Friday, 19 October 2018

Wisdom in the era of Donald Trump

Above is a talk by Victor Davis Hanson on the reasons behind Donald Trump’s unexpected US presidential election triumph in 2016. Hanson, a classicist and not so much a Trump supporter as a critic of leftist-liberal visions and versions of American history and destiny, employs Demosthenes, Aristotle and Euripides to explain why he thinks Trump – a repugnant figure to Hanson in many ways – was able to win the White House.

In the case of Euripides, Hanson uses the quote from the Bacchae, in which the playwright states, via the chorus, τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία, to demonstrate that while Trump and his supporters were often castigated for being stupid – a basket of deplorables, in Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase – and those who opposed Trumpism were regarded – or regarded themselves – as possessors of superior knowledge or education, wisdom, in fact, comes in many forms and does not always equate to intellect.  Sometimes, according to Hanson, it can come in the form of ‘animal cunning’ – which Hanson attributes to Trump; what is most useful to a society – such as workmanship, physical expertise and manual skills; and, ultimately, the recognition by society of the boundaries that cannot be crossed and by humans of their limitations.

Τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία has been translated into English as ‘that which is wise is not wisdom’ or here as ‘wisdom is not cleverness’. In his talk above, Hanson suggests Euripides is making a distinction between ‘who is wise and who is a wise-ass’ and, in this article, he translates the playwright as saying, ‘cleverness is not wisdom’.  The latter – ‘cleverness is not wisdom’ – is the translation I prefer.

Hanson begins his piece:

At the height of the sophistic age in classical Athens, the playwright Euripides asked an eternal question in his masterpiece, the Bacchae: “What is wisdom?” 

‘Was wisdom defined as clever wordplay, or as the urban sophistication of the robed philosophers in the agora and rhetoricians in the assembly?

‘Or instead was true wisdom a deeper and more modest appreciation of unchanging human nature throughout the ages, which reminds us to avoid hubris, tread carefully, always expect the unlikely, and distrust the self-acclaimed wise who eventually prove clever fools? At the end of the play, a savage, merciless nemesis is unleashed on the hubristic wise of the establishment.

‘Euripides would have appreciated the ironies of the 2016 election.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Sparta: its political regime and grand strategy

I mentioned in a previous post the tendency among Sparta’s detractors to caricature it as a despotic, tyrannous, even fascistic regime, suggesting it was a model for Nazi ideologues or resembled Soviet society – in the latter case, it’s often pointed out that, just like the communist Eastern bloc, Sparta did not welcome foreigners and prevented its citizens from travelling beyond its borders for fear of ideological contamination. I also mentioned that rather than trying to interpret Sparta adopting modern preoccupations and prejudices it’s more useful to consider Aristotle’s view that the Spartan political system was a mixed regime – oligarchic, monarchical and democratic.

This nuanced approach to the Spartan polity is emphasised by Paul Rahe in the talk above, in which he draws attention to those elements in the Spartan constitution that could be described as democratic – general participation in the assembly, the selection of ephors by lottery, the checks and balances inherent in Spartan government designed not to allow one branch to exert sole and untrammelled influence over any other.

In The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Rahe expands on his analysis of the Spartan constitution and way of life, before explaining how this revealed itself at the high point of Spartan civilisation, i.e. its command of allied Hellenic forces in the repulsion of the Persian invaders in the fifth century BC.

Rahe insists, however, that Sparta’s leadership in securing Hellenic independence against the Persians should not mislead us about Sparta’s ‘grand strategy’, which, Rahe says, was limited and conservative and dominated by anxieties closer to home, of helot revolt and the threat this posed to the Spartiates’ aristocratic way of life – with its disdain for work and emphasis on military training, hunting, wrestling and athletics. 

Thus, Rahe points out, although Sparta has the reputation of being a belligerent and belicose power, in reality the Spartans tried to avoid fighting and were loathe to engage in wars outside their immediate sphere of influence and vital living space – i.e. the Peloponnese. Indeed, for Rahe, echoing J.E. Lendon’s account of the Peloponnesian War, if any Hellenic power deserves the label of aggressive and imperial, it was ambitious democratic Athens not cautious authoritarian Sparta. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Philosophers' Football Match

Above is the Monty Python sketch
The Philosophers' Football Match, featuring teams from Greece and Germany. The sketch was originally part of two shows Monty Python made for German television in 1972 – Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus – and was also included in the film Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

You will notice in the sketch that Socrates scores the winning goal for the Greek philosophers. This is deeply ironic (and prophetic) since 10 years later,
Sócrates – or Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, to give him his full name – was captain and one of the star players of the Brazilian national team in the World Cup finals held in Spain; a team which, as well as Sócrates, included Zico, Falcao, Junior, Eder, Leandro and Cerezzo, and is regarded as the most thrilling and aesthetically satisfying footballing side of all time – even more so than the Brazil team that won the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. The 1982 Brazil side did not win that year's World Cup, getting knocked out by the eventual winners Italy 3-2, in one of the greatest upsets (and disappointments) in football.

