Thursday, July 7, 2011

Homer to Plato: Boris Johnson on the ten greatest ancient Greeks

By Boris Johnson and York Membery

Best read as the original article, with picture. Link at end of piece.

Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford, explains why figures such as Homer, Sappho and Sophocles had such a mark on civilisation

1. HOMER (c.700 BC)
Homer is simply the greatest writer of all time. He wrote the epic Greek poems, of course - The Iliad and The Odyssey - so you need no further proof. The latter is about good old Odysseus and his ten-year journey home following the fall of Troy. It's over 12,000 lines long and is an astonishing feat of literary endeavour. In one section, Odysseus was having a particularly hard time. Men were being turned into pigs, women were luring him astray, yet he smites his shaggy breast and declares, 'Endure, my heart; you've endured a worse thing even than this.' Which is a phrase I've drawn great comfort from when things haven't been going swimmingly.

2. HESIOD (c. 700 BC)
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for old Hesiod, a Greek oral poet. He was a great moralist and a pessimist - a glass-half-empty sort of chap - who's best known for his poem about agriculture called Works And Days, in which he prescribes a life of honest labour and condemns idleness. There's a line in there that runs: 'Fools, they do not know by how much the half is greater than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel.' Putting aside the second bit for a moment (in classical mythology, asphodel flowers were the favourite food of the Greek dead), the point here is that people always want too much and they forget that the half is sometimes greater than the whole. This speaks down the ages to us in our confused consumerist era, when we're so obsessed with material possessions and dissatisfied if our neighbours have more than us.

3. ARCHILOCHUS (c.680-c.645 BC)
We're moving on to the lyric poets now. And Archilochus is an absolute champion. He was a wonderfully mordant poet and revered by the ancient Greeks as one of their most brilliant writers. He once wrote, 'I don't like a big general, with a swaggering, straddling kind of gait. And with his curls all combed. Let mine be one who is small and bandy, stands with feet firmly planted on the ground, and is full of heart.' Archilochus is saying he doesn't like authority and people bossing him around - which makes him one of the earliest embodiments of the Greek idea of liberty. The greatest thing that ancient Greece has given us is the idea of political liberty.

4. SAPPHO (c.620-c.570 BC)
Next up is Sappho, another great lyric poet. She wrote lots of brilliant poetry about the experience of falling in love and the horror of unrequited love and the shock of jealousy. Her passion extended to both sexes. However, when it came to women, she wrote of her infatuation with them, rather than anything else. One of her greatest lines is: 'Let there be no concern of honey or bee for me.' She was saying the trouble with love is it might make you feel good, but it has a terrible sting - something we've all experienced at some point... So Sappho rejected both: she didn't want to feel either the joys or the pangs of love, because her passions had left her heartbroken.

5. SIMONIDES (c.556-468 BC)
We're getting to the Classical period now, so let's have a bit of Simonides, a man best known for his epitaphs commemorating fallen warriors, in particular those at the Battle of Thermopylae fought between an alliance of Greek city states and the Persian Empire in 480 BC. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for days before their rearguard was wiped out in one of history's most famous last stands, as depicted in the movie 300. It was an amazing act of sacrifice that he duly commemorated in the couplet: 'Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.' The words form the first of many such literary quotations celebrating the idea of the heroic ratio of the 'few' against the 'many'.

6. PINDAR (c.518-438 BC)
Pindar wrote a lot about Olympic victors (and incidentally, we're planning to commission at least one Pindar-style ode in honour of the victors at next year's Games). In his First Olympian Ode, he observes simply, 'Best is water.' On one level, the point is that water wasn't that common in ancient Greece - except in Olympia, where the ancient Games were held. It had an abundant supply for the athletes to bathe in and for people to drink. But it's also good, sound advice fit for Olympians: to lead a pure, successful life, water really is best (especially if you've had too much to drink the previous night).

7. SOPHOCLES (c.495-406 BC)
Sophocles was a quite extraordinary figure. He wrote no fewer than 100 plays in his long life. There's a particularly fine line in Antigone, when the chorus sings, 'There are many formidable things in the world, but there is nothing more formidable than mankind.' The Greeks realised that while the world was full of divinity, mankind was now 'the boss' and the measure of all things. That was an insight you find in no earlier culture. Centuries later, all of us - not just environmentalists - know that mankind is the most dangerous thing on the planet. The fate of mankind lies in our own hands; paradoxically, though, we're wrong-footed by tsunamis and earthquakes which show us that we aren't necessarily always the most terrifying thing.

8. PERICLES (c.495-429 BC)
Pericles was the leader of the city state of Athens. In a mind-bogglingly brilliant speech, which I first read as a child, he says everything you need to know about politics and good government: 'When a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of ascribed privilege, but as a reward of achieved excellence.' Later, he adds, 'We are not angry with our neighbour if he lives as he wishes; we do not cast sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant.' It's the most brilliant description of 'liberal democracy' as we know it - and could easily be put into the mouth of David Cameron or Tony Blair. That said, oratory is not what it was in his day, and if I could give poor Ed Miliband one piece of advice, it would be: 'Brush up on your Pericles!'

9. PLATO (c.428-347 BC)
Now on to Plato, the classical Greek scholar, philosopher and mathematician. Simply put, he and his mentor, Socrates, helped lay the foundations of modern Western philosophy. He wrote widely too, perhaps most movingly about the trial and death of Socrates, executed in 399 BC. He was a brilliant man who was accused of impiety and corrupting the young with his teachings and sentenced to death in quite disgraceful circumstances. And although Socrates made a speech in his defence, he was asked to drink hemlock. After drinking it, his last words - at least according to Plato - were: 'Remember we owe a cock to Asclepius (the god of medicine and healing).' It is an incredibly powerful line to end his life with. Despite all that he is being accused of, he's behaving in an awfully conventional way.

10. ARISTOTLE (384-322 BC)
Last but not least, we've got to have the great Greek philosopher Aristotle - teacher to Alexander the Great and writer of immense wisdom on many subjects. Old 'Ari' was a giant of a man in every sense of the word and coined all sorts of profound sayings. My favourite Aristotelian quotation is: 'All men by nature desire to know.' There's an awful lot of truth in that. A lot of us have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which can be acquired by rich and poor alike, and represents a form of power. This thirst is a wonderful thing, and Aristotle recognised this most salient of facts only too clearly.

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