Friday, 15 March 2019

Rediscovering the classics

My daughter at the art museum, some years ago

Take anything that makes us civilised rather than barbaric-- human rights, science, democracy, libraries, comedy, tragedy, a justice system, education, philosophy, history – and it mostly began in one time and place, Ancient Greece. And for more than a hundred human generations since then, across much of the world and from the Bronze Age until the 20th century, becoming an educated adult meant starting where the human race started, with the Greek and Roman classics.

Dark Age monks and American revolutionaries, pioneer farm-girls and Victorian schoolboys, all grew up with Hesiod and Herodotus, Sophocles and Socrates, Plato and Plutarch, part of a common cultural heritage. Thus Homer could inspire Aeschylus could inspire Shakespeare, and Socrates could teach Aristotle who inspired Aquinas -- each generation adding to the Great Conversation through the ages, each making the world better than it was. Only our modern culture thinks it can re-invent everything from scratch.  

To do that, though, people had to know and care who the ancients were, and for centuries they did. When Shakespeare wrote his plays he could assume his working-class audiences were familiar with Ovid and Plutarch, because they were. Now that I read the writings of Jefferson or Lincoln, I realise how much of their writings drew from the Greek and Romans of their education – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, seems inspired by Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides.

Nor were such references exclusively for the rich, either: Jonathan Rose’s excellent book The Intellectual life of the British Working Class describes how labourers formed their own reading and debate societies, often tied to their unions, to make sure everyone could read such books. The speeches of Lincoln and his contemporaries, moreover, swell with classical references, and were delivered to barefoot farmers. According to de Tocqueville, every pioneer cabin, no matter how rustic, had books to read.

Teacher’s journals or education guides from 19th-century America demonstrate an amazing breadth of learning, with even poor farm children learning Shakespeare or Plutarch at young ages. Of course we can’t know how much was absorbed, but it’s telling that children’s guides from that era are often beyond that of college students today. In teaching my daughter the Iliad I tried to use Rev. Alfred Church’s 1892 children’s version (“for Boys and Girls … in Simple Language.”), but its language would be quite advanced for even adults these days.  

Black-and-white films, old newspapers and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries made casual references to references from Cicero or Caesar, assuming everyone would understand what they meant. The 1948 memoir Cheaper by the Dozen, for example, begins with the line, “My father, like Gaul, was divided into three parts.” To readers in the 1940s the joke was obvious, for most people had read the journals of Julius Caesar, who famously began by saying that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” Now, a few generations later, you would not find one person in a thousand who would get it.

Likewise, the famous sculpture of George Washington in a toga looks bizarre to us, since the Founding Fathers didn’t dress like that. To Americans at the time, however, the meaning was immediately clear; George Washington was Cincinnatus, someone who walked away from total power – or as my daughter once put it after reading Tolkien, “he put down the Ring and walked away.”

In the last few generations, however, our culture has abruptly, shockingly abandoned these most basic parts of education, making most of our cultural heritage opaque to young people today. Occasionally a home-schooler embraces the classics for their child, or I find a young person whose life was changed by discovering the Stoics. Such people, however, are specks of light in a new dark age, in which few people are familiar with works of art older than themselves, or can join the conversation of the ages.  

I took a few years of Latin and read a few classics, but not much – so when I wanted to introduce

them to my daughter, I first had to open them. The stories were intensely readable, filled with characters who were lusty, scheming, flirtatious, noble, self-destructive and dryly comic. The writing styles take some getting used to, granted, and the turgid translations often don’t help — so when I taught them to my daughter, I edited the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we acted out the characters.

When we read about Solon, for example — the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – we pretended to be Athenians in that time, when the city was ruled by dictators. With sticks for swords we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens created an information blackout, forbidding any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone pretended like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.

“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but they were the original draconian laws, where the penalty for everything was death. To make the point we created a one-act play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.

“Hey! That’s against the law!” she said as Draco. Oh, shoot, I said as the Athenian – can I pay a fine?

“No!” she said, as Draco. “The penalty is DEATH.”

That’s ridiculous! I said. “Complaining about it is DEATH,” she said.

Who hired you, buddy? I asked. “Asking who hired me is DEATH.”

As much fun as this was, the gravity of it began to sink in – Solon was ready to die. “What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem about the defeat at Salamis, I explained. He put on his hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of everyone, and recited the entire story of the defeat. He might have even sung it, opera style.

“What happened to him?”

Pelopidas, from Plutarch
He persuaded a lot of Athenians that they should take back the island, I explained, and they pressured the rulers, who gave in — and Solon came up with a cunning plan to win this time. It was …umm … I hesitated.

“Yes?” she asked.

Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?

“Right?” she asked.

Well, I said, the Athenians did that.

There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.

***

After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth – a group of them came to be known as the Seven Sages.

He even attracted the attention of a Scythian — Scythia included what we now call Russia, a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.

We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. Solon! I said in a fake Russian accent. I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!

“You know,” my daughter said, playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want to make friends, you should start at home.”

Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.

“Um … yes,” Solon replied.

Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly, hugging Solon.

***


Finally we got to how he created democracy. When the working-class people of Athens were suffering, and getting ready to revolt, the elites – unlike our elites today – decided they had to give up something to keep the peace. They turned to the one person everyone trusted – Solon – and made him dictator. What did he do once he came to power? I asked. Did he make himself king?

“No!” said my daughter emphatically, “He said everyone had to vote, create juries, and so on, and made everyone swear an oath to follow the rules of a democracy; no one could change them except him for ten years.