As a player, Sócrates was renowned for his grace and guile, while off the field he is regarded as the most intelligent Brazilian ever to put on the famous yellow shirt, with doctorates in medicine and, of course, philosophy. Below is the magnificent goal he scored against the USSR in the group stages of the 1982 World Cup.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Jacqueline de Romilly: defining and defending Hellenism

Jacqueline de Romilly was a renowned French classicist who died in 2010, though it doesn’t seem much of her work has been translated into English. I’ve only managed to find her Short History of Greek Literature, which covers Greek writing in all its forms from the eighth century BC (Homer) to the fourth century AD, that is, to the early Christian fathers and Julian the Apostate. The book is a little over 200 pages long and so de Romilly is only able to devote just a few pages each to the various authors and literary and philosophical movements that characterise this 1200-year period, and yet I can’t imagine that there are many, if any, better introductions to Greek literature. The book is particularly good when it comes to Thucydides and Plutarch and, in general, is a resounding defence of Hellenism, whose lifeblood de Romilly describes in her conclusion as consisting of: ‘inquiry and debate, political struggles and struggles over ideas, discoveries, effort, criticism and hope – all in search of the best possible life’.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

When Yanis met Jeremy

Above is a conversation between economist cum politician Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s finance minister from January to July 2015, and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at the Edinburgh Book festival on 20 August this year.

They talk about the usual – democracy, socialism, post-capitalism, etc, etc, before going on to discuss Brexit.

Here, Varoufakis, comes out against a second referendum since, he says, referenda require a binary choice whereas the UK has, in fact, four choices in front of it. These are the Canada plus deal favoured by the hard Brexiteers; Norway plus, the deal Varoufakis advocates and which the Labour party is broadly putting forward – staying in the single market and the customs union; the Chequers proposal supported by the British government; and Remain. 

Corbyn argues the case for a General Election rather than a second referendum, before going on to state the customary issues Labour intends to fight the Tories on: health, education, poverty, homelessness, inequality, low and stagnant wages, etc. 

Moral outrage shapes Corbyn’s politics and, for him, socialism is simply the triumph of justice over iniquity, of fairness over inequality, and, when all is said and done, of right over wrong. Varoufakis has a more highfalutin understanding of what a socialist society would look like, referring us to Star Trek – in which, Varoufakis says, technology is harnessed in the service of the common good or, as Varoufakis puts it, machines do all the work while citizens discuss philosophy and explore the universe. 

The conversation continues with Varoufakis repeating his rather hysterical warning that Europe is currently staring into the abyss and risks a return to the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, i.e. risks the rise of fascism, and he points to the emergence of Victor Orban in Hungary, Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Matteo Salvini in Italy to prove his (facile) theory.

Finally, there is a brief discussion of the contrasting regimes of Athens and Sparta. Corbyn clearly has no idea how radical Athenian democracy was and regurgitates the usual platitudes about its flaws – slavery, the exclusion of women and migrants (metics) from Athenian political life – while Varoufakis reverts to the usual caricature of Sparta as a despotic or, in his terms, ‘fascistic’ regime. 

In fact, while it’s not unreasonable to describe Sparta as a totalitarian regime, it was not a dictatorship, tyrannical or despotic (unless you were a helot). Rather, Sparta’s constitution, with its senate, ephors, kings and assembly, was designed to ensure accountability, transparency and checks and balances. 

Aristotle asserts Sparta was a mixed regime, in which its two kings represented monarchy; the senate (gerousia) represented oligarchy; while the assembly – to which all Spartan citizens (Spartiates) were entitled to attend – and the institution of the ephors reflected the democratic aspect of Spartan politics. 

Indeed, ephors (or magistrates) – perhaps the most powerful element in the Spartan politeia – were selected in the most democratic method possible, via lottery, and had their terms in office limited to only one year, after which they were put on trial to judge whether they carried out their duties legally and effectively. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music

Above is a talk by Christopher C. King on his book, Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music

King, a record collector and audio engineer, grew up in Faber, south west Virginia, and was travelling in Turkey in 2009 when he snapped up a stack of 78 rpm discs, as much for the ‘rare musk of shellac’ as for what was on the records. Except that when he got back to America and played what turned out to be Epirotic music from the 1920s and 1930s, King was stunned by what he heard and soon realised he was listening to the oldest musical tradition in Europe and one which went to the heart of the meaning of music. 

In particular, he deciphered that Epirotic laments (mirologoi) and early American blues were ‘spiritual twin brothers’

To demonstrate this, in the above talk, King plays Blind Willie Johnson’s classic Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground with Alexis Zoumbas’ Mirologoi – recorded as it happened (of course, in complete ignorance of each other) in 1927. King describes the coincidence as ‘beyond serendipity’, reflecting, in  the music, ‘something deeply human’ and ‘the best part of humanity’.

Read a review of Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music here.

