Friday, July 22, 2011

23rd July 2011

The value of honour

The Murdoch family keep on saying ‘sorry’, but the popular feeling is that they should be saying they feel ashamed. That, however, suggests they have a sense of shame in the first place.

For Homer’s heroes, shame (aidôs) and its counterpart honour (timê) were the two most powerful forces that controlled their behaviour on and off the battlefield. Aidôs was an emotion, derived from heroes’ image of themselves, that was acutely responsive to the way other people thought about them. The major difference with our world is that Homeric aidôs was prospective. It was not what you felt after you had failed; it is what you summoned up to ensure you did not fail. ‘Put aidôs in your hearts’, Homeric heroes urged on their men, as they went into battle. ‘I shall not retreat like a coward’, said Trojan Hector to his wife Andromache. ‘I would feel aidôs before the Trojan men and long-gowned women if I did.’

The root of the word timê was financial — your positive value to the world you lived in. This lay in serving your society (and so yourself) by winning on the battlefield. It was desire for timê, accrued over a lifetime, that gave the heroes the chance of winning the greatest prize of all — kleos, the reputation that lived on after their death.

People’s reaction to Murdoch’s sleazy empire is equally Homeric. The word is nemesis — the anger a man feels at someone’s failure to feel due aidôs at what is understood to be shameful behaviour. This gets to the heart of the outrage felt at Murdoch and his journalists. For them, timê lay in getting the big headline story, irrespective of the consequences for anyone’s feelings. There was no glimmer of aidôs holding them back — why should there be, when the timê they desired was getting the scoop in the first place? Was that not their job?

That is the world of Murdoch and the rest of them — a world without aidôs except in its own self-serving, journalistic terms.

As for the police, whose timê is surely defined by their commitment to the lawful conduct of society, words almost fail.

Friday, July 15, 2011

16th July 2011

Belonging to the emperor

Since the emperor is going through a bad patch at the moment, his News International slaves had better watch out. One bloodbath may not be enough for the old monster. They can expect to have to bend even more obsequiously to his commands over the coming months if their positions are to remain secure.

Imperial life was a nightmare for Romans. They needed all the self-defence mechanisms they could muster against its insecurities. The emperor Caligula, Seneca tells us, imprisoned the son of Pastor, a distinguished Roman, because of his foppish hairstyle. Pastor begged for his life, so Caligula immediately had the son executed, but invited Pastor to dinner the same day. Pastor turned up, old and gout-ridden as he was, and ate and drank as if nothing had happened, without signs of grief or remorse. ‘Why, you ask?’ Seneca goes on, and answers: habebat alterum — he had another son.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (once a slave) pointed out the humiliations involved: ‘If you wish to be consul, you must stay up all night, run back and forth, kiss hands, say and do many slavish things, send many people gifts and, to some, presents every day.’ Even so, he goes on, ‘the emperor might die; or what if he became your enemy?’ But Epictetus understood the lure of it all: ‘No one loves the emperor, but we do love riches, a tribunate, a praetorship, a consulship. When we love and hate and fear these things, those who dispense them must necessarily be our masters.’

An old courtier explained as follows how he had survived so long for one in his position: ‘By accepting insults and expressing gratitude for them’. So whatever his courtiers’ feelings about his recent behaviour, Murdoch can look forward to even more servile adulation from them than normal: they know which side their bread is buttered, and they want to keep it that way. Their careers are at risk. But for the actual staff of News International, of course, no sweat: the emperor will now shine his Sun on them on Sundays too. Which is precisely the problem gnawing away at those poor old MPs.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

9th July 2011

What to do about the old? In the ancient world, the welfare state did not exist, and few people lived to be old in the first place (perhaps only 5% could expect to make 60). They still had strong views on the matter.

One of the most touching passages in Homer’s Iliad is spoken by Phoenix, the man who raised Achilles. Childless himself, he describes how he ‘always had to take you on my knees and feed you, cutting up your meat for you and holding the wine to your lips. You would often soak the front of my tunic, dribbling wine all down it - just like a baby! I went through a great deal for you and worked myself to the bone, aware that the gods were not going to send me a son of my own. So I tried to make you my son, godlike Achilles, so that you would save me some day from a miserable end.’ That was a duty of children. If an Athenian wanted to hold public office, he had to declare ‘whether he had family tombs and where they were, and whether he treated parents properly’.

