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2015-03-03
Of Aristotle and Plato
As followers of my Facebook posts will be well aware, I've spent about a year slowly going through the 'Politics' of Aristotle. The neatness of the aphorisms and the perceptiveness of the observations make up for the pain of struggling with the actual Greek. However, the 'Politics' was not my first choice – my original plan was to read through the Republic of Plato. That plan was abandoned because, while I rather like the company of Aristotle, reading the 'Republic' makes me want to climb into its pages and give the characters a good kicking.

The joy of Aristotle is that he begins by taking people as they are, and believes that the objective of a society is that people might live happily within it. Aristotle also rejects the idea that all men are alike, and reckons circumstances produce different kinds of city and society which should each strive for happiness in their own way. Sure, he is sexist, nationalistic and elitist – in fact Aristotle would happily agree to all these charges, and defend the validity of his viewpoint while conceding that you might have a point as well. You can talk to Aristotle.

Now let's look at the opening plan of one of the characters in Plato.

'They should begin by expelling from the city all inhabitants who are more than ten years old. Then take possession of the children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents. These the rulers will train in their own habits and laws – by which I mean the habits and laws which we [philosophers] have given them'.

See what I mean? Kick, kick, kick. Later we hear how the simple-minded and disabled should be 'disappeared' from society and quietly disposed of. How the 'Guardians' should be entitled to censor news and lie to the people. How all men - apart from the high-minded Guardians - are evil by nature and inclination and must be controlled by constant surveillance and the threat of punishment. Who should these Guardians be? Well, the philosophers in Plato's discussion admit that it would fall on them to reluctantly assume the task for the greater good. Do you feel like kicking them yet?

While Plato and Aristotle are both looking for ideal societies, Plato seeks the perfect abstract, and Aristotle looks for the best that can be achieved in the real world. But that's not the only difference. Aristotle's ideas lead eventually to a liberal western-style democracy; Plato is a totalitarian nightmare.
 
2015-02-08
Whoosh! There goes February ...
Hmm. February is going to be a short month, both because of the lack of days and because of the over-sufficiency of things with which to fill those days. My blog updates are meant to be published before the Nones (fifth) of the month, and it's already approaching the Ides (13th). In my defence, ever since my return from the tender mercies of the hip rehabilitation people, I've been running around like a demented chicken trying to catch up with October and November. However, I learned during my days as a journalist that if you write in haste, the resultant text looks as if it was written in haste, and I pride myself on a polished product. So over the last month or so I've been unhastily spending every free minute writing the text of a course I'll soon be teaching, a paper on Archetypes in Greek Myth, revised early chapters of my novel and book proposals for a friendly publisher. The good news is that things are now pretty much up to date, although this tardy blog post remains as a sacrificial offering to the fact that there are only so many free minutes available.

There's also a book on the sacred Mysteries of Artemis at Ephesos which I'm reviewing. It's interesting to see how much attention historians are giving mystery cults at the moment. Mystery cults fascinated the ancients because they provided a personal connection to a deity through some re-enactment of that deity's life (in Ephesos the cult was related to the birth of Artemis). The cults fascinate modern scholars because the evidence is vague, scanty and ambiguous. We also get a lot of detail from hostile Christian sources, which is to some degree ironic as the ancients regarded Christianity itself as also being a mystery cult. Now the cults are fascinating me, and taking up time I don't have.

The result has been more digging through the topic than a simple book review might warrant. However, there's also the fact that I'm doing this review for my friends over at the UNRV website, and they have just sent me a magnificent map of the Roman empire to adorn my study wall. This map is both detailed and a work of art, and it certainly would merit the detailed research of my reciprocal review even if the subject were not so fascinating that I'm doing the research anyway. Meanwhile I have to revise the early chapters of the novel speedily (though not in haste) in order to clear enough post-it notes from the wall for there to be space to hang the map in the first place.
 
2015-01-04
Anno 2768 AUC
As we head into 2015 the year ahead looks busy. There's my various projects including two books I'm having too much fun with to finish, but have to get out of the door eventually, and a chapter on female archetypes in myth that I promised the International Psychological Association I would have ready by the end of the month. There's also the teaching schedule to keep me busy, and the fact that at the end of 2014 a truck (fortunately unoccupied) rolled down the mountainside we live on and went through our back garden wall before going on to wipe out the shed. Nothing can be done now as the snow is deep and the ground frozen but the chaos will need sorting out in spring.

Anyway, apart from all that, there's a parallel calendar I like to keep an eye on. It's for the year, but exactly 2000 years out of date. Thanks to Tacitus, Cassius Dio and friends I can follow the year AD 15 pretty closely, and that too promises to be busy. The main event is, of course, watching Tiberius settling down to his first year as sole emperor and watching imperial paranoia manifest itself in a set of new treason laws. Come spring I will follow the campaigns of Germanicus in the Rhinelands, and the capture of the pregnant wife of Rome's arch-enemy, the traitor Arminius. Later in the summer Germanicus will recapture lost Roman standards and visit the graves of the men of the 'lost legions'.

