December 31, 2004

Temporary like Achilles

There is no recovering some memories, however far back in time you go. I have tried to trace where my interest in the ancient world began, but there is no starting-point that I remember, only some of the milestones along the way. It's something that's happened to me gradually rather than something I took a decision to go for. Most things are like that. When people talk about all the decisions they make in their lives it makes me laugh, and not laugh kindly. Life is not a game of chess. If it were, I fancy I would be a great deal better at it.

The same is true of my fondness for classical music, which is more recent than anybody who speaks to me about must imagine, dating from a long time after my childhood, my early record-buying years and even my time - my first time - as a student. The only time I can recall showing an interest in classical music when I was at Oxford was in knowing, for a crossword, either that Beethoven's only opera was called Fidelio, or that the opera, Fidelio, was written by Beethoven. My friend remarked that it was strange, I always knew the answer to the classical music questions. I remember the remark and I remember thinking that yes, it was strange. But I cannot remember ever knowing any other answers than that.

Classical music and the classics: both are far distant in time and my interest in both - certainly the degree of my interest - is recent enough. I assume that the two are inextricably linked, that in either instance the idea is to retreat from there here and now, to remove myself as far as I can from the present. When you have withdrawn from everything possible in the here and now, that only leaves the here and now itself from which to keep one's distance. So this is why I do the things I do. Even my passion for chess seems to me to be water drawn from the very same well.

I'd come across a little of the ancient world in passing. We learned some of the myths in the first year of secondary school (I can still remember one pupil asking, "Sir, did this really happen?", much as another might ask of a poetry composition, "Sir, does it have to rhyme?") and I read bits of Virgil - the second book of the Aeneid, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes and the rest, for my Latin O-Level. We also read the letters of the younger Pliny, about which I remember nothing save that he reported the destruction of Pompeii.

I also read Aristotle when I was at Oxford. Or rather, it was on my reading list and I bought a copy of the Politics. This was an advance of a sort. As a rule, almost everything on the reading list went unread, and almost everything I bought would go unread as well. (Just about the only books I bought and read were by people like EP Thompson and Christopher Hill and weren't really necessary for the curriculum I was studying.) The Politics went mostly unread, save for some of the comparisons of governmental forms which I read with theoretical interest but insufficient knowledge of Aristotle's subject matter to keep proper track. I knew very little of the world within and about which it was written. At the time I was unaware that there had been a Peloponnesian War, let alone who had fought it, or who won.

I did find out not very long after. In the nine years after leaving Oxford (after leaving Oxford University, that is, since I carried on living in the one, and the one is not the other) I lodged with Graham, who had come to the university to study Chemistry, had ended up reading Classics instead and who had copies of Ste Croix's Class Struggle In The Ancient Greek World and his Origins of the Peloponnesian War. I read neither book, since I was yet to recover from the destruction of my enthusiasm for reading - or for anything else - that was among the consequences of my three years "studying" in Oxford and the breakdown that I suffered at the end.

Graham also wrote an article for a socialist magazine in which he celebrated the 2500 years that had passed since the origins of democracy in ancient Athens. This was an anniversary of which I was unaware and an event of which my awareness was only marginally greater. All of this, being Politics, the only subject, as I now very much regret, about which I remained able to read, stimulated my interest to some degree. But not enough. Not enough to shake off my lack of enthusiasm for enthusiasm, not enough to make me read more.

I could watch more. I remember a TV programme in which the late Bob Peck read passages from Thucydides, culminating in the disaster that overcame the Athenian force during its expedition to Sicily, captured or killed in its entirety. I remember also reading a copy of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, which I found in the back of a friend's car on the way home from a football match, and thinking it a breeze. Though not a pleasant one for the benighted members of the ruling class of Rome, the casualty rate amongst whom, during the reigns of Nero and his successors, appeared to match that suffered by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during Stalin's purges. I couldn't understand why people worried about being sent into exile. It seemed to me to be several degrees of magnitude safer than any of the conceivable alternatives.

This was what first attracted me to the classics. Good stories without unnecessary fiction. I still cannot really read fiction any more. I doubt that I have completed twenty novels in the last ten years. I find myself too much aware of the artificiality of the novel, too disinterested in the characters created by the author and therefore insufficiently affected by what happens to them. It's not a critique. It's certainly not a theoretical position. It's just an inability to concentrate.

I skim-read. I keep track but I cannot keep my mind on it. So I build up no picture of the individual, and very little awareness of them other than a name. But I am aware of events. They keep me reading. I may not care so much what happens to the characters, but I still want to know what happens. I kept reading Xenophon because I wanted to know if they would make it home to Greece and what would happen on the way.

Even if you know the outcome, as you always would in a Hollywood film, it is still worth following for the exigencies, the contingencies, the reversals of fortune, the difficulties overcome and the ingenuity involved in overcoming them. So I was less moved than one is supposed to be by the cries of "The sea! The sea!" - I knew that it was coming and could therefore hardly share the Cortez-like wonder and bewilderment of the Greeks. But The Persian Expedition is still only halfway through when they find themselves on the shores of the Black Sea, and although they know it not, half their journey is still ahead of them. And one reads on.

