The harmony of the spheres

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One of Pythagoras’ many fascinating theories is known as the harmony of the spheres. I remember first hearing this theory mentioned in a lecture almost twenty years ago and being utterly captivated by it. It struck me as such a beautiful idea that I simply had to learn more. The theory is that each heavenly body in the universe emits its own distinct sound as it travels through space. The intervals between the heavenly bodies are said to replicate the intervals between notes on the musical scale, and taken together, these sounds combine to create a celestial and wondrous music:

Pythagoras, employing the terms that are used in music, sometimes names the distance between the Earth and the Moon a tone; from her to Mercury he supposes to be half this space, and about the same from him to Venus. From her to the Sun is a tone and a half; from the Sun to Mars is a tone, the same as from the Earth to the Moon; from him there is half a tone to Jupiter, from Jupiter to Saturn also half a tone, and thence a tone and a half to the zodiac. Hence there are seven tones, which he terms the diapason harmony meaning the whole compass of the notes. [Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, 2.20.]

Plato adopts the idea and writes about it in book ten of his Republic. In the myth of Er, Plato describes the journey of a soul after death, the judgement of souls, and the structure of the entire cosmos. At the heart of the cosmos is the spindle of Necessity around which all the orbits of the universe turn. On each orbit, a Siren stands, singing a single note. Together, these eight singing Sirens combine to create a wonderful harmony. Singing along with this music are the three daughters of Necessity, known as the Fates: Lachesis who sings of things that were, Clotho who sings of things that are, and Atropos, the things that are yet to be. [Plato, Republic, 10.616c-617d]

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Necessity and the Fates

The idea reappears in the writings of Cicero many centuries later. The universe is described as linked together in nine circles or spheres. The outermost sphere embraces and holds together all the others. As the planets revolve within their spheres, they produce a note, depending on the speed of their revolution. The celestial zone, full of stars, revolves quickly and is said to produce a sharp, high note while the moon is said to produce the lowest tone of all. The combined effect of these sounds is captivating and beautiful:

“What,” I asked, “what is this sound that fills my ears, so loud and sweet?” “This,” he replied, “is that sound, which divided in intervals, unequal, indeed, yet still exactly measured in their fixed proportion, is produced by the impetus and movement of the spheres themselves, and blending sharp tones with grave, therewith makes changing symphonies in unvarying harmony.

Cicero suggests that earthly music can open a pathway back to this celestial harmony:

Now the revolutions of those eight spheres, of which two have the same power, produce seven sounds with well-marked intervals; and this number, generally speaking, is the mystic bond of all things in the universe, And learned men by imitating this with stringed instruments and melodies have opened for themselves the way back to this place, even as other men of noble nature, who have followed godlike aims in their life as men.

The problem for mankind is that, according to Cicero, “the ears of men overpowered by the volume of the sound have grown deaf”. [Cicero, The Dream of Scipio]

This theory of the music of the spheres continued to be influential throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, and reappears in Shakespeare:

Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1.

The harmony of the spheres has clearly inspired poets, mystics, philosophers, musicians and writers for many centuries. Astronomers have even found their own version of the truth, making recordings of the many amazing sounds of space. But can we recapture the inner harmony that Shakespeare suggests we are capable of? For my part, I’m going to close my books for a moment, unplug the headphones, step outside on this late Spring evening and watch the stars. It is time to respond to Cicero’s exhortation: “Come!…how long will your mind be chained to the earth?”

Resources:

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time – The Music of the Spheres:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00c1fct

Sounds of the universe:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/nov/21/comet-67p-sounds-of-the-universe-planets-nasa

Online texts:

Plato’s Republic, 10.614d:

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D10%3Asection%3D614b

Cicero’s Dream of Scipio:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/cicero_dream_of_scipio_02_trans.htm

 

 

Out and about in fourth century BCE Athens

If you should find yourself out and about in Athens in the fourth century BCE, here are some things to be mindful of:

1. Dress Code and Grooming

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One’s cloak should reach down to the calves. An ankle-length cloak is a sign of affectation, while a short cloak is the mark of a poor person, a penny-pincher, a pro-Spartan or a philosopher. The cloak should be thrown over the left shoulder, so that it hangs in folds, held in position by the left arm, leaving the right arm free. One should definitely wear undergarments. The right combination is thin undergarments, with a thick cloak, not the reverse. When sitting, the cloak should be pulled down below the knees.

