3rd August 2002
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbeard of Canterbury elect, has been unfolding his thoughts on abortion. He has gratifyingly little that is new to say on a debate which is at least 2,500 years old.
Dr Williams raises the problem of whether the foetus counts as human, and might thus be said to have ‘claims’ of its own. Presumably he is a Pythagorean on the issue, since they were convinced that the foetus had every innate human capacity, body and soul, from the moment of conception, and abortion was therefore wrong — a strongly held position in the early Church. On the other hand, Exodus xxi 22–4, the only clear reference in the Bible to abortion, does not regard it as homicide — to the annoyance of some early Church fathers.
But one cannot really debate the subject unless one has an argued position on the status of the foetus, and Dr Williams seems happy merely to assert its inviolability. No ancient would have accepted this. Some argued that the foetus’s movement in the womb indicated sensibility; others that it was a plant, moving without conscious thought; others that it was more like something that was asleep. Most were gradualists, arguing that animation and sensation developed only slowly (so early abortion was permissible). Ancient doctors, inevitably, took a pragmatic approach. They did not want to be seen as abortionists, arguing that their duty was to save life, not destroy it, but well understood that, in certain circumstances relating to the wellbeing of the mother, they had little option.
Dr Williams further argues that abortion cannot simply be a matter of one person’s choice, since it has wider political, ethical and cultural implications. This was well understood in the ancient world. As Cicero says in his Pro Cluentio (79 bc) of a woman from Miletus who had had an abortion, ‘she deprived her husband of the hope of becoming a father, the memory of his name, the successor to his generation, the heir to his family, and the city of a future citizen’.
Finally, Dr Williams claims that ‘choice’ in such a matter merely boils down to a question of ‘who can more successfully defend their interest against others’. But so does removal of choice. This is a philosopher-king argument which Plato would have keenly applauded.
All this is an excellent omen. Dr Williams adds virtually nothing to a debate which has been going on for millennia. This is precisely what any respectable religious organisation deriving its authority from an ancient, sole source of truth should expect of its leaders.
Tom Stoppard has written a trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, and the critics are reeling with amazement that the National can put on a nine-hour marathon, lasting all day, involving 30 actors playing 70 roles. Ancient Greeks would have been even more surprised: what other way was there to stage plays? And 30 actors for a mere 70 parts would have seemed to them ludicrously luxurious.
Greek tragedies were staged as trilogies, and lasted all day. The number of actors allowed was strictly limited: it eventually became three. It is not possible to be absolutely certain how parts were distributed among the actors, but in the sole surviving complete trilogy, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the three actors were needed to cover Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Aegisthus, a watchman, messenger and herald in Agamemnon; Orestes, Electra, Clytaemnestra, Pylades, Aegisthus, nurse and servant in Choephori; and Orestes, Apollo, Athena, priestess at Delphi and ghost of Clytaemnestra in Eumenides — 19 parts in all. It is hard to say whether that would have been seen as a light or heavy load. Euripides’ Phoenician Women on its own demands that the three actors cover 11 parts (Jocasta, Antigone, Teiresias, pedagogue, Polyneices, Creon, Eteocles, Menoeceus, two messengers and Oedipus), as does Euripides’ Rhesus (Hector, Odysseus, Alexander, Aeneas, Rhesus, Athena, Muse, Dolon, shepherd, Diomedes and charioteer). We do not know what demands the other plays in the trilogies may have made, but it is possible to see that three actors may on occasions have had to cover more than 30 roles between them in the course of a day.
And what diverse roles they were. In Sophocles’ Women from Trachis, it is likely that one actor played the two big parts — both the mighty muscleman Heracles and his jealous wife Deianeira; in Antigone, one actor probably played both Antigone and her fiancé Haemon, and if the part of Creon absorbed the energies of one other actor, it is not impossible that the poor old third actor had to feature as Antigone’s sister Ismene, a guard, a messenger, the blind prophet Teiresias and Creon’s wife Eurydice. In some plays, it is impossible to distribute the parts among three actors without two different actors playing the same role at different times.
Not to mention the fact that the trilogy was then rounded off with a fourth, so-called ‘satyr’ play. So ’appen, lad, it’s a grand life at t’ National, in’t it?
Two American film companies are evidently racing neck-and-neck to bring out a film about the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, and the word on the street is that one of the companies is proposing to cast a fashionable black actor in the lead. That’s the stuff, boys. Africa! Cuddly Blacks v. Wicked Anglo-Saxon Romans! Great box-office! The truth is somewhat less, um, Hollywood.
To generalise, black Africans (the so-called Negroid type) in the ancient world lived south of the Sahara: to the east, that meant south of Aswan, and to the west, southern Morocco. Blacks, it seems, did not inhabit the coastline of north Africa — at any rate, when the Greeks and later the Romans established themselves there, they did not talk of the local inhabitants as Negroid in type. That was a description they reserved for Africans from elsewhere. This is not to say that there was no contact between black Africans and people further north. Egyptians, for example, were in contact with them from the third millennium bc.