Amanda Petrusich, a music journalist turned on to Epirotic music by King, has also written amount Epirotic music. She describes Zoumbas’ Mirologoi as one of ‘the most devastating bits of music I’ve ever encountered’, adding: ‘There is a palpable hysteria to [Zoumbas’) playing; each note trembles, as if he has recently suffered an emotional collapse of unknowable magnitude’.  

*Mirologoi have been played for thousands of years in Epiros, for the departed – for the dead or those condemned to emigration or even at weddings, where there is a lament for the bride, for the daughter who has left one family for another, the latter reflecting themes from ancient Greece where the marriage ceremony was, in part, a death ceremony, symbolising, particularly for the bride, not the beginning of a new life, but the death of a previous one – and therefore a reason for sadness and mourning. Read more on marriage as a form of death here.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Sorceress or scapegoat?

Of all the seductive, sinister and transgressive women who have haunted the Western imagination, none has a reputation more lurid than Medea’s. (Margaret Atwood)

The city is founded on a monstrous deed. (Medea)

East German writer Christa Wolf’s Medea is a harrowing novel that seeks to retell the story of the Colchian princess and rehabilitate her from evil, barbarian witch to knowing foreigner and immigrant who can see the hypocrisy, lies and violence on which Corinth (the city she is exiled in with her feeble husband Jason) is organised and ruled. Such a woman, who has learned the dirty secrets of Corinth’s power elite, which is now struggling with political unrest and natural disaster, is dangerous and has to be discredited and destroyed, and this, Wolf suggests, is the process by which Medea is turned into a scapegoat and comes to be falsely accused of killing her children and murdering Glauce, the Corinthian princess Jason has abandoned her for.

The novel is written as a series of voices, as each protagonist feints, plots and manoeuvres as the crisis engulfing Corinthian society unfolds, and below is an excerpt from one of Medea’s monologues:

‘So this is how it is: either I’m out of my mind, or their city is founded on a crime. No, believe me, I’m quite clear on this point, what I say or think about it is quite clear to me, for I’ve found the proof, yes, I’ve touched it with my own hands. Oh, it’s not arrogance that threatens to undo me now. The woman – I simply followed her. Perhaps I just wanted to teach Jason a lesson, since he’d stood by and let them seat me at the end of the table among the servants, that’s it, I didn’t dream that, that was yesterday. At least they’re the highest-ranking servants, he said pathetically, don’t cause a scandal, Medea, please, not today, you know what’s at stake, the King can’t lose face in front of all his foreign guests. Ah, Jason, save your breath. He still hasn’t understood that King Creon can’t grieve me anymore, but that’s not what I’m talking about, I have to clear my head. I have to promise myself never to speak about my discovery to a living soul. The best thing would be to do what Chalciope and I used to do with secrets when we were children, do you know what that was, Mother? We’d wrap our secret up tight in a leaf and eat it up while staring into one another’s eyes. Our childhood – or rather everything in Colchis – was full of dark secrets, and when I arrived here, a refugee in King Creon’s gleaming city-state of Corinth, I had an envious thought: these people have no secrets. And that’s what they think too, that’s what makes them so convincing; with every look, with every one of their measured movements, they’re drumming it into you: Here’s one place in the world where a person can be happy. It was only later that I realized how much they hold it against you if you express doubts about their happiness. But that’s not what I’m talking about either, what’s the matter with my head? It’s buzzing with a whole swarm of thoughts, why is it so hard for me to reach into the swarm and snatch out the one thought I need?’

(Read the rest of the excerpt here. Read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the novel here. And read Christa Wolf’s essay on Medea and Cassandra, another character from Greek literature she has based a novel on, here).

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Iannis Xenakis on Rome and Seneca’s Medea

Following my post last week on Greece under the barbarian rule of Rome and the influence of Greek culture on the Romans, I’ll take the opportunity to post something related to the subject using the composer Iannis Xenakis who, in his work, captures better than anybody the madness, terror and ‘ecstatic dream world’ that Nietzsche defines as characterising Greek tragedy.

In 1967, Xenakis was commissioned by the Theatre de France to write the music for a production of Seneca’s Medea. Xenakis scholar Nouritza Matossian (an Armenian from Cyprus) says:

‘Xenakis had often wondered how the music of ancient Greek theatre might have sounded, how the actors, chorus and musicians might have chanted the text and played the aulos and in [Medea] he provided his solution. He treated the instruments as voices and the voices as instruments to create an implacable work, extending the language phonetically with whispers and hisses, repeated phrases and even banging stones. The atmosphere is archaic, with a setting which is both raucous and primitive.’

Regarding the work, Xenakis says that when he was approached to write it:

‘I hesitated because I knew Seneca as a pseudo-philosopher, an imperial courtier, and above all a Roman who sought, like all Romans of that period, to emulate the ancient Greek masterpieces.

‘But in reading the Latin text written in the first century AD I was seduced by its violent sonority, its barbarity, so I agreed.’

Above is Xenakis’ Medea in full, while below is a clip from Matossian’s 1990 BBC documentary on Xenakis, Something Rich and Strange.