I liked also the straightforwardness with which the Greeks appeared to discuss ideas. That was one of the merits of democracy being the exception among the political systems of the day (and an unpopular exception with most of its leading thinkers). If they did not believe in democracy, they felt no mealy-mouthed compulsion to pretend they did. What they said was what they thought. And the presentation of their ideas had the same straightforward quality. As nothing was assumed, therefore everything had to be explained. The most advanced political works nevertheless include the most basic definitions of their terms. If they are among the most influential works of political thought in human history, they are also, often, among the most accessible.

To start from first principles is an approach I find refreshing. I read Plato's Republic, mostly on a ferry journey between Dublin and Holyhead, and learned from the translator's introduction that Socrates spent his time travelling through Greece asking people what they meant when they casually used terms like right or freedom. It is not hard to see how this must have got on people's nerves, and perhaps how it might have made the man unpopular enough to lead, however indirectly, to his trial and his bowl of hemlock. It is also annoyingly reminiscent of Michael Howard, who often invokes the phrase "as I go about the country talking to people" before expounding his latest prejudice-driven policy initiative - as if he actually did this, which he patently does not, but also as if he were a contemporary Socrates. (But one who has dispensed with all the wisdom while retaining all the capacity to irritate.)

But it is at least a starting-point allowing for the discussion of the ideas and concepts that we please. It is the very opposite to the enervating complacency that passes for political discussion in the contemporary world, where we are invited to assume - where we are instructed to assume, if only by default - that all the great questions of politics and economics have been resolved by the events of the last twenty years of history and that the world which we are living in is the last and only one imaginable. The Greeks, by contrast, were well aware that there were a whole range of possibilities. Political systems were altered by human action in the world in which they lived, and in a variety of directions. Nothing was settled. Nothing, therefore, could be assumed.

It followed, therefore, that where it was possible to change the system under which one lived, it was necessarily possible to imagine such a change. Idealism was not something to be sneered at. Indeed, it was something which their thinkers were supposed to engage in, something which was arguably the primary purpose. Therefore their thought was alive, alive and healthy where ours has already pronounced itself dead and happy to be dead. (There are good reasons for retreating from the here and now.)

I read Xenophon when living in the YWCA in Newcastle during the autumn and winter of 2001. I had a tiny room but had to stay in it most of the time. Being a hostel, the TV room was usually occupied by a few people who no more wanted to see you than you wanted to see them. What violence there was, was sporadic and short-lived, and usually led to the expulsion of the offenders: but muttered threats, however vain they may be, are unpleasant and unsettling all the same, and there is always the risk of being caught up in something and finding oneself also expelled and with nowhere to go but the street.

So there was little to do but read - I had no money to go out with- and so I read. I read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus. I also read the life of Spartacus in a collection of biographies by Plutarch, who is able to find very little harmful to say about a man whose memory he must have feared and hated. Then, while I was still at the YWCA, 9/11 happened. And I read Thucydides.

Auden's poem September 1, 1939 came into my mind on the very day of the attacks. I remember posting it on the internet - it went round the internet, as I was far from the only one to whom it almost instantly occurred - and emailing it to friends. The feeling of foreboding, the certainty of war to come, the feeling that the politics of the recent years were rotten and were about to burst and eject all the accumulated poison into the world at large. These, in the minds of many, linked poem, past and present.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
And there, in the third verse, was Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian war, about which I should have read Graham's book ten years before. The war which defeated and destroyed the power of the state which first founded the idea of political democracy and then discredited it through its recourse to imperialism:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
I had, therefore, to read Thucydides. When I did, I came across a most striking passage in the second of his eight books. Archidamus, one of the two Kings of Sparta, warning of the danger of Athenian resistance and vengeance should the Spartans attack their territory, has these words attributed to him:
People grow angry when they suffer things that they are quite unused to suffer and when these things go on actually in front of their own eyes. They do not wait to think, but plunge into action on the spur of their impulse. And the Athenians are especially likely to act in this way, since they think that they have a right to supremacy and are much more used to invading and destroying other people's land than seeing this happening to their own land.
Thucydides knew. Auden knew what Thucydides knew, and I could hardly help but know the same. We must suffer them all again. And that bounced me back from the ancient world to the contemporary, and back to the ancient, no longer to hide from the contemporary but to understand it. To Tacitus, his Agricola, and the contempt of Calgacus for the Pax Romana:
They create a desolation, and they call it peace.
One is pulled back, inevitably, to the here and now. It is, after all, a major reason why the Victorians studied the Greeks and Romans as thoroughly as they did. They admired, in the Greeks, the defeat of democracy - and in the Romans, the triumph of imperialism.

Ste Croix writes:
Romans often pretended that their empire had been acquired almost against their own will, by a series of defensive actions, which could be made to sound positively virtuous when they were represented as undertaken in defence of others, especially Rome's 'allies'. Thus according to Cicero, in whom we can often find the choicest expression of any given kind of Roman hypocrisy, it was in the course of 'defending their allies', sociis defendendis, that the Romans became 'masters of all lands' (De Republica, II.23/35). The speaker in the dialogue, almost certainly Laelius (who often represents Cicero's own views) goes on to express opinions - basically similar to the theory of 'natural slavery' - according to which some peoples can actually benefit from being in a state of complete political subjection to fairness to Cicero, we must not fail to notice that on several occasions in his letters and speeches he knows a real awareness of the hatred Rome had aroused among many subject peoples by the oppression and exploitation to which she had exposed them.
The present is full of echoes of the past. But repair to the past - and it is full of echoes of the present. There are no hermits any more. All your escapes are merely temporary.
An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
All the things from which we try to take shelter. We must suffer them all again.


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