6th April 2002
An Oscar-winning film about the Nobel-Prize mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) concentrates on his really important achievements, i.e. falling in love and going potty. Plato (429–347 bc) would have thoroughly approved of the whole package.
Maths, beauty, erôs and madness lie at the root of Plato’s thought. ‘Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness,’ says Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates in Phaedrus, ‘provided it is given as a gift from the gods.’ Socrates goes on to define four types of divine madness: prophetic (given by Apollo), ritual (by Dionysus), poetic (by the Muses) and erotic (by Aphrodite). But, as Plato explains in his Symposium, it is the erotic that is the most important blessing of all. For erôs is driven by love for something, and in this case it is love for the beautiful — male or female, in the first instance.
Fulfilling that experience itself gives man his first taste of the transcendent, and inspires in his soul a longing for something beyond the earthly; indeed, it encourages him in the search, since erôs leads to physical procreation and thus immortality through one’s children, or, in same-sex relationships, spiritual procreation, producing immortal thoughts. This engenders a growing desire for yet closer union with immortality, which will take him beyond the physical world into an abstract world of ultimate, unchanging reality, the model for which is maths.
Plato saw in maths the only example of the infallible in this all too fallible world: its laws seemed to him eternal and immutable. In his Republic, Plato points out that geometricians may illustrate what they are trying to prove with circles and squares, yet it is not the actual drawings which they are really talking about but rather the invisible absolutes they represent: the physical is being used as an aid to understanding something eternal and unchanging that lies beyond it. So with this whole world: what exists on earth is but a pale reflection of a perfect reality to which we must aspire.
As a result, Plato argued, Out There Somewhere exist the perfect exemplars of everything we know on earth, from Tables to Beauty, from Piety to Justice. But even these do not exist as ultimates: above them all there is one controlling master principle, reigning supreme — the Good. It is there that man’s search ends.
Alas for Plato, none of this rubbed off on the film or its loutish star. But then the film did concentrate only on erôs and madness; and anyway films are about as far from reality as one can get.
One of the Israeli soldiers surrounding the Palestinian gunmen claiming asylum in the (exquisite paradox) church of Christ’s nativity in Bethlehem said that they would not ‘attack’ it ‘because it is a holy place’; and besides, it was only when the gunmen got outside that they became a danger. An ancient Greek could not have put it better.
‘Asylum’ comes from the Greek asulia meaning ‘freedom from seizure’, and was associated with the rights of those seeking sanctuary at a shrine of the gods. A useful parallel is with children’s games like ‘tag’, where participants can put themselves ‘out of bounds’ by, e.g., holding on to something. The idea of asylum was that anyone inside or in contact with the sacred area was inviolable; it dishonoured the gods of the place to remove them from it by force. But rules are there to be, if not broken, at least bent.
In about 630 bc the Athenian Cylon attempted a coup. He failed, and he and his supporters took refuge on the Acropolis. There the Athenians laid siege to them and, when their food and water had run out, a number of them claimed asylum at the altar outside the Temple of Athena. When the Athenians saw this, they persuaded them to leave the altar of their own free will, on the understanding that they would not be harmed. Cylon’s supporters agreed, were taken away and promptly put to death.
We are also told that some of Cylon’s men tied a cord to the goddess’s altar and held on to it as they were led away. This, technically, kept them in contact with the altar and maintained their inviolability. But the cord broke, and the Athenians interpreted this as a sign that Athena had abandoned them. Clever, but not clever enough: the spirit of the rules had been broken, and the perpetrators were put under a curse.
Another tactic was tried with the Spartan general Pausanias. In 470 bc he fled into a temple to avoid prosecution. The Spartans walled him up inside so that he could not escape and simply left him there. Aware, however, that the temple would be polluted if he died in it, they brought him out just before he expired. It was another nice try, but again the technicality got them nowhere, and a curse was laid on the guilty.
The ‘games-playing’ element in all this is strong. The besiegers seem to hold all the cards, but the asylum-seekers hold the one big one — the threat of divine wrath. Can the besiegers bend the rules so as not to incur it? In an age which does not believe in divine wrath, the end-game in Bethlehem, if there is one, will be most instructive.
David Triesman, New Labour’s general secretary, is complaining that the BBC’s Today programme not only insists on asking all sorts of ‘howwid’, hard questions, but also expects answers! Diddums! He can be thankful that Labour has only the repetitive old hacks of the Today programme to deal with, and not Tacitus or Suetonius.
Under the Roman republican system, politics were, broadly, ‘open’. All decisions were taken by the Senate, which consisted of elected executives like consuls and praetors who were serving, or had served, their time in office; and new laws had to be approved by the people before they came into effect. Under the principate, however, everything changed. The first princeps (‘main man’), Augustus (emperor 27 bc to ad 14), gradually drew the reins of power into his own hands. He and his closed consilium of advisers in the imperial palace made all the decisions, and the senatorial system declined into a sideshow. Augustus’ death proves the point. When the Senate was voting his successor Tiberius the powers to control the empire, Tiberius said that he was not sure he could control all of it, but would do his best with what he was given. ‘Then what would you like to be given?’ Asinius Gallus jokily asked. He could not have made clearer who was in charge now.
The consequence of this closed system was that historians of the empire were faced with an impossible task: how on earth could they write history when they had no idea what was going on? The result was the sort of history that one finds in Tacitus (ad 56–120) and Suetonius (ad 70–130), rich in intrigue, rumour, scandal and gossip. Did you know that, even in old age, Augustus had a passion for deflowering young girls, collected for him by his wife? That Caligula committed incest with each of his three sisters in turn? That Claudius planned to legitimise farting at table? That Nero would prowl the streets at night, stabbing people and throwing them into the sewers? That Galba introduced tightrope-walking elephants? That Vitellius never feasted out for less than 4,000 gold pieces? That Domitian was such a good archer that from a distance he could shoot arrows between the splayed fingers of his slaves? Read Suetonius. It is all there.
Of course, Mr Triesman could ask Mr Blair and his closed consilium of advisers if they might deign to become a little more open and accountable. Then the Today programme would have nothing to sink its gums into. Now, did you know that Campbell...?
Israel blitzes Palestinian territory while America tries to get a stranglehold on al-Qa'eda's mountain hideouts. Both can claim 'victory', but an enemy must (in a sense) agree that it has been defeated before real victory has been gained - as Hannibal discovered.
The First Punic War (264-241 BC) was fought over Sicily. Carthage failed to exploit its superiority at sea and when it sued for peace, Rome turned Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica into its first provinces (the Roman empire starts here). Carthage shifted its overseas power-base to Spain, and in 218 BC the Second Punic War began when Hannibal launched a daring attack on Rome, marching his army and elephants over the Rhone, across the Alps and down into northern Italy. Hannibal was banking on his tough, experienced army; his own brilliantly innovative generalship; and (the great imponderable) his ability to win Italians to his cause. He made a terrifying start, crushing the Roman army at Trebia (218 BC), Trasimene (217 BC) and, most devastatingly of all, further south at Cannae (216 BC). After such victories, he had every reason to expect Rome to surrender. But the Romans did not agree that they had been defeated, and poured money and manpower into proving it. They learned from experience, observing how Hannibal lured the enemy into fighting on terrain advantageous to himself and liked to hit the legions from the side rather than head-on. They saw that the way to deal with him was to harry and worry him, not confront him; and to take the war to Spain and Africa too. Further, they took ruthless reprisals against Italians who defected. As a result, Italy did not rise against Rome.
In a war of attrition on enemy soil, an unsupported Hannibal could not win, for all the victories and devastation. When Carthage did finally get reinforcements through, they were defeated at Metaurus in 207 BC before they could link up. In 203 BC, claiming to have killed 300,000 Romans and sacked 400 towns, Hannibal reluctantly returned to north Africa, where he was defeated by Scipio at Zama in 202 BC. After Cannae, with 50,000 Roman corpses covering a few square miles of open plain, Hannibal's cavalry leader Maharbal said to him vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis, 'You know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, but not how to use it'. The words should ring loud in American and Israeli ears if they are to persuade their enemies to agree that they have been defeated.
Because if not...