But whoever the indigenous inhabitants of north Africa were, they first met the people we know as Carthaginians in the eighth century bc. It was then that Qart Hadahst, ‘New Town’ (later latinised into Carthago), was established near modern Tunis by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people from along the coast of Lebanon/Syria. Expert traders, they established way-stations along the Mediterranean in their search for markets and metals. From such beginnings the powerful independent state of Carthage arose.
Hannibal (246–183 bc) was a member of Carthage’s ruling elite, the Barca family, which could trace its origins back to Carthage’s first ruler, Queen Dido. His name is the latinised form of Chenu Baal, ‘grace of Baal’, that Old Testament god who gave the Israelites such problems. So whatever racial mixing may have subsequently taken place after the Carthaginian arrival in north Africa, Hannibal was not a black African.
But he was a quite brilliant general. It was his leadership qualities and capacity to manoeuvre the enemy into the position he wanted that made him so formidable. Hitting the inflexible Roman legions from the side was a speciality. As a result, he came within an ace of defeating Rome in the second Punic War (218–202 bc).
It all makes for a great story, but if the Americans really want to go for authenticity, they should cast a Semite from Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria or even Palestine in the lead. Ah! Not such good box-office.
‘Anger-management consultants’ have been appearing all over the papers in the past few weeks discussing how the footballer Roy Keane might learn to control his foul temper. The papers could have saved the cost of their predictable services by reprinting selected chunks from Seneca (4 bc–ad 65) De Ira, ‘On Anger’, and Plutarch (ad 46– 120) Peri Aorgêsias, ‘On Negation of Anger’, and following up with Aristotle’s view that anger was an excellent thing.
Seneca gives a fine picture of the angry man: devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of loyalties, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trivialities, incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, he wears a bold and threatening look and a fierce expression; his eyes blaze and sparkle, his whole face is crimson with blood, his lips quiver, his teeth are clenched, his joints crack with writhing (when, in the delightful Keane’s case, he is not cracking other people’s), he groans and bellows, and so on. After which Seneca launches into a lengthy moral diatribe against anger in any of its forms.
Plutarch, meanwhile, couches his treatise in the shape of an account by the notoriously irascible Roman Fundanus of how he finally beat the bug.
It was a long exercise in behaviour therapy: first, observing how unhinged people looked when they became angry and seeing how ineffective anger was as a means of achieving anything; and second, identifying the causes of it, usually in the belief that one is being slighted or ignored. As a result of this analysis, Fundanus adopts patterns of belief and behaviour which help him to avoid situations in which anger can bubble up.
At which point, enter Aristotle (384–322 bc). He will have none of this. For him anger was just another natural human ‘passion’ of which one can have too much or too little. The irascible man will fly off the handle at nothing or, even worse, suppress his anger and keep it warm over years, ruining his life in the process; the ‘angerless’ man, however, will not get angry at, for instance, injustice or wrongs done to his friends, and be equally miserable. One must learn to be angry for the right reasons, against the right people, in the right way, at the right time.
The first word of Western literature (Homer’s Iliad) is ‘anger’. Tragedy and satire (‘indignatio makes my poetry’, says Juvenal) depend on it; so do the minor prophets and that arch-exponent, the God of the Old Testament. Aristotle, as usual, was right.
As the USA considers its impending assault on Iraq, von Rumsfeld would do well to ponder Thucydides’ Melian debate. Athens was at war with Sparta, and in 416 bc decided to attack the island of Melos, which was populated by colonists from Sparta but, unlike the other islanders, had remained strictly neutral in the war, helping neither side. Before Athens did so, however, it sent a deputation, and the contemporary historian Thucydides records the ensuing debate:
Melians: Such is your state of mind, it is clear that the result of the discussions will be either war or our own enslavement by you.
Athenians: There will be no point in continuing with these talks if you are simply going to speculate about the future and not face up to the real issue, i.e. how you can save your city from destruction.
Melians: We get the point.
Athenians: We are not going to say we have any right to control this part of the world; nor will it do you any good to say that you have remained neutral. The point, as you well know, is that when these matters are discussed by practical people, right is in question only between those who are equal in power, and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept whatever they have to accept.
Melians: But there is a principle at stake of common interest to all, that of fair play and just dealing. This affects you as much as anyone, since your fall would be accompanied by the most terrible vengeance, an example to the world.
Athenians: It is a risk we are prepared to take. Now: for or against?
Melians: We could not, we suppose, remain neutral.
Athenians: Certainly not. That would be a sign of weakness in us.
Melians: But will that not make enemies of all the states that are presently neutral, who will immediately assume that you will attack them too? Thus you will strengthen the enemies you have already and force others, against their inclinations, to turn against you.
Athenians: We are not worried about them. Gods, we believe, and men, we know, by a necessary law of nature rule wherever they can. We did not make this law. It existed before us, and will exist when we are gone. We merely act in accordance with it, knowing that anyone else in our position would do exactly the same. Think about it.
It may not give von Rumsfeld any sleepless nights, but friends of America could toss and turn a bit.