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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A&M: 2001 November

November 2001

3rd November 2001

The Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ is a weasel phrase: how will we know when the ‘process’ is ended and ‘peace’ delivered? If there is currently a ‘truce’, we must eventually have a treaty.

Ancient precedents might help. In the ancient world, truces to bring about a temporary suspension of hostilities were declared for specific purposes — often to provide time for a more permanent agreement to be reached. They could extend from a few hours to years, and were usually agreed between the leaders of the combatants. A peace treaty was supposed to be permanent and had to be officially agreed between representatives of the states involved. In Greece such treaties were often accompanied by an agreement to renew them annually, as if it were understood that peace was an unnatural condition and hostile relationships between states the norm.

Guarantees were needed to ensure that both sides abided by the terms. Oaths taken in the name of the gods were perhaps the most important surety — the gods would frown on anyone who broke an agreement made in their name. The terms of the treaty would be inscribed on stone and bronze pillars and displayed in the home territories of the parties involved, as well as in the great sanctuaries (such as Olympia). Hostages, too, would be exchanged, their number, social standing and length of detention all being at issue. Sometimes it was possible to negotiate for hostages to be replaced from time to time, when men from lower social groups could replace the original candidates.

But a peace treaty implied more than the end of hostilities. The Latin for ‘peace’, pax, implied the ‘establishment’ of a new state of affairs and of legal bases for future relations. For Greeks, peace would lead to ‘alliance’, summachia, literally ‘fighting together’; one treaty specifies that both sides were ‘to have the same friends and enemies’.

If the IRA gesture is a truce offered by General Adams before a treaty, the government must now decide whom they make the treaty with (tricky, that). They must line up hostages (a good chance to bury Stephen Byers and Jo Moore), and they must draft the ‘soldiers’ of the IRA into the front line against the Afghans. With their heroic towels over their faces, they look the part already.

10th November 2001

East has fought West since the Trojan War, but the roots of the current 'war' against terrorism have specific origins unrelated to the Graeco- Roman world: the peculiar demands of monotheism.

Pagan religion was, broadly, a matter of acknowledging the powerful forces, external and internal, that affected one's life - from the gods of the forces of nature, like Zeus (weather), Poseidon (earth and sea) and Hera (childbirth), to the gods of human impulses, like Aphrodite (sex). No priests or scriptures, creeds or dogmas, had anything to say about these forces, except that they existed and must be placated: and the means of so doing involved ritual - performing right actions at right times in right ways. No other demands were imposed, let alone ideologies or beliefs. Nor were these forces jealous of each other. Pagan religion was tolerant of all gods whatever their origins, and eager to accommodate them. Given that the forces of nature affect all men equally, it was not difficult for one culture to see reflections or even sources of their own deities in other cultures. Here is the Phoenician sky-god Baal: he must be the same as our sky-god Jupiter. Here is a Phoenician sex-goddess Astarte: she must be Aphrodite.

The great exception to this attitude in the ancient world was the Jews. It was not just that they insisted on worshipping one god and no other; it was that their god was primarily interested in being worshipped not through ritual but through a commitment to values and a way of life. Yahweh, however, did not impose an evangelising mission on his chosen people: as long as the Jews worshipped no other gods, Yahweh seemed content. The Christian god, however, took a different attitude. Further cultural and ideological, rather than merely ritual, demands went hand in hand with the call to ensure that the world acknowledged the one true god - a cry taken up with equal fervour by Islam from the seventh century AD. The means by which extremists on both sides have attempted to fulfil these demands is a major reason for the East-West impasse.

The fifth-century BC Greek philosopher Protagoras thought 'the obscurity of the subject' made dogmatism about the gods unwise. The historian Herodotus, talking of the Egyptians, said 'I am not anxious to expound the divine matters in the accounts I have heard...since I believe all men have an equal sense of the matter'. Not a bad starting-point.

17th November 2001

A fifteen year-old is leading a three hundred-strong private army against the Taliban. But that's youth for you, Aristotle (384-322 BC) would argue. In his ART OF RHETORIC, he devotes considerable space to discussing the points one can make on a whole range of topics to persuade your audience to agree with you. One such topic is the young.

In general, he says, the young are the sort of people who will indulge themselves in anything they have an appetite for. Of the bodily appetites, he says, they are especially subservient to those to do with sex, over which they have no control whatsoever. The intensity of their desires is equalled only by the speed with which those desires cool - since their will is keen, rather than determined and strong. They are passionate, hot-tempered and carried away by impulse. Because they love to be highly regarded, they cannot bear to be slighted, and become angry if they think they have been wronged.

But even more than being highly regarded, they love to win, since the young are keen on going over the top (and victory, Aristotle points out, is a kind of going over the top). They are not interested in money, never having experienced shortage; they are good-natured, never having experienced much wickedness; naïve, never having been deceived very often; and optimistic, never having experienced much in the way of failure.

For the most part, Aristotle continues, they live in hope - 'for hope is concerned with the future, and remembrance with the past, and for the young the past is short but the future long'. So because they easily hope, they are easily deceived, but they are more courageous too: for their passion prevents them fearing, while their hope inspires them with confidence. They also prefer to do what is noble rather than what is in their interest, since they live by character rather than calculation. At this age more than any other, they love friends and companions because of the pleasure of simply being together and their inexperience in making judgements according to their interests. They also think they know everything, so are obstinate; but they are prone to pity because they judge others as they do themselves and assume all men are honest; and they love laughter, which is 'educated humiliating'.

In other words, the young don't quite know what they are doing. What a pity they have to grow up and find out.

24th November 2001

Geologists claim to have explained the frenzied rantings of the priestess (the Pythia) at the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi. They argue that ethane, methane and ethylene issued from the spring which once flowed under the oracle. Since the first stages of ethylene inhalation (widely used as an anaesthetic in the past) induce in patients a 'frenzy', they conclude that was how the Pythia generated her aperçus.

This is scientific nonsense. Ethylene occurs naturally only in plants (it is a maturing agent). Even if by some remote chance it could occur naturally in streams, it is impossible that enough could be generated at one point to have any effect on humans. It is also historical nonsense. No ancient historian says anything about frenzied rantings at Delphi. Plutarch (c. AD 50 - 120), a Delphian priest, does record one occasion when the Pythia started gabbling unintelligibly, but explains she had been forced into prophecy when the omens were unfavourable. Her behaviour was untypical.

The boring probability is that the Pythia produced coherent answers, which were written down by her attendants or interpreters before being given to the consultants. The 5th century BC historian Herodotus records numerous oracular consultations, all of which featured a direct approach to the Pythia and a coherent and intelligible (if at times ambiguous) response. Plutarch too is quite clear on the matter: the Pythia speaks with her own voice under the impulse of Apollo, who puts visions into her mind for her to express in speech as best she can.

And that is the point. The Delphic oracle was not some sort of magical mystery show. Certainly there were amazing oracles - you will marry your mother and kill your father, O Oedipus - but these were largely the stuff of the fantasy worlds of myth and tragedy. As we can see from the hundreds of historically genuine questions and answers that have survived, the oracle in fact acted as a sort of citizens' advice bureau, specialising in problems of religious conduct ('If I do X, should I sacrifice to Y or Z?'), or nudging consultants into adopting one or another pre-determined solution to a social or political problem causing unrest in the community ('If we send out a colony, should it be to A or B?'). The ecstatic does have a place in religious experience, but it is not the rule. Greeks did not expect the Pythia to rant and rave when she uttered her prophecies any more than we expect the vicar to foam at the mouth when he announces the hymns.

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