13th October 2001
A leading theologian of the Church of England has announced that the Harry Potter books, rather than being works of the devil (as some have claimed), convey deep Christian truths. It may seem feeble of the Church, even in these straitened times, to prop up its teaching with the assistance of children's stories about witches, but such tactics have an ancient ancestry.
For example, allêgoria, veiled or metaphorical language, was often used to explain Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (c. 700 BC). Ancient Greeks attached huge importance to these two great epics, but were worried by the problems of fictional narrative. 'Poets lie a great deal,' said the Athenian wise man Solon, and philosophers inveighed against Homer's depiction of gods as immoral fun-lovers. There was even a story that Pythagoras saw Homer being punished in the underworld for telling fibs about the immortals.
Theagenes, a Greek living on the toe of Italy in Reggio, led the fight-back c. 525 bc. He analyses the incidents in Iliad 20 and 21, in which the gods on the Greek side at Troy attack those on the Trojan - Athene cleans up Ares with a rock and then punches out Aphrodite; Hera seizes Artemis by the wrists and boxes her ears with her very own bow and quiver, 'smiling as her victim twisted and turned, and the arrows came tumbling out'; though Hermes amusingly refuses to fight Artemis's mother Leto ('you can boast to your heart's content and tell the gods your brute strength got the better of me'). Theagenes deals with these by arguing that Homer here was 'really' talking about the conflict between physical forces and moral or psychological forces (e.g. Athene = 'intelligence', Ares = 'stupidity', Hermes = 'reason').
On the Bible, Christians did not budge: 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' barked Tertullian. 'What does the Bible lack that pagan literature can supply you with?' argues an apostolic tract. But education was different. Children had to learn to read, and pagan texts were the received medium. That meant a degree of negotiation. St Basil's On the Reading of Profane Authors suggested interpreting pagans in the light of the Gospels. Justin Martyr saw pagan philosophy as an important first step towards revealed truth; Origen reckoned the study of pagan literature and mathematics an invaluable grounding in abstract thought.
Virgil was seen as a proto-Christian. Christians have never been slow to bring the pagans on side. Potter, join the gang.
The supermodel Elle Macpherson has evidently stuck up neatly typed notes round her kitchen reminding her how to treat her child — presumably in case she forgets. One of them says, ‘Avoid language which evaluates. Instead use words which describe how you feel.’ This dopey philosophy, as if children should be taught that the one important thing was to make other people feel good, might on certain conditions have drawn applause from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 bc).
Like his compatriot Plato, Aristotle believed that we consist of rational and irrational elements, and that proper moral character depends on learning how to use the rational elements to control the irrational elements, i.e. the emotions — anger, fear, love, lust, thirst, hatred, resentment, and all those other mental conditions that (for Aristotle) were accompanied by pleasure and pain.
The problem, as Aristotle realised, was that it is not easy to control the emotions by reason. One does not, for example, easily reason one’s way out of feelings of lust. To bring emotions to heel, therefore, they must be carefully trained over a long period of time, preferably from youth. As Aristotle points out, ‘If arguments were in themselves enough to make men good, they would justly, as the poet Theognis says, have won very great rewards, and such rewards would surely have been provided; but as things are, arguments are not enough in themselves to encourage men to become good.’
Moral training, therefore, not moral argument, was the thing — Aristotle is remarkable for a philosopher in the emphasis he places on the inefficacy of argument in this respect — and he urges that family discipline should go hand-in-hand with the community’s laws, customs and education to habituate the young to proper moral behaviour. But it was also possible for the young to receive bad training, and Aristotle regarded this possibility with very considerable distress: ‘It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather, it makes all the difference.’
Punishment and reward were for Aristotle important ways of training the young. So as long as Macpherson can recognise moral virtue in her son, and by merely telling him that his behaviour is making her feel happy or unhappy can persuade him to lead the virtuous life, Aristotle might have approved.
The home secretary David Blunkett is planning a crack-down on jokes about religion that may offend sensibilities. Ancient Greeks might have thought he had the wrong target.
Even in free-thinking ancient Athens, with its numerous pagan deities, there were times when the Athenian assembly (the legislature, consisting of all males over eighteen) passed laws relating to ASEBEIA, 'wrong- doing in relation to the gods'. The first decree of this sort seems to have been proposed in 432 BC by one Diopeithes. It allowed for public prosecution of offenders in two categories: first, those who did not acknowledge divine things; and second, those who taught rational doctrines relating to the heavens. If our sources are to be believed, many 5th-century intellectuals were caught in this net - including the tragic playwright Euripides (though he was acquitted) and, most famously of all, Socrates (who was not). Aristotle in the 4th century BC seems to suggest that being an intellectual was a dangerous occupation, on a par with being a general.
Diopeithes' motives in proposing his decree are not at all clear. Some sources argue that he was out to nail the leading Athenian politician Pericles, who was well-known for consorting with free thinkers. Pericles' friend Anaxagoras, for example, who argued that the heavenly bodies were no more than clods of earth, the moon shone by reflected light and the sun was not much bigger than the Peloponnese, was one of those successfully prosecuted.
But since Diopeithes was a seer, it is just as possible that he wished to draw the line somewhere in respect of his own traditional profession, and that the Athenian assembly agreed with him. If that is the case, Athens' increasingly fraught relations with their bitter enemy Sparta may have had something to do with it. In 432 BC the omens were not good, and next year Athens and Sparta were at war. In such edgy times, it would not be surprising if the assembly felt hostile to anyone who might possibly bring the anger of the gods down on their heads, when divine favours were so desperately needed.
Athenians were great freedom-lovers, but 'piety' and 'patriotism' for them were almost synonymous, and when push came to shove, they were more concerned with the well-being of the community than the individual. But would they have judged the weedy JOKERS worthy of Blunkett's strictures, rather than the THINKERS? Come in, Hawking-Dawkins, your time is up...