Drawing lines

As a bittersweet moment I wish to inform my readers that this is my last post on this blog. I started this weblog several months ago as my first clumsy experiment in the blogsphere, unpretentious and without any other aim and hope than writing and expressing my love for the ancient world. Nevertheless, being an absolute beginner and not at all a cyber-person, I am now personally pretty satisfied of its outcome as I have effortlessly had quite a reasonable traffic, many more comments than I would have ever aspired to and even gained a few aficionado readers.

I had been harvesting during my readings several notes, reflections, thoughts and considerations that I wished to share, together with my passion for the classics, with other fellow-readers. Thus today I feel I have altogether accomplished my goal and said what I had to say. It is time now I get back to travelling and gathering new experiences and sources of inspiration. The comments will be closed, but the entire blog archive will stay online for the enjoyment of those who truly love classic culture and our romantic past.

I wish to thank my readers: the frequent and loyal ones and those who commented, as well as those who simply passed by and took the chance of reading even only a few of my articles. I also wish to thank Prof. Mary Beard who gave me directly and indirectly numerous and generous hints and ideas. A special tribute of gratitude also goes to Prof. Ana Rodriguez de La Robla, who – regardless our plain and insurmountable difference in academic stature – has kindly encouraged me and patiently supported me in my absolutely new adventure through the cyberspace and the classics. She, her unequalled works and vast brilliant writings have been a precious, unmatched and unparalleled model that I have humbly tried to emulate (alas! Unwieldily) and her erudite, witty and punctual comments have always been an unflagging source of inspiration and further reflection.

 

obelisco-negro.jpg

 

A man resolves to pursue his duty in drawing the world. As years go by he fills in a space with images of provinces, of kingdoms, of mountains, of bays, of ships, of islands, of fishes, of dwellings, of instruments, of stars, of horses and persons. Shortly before dying, he discovers that his patient maze of lines and curves simply draws the image of his own face.

[Jorge Luis Borges]

 

 

 

 

 

The Hemlock Cup

I have just this very instant completed reading The Hemlock Cup”. Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes a splendid portrait of a man, an extremely documented and detailed description of a society and an marvellous representation of an epoch.

I have greatly admired, perusing its pages, the endeavour and conscientiousness with which the author has assembled countless pieces of information of different nature and sources (historical, philological, literary, archaeological etc.) in order to converge towards a unexpectedly brilliant portrayal of the man considered the father of modern western thought.

In truth many events concerning Socrates’ existence are wrapped in a veil of uncertainty, thus compelling Ms. Hughes’ serious philological background unavoidably to prevail and as a consequence to consciously and frankly infer a few facts. Nevertheless the narration never lowers its rhythm, on the contrary: continuous chronicled references on Athenian daily life and actual allusions on museum and archaeological sites spur the imagination and the time-travel experience of any – even the one not initially enthusiast – reader.

It is also true that there are many Socrates’ scholars and biographers, which most likely have dissected any possible historical and philosophical aspect of Socrates’ life and death; yet the book offers an original and multifaceted portraiture of Socrates’ times and society enriched with indirect and sometimes anecdotal information about his shoddy demeanour and inquisitive attitude, and  delivers us a closer view of the “human being” instead of the unreachable puzzling Greek philosopher.

Now I cannot refrain wondering a renown and yet recurrent paramount question: how could Athens, such a highly praised civilisation – probably the very incarnation of Western Golden Age – accuse and sentence to death its most prominent mind and eminent son? Athens, the cradle of the same philosophy which has dominated sciences, arts, politics and life at least until the Middle Age and still influences modern thought; the mother and model of democracy, implementing any possible device to involve and include as many citizens as possible in active political life and to avert bribery and enticement – and the eulogy could go on and on…

In this regard Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840 bluntly concluded that:

Athènes, avec son suffrage universel, n’était donc, après tout, qu’une république aristocratique où tous les nobles avaient un droit égal au gouvernement. [De la démocratie en Amérique, Tome Deuxième, Chap. XV]

More harshly George Bernanos, in 1942, thus accused the French collaborationists, considering that elite culpable of betraying the French loyal spirit and code of honour:

En parlant ainsi je me moque de scandaliser les esprits faibles qui opposent aux réalités des mots déjà dangereusement vidés de leur substance, comme par exemple celui de Démocratie

La Démocratie est la forme politique du Capitalisme, dans le même sens que l’âme est la Forme du corps selon Aristote, ou son Idée, selon Spinoza. [Lettre aux Anglais, Atlantica editora, Rio de Janeiro 1942].