Long hair is the sign of a rich young dandy, but hair cut too often, whitened teeth, and strong perfume are the signs of an oligarch or an arrogant man. Conversely, to smell of garlic, or strong herbs is boorish. As for tattooes – it is best not to have them, or at least, to cover them up. In Thrace, a tattoo is the mark of noble birth, but in Athens it is the mark of a runaway slave.

2. Shopping

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In ancient Athens, men do the shopping, not women. It is appropriate to be accompanied by a slave who will carry one’s purse and the shopping and walk behind at a distance. A respectable man does not carry his own shopping, or use the front pocket of his cloak as a shopping bag. In the market, one must be careful not to be seen outside the perfumer’s or the hairdresser’s shops for this is where loungers and gossips congregate. And one mustn’t associate with market-traders, riff-raff or people who have lost lawsuits. By all means, one can talk to the nut and fruit sellers, but not when the market is really busy, and it’s not fair to eat their produce while talking to them.

3. Meeting and greeting

When shaking hands, only the right hand is used, the left hand is kept inside the cloak. Double-handed clasping is considered over familiar and to embrace someone with both arms is excessive and obsequious. Only a boorish type talks at the top of his voice, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, or spits in public. Slandering others is bad form, particularly slandering one’s friends and relatives. To speak ill of the dead is unlawful.

4. The bathhouse

There are only four rules to remember in the Athenian bathhouse: bring your own oil flask (it must be fresh oil, not rancid); respect the bath-attendant (it is his job to douse you with water, not yours); don’t practice wrestling moves or wriggle around; and don’t sing.

5. Attending a symposium

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If you are invited to dinner, it is important to remember that shoes are not normally worn indoors. Modest praise of the host and the host’s children and the house and the wine is appropriate. The place of honour is beside the host but only a man of petty ambition would insist on sitting next to the host. If you are minded to spit, you mustn’t spit across the table and hit the wine-waiter.

6. Hosting a symposium

If you are hosting the dinner, it pays to remember that a respectable host will never answer the door himself because that is his slave’s job. Make sure that there is enough food, especially meat and bread. A host must dine with his guests – only an arrogant man would ignore his guests and instruct one of his employees to look after them. It is important to mix the right amount of wine, to have the flute girls ready to go, and only to dance with those who are sufficiently intoxicated.

*This is a selection and summary of material I presented at the 2017 FAAIA Annual Fundraising Dinner.

Sources: J. Diggle (2004) Theophrastus: Characters, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 43, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Images: Watercolour sketches by Peter Connolly (sourced online).

 

A time-traveller’s guide to etiquette in fourth century Athens

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To be a classicist is to be a type of time-traveller. Every day, with the help of a set of wondrous keys known as ‘texts’, ‘artifacts’, and ‘material remains’ we step into our cerebral time-machines and return to the ancient world. We wander the landscapes, witness battles, overhear debates and visit the sacred temples. We walk the streets of ancient cities, visit the marketplaces and the Stoas, the bathhouses and the gymnasia. We watch theatre performances, wander through private homes and sit in on symposia. It is an extraordinary experience and a great privilege.

One of our jobs is to bring back the information that we have learnt from these experiences and to articulate it in a clear and comprehensible way for a modern audience. To close the gap in time, to bring the ancient world into the present and to share what we have observed and understood about these ancient and fascinating peoples.

Tomorrow night, I look forward to presenting the end of year speech at the Annual Fundraising Dinner for the Friends of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens. In my speech, I will present a set of findings and observations about etiquette in fourth century Athens, based on a recent time-travelling experience conducted along with twelve students, with the help of an extraordinary guidebook from 319BCE known as the Characters of Theophrastus.

Theophrastus’ little book gives us a wonderful insight into the subtleties of social etiquette and behaviour in the ancient world: how long should one’s cloak be? what sort of pets should one keep? how should one shake hands? how should one behave in the bathhouse and theatre? how should one behave as a guest at dinner, or as a host?  All of this, and more, is revealed by a careful reading of this unique work. I look forward to presenting a compact guide to social faux pas, and how to avoid them, in late fourth century Athens.