Romans had always seen the family as the foundation of the stable society. The key to it was pietas, the respect for man and god that created and nourished the bonds that held the family together. Pius Aeneas, mythical ‘father’ of the Roman people, was the great exemplum, carrying his aged father on his shoulders out of burning Troy.

But there was another side to the question. In his dialogue on old age, Cicero argued that physical and mental decline could be kept at bay by frugal eating, moderate exercise and intellectual pursuits (very keen on memory exercises). Pliny the Younger admired the regimen of the 77-year old senator Spurinna: up an hour after dawn, three mile walk conversing with friends or hearing a book read, rest, carriage ride with wife and friends, another mile on foot, back to his room to write poetry in Latin and Greek, naked open-air exercise with a ball, bath, rest, and simple dinner accompanied by a play or a reading.

Old age is no respecter of persons. But while families have a responsibility—certainly to keep care homes up to scratch—so do oldies: while one can, preparing oneself to be old.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

25th June 2011

The pride of Greece

A burning desire to come out on top is bred into the bone of every modern, as it was of every ancient, Greek. Now that the EU is publicly humiliating the country, no wonder there is revolution on the streets.

When Achilles went to Troy, his father ordered him ‘always to be best and superior to everyone else’. In another war, another Greek hero Amphiaraus ‘had no desire to be reputed the best: he wanted to be the best’. Victory at the Olympic Games, in the opinion of the poet Pindar, brought a man as close as it was possible to being a god on earth. But if Greeks cared very much indeed about winning, they cared even more about losing. But at least there was one compensation: if they failed, revenge was always at hand, and that was almost as sweet.

Romans felt exactly the same way. Lucius Caecilus Metellus founded one of the great noble houses of Rome and died in 221 bc. His son Quintus said of him at his funeral: ‘My father achieved the ten greatest and best things, which wise men spend their whole lives seeking. He wished to be the first of warriors, the best of orators, and the most valiant of commanders; to be in charge of the greatest affairs and held in the greatest honour; to possess supreme wisdom and be regarded as supreme in the Senate; to come to great wealth by honourable means; to leave many children; and to be the most distinguished person in the state. Since Rome was founded, none but he has achieved all this.’ Such intense desire for personal glory had its merits; but, like the Greeks, Romans too harboured a determination to get even if they felt themselves demeaned.

Brussels, happy to suspend the economic laws of gravity in its pan-European power grab, allowed the Greeks into the EU on an economic assessment that both knew perfectly well was a lie. Now the eurozone is paying the price. Come on, you Greeks: do you really want Brussels to win? Time for heroic self-sacrifice — or revenge. Destroy the eurozone, now. Brussels’ fantasy world has to collapse as some stage. You can earn some credit for it.

2nd July 2011

The Olympic flame relay did not begin in Ancient Greece

The Olympic Committee has begun its quest to find ‘inspirational men and women’ to carry by hand the sacred Olympic torch from its ancestral home in Greece to its final destination in London. One can sense Zeus stirring from his eternal slumbers on cloud-capped Mount Olympus in anticipation of this age-old ritual, well satisfied that the greatest Panhellenic event of the ancient world, once held in his honour at his sanctuary in Olympia 140 miles away, is still signalled by the flame’s traditional progress in the hands of relays of runners from country to country. Some things, we may smugly reflect, never die.

But a moment’s further reflection may suggest there is something rather fishy about this circumambulatory torch. These days, it carries the flame from Olympia to the city where the Games are going to be held. Question: where were the Games held in ancient Greece? Answer: every four years, from 776 bc till ad 393, in the same place—Olympia. So it was lit in Olympia and then carried to Olympia, was it? πολλὰ τὰ δεινά [Polla ta deina], said Sophocles, ‘There are many astonishing things’, but this was not one of them.