But way before XIX or XX century even Plato, already in his days – not too far from those of the death of his mentor – identifies the very root of the question, when he allows his fictional Socrates to unveil it by quoting an ironical parody of the legendary self-celebrating Pericles’ epitaph for the dead soldiers of the Peloponnesian War (in Plato’s dialogue fictitiously ghost-written by Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress):

…ἐπιμνησθῆναι. πολιτεία γὰρ τροφὴ ἀνθρώπων ἐστίν, καλὴ μὲν ἀγαθῶν, ἡ δὲ ἐναντία κακῶν. ὡς οὖν ἐν καλῇ πολιτείᾳ ἐτράφησαν οἱ πρόσθεν ἡμῶν, ἀναγκαῖον δηλῶσαι, δι’ ἣν δὴ κἀκεῖνοι ἀγαθοὶ καὶ οἱ νῦν εἰσιν, ὧν οἵδε τυγχάνουσιν ὄντες οἱ τετελευτηκότες. ἡ γὰρ αὐτὴ πολιτεία καὶ τότε ἦν καὶ νῦν, ἀριστοκρατία, ἐν ᾗ νῦν τε πολιτευόμεθα καὶ τὸν ἀεὶ χρόνον ἐξ ἐκείνου ὡς τὰ πολλά. καλεῖ δὲ ὁ μὲν αὐτὴν [d] δημοκρατίαν, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο, ᾧ ἂν χαίρῃ, ἔστι δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ μετ’ εὐδοξίας πλήθους ἀριστοκρατία. βασιλῆς μὲν γὰρ ἀεὶ ἡμῖν εἰσιν· οὗτοι δὲ τοτὲ μὲν ἐκ γένους, τοτὲ δὲ αἱρετοί· ἐγκρατὲς δὲ τῆς πόλεως τὰ πολλὰ τὸ πλῆθος, τὰς δὲ ἀρχὰς δίδωσι καὶ κράτος τοῖς ἀεὶ δόξασιν ἀρίστοις εἶναι, καὶ οὔτε ἀσθενείᾳ οὔτε πενίᾳ οὔτ’ ἀγνωσίᾳ πατέρων ἀπελήλαται οὐδεὶς οὐδὲ τοῖς ἐναντίοις τετίμηται, ὥσπερ ἐν ἄλλαις πόλεσιν, ἀλλὰ εἷς ὅρος, ὁ δόξας σοφὸς ἢ ἀγαθὸς εἶναι κρατεῖ καὶ ἄρχει. [ΣΩΚΡΑΤΗΣ ΜΕΝΕΞΕΝΟΣ, 238, c,d]

For a polity is a thing which nurtures men, good men when it is noble, bad men when it is base. It is necessary, then, to demonstrate that the polity wherein our forefathers were nurtured was a noble one, such as caused goodness not only in them but also in their descendants of the present age, amongst whom we number these men who are fallen. For it is the same polity which existed then and exists now, under which polity we are living now and have been living ever since that age with hardly a break. One man calls it “democracy,” another man, according to his fancy, gives it some other name; but it is, in very truth, [d] an “aristocracy” backed by popular approbation. Kings we always have; but these are at one time hereditary, at another selected by vote. And while the most part of civic affairs are in the control of the populace, they hand over the posts of government and the power to those who from time to time are deemed to be the best men; and no man is debarred by his weakness or poverty or by the obscurity of his parentage, or promoted because of the opposite qualities, as is the case in other States. On the contrary, the one principle of selection is this: the man that is deemed to be wise or good rules and governs.