[The dinner will take place at 7.00pm on Friday 3 November 2017 in the Aegean Room at the Hellenic Club of Canberra in Woden. Tickets are $65 (and $50 for students). With special thanks to the ANU Canberra FAAIA.]

The Classic Hangover

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It is the final week of the university semester. Lecturers have been sapped, library shelves have been ransacked, campus lawns bear the scars of countless feet trekking between buildings and a few dedicated students trudge off to their final classes for the week. For students and lecturers alike, there is a mixed sense of pride, relief and achievement in finishing their courses. Many students will spend time celebrating and drinking with friends before sobering up to face their impending exams, and many will celebrate again after exams and well into the Christmas period. So, here is a blog for those students who are so inclined. A well-meaning, amusing but salutary warning against excess and its after-effects from the seasoned revellers of the classical world. It comes with kind humour and my best wishes to all students for the exam period, a happy end to another teaching semester, and a festive but safe holiday period:

A portrait of The Drunkard, written by Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE):

‘Satiated with too much food and drink from a former day, at noon he is with difficulty awakened drunk, first with eyes wet with wine, blinded with moisture, heavy, unable to look at the light steadily; exhausted because his veins are filled with wine rather than blood, he cannot raise himself; at last, leaning on two servants, languid, tired from lying in bed, clothed in a tunic but without a mantle and wearing slippers, his head bound in a little cloak to keep off the cold, his head bent, eyelids lowered, face pale, he is raised from the couch in his bed chamber and is dragged to another in the dining room.

There, a few daily guests await him, summoned by the same desire. Here indeed as a petty chief, with what he has left of his mind and sense, he hastens to proffer the cup; he challenges to drink, he incites just as if he were in battle and surmounting or striking most of the enemy, thinking the greatest share of the victory his own. Meanwhile he proceeds to mock time in drinking; his eyes, weeping wine, make mists about him; the drunk scarcely recognise the drunk. One man without cause provokes his neighbour to a quarrel; another, surrendering to sleep, is kept awake by force; a third gets ready to quarrel; the doorman restrains a fourth from corrupting the company with a desire to go home; he beats him, forbids him to leave, pointing out the master’s injunction. Meanwhile a boy supports another fellow, abusively pushed out of the door reeling, and leads him away, the man dragging his mantle through the mire. At last left alone in the dining room, our man cannot put the cup down before sleep overcomes him as he drinks; the cup slips from his shaky hand as he collapses.’

Source for text:

Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE) ‘The Drunkard’ quoted by Rutilius Lupus, Schemata Lexeos (On Figures of Thought and Style), translated by Boyce (B. Boyce, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, London, Frank Cass & Co., 1967, pp.22-23).

Header image:

Terracotta jug depicting a drunken old woman clasping a wine jug: Roman, early third century CE, made of African red slipware. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.

Link to source:

http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/index9.html

When nature merges with myth

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It’s springtime in Canberra. The days are temperate, the sun lingers longer in the afternoons and the trees are glowing with effervescent green. Gardens are punctuated by bright splashes of colour from tulips, daffodils, cyclamens, anemones, irises and ranunculi growing in their midst. Riding through local suburbs I am struck by wave upon wave of floral perfumes – first sweet daphne, then mellow hyacinth, rich lilac, heady freesia, honeyed jonquils and aromatic wisteria. Which got me thinking: all these floral names evoke some wonderful Latin and Greek terms with some very interesting mythological stories to match.

The anemone or ‘wind flower’, for example, comes from the Greek ἄνεμος meaning ‘wind’. The petals of these flowers are so easily disturbed by the slightest breeze I can see how the flower acquired its name. The name reminds me of the Greek gods of the winds – Zephyros (the west wind, the gentlest of them all), Boreas (the north wind, fierce and gutsy and notorious for snatching a princess of Athens named Oreithyia) and Notos (the south wind). The steward of the winds was Aiolos. He collected the winds and bound them in a leather bag to help Odysseus sail directly homewards but, just as Odysseus’ dear island of Ithaca came into sight, the exhausted Odysseus fell asleep. Odysseus’ companions, thinking that the bag he was guarding was full of treasure, stole it. When they opened the bag, the wild and furious winds were released, a great storm blew up and the ship was driven far out to sea once more.

The narcissus is more commonly known as the daffodil and/or jonquil. The name is derived from the Latin ‘narcissus’ which, in turn, is derived from the Greek νάρκισσος and the Greek word νάρκη meaning ‘numbness’. The legend of Narcissus from Greek mythology is well known. Poor Narcissus has now acquired a bad reputation for vanity, self-infatuation and self-love but when he first caught sight of his reflection in the pool, he was unaware that the reflection was his or even that it was just a reflection (he tried to embrace it). There is an absolute innocence and lack of self-knowledge in the tragedy of Narcissus that is often overlooked.

The iris flower is named after the Greek word for ‘rainbow’ or ‘a bright halo of light’. It is also the name of the Greek god Iris, divine messenger of the Olympian gods. She is the female equivalent of Hermes, but she is less mischievous and found only in the heavens and on earth (never in the Underworld). In Book Five of the Iliad, Aphrodite is wounded in the fighting. A sharp spear tears through her immortal robes and gouges her wrist. Aphrodite lets out a piercing shriek “[b]ut Iris quick as the wind took up her hand and led her from the fighting…racked with agony, her glowing flesh blood-dark” (5.353-354).

Cyclamen is from the Latin cyclaminos which is in turn derived from the Greek word κύκλος meaning ‘circle’. These curious little plants produce round tubers, which are thought to have inspired the name. I can’t help thinking of the enormous Cyclopes, so named because of the single round eye in the middle of their foreheads. The Cyclopes were wild and brutish giants who represent the antithesis of Greek notions of respect for the gods and hospitality towards guests. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops named Polyphemus is a favourite episode from the Odyssey and is often portrayed in Greek vase paintings. A lesser known tradition is that the Cyclopes were blacksmiths (with names like Brontes ‘Thunderer’, Steropes ‘Lightner’ and Arges ‘Flasher’) and were responsible for forging Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Daphne comes from the Greek word δάφνη meaning ‘sweet bay, laurel’. It is impossible not to be reminded of the myth of Daphne and Apollo when smelling this incredibly perfumed flower. Daphne was a beautiful nymph but like many of her kind, she wasn’t keen on male company. She preferred to live a carefree life in the wilds of nature. She was hotly pursued by Apollo but she resisted and begged her father, a river god, to transform her before she could be taken. Her father transformed her into a bay tree, and from that time on, the laurel became the sacred tree of Apollo.

Apollo continued to be unlucky in love. He next fell in love with a handsome Spartan youth named Hyacinthus. They liked to take turns throwing the discus. But on one occasion, Hyacinthus was too eager to collect the discus and it bounced and struck him in the head, killing him instantly. From the blood of Hyacinthus a flower grew, with petals bearing the Greek letters αἰ or αἰαι, representative of the sound of crying and grieving.

What evocative little wonders of nature these flowers are, with such interesting names, histories and associations! The stories range from the tragic, wondrous, exciting and frightening – almost as varied as the colours and shapes of the flowers themselves. And this is only a small selection. Too soon the wind will change, the petals will fall, the colour will fade and the heat of summer will come. Just like the seasons with their endless cycles, and the disappearance and reemergence of spring blooms, these mythological stories reappear and are told again and again in a myriad of forms.

References:

W. Hansen, Classical Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Homer, Iliad (transl. Fagles), London, Penguin, 1990.

The Horticultural Society of Canberra Inc., The Canberra Gardener (ninth ed.), Canberra, Pirion, 2004.

Header image:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, Apollo and Daphne, marble sculpture, Galleria Borghese.

Image sourced from: http://nashvillearts.com/2014/09/see-berninis-apollo-daphne/

 

 

Pleasure and pain

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Sitting in prison, having just received a visit from his distraught wife and his little son, surrounded by a few devoted friends, and rubbing the painful mark that the chains have left upon one of his legs, a man remarks on the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain:

“What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think,” he said “if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.” (1)

Any man who has the strength of will to philosophize awaiting execution is no ordinary man. These are, of course, the words of Socrates. A profound observation presented not in the usual form of a statement, question or dialogue, but a simple Aesopic fable that captures a universal truth: pain and pleasure are conjoined and follow soon after one another.

Dualism was fundamental to ancient Greek thought, philosophy and language. Dualistic concepts such as Greek/barbarian, male/female, and freedom/slavery underpinned ancient Greek social definition and status; Greek philosophy is replete with discussions of dualistic concepts such as bad/good, form/material and body/soul; Greek expression is full of contrasts and opposing concepts and ideas (sooner/later, on the one hand/on the other hand, one/another).

What I like about Socrates’ story is that, just as in so many things in life, it takes a third party to intervene in the war between dualistic opposites (in this case, pleasure and pain) and to insist upon unity (in this case, the intervention of Zeus, by fastening their heads together).

But given Socrates’ instructive fable, why is it that when we are consumed by either pleasure or pain, we tend to forget the inevitable and imminent arrival of its opposite? And is there an exactly proportional relationship between the two phenomena (the bigger the pleasure, the bigger the pain that follows, and vice versa)? And is it possible for pain and pleasure to exactly coincide, or by definition, can they only ever follow, one after the other? Questions, and more questions. Socrates might have reflected further on these topics had he not been interrupted by his companion Cebes. And alas, we have no further musings on the subject, for we all know what happened to dear Socrates.

(1) Plato, Phaedo 60b-c;

Text available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D60b

(2) Header image: Eternal Love by Igor Mitoraj, sculptural exhibition at Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, 2011.

Image sourced from: http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/igor-mitoraj/

 

 

 

The pain of learning

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Why does real learning necessarily involve a sort of painful process? Why doesn’t it come more easily, more naturally and more pleasurably? Is there some obstacle in our path, some resistance that has to be overcome or some illusion that we must get rid of before real learning can begin?

Socrates answers all of these questions in his famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ (Plato, Republic, 7.514a).

He describes our situation of ignorance as one that has been well-established since childhood: we dwell in ignorance (a dark cave), we are unable to move beyond that position of ignorance (“legs and necks fettered…remain[ing] in the same spot”] and although the path to knowledge is open to us (“a long entrance open to the light”) we cannot take it. Why? Because we are hypnotised by shadows of images flickering on the walls of the cave and echoes of sounds heard in the cave (things we assume to be ‘real’ and ‘true’) and we take these to be ‘reality’ and cannot imagine that another reality exists. Is this situation our fault? No. It is simply what we have always known.

According to Socrates, the process of learning and change involves many stages: a release from old preconceptions and assumptions (freedom from the fetters); a sudden shock (sufficient to make one “stand up suddenly”); a changed viewpoint (turning one’s head around); a recognition of true knowledge (the “light”) and pain (“pain…because of the dazzle and glitter of the light”). To realise that one’s knowledge has been built on a false foundation necessarily involves pain and a feeling of being “at a loss”. Do we enjoy this realisation? No. Our first instinct is to run back into the cave with its flickering images, and to dispute the existence of any reality outside of the cave. How easy and comfortable it is to settle back into our original position and to forget.

We must be compelled, by someone else, to overcome our unwillingness to leave our subterranean home:

“[But if] someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and not let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so haled along, and would chafe at it, and when he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?” (Plato, Republic, 7.515e-516a)

Adjustment to the light, says Socrates, takes time and involves a gradual heightening of awareness. First, our eyes must adjust to seeing shadows, then reflections, then the objects themselves, then the light of the heavens, the stars and the moon, and eventually, the light of the sun (Good) itself.

This allegory applies to all forms of learning and education for all forms of learning are difficult. But Socrates had his eye on self-knowledge and knowledge of the Good above all other things and this learning he regarded as the most difficult (and precious) of all.

This allegory does not have to be read, as some would have it, as a sad reflection on the human condition, man’s hopelessness and ignorance, and his unwillingness to change. Amongst other things, it teaches us about the constant presence of Good; the very real possibility of a transition from ignorance to knowledge; recognition of the pain of realisation; acknowledgment of the realities of fear and struggle and internal resistance; our need for help from others; and the happiness that comes with achieving real learning.