Nor, incidentally, was there anything unique about the flame, as if it might have needed transporting anywhere in the first place. Every sanctuary in the whole Greek world had fires burning in it, for the simple reason that fire was divine, stolen from Zeus and given to mere mortals by Prometheus (who was severely punished for his pains). Where else should it burn but a sanctuary? So Zeus might well be boiling with rage that his rituals were being mucked about with.

Time, therefore, to wipe the steam from the mirror of yet another Olympic delusion with a few facts, the first of which is that the only ghosts to be stirring will be those of Hitler, Goebbels and their tame Nazi sports-administrator Carl Diem. Further, they will be stirring with self-satisfaction, since the international cross-country torch relay was their idea.

Berlin had been told that it would be granted the Olympic Games for 1916, but the Great War ended all that. Germany was banned from participating in the 1920 and 1924 Games, but its two skilful and committed administrators, Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald, restored German entry to the Amsterdam Games (1928), and after Los Angeles (1932) won the 1936 Games for Berlin. They might have been scrapped when Hitler came to power in 1933, since he suspected that international sport was a conspiracy cooked up by Jews and Freemasons. But he had his mind changed by Goebbels, who saw them as a golden opportunity to showcase what an advanced nation Germany had become, how vastly superior the Aryan race was and how worthy an inheritor of ancient Greek ideals and values. (The Olympic Games? Political? Don’t be ridiculous.)

It was in this context that in 1934 Diem dreamed up his idea of inaugurating the Games in Berlin with a flame, carried across Europe by a relay of racially acceptable runners, in a torch lit in Olympia. So on 20 July 1936, the ‘sacred’ Olympic flame was duly created from steel reflectors (by Zeiss) — the same technique is still used today — in a ceremony featuring virginal priestesses in short skirts, a high priestess, and a choir singing a Pindaric ode, and duly transmitted to a magnesium-fuelled torch (by Krupp) held by a Greek athlete. Thence it was relayed over the 1,400 miles to Berlin, mainly via countries that would within a few years find themselves under the peace-loving Nazi jackboot. On 1 August, in an arena hung with huge banners sporting the swastika, Hitler assured the crowds that sport helped create peace between nations and expressed the wish that the Olympic flame should never die. The 3,075th runner lit the ‘eternal’ flame, and Hitler was presented with an olive branch from Olympia.

Where on earth did Diem get this idea from? Its origins may lie in a blend of two ancient Greek customs. First, cities held local torch relay-races of a religious nature, where the winner placed his torch on the altar of whichever god(dess) was being celebrated; second, in the spring of each Olympic year, three ‘sacred heralds’ were sent from Olympia to travel the Greek world, asking city-states to ensure safe passage for travellers to the Games. But whatever the explanation, the idea proved an instant winner with the IOC and has been repeated ever since.

So should it be banned? Of course not. Ritual, however bogus, is by definition the life-blood of Solemn Rites like the Olympic Games, signifying the mystical union of nations. Further, the argument that the torch-relay is not ancient is completely irrelevant. The original Games were a cult festival in honour of the gods and devoted to sacrifices, offerings and prayers; were staged only in Olympia; lasted five days, with virtually no change in the 13 events on display from 520 bc onwards (and certainly not including the Marathon, another modern invention as an Olympic event); had no concept of ‘records’; gave prizes (an olive-wreath) only to the winners; featured males, not females, naked, not clothed; and were contested not by teams from different Greek states, but by professional, locally financed individuals who had to present themselves in Olympia a month in advance. They were given a strict training regime by the judges, and competed in trial contests. The result was that some athletes won the prize akoniti, ‘without dust’, i.e. without a contest: their rivals, seeing the competition and keen not to be humiliated, simply withdrew. You got nothing for a pathetic second or third in those days.

In other words, except for the professionalism, the cheating and a few of the events (sprint, the ‘mile’, javelin, discus, boxing, wrestling, long-jump, pentathlon), nothing survives of the ancient Olympics whatsoever. So what? We don’t live in ancient Greece. And what’s the odd Nazi-inspired fantasy between the IOC and its mission of peace, harmony and goodwill between all peoples?