Thus the enthusiasts of Athenian democracy have often failed, purposely or naively, to envisage the clearly distinguishable components and facets of an oligarchy of very few wealthy families, of which the rest of citizens (the vast majority, poor and illiterate) were easy preys; a sect of professional politicians/orators ruling the city slyly and untouched; an economic elite purporting an actual form of modern proto-imperialism over the Aegean Sea by means of a self-celebrating fame, violence and taxation to the benefit of a self-preserving authority.

It appears that the unconditional laudator temporis acti approach towards ancient Athens tends, still nowadays, to disregard the side effects even of the best democracy: its step-sister demagogy – perhaps the true responsible of Socrates’ death.

What women want…

Due to some strange reason, which I am still attempting to gauge, a noteworthy number of my girlfriends (meaning, naturally, female friends of mine…) indulge me with the honour of sharing their sentimental plights and grace me by soliciting my opinion and advice applicable to their love relationships. I find this peculiar circumstance both gratifying and worrisome at the same time: I do not deem myself the Antonio de Nebrija of love affairs as, because of my age and my average love life, I cannot possibly be particularly qualified to steer anyone’s assessment and decision within the highly intricate romantic field.

Nevertheless I confess that many have been so far the cases submitted to my wise estimation and in reference to which I have been warmly requested to express my reflections and contribute with my discernment; and pretty various have been the knotty, dire and thorny situations I have had the chance to encounter and hear, as well as quite diverse and well assorted is the gallery of their unfortunate female protagonists: being them such a greatly heterogeneous set of samples in so far as temperament, character, age and background are concerned. Yet, in conscience I believe it would be by all means accurate to affirm that – regardless the different state of affairs and scenarios – the main sources of their pains and grief can all be easily clustered under a sole and main paramount question: “Why do I always pick the wrong man?”

In truth I have some knowledge of stochastic analysis and therefore I cannot scientifically admit that this planet could be largely – if not solely – populated by Bireno’s comrades and poor Olimpia’s companions, and thus it cannot possibly be acceptable that each and every damsel’s customary doom is to awake stranded on a desert beach on an island off Scotland finding out her loved one is gone away to Zealand as Ludovico Ariosto narrates:

“Né desta né dormendo, ella la mano
per Bireno abbracciar stese, ma invano.
Nessuno truova: a sé la man ritira:
di nuovo tenta, e pur nessuno truova.
Di qua l’un braccio, e di là l’altro gira;
or l’una, or l’altra gamba; e nulla giova…
…Corre di nuovo in su l’estrema sabbia,
e ruota il capo e sparge all’aria il crine;
e sembra forsennata, e ch’adosso abbia
non un demonio sol, ma le decine;
o, qual Ecuba, sia conversa in rabbia,
vistosi morto Polidoro al fine.
Or si ferma s’un sasso, e guarda il mare;
né men d’un vero sasso, un sasso pare.”

[Between wake and sleep her arm she gently moves
Bireno to embrace whom she so love, but in vain.
There’s no-one there; her hand again she tends;
She gropes once more; then, finding no-one still,
First one and the another leg extends,
This way and that, but all to no avail…
… Again she runs along the sandy shore,
Hither and thither; not Olimpia
She seems, but some mad creature by a score
Of demons driven, or like Hecuba,
A prey to frenzy when her Polydore
She found there lying dead; and then afar
Olimpia gazes seawards, like a stock,
Standing so still a rock upon a rock.”]

Clearly I am fully aware that scoundrels, gold-diggers, social-climbers and adventure-seekers of both sexes do actually exist and do sadly roam around; yet this is to be considered more the exception rather than the rule; besides this is not the case I am hereby contemplating. With unambiguous reference to sound and morally unbiased relations – and thus excluding shallow petty Don Giovanni and hysterical post-feminists women – I am indeed more inclined to believe that, in spite of the spreading higher level of education and of the conquests of social emancipation, still misconceptions, misconstructions, miscommunication and misunderstandings tend inexorably to lead and send astray too many interactions between good-natured and well-intentioned men and women.