Text available from:

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D514a

Header image:

Gold stater of Rhodes (c.125-88BC): radiate head of Helios (reverse side has rose with bud on right, grain stalk on left, above moneyer’s signature ANTAIOY).

Image sourced from https://www.flickr.com:

G325 An Exceptionally Rare Greek Gold Stater of Rhodes (Islands off Caria), of Extreme Rarity as Compared to the Prolific Minting of Silver and Bronze at Rhodes

 

 

 

The Daily Odyssey

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“Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now

in the waves and wars. Add this to the total –

bring the trial on!” (Homer, Odyssey, 5.244-48)

I wake to the sound of Odysseus’ words ringing in my ears. Arise! March on! There is more labour to come and there is nothing to be done but to take the load upon one’s back. A job to get to, a book to write, a house to clean, children to raise – bring the trial on!

The journey always has its perils. Instead of a vast and perilous wine-dark sea we have bad drivers, endless traffic, red-light runners and roadwork monsters. Once we enter our workplace, quiet and dark like a cave, it is as if we are about to be swallowed up by a giant of some kind, for we know not when we might escape, or whether we will ever escape at all. It looks innocent enough, but the challenges are lurking, like Scylla and Charybdis and the clashing rocks.

Some days are like Circe herself: outwardly charming to begin with but with a hidden intent to bring out our beastly side. The trick is to follow the god’s advice and stay immune. Some days are like Calypso: we lose ourselves in her sweet deceptions and when we return to look at the clock, we find, to our horror, that we have just lost ten years in what seemed like minutes. Some days are like a journey to the Underworld: a virtually impossible test of bravery, strength and endurance, punctuated by an unexpected phonecall from our mother.

Then there are the Sirens: self-doubts, worries and old wounds from the past that haunt us and seek to distract us from the task ahead. We must fill our ears with wax and row with all our might.

And of course our colleagues: well-meaning and brave companions who are committed to accompanying us until journey’s end but not always the best at following instructions. For instructions equivalent to “do not open this bag” and “do not eat this cattle” can be seen in virtually every workplace fridge and they are hardly every followed.

Battling with the ‘gods’ takes all our strength and forbearance. Do not anger Poseidon or you will be tossed upon the stormy sea like worthless driftwood; beware Zeus and his thunderbolt that screams “You’re fired!”; pay heed to Athena the wise, grey-eyed goddess with her quiet perceptiveness and good humour.

Now, it’s 5pm. Expect to feel a little washed up and washed out, as if you had just been stripped bare and spat out by the sea and left upon a rocky beach. The palace of Ithaca is in sight but, you can’t go home yet for there are problems. Big problems. Last-minute tasks, lined up like eager suitors, are determined to stop you from getting home. Calm and cunning is required. Disguise yourself like a beggar, trust hardly anyone at all, and plan carefully. Your final effort to push through these obstacles must be calm, considered and merciless.

At the door of your home, there is one final test for the day, this time with loved ones. You have been through a great deal, but you must prove yourself to those who know and love you best. The routine questions “how are you?” and “how was your day?” are really not that different from those that passed between Odysseus and Penelope: “are you still the person I fell in love with?” and “do you remember what we have built together?”. The answer is, and must be, emphatically: Yes! Home at last.

 

Header Image: Red-figured stamnos (jar) showing Odysseus and the Sirens

Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=7497001&objectid=399666

If I had a dollar…

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“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Why are you studying Classics?’ I would be a wealthy woman.” This remark came from one of my students as we had a discussion after class about her career plans and aspirations. Her frustration was so evident, as was her deep enthusiasm for Classics and her steadfast determination to pursue a career in teaching and academia. How does one reconcile what one is passionate about with the oft-held view that what one studies at university should be practical and vocational?

This was a timely remark given that we were just about to have our university Open Day and all of the Classics staff (including myself) were rostered on over Saturday to ‘sell’ our discipline to prospective students. To my delight, we did not have to sell it: the enthusiasm of the school students who approached our stall on Open Day was clear and obvious. Conversations invariably started with “I am studying Classics/Ancient History/Latin and Greek and I really love it”. I have to raise my glass at this point to all of the high school history and language teachers who share their passion for the ancient world; the parents who still diligently read the Greek myths to their children as bedtime stories; and all the relatives and family friends who fill young minds with the great stories, ideas, and teachings from the ancient world. Clearly, the flame of Classics is alive and burning. The problem is how to make sure that the flame is not snuffed out by the increasing emphasis on more vocational, skills-based degrees, whatever they may be.

There are, in fact, quite a few arguments in favour of choosing Classics over other subjects but these arguments vary in their persuasive force.

Argument 1: Study what you enjoy!

Study what you enjoy and what you are interested in and if Classics is one of those things, so be it. With statistics showing a downward slide in university degree completion rates, it seems logical for students to enrol in a degree that they are enthusiastic about. (1) If students follow their interests and passions, they are simply more likely to complete their degree.

Yes, but what about my job prospects after university?

Argument 2: Studying Classics gives you skills!

This is not just empty rhetoric. The skills acquired from a good grounding in Classical subjects can be enumerated and they are real, valuable and widely applicable. They include the ability to think critically; the ability to analyze sources and distinguish fact from opinion; the ability to concentrate and apply one’s knowledge to complex problems and find solutions to those problems; the development of high-level oral and written communication skills; the ability to argue persuasively and present ideas and concepts clearly and succinctly, the list goes on and on…

Yes, but surely those skills aren’t exclusive to Classics?

Argument 3: Classics is the foundation of Western civilization!

The civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome are the foundations of modern literature, culture and politics! Democracy, philosophy, tragedy, it all starts with Classics. If we understand the foundations of Greek and Roman society, we gain a better understanding of the contemporary world. Arguably, we can’t understand our contemporary world without making reference to the classical past! (2)

Yes, but this argument is well-known and obvious. What else can you offer?

Well, here’s another argument. It’s the most persuasive one, in my view.

Argument 4: Can you say in full and complete honesty that you ‘know yourself’? In order to know anything, surely one must start with ‘knowing oneself’? Surely you feel compelled to ‘know yourself’, given that this thing called ‘yourself’ is such a complex and wondrous thing? If so, then the study of Classics is for you.

This argument stems from two simple Greek words emblazoned on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’ (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). (3) This was a command, not a wish, or a suggestion. Socrates refused to rest from his questioning and probing (of himself and others) until he satisfied this demand. And the study of Classics is a gradual progression towards the fulfillment of this simple command, to ‘know thyself’.

If, at the end of a Classics degree, a student can say the following:

“I have journeyed to distant lands, and times and places,

I have risen to the greatest heights of ancient civilization and conquered the world,

I have met kings and queens, generals, heroes, priestesses, slaves, courtesans, wives, poets, philosophers, fools, seers, citizens, foreigners, market traders and fish sellers,

I have walked among the ruins of ancient civilizations, marveled at their grandeur and achievement, and contemplated their fall and the inevitable passing of my own civilization,

I have filled my eyes with masterful works of art and wondered at the pursuit of beauty and the perfect form,

I have fought in battles with the heroes of the great epics and witnessed the glory, despair, tragedy and human suffering of war,

I have heard stories of the gods, worshipped the gods, challenged the gods and suffered the consequences,

I have journeyed, explored, and lost my way, and fought to find my way back home again to my beloved family,

I have participated in all the myriad forms of human emotion from pride to piety, from wrath to revenge, from love to hate,

I have conversed with some of the greatest of human minds, heard their words, challenged their arguments and ideas, and concluded that I too know nothing,

I have heard stirring words, passionate words, persuasive words, harsh words, words of praise and blame, warning and exhortation,

I have laughed and rollicked, and revelled, and mocked and poured scorn on public figures and intellectuals all in the name of comedy,

I have lived among cultures with practices and beliefs utterly strange but yet so familiar in their thoughts and feelings,

I will never be alone again, for the ancient people I have met represent so much of human thought and experience that they will be constant companions and reference points for me for the rest of my life,

I have begun to understand the full breadth and depth of human experience in all of its myriad forms, and so, I have begun to know myself.”

then it’s not a bad choice of degree, I say.

 

References:

(1) ABC news article on rising numbers of unfinished uni degrees:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-18/one-in-three-university-students-still-studying-six-years-later/8189292

(2) Why every state school should teach classics:

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/why-every-state-school-should-teach-classics?amp

(3) Why study the classics:

http://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2017/08/17/why_study_the_classics_110191.html

(4) Header image sourced from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_thyself

Capturing time

Turin, Museum of Antiquities. Kairos. Marble bas-relief. Roman c

Time eludes us. We never have enough of it when we need it. Good times with dear ones pass quickly. Dull times pass slowly. A day rushes by in a flurry of activity, an hour is lost on a hopeless task, a sweet moment, like a kiss, lingers and then melts away. What is this slippery thing we call ‘time’?

The ancient Greeks had two quite different concepts of time: chronos (χρόνος), referring to a period, season or space of time; and kairos (καιρός) referring to the right time for action, the critical moment. Chronos is linear and can be measured, in days, months and years. Kairos, however, is an altogether different concept. It refers to recognition of the significance of the present moment.

In Greek mythology, Chronos is described as great, crafty and cunning. He was one of the Titans, the earliest generation of Greek gods and one of the twelve children of Heaven and Earth. He is a portrayed as a destructive force and his power is characterized by violence and the violation of proper order and hierarchy. Initially, he had no consideration, obeyed no rules, and was seemingly wild and uncontrollable.

Chronos is said to have ambushed his father (Heaven) as he lay with his mother (Earth) and castrated him using a sickle with jagged teeth. He then took his father’s place as ruler of the cosmos and married his own sister, Rhea. Interestingly, ‘Rhea’ means ‘flow’ or ‘ease’, a gentler concept of time passing, often linked with the female menstrual cycle and with motherhood. But even after marrying Rhea, Chronos’ nature did not change.

In an effort to protect himself from being usurped, Chronos swallowed each of his children as Rhea gave birth to them:

These great Cronos swallowed as each [460] came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, [465] strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. (1)

Rhea sought help from her parents and they devised a plan, as retribution for Chronos’ violence toward his father, and for swallowing his children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in a secret place on the island of Crete and, with the help of her mother, Zeus was hidden away.  A stone wrapped in swaddling clothes was presented to Chronos and Chronos duly swallowed the stone:

Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods. (2)

Zeus grew up and gained strength. With the help of the other Olympians, he waged a ten year war against his father Chronos and the other Titans, eventually defeating them and driving them into Tartarus. Zeus (representing law, order and proper hierarchy) eventually brought Chronos under control; the era of chronos without logos had passed, and chronological time began.

In Greek mythology, Kairos is a completely different figure to Chronos. Lysippos is said to have made a bronze statue of Kairos in the fourth century BCE. Unfortunately, the statue has not survived, but we do have a marble relief that is said to be a copy of Lysippos’ work (see header image above).

Kairos is depicted as a youthful, athletic figure with wings on his back and feet. He is balancing on a stick, whilst holding a sharp blade in his right hand and a set of scales. There is tension, concentration and complete focus in the moment. In ancient Greek history, the ‘kairos’ refers to the turning point in the battle, the moment at which the outcome will be decided. In literature and drama, the ‘kairos’ is the critical moment for the protagonist, the point in time at which his choice of action will determine his fate.

In the third century BCE, the poet Posidippos composed the following epigram to accompany Lysippos’ statue:

“Who are you? Kairos, subduer of all.

Why do you stand on tip-toe? I run quickly.

And why you have wings on both your feet? I am as swift as wind.

Why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As proof to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.

Why does your hair grow over your face? For one who encounters me to grasp.

And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? For once my winged feet pass by, even if desiring to, no one can grasp me from behind.

Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson.” (Anth. Pal. 16.275.7).

I am coming around to the view that kairos, the critical moment, is more important than chronos. I think my children have taught me this. I used to be beholden only to the concept of linear time, particularly, the past and the future. Little children live only in the present moment. They are wonderfully free of the burden of chronological time. They seize kairos by the hair and they don’t let him go.

The two Greek concepts of time illustrate to me that I will never have any control over chronos, but with kairos I have a chance. If one is present now, in this moment, and awake to what is required in this moment, then one has a chance to realize something, to bring something about, at this critical juncture between linear time and opportunity.

(1) and (2): Hesiod, Theogony available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu

Header image: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=2638