Then, after everyone had sworn, Solon said, ‘Good! Now I’m going on vacation – for ten years!’” Excellent, I said. And it worked – everyone was forced to work together, and no one could call on him to override the rules.

***

Before long there was trouble, though, I told her -- they almost lost their democracy when it had barely begun. Some Athenians wanted a local gangster named Peisistratus to be their ruler – remember that everyone was used to having a ruler, and not having to rule themselves.

“Piece-a-stratus?” my daughter repeated. “Did a Mr. Stratus have several kids, and he was one piece?”

Well, he was certainly a little piece-of-something, I said, and he came up with a cunning plan to take over Athens by force – three times.

My daughter looked perplexed. “You mean he came up with three plans, in case one didn’t work?”

No, I said – I mean he came up with a scheme to take over the city, and it worked, and he became dictator. Then the Athenians came up with their own plan to bring democracy back, and they kicked him out. Then Peisistratus came up with a second plan to take over, took over a second time, and they Athenians kicked him out a second time. Then he came up with a third plan …

“Um. Hang on,” she said. “He took over the city and became dictator three times in a row? And he
was never put in prison or anything?”

Prisons only became common recently, I said, and even now in most of the world they’re rarely used – the United States is an exception. Athens used to exile people if they got to be too much trouble, and everyone would vote on who to kick out of town. Except with Peisistratus it didn’t work – he kept coming back.

“Why did so many people let him take over?” she asked in disbelief.

The same reason people want strong leaders now, I said; if you just put your hero in charge, everyone can rally around the hero, and you can all just beat up the people you don’t like. Democracies, on the other hand, aren’t much fun – you have to listen to people you disagree with, and everyone has to make compromises that nobody likes.

“But if most Athenians wanted democracy, how did Peisistratus take over?” she asked.

By trickery, I said. First, he showed up with a shallow wound – Herodotus says he wounded himself – and said, “Oh, no! I’ve been attacked by my enemies! What kind of a people are we who let gangs with knives roam the streets!” I put the back of my hand to my forehead in a diva gesture.

“Why would he wound himself?” she asked.

Coriolanus, from a 19th-century children's version of Plutarch
It wasn’t a serious wound, I said, and it made everyone sympathise with him, so the Athenians let him walk around with bodyguards. Then Peisistratus hired fifty of his supporters, armed with clubs, to follow him around like an army.

“Fifty men!?” She said.

Yes, it was a bit excessive, wasn’t it? I said. Then Peisistratus showed up at the government building with his fifty armed men, and everybody let them in because they were his bodyguards. Then they took over the government office and made Peisistratus the ruler.

“They weren’t the brightest, were they, Athenians?” she said.

Well, they were a bit new at this, I said. Thankfully, they raised an army to defeat his bodyguards and kick him out.

***

“But he left the country and came back again?” she asked.

Well, he went off and made money somewhere else, doing basic gangster things, I said. Eventually he saved up enough for a chariot — covered in real gold, like gangster might have today – and started driving it back to Athens.

Again she looked dubious. “A gold chariot?!”

That’s right, I said. Then he hired a beautiful woman and dressed her up like Athena – patroness of Athens – and drove back on the road to Athens in the gleaming chariot, with the woman in front saying, I am Athena, your goddess – you should all have Peisistratus be your leader.

There was a pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

Seriously, I said, that’s what he did. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician said they had God on their side. And he took over again, and the Athenians kicked him out again.

***

“What about the last time?” she asked.

Well, I said, that time he and his supporters only had the power to take over the temple at the top of the hill, so they did that. The Athenians raised an army to stop him again, and they gathered around the hill, with Peisistratus and his men outnumbered at the top. Then Peisistratus came out to the front of the temple and said he had an announcement for everyone.

He stood at the steps of the temple, looking down the hill at the Athenian army gathered outside the temple grounds, raised his arms impressively, and shouted something that the Athenians couldn’t make out, I explained. So the Athenian army all shouted back, WHAAAAT? I always pictured it like the villagers in the film Young Frankenstein, talking to the police inspector.

I said, Peisistratus said, MUMBLE-MUMBLE-MUMBLE.

WHAAAAT? the Athenians all said. WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.

You’ll have to all come a little closer, Peisistratus said, so you can hear me. Come inside the temple grounds, and listen. I’ll have my men back off.

So Peisistratus’ men left, and the Athenians all left their weapons in a pile at the gate – they couldn’t carry weapons onto sacred ground – and all shuffled in and gathered around Peisistratus. Okay, they said, we’re here. What did you want to tell us?

What I was saying before, Peisistratus said, Is that we’re taking over the city. My men have just circled ‘round to the gate and taken all your weapons.

My daughter smacked her forehead. “D’OH!” she shouted, Homer Simpson style. “What a bunch of muppets! Please tell me they got smarter as they went.”

Everyone thinks they’re smarter, I said — wise people understand how little they really know.

We found these stories to offer comedy, intrigue and swashbuckling action, of course, but they offer something else. They show us a world where democracy, science and individual liberties had never existed even as ideas, and they show how difficult they were to create. They remind us that such things are not slogans, but acts, always fragile and often courageous.

By reading these stories, which inspired emperors and saints, soldiers and scholars through the ages, we create a lifeline between our troubled culture and theirs. We see them not as statues but as human characters in the great story, at least as foolish as we, and wrestling with some of the same dilemmas. When they find a way through their troubles, we realise that there is hope for us.


No comments: