Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Down with anachronism: March 29, 2019

The good news: Team Anachronism aka RAP aka Tim Rood, Carol Atack, Tom Phillips (with much help from fellow member MU aka Mathura Umachandran) has today submitted a full draft of Anachronism and Antiquity to Bloomsbury Academic: on time in our internal chronology (mental deadline: March 2019); four weeks late had we read the small print in our contract. Call it timely or untimely, the book will be published next year.

One indication of the topic’s timeliness might be thought to lie in two uses of the word ‘anachronism’ in the New York Review of Books in the month in which our project began. The Irish novelist John Banville wrote that the character of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles-based private detective Philip Marlowe ‘appears to us now an anachronism’, owing to his ‘unflagging decency’ as well as ‘the insouciance with which he shows off his chauvinism, his racism, his contempt for “fairies”, and of course his misogyny’. In branding Marlowe an ‘anachronism’ for displaying what are in fact generally seen as the dominant masculine attitudes of the time of his creation, Banville uses the word in a way which (though not uncommon) extends conventional dictionary definitions of the word. The language of anachronism is most commonly applied to people who cling to attitudes and practices that have gone out of fashion, or to those attitudes and practices themselves. Applied to works of fiction, it is still generally used with a historicizing sensitivity, in relation to the period described within the fiction. Since John Banville wrote that review, however, revelations of the mores of contemporary Hollywood have raised the question of just how much of an anachronism Marlowe is.

Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge) in The Big Sleep, 1946.
Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