Among the vast number of hardly comprehensible causes I am firmly convinced that, regardless the numerous possibilities, occasions and instruments of social contact and dialogue, there is still a great deal of authentic solitude, diffidence and seclusion around. A circumstance that affects the concrete perception and vision of real life, stimulates dangerous over-speculations, encourages treacherous idealisations, inspires highly judgmental attitudes, rises expectations up to an unrealistic sphere and altogether consequently enfolds into a bundle of stiff preconceptions the entire framework of human relations and easily leads to the frustrations of Gautier’s chevalier d’Albert:

“Cela tient peut-être à ce que je vis beaucoup avec moi-même, et que les plus petits détails dans une vie aussi monotone que la mienne prennent une trop grande importance. Je m’écoute trop vivre et penser : j’entends le battement de mes artères, les pulsations de mon cœur ; je dégage, à force d’attention, mes idées les plus insaisissables de la vapeur trouble où elles flottaient et je leur donne un corps. – Si j’agissais davantage, je n’apercevrais pas toutes ces petites choses, et je n’aurais pas le temps de regarder mon âme au microscope, comme je le fais toute la journée. Le bruit de l’action ferait envoler cet essaim de pensées oisives qui voltigent dans ma tête et m’étourdissent du bourdonnement de leurs ailes : au lieu de poursuivre des fantômes, je me colletterais avec des réalités ; je ne demanderais aux femmes que ce qu’elles peuvent donner : – du plaisir, – et je ne chercherais pas à embrasser je ne sais quelle fantastique idéalité parée de nuageuses perfections. – Cette tension acharnée de l’œil de mon âme vers un objet invisible m’a faussé la vue. Je ne sais pas voir ce qui est, à force d’avoir regardé ce qui n’est pas, et mon œil si subtil pour l’idéal est tout à fait myope dans la réalité… Peut-être aussi que, ne trouvant rien en ce monde qui soit digne de mon amour, je finirai par m’y adorer moi-même, comme feu Narcisse d’égoïste mémoire. ”

Even though this sort of unconsciously secluded sentimental life, this άβιος βίος is a genderless widely diffused state nowadays, women who truly believe to be ill-fated because they chance to date always and only wrong partners are most likely the very same individuals who tend  to be prey of this perilous enmeshment and thus somehow they are more prone in driving away any – even earnest – pursuer:

“Les honnêtes femmes, même lorsqu’elles le sont moins, ont une façon rechignée et dédaigneuse qui m’est parfaitement insupportable. Elles vous ont l’air toujours prêtes à sonner et à vous faire jeter à la porte par leurs laquais ; – et il me semble, en vérité, qu’un homme qui prend la peine de faire la cour à une femme (ce qui n’est pas déjà aussi agréable qu’on veut le croire) ne mérite pas d’être regardé de cette manière-là.”

Without any shade of doubt it is far from my aim to recommend that an unadorned and straightforward love declaration (or rather a business proposition…) such as the one declaimed by Cervantes’ personage of Doña Estefanía de Caicedo would have miraculous effects on anyone’s love twinges:

”Señor alférez Campuzano, simplicidad sería si yo quisiese venderme a vuesa merced por santa: pecadora he sido, y aun ahora lo soy, pero no de manera que los vecinos me murmuren ni los apartados me noten. Ni de mis padres ni de otro pariente heredé hacienda alguna, y con todo esto vale el menaje de mi casa, bien validos, dos mil y quinientos escudos; y éstos en cosas que, puestas en almoneda, lo que se tardare en ponellas se tardará en convertirse en dineros. Con esta hacienda busco marido a quien entregarme y a quien tener obediencia; a quien, juntamente con la enmienda de mi vida, le entregaré una increíble solicitud de regalarle y servirle; porque no tiene príncipe cocinero más goloso ni que mejor sepa dar el punto a los guisados que le sé dar yo, cuando, mostrando ser casera, me quiero poner a ello. Sé ser mayordomo en casa, moza en la cocina y señora en la sala; en efeto, sé mandar y sé hacer que me obedezcan. No desperdicio nada y allego mucho; mi real no vale menos, sino mucho más cuando se gasta por mi orden. La ropa blanca que tengo, que es mucha y muy buena, no se sacó de tiendas ni lenceros; estos pulgares y los de mis criadas la hilaron; y si pudiera tejerse en casa, se tejiera. Digo estas alabanzas mías porque no acarrean vituperio cuando es forzosa la necesidad de decirlas. Finalmente, quiero decir que yo busco marido que me ampare, me mande y me honre, y no galán que me sirva y me vitupere. Si vuesa merced gustare de aceptar la prenda que se le ofrece, aquí estoy moliente y corriente, sujeta a todo aquello que vuesa merced ordenare, sin andar en venta, que es lo mismo andar en lenguas de casamenteros, y no hay ninguno tan bueno para concertar el todo como las mismas partes”.

Nonetheless if women would include within their seduction weapons together with mascara, lip-gloss and stay-ups a sound dose of wise lenience and prudent forbearance, accompanied by a sensible non-over-judgemental attitude in accepting their partners for what they are and truly value the efforts they endeavour to please them – this could become quite a clever and judicious move. As brilliantly stated in Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s “Der Schwierige” within an interesting dialogue between a rather dreary brother and his witty sister:

HANS KARL BÜHLMy dear, I take my hat off to your energetic resolutions, but men are not this simple, thank God!
CRESCENCE BÜHL - My dear, men – thank God! – are simple; if women take them with simplicity.

As to the final outcome: well, let us all rely on an old master – Heraclitus:

“ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται͵ ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει͵ ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον”

“If you do not hope, you will not find that which is not hoped for; since it is difficult to discover and impossible to attain.”

Athenian orators, politicians and demagogues

ancient-athens-rhetors-politicians

Ancient Athens public scene – during and even after its Pentecontaetia – was quite accustomed to display, beside those citizens in charge of specific institutional assignments and public servants who were performing minor duties to maintain the regular functioning of the polis bureaucratic machine, also highly powerful men who, in force of their rhetorical skills and perspicacious inclination were able to steer de facto the assembly in order to pursue their political, and often also personal, needs. These rhetors however, in spite of their undeniable actual influence, could not formally be held liable for their political conduct: as they could not be truly considered as belonging – and consequently acting – within a proper administrative body. Thus their behaviour in other fields than political and under distinct circumstances was continuously under screening as their political opponents were constantly seeking for occasions to take them to court with accusations of corruption and/or high treason to the democratic foundation of the polis.

One interesting instance is given by Demosthenes’ own defence against a bribing accusal, where the orator outlines his own ideas about duties and rights of a rhetor:

But for what is he responsible? For discerning the trend of events at the outset, for forecasting results, for warning others. That I have always done. Further, he ought to reduce to a minimum those delays and hesitations, those fits of ignorance and quarrelsomeness, which are the natural and inevitable failings of all free states, and on the other hand to promote unanimity and friendliness, and whatever impels a man to do his duty. All that also I have made my business: and herein no man can find any delinquency on my part.

Nonetheless it is perfectly clear how even in those days the greatest interests – both measured in terms of power and economics – that amply overcame the administration of the state. It is remarkably modern the widely recognised presence of full-time politicians, whose resources (mental and financial) were put at the service of the cause – although it is/was worth wondering which and whose cause… As Aeschines, his legendary rival, drily deplores Demosthenes’ attitude:

And you blame me if I come before the people, not constantly, but only at intervals. And you imagine that your bearers fail to detect you in thus making a demand which is no outgrowth of democracy, but borrowed from another form of government. For in oligarchies it is not he who wishes, but he who is in authority, that addresses the people; whereas in democracies he speaks who chooses, and whenever it seems to him good. And the fact that a man speaks only at intervals marks him as a man who takes part in politics because of the call of the hour, and for the common good; whereas to leave no day without its speech, is the mark of a man who is making a trade of it, and talking for pay.

Thus it was widely acknowledged – and to a certain extent accepted – that professional politicians, being them elected strategos or authoritative rhetors, benefited of their institutional roles and political prerogatives. Nonetheless what was considered ignominious and therefore harshly persecuted was the favouring of personal pursuits preferred to the welfare of the state, causing any possible impairment of the polis. Something quite bluntly stated by Hypereides when accusing Demosthenes of corruption:

For just I said in the Assembly, you members of the jury willingly give to the generals and speakers great scope for profit-making: it is not the laws which allow it, but your mildness and generosity. There is just one proviso you are worried about: what they take must be in and not against your interests. Now Demosthenes and Demades have each pocketed more than sixty talents from the actual decrees and proxenies – to say nothing of the King’s money and what came from Alexander…

These scandals, accusal and the following trials were particularly intriguing and captivated the attention of laymen and average people who were always looking for news and gossip. The truth is that since after Pericles death, a low profile Athenian political class took over: demagogues without any political background, personal dignity and scruples. A plain-spoken dialogue sets a briskly effective example of how despised in Athens in 424 b.C. were immoral party-leaders. Like Cleon that Aristophanes masks on stage as a Paphlagonian chesty and ruffian slave defeated in winning his master’s consideration by an untalented sausage seller: a mere simpleton strongly supported by all the other servants that unanimously detest Paphlagon.

Servant: Oh! the fool! Your tripe! Do you see these tiers of people? [pointing at the audience]

Sausage-Seller: Yes.

Servant: You shall be master to them all, governor of the market, of the harbours, of the Pnyx; you shall trample the Senate under foot, be able to cashier the generals, load them with fetters, throw them into gaol, and you will fornicate in the Prytaneum.

Sausage-Seller: What! I?

Servant: You, without a doubt. But you do not yet see all the glory awaiting you. Stand on your basket and look at all the islands that surround Athens.

Sausage-Seller: I see them. What then?

Servant: Look at the storehouses and the shipping.

Sausage-Seller: Yes, I am looking.

Servant: Exists there a mortal more blest than you? Furthermore, turn your right eye towards Caria and your left toward Carthage!

Sausage-Seller: Then it’s a blessing to be cock-eyed!

Servant: No, but you are the one who is going to trade away all this. According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

Sausage-Seller: Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

Servant: That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

Sausage-Seller: I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

Servant: Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

Sausage-Seller: By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

Servant: Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

Sausage-Seller: But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

Servant: That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

Sausage-Seller: But what does the oracle say?

Servant: Faith, it is put together in very fine enigmatical style, as elegant as it is clear: “When the eagle-tanner with the hooked claws shall seize a stupid dragon, a blood-sucker, it will be an end to the hot Paphlagonian pickled garlic. The god grants great glory to the sausage-sellers unless they prefer to sell their wares.”

Sausage-Seller: In what way does this concern me? Please instruct my ignorance.

Servant: The eagle-tanner is the Paphlagonian.

Sausage-Seller: What do the hooked claws mean?

Servant: It means to say, that he robs and pillages us with his claw-like hands.

Sausage-Seller: And the dragon?

Servant: That is quite clear. The dragon is long and so also is the sausage; the sausage like the dragon is a drinker of blood. Therefore the oracle says, that the dragon will triumph over the eagle-tanner, if he does not let himself be cajoled with words.

Sausage-Seller: The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

Servant: Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

Aristophanes most certainly depicts a harsh and unequivocal characterisation of lowly origins, scarce culture and base merchandiser attitude rabble-rousers. This deep rooted detestation against any demagog unquestionably created an insurmountable barrier between public life and private life. More and more citizens, disgusted by the behaviours, greed and hypocrisy of rich merchants transformed overnight into politicians, meekly left all those decisional occasions go astray and thus letting the polis become an easy prey of those few avid talentless ignorants disguised as political leaders: something that undoubtedly compromised what best was of Western civilisation at the time…. Does any bell ring?