In autumn the Tiber will flood and leave the Roman forum awash, and Vitellius, the future short-lived emperor of Rome will be born. There's a couple of city foundations too, but I'll catch up with events as they happen by settling down at the end of each month with the 'Annals' of Tacitus. It looks like AD 15 was a full year, but lacking the extreme tension and drama of the one previous. After a hip operation, a sick cat and a demolished back garden, I'm hoping the same will be true of my year two millennia later.
 
2014-12-12
A (carefully edited) rant
'Never edit my writing. It's like vampirism, it sucks all the joy and spontaneity out of what I said and makes it into the dull and ordinary corpse of my original idea.'

Hmmm. Earlier this month I ended up browsing a writers' forum. Scrolling through the various posts (it was late, I had a glass of port and little else to do) I came across the above comment. Now everyone has their own ideas of how to write, and who knows, maybe the person who expressed this opinion will go on to become a best-selling author. Nevertheless, I beg to disagree with this viewpoint and to disagree strongly, simply because there are enough genuinely bad books out there without adding to their number.

Writing on ancient history often involves working with texts which were never meant to be seen by the non-specialist reader. They involve eye-watering phrases such as 'a dichronous eschatological epistemology' - to quote a gem from the book I am currently reading. However, even if unreadable, such material has at least been carefully worked over by the author who is truly unable to express his ideas more clearly, and possibly works in an environment where dichronous eschatological epistemologies are everyday items.

This is a type of bad writing I can live with because part of my job involves interpreting this stuff into something people will read for pleasure. What I find harder to stomach is the idea that tipping the contents of one's mind onto a page results in less of a jumble than tipping the contents of a sock drawer onto a bed. In fact the quote which started me on this expostulation does not deny that unedited text is a jumble, but points out that it is a joyous and spontaneous jumble. Quite possibly. However if it is to be readable, writing has to be organized. If it is to give the appearance of a jumble then it has to be even more carefully organized. (Joyce's 'Ulysses' is a good example.)

As for the 'joy and spontaneity' issue, I would argue that editing is a part of the writing process. If you can't enjoy turning a crude idea into polished prose, and doing so in a way that doesn't destroy spontaneity, then perhaps 'writing' doesn't exactly describe what you are doing. It's more the literary equivalent of dumping building material in a heap and announcing that you have built a house.

Shakespeare's folios show that he painstakingly rewrote his material over and over. So did Kafka, Hemingway and almost every other great author one might mention. Typos, repetition and poor grammar are not charming and idiosyncratic, they are signs of laziness and disrespect for the reader. Perhaps this is typical of how the arts are becoming a self-indulgent mess. Perhaps it's a sign that I'm getting old, grumpy and out of touch.

I do know though, that when my editors have allowed such errors to slip through, reviewers both professional and amateur are scathing about it. But then, I am writing about classical history and about ideas and events which are confusing and complex enough without involving 'literature'.
 
2014-11-04
Realism in pottery
Recently I wrote a review of Josho Brouwer’s ‘Henchmen of Ares’. (Which was a very good book, by the way). Although I like doing book reviews, these are somewhat time-consuming as I not only read the work from cover to cover, as any decent reviewer should do, but I also end up doing a lot of research to check some of the author’s conclusions. So every book I review results in my learning a lot of new material. In this case, my research was directed at pre-classical Greek pottery, and the accuracy of the figures depicted. Early Greek pottery shows a huge variety of themes, especially military, so the question is – do the warriors on the pots look anything like the actual warriors who were around at the time?

Two examples will show that this need not necessarily be so. The first is from later Greek pottery. These pots often show naked cavalrymen in poses which, if realistic, would result in the horses’ spines causing both acute discomfort and probably the end of each particular cavalryman’s family tree. The second example is Medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting scenes from ancient Rome. While some of these paintings are doubtless great works of art, they are next to useless for giving factual information about ancient Rome, since dress, weapons and architecture are wildly out of date or from the wrong era altogether.

So a line of warriors on a 3000-year pot might be an accurate depiction of the warriors in that time and place. Or the picture might be the artist’s wild concept of what Heracles and friends looked like a half-millennium before that, and the ‘warriors’ were as fantastical to the artist’s contemporaries as they seem to us today. I am assured by those who have made a detailed study of the matter (including Dr Brouwers himself) that there are stylistic techniques which can be used to sort fact from fiction on pottery. Nevertheless, even these assurances can’t clear up my uneasy suspicion that if a historian could get a time machine and travel back to ancient Greece or Rome, neither place would very much resemble the idea we have of them today.
 

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