on Odysseus, in his beggar’s disguise: ‘Go away, you loser, and eat your supper outside, or you will soon find yourself beaten away with a blazing torch.’  This is Odysseus’ unforgettable response:

Tischbein, Odysseus begs.
Strange woman, what is the reason for such anger with me? Is it because I am dirty, and dressed in rags, and go begging from people? I have to do this out of necessity. That’s what indigent men and beggars usually do.  There was a time when I too was a wealthy man, who could hold my head high as master of my own flourishing household; in those days I often used to give things to tramps who lived as I do now, regardless of who they were or what it was that they needed.


Alternatively, his rebuke could be inscribed on the lintel of the European Parliament, along with Marx and Engels' 'to each according to their need.'

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Dentists Modern and Ancient

I look like the right-hand Scythian (4th century BC, from Crimea)
An arduous week at work was made worse by a nasty bout of toothache. This will be a short blog, written while waiting for the penicillin to kick in and stop whatever revolting things are happening in my upper left jaw. (Those who would enjoy a longer text, about love and transcendent beauty rather than decomposing molars, are invited to stop reading now and instead click on my article about translations of Sappho in this month’s New York Review of Books).

Martinez de Castrillo's Brief Colloquy
I have been mumbling some prayers from the right-hand side of my mouth to Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, to ask for a speedy recovery. Here is one short enough to utter while suffering only two twinges. It appears in a book by a Spanish doctor called Francisco Martínez de Castrillo, first published in 1557:

Illustrious virgin martyr, Apollonia,
Pray to the Lord for us
Lest for our offences and sins we be punished
By diseases of the teeth.

The Passion of Poor Apollonia
Short but to the point. Apollonia wasn’t herself a dentist, but an elderly spinster who lived in Alexandria. She was also a Christian, apprehended by a mob during the persecutions which took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius (who was actually from Serbia) in 249 AD.

Poor Apollonia was tortured by having her teeth forcibly knocked out before she was burned to death. We know this from a letter from (1) an Alexandrian bishop to (2) a Syrian bishop quoted by (3) the Palestinian/Caesarean bishop Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 6.41.


Despite her violent demise, parts of St. Apollonia’s skull, jaws and teeth managed to escape from Egypt and are to be found in several ancient churches in Rome, Naples, Volterra, Bologna, Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne and even French-speaking Canada. If any of you are anywhere near one her relics, please put in a word for me.

Friday, 17 April 2015

An Encounter with the Greek Letter Tau

Lecturing at Hunter College in New York City has introduced me to a monumental public sculpture called TAU right outside the college’s doors on Lexington Avenue. It is the work of Tony Smith (1912-1980), a famous architect-turned artist from New Jersey who once worked as a welder for Frank Lloyd Wright and later taught at Hunter.

The college is proud of TAU. The Classics Department website points out the ancient Greek connection, but nobody could explain the sculpture’s meaning to me. Cue for several hours of jetlagged wakefulness investigating this ancient symbol, which the Greeks borrowed from the final letter of the Phoenician alphabet, taw. In Phoenician the word 'taw', which gave the letter its name, meant simply a ‘mark’ and looked like our ‘X’. The Greeks rotated it to the perpendicular and knocked its top off.

Tau matters.  In mathematics, it holds the secret of the circle constant. It is the ratio comparing the circumference of a circle with its radius, which is apparently more important than the much-celebrated pi, invented in the 18th century, which compares the circumference with the diameter. There is a movement to get rid of pi altogether in teaching maths and replace it with tau: an Oxford conference in 2013 was entitled "Tau versus Pi: Fixing a 250-Year-Old Mistake."

Tony Smith’s family ran a municipal waterworks factory. He was fascinated by the machinery of heavy industry. TAU has little to do with circles, so I suspect the meaning Tau Smith was interested in was the one it holds in mechanics. Tau means a ‘shear stress’, a force which is parallel to a material cross section. If you squash the top of a rectangular shaped object it becomes deformed into a parallelogram. Smith’s TAU looks like diagrams showing one of these squashed parallelograms.
Imhotep, 


Zoser's Pyramid
But TAU also sports fancy geometrical shapes on its diverse faces. I was not at all surprised to read that Smith’s greatest hero was the Egyptian Imhotep, who designed the Pyramid of Zoser and is probably the first artist in world history whose name is known. So I’d met not only the ancient Greeks on this Manhattan sidewalk, but the Phoenicians and Egyptians too. 


Saturday, 11 April 2015

Water in Yemen then and Now

Yemeni Children's Desperate Quest for Clean Water
Water shortage threatens more than fifteen million people in Yemen, many of them young children, with death by famine and disease. Drought is not the right word: there is actually enough water—more is supplied by nature than in some nearby countries—but it has been hopelessly mismanaged. The water table drops further every day. Few can afford the diesel required to operate the pumps; a disgraceful proportion of the available H2O is used to irrigate crops of qat, the leaves of which, when chewed, offer adult men addictive mood-enhancement.

It is staggering that any population in that oil-rich part of the world can run out of diesel. Can’t the Yemenis’ neighbours in Saudi or Oman spare a few barrels? The (Sunni) Saudis have instead been bombing Yemen in the hopes of wiping out the rebel (Shia) Houthis, while failing, despite pledges, to support international humanitarian efforts to help civilians. The thirsty millions without clean water are, in consequence, terribly vulnerable to disease.

Beyonce costumed as Queen of Sheba
Archaeology reveals that the South Arabians, or Sabaeans,  had effective irrigation systems from as early as 1500 BC. The fecund, prosperous homeland of the Queen of Sheba, a civilisation with advanced literacy and enigmatic sculptures, the Sabaean realm, was known to the Greeks as Arabia Eudaimon and the Romans as Arabia Felix (‘Happy’ or ‘Blessed’); it is the ‘fortunate city’ beside the Indian Ocean, offering exotic opportunities, mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy about utopias, his Birds of 414 BC.

The ancient alphabet of south Arabia
Complex Sabaean irrigation systems indicate proper human humility and respect towards nature. The mental and physical labour involved in maintaining them always posed problems to would-be invaders of Arabia Felix. Augustus, attracted by its famous wealth, tried to ‘subdue’ it in 26 BC, but the geographer Strabo reports that his general Aelius Gallus lost many soldiers to local diseases ‘caused by the water’.  The Romans had to carry water supplies on camels on long marches. They abandoned sieges on the brink of victory because the water ran out. The entire army died, but only seven of them in combat. It was a humiliating defeat.
Ancient Art of Arabia Felix

The Roman poet Horace wrote his cryptic Ode 1.29 about Iccius, a philosophical friend who had joined Gallus on the doomed imperial quest for south Arabian booty:  ‘Why are you so greedy for the Arabs’ rich treasures? The tough life of the army? Sheba’s kings aren’t even conquered yet.’


The Well-Watered Natural Environment of North Yemen
The difference today is that the people who are about to die from lack of water are not the invaders but the residents. They have been utterly betrayed. Taking ancient archaeology and history more seriously might just have helped prevent this entirely avoidable catastrophe. Arabia is Infelix now.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A Pint of ‘Classics Heavy’ in Scotland

"Is that a plastic cup of Lager, Sir, or are You just pleased to see us?"

A research trip to ask how the Greeks and Romans have featured in Glasgow’s class struggles climaxed with a booking and fine from the Glasgow police. My esteemed colleague Henry Stead was apprehended in possession of an open container of alcohol, locally illegal since 1973. He had simply left the Citizens’ Theatre at the interval, to look for a cash machine, without putting down the small plastic cup containing his half of lager. I will always feel guilty because he was looking for cash with which to buy me a small plastic cup of wine.

Foulis' Demetrius-forst Greek book printed in Glasgow
But before the run-in with the Lanarkshire Law, we uncovered the inspirational role that classical culture has for centuries played in Glasgow, even when—or especially when—it has not been solely in the form of an elite curriculum. 

William Wilkie, the ‘Scottish Homer’ fluent in ancient Greek, composed a nine-book epic about Thebes while personally ploughing his few fields in order to plant potatoes. James Moor, Glasgow Professor of Greek in the mid-18th century, never got over his upbringing and preferred to live in humble quarters with a lower-class ‘wife’.  Robert Foulis, who set up a world-famous publishing house and transformed the quality of Greek printed texts, was the son of a maltman. Robert’s first career was as a barber. He only discovered his passion for classics in adulthood. There have been many such lower-class Glasgow scholars. 

Today, April 5, is the anniversary of the ‘Battle of Bonnymuir’, when in 1820 the West Scottish weavers’ insurrection against pay cuts was brutally put down by the military.  The weavers were well-known for their habit of self-education: take Robert Tannahill, the ‘Weaver Poet’ of Paisley,who
begged the Muse for a National Bard, and received one in the form of Robert Burns. The carpenters were equally well read and self-educated. They included the Paisley-born craftsman John Henning, world-famous for his various reconstructions of the Parthenon frieze.

We expect soon to establish the classical reading of some of the radical weavers’ ringleaders, who were hanged or deported soon after their 1820 revolt.  You will be able to read all about it on the beautiful Classics and Class website (designed by the esteemed colleague now known to the Glasgow police) which is exactly two years old this week.  Onwards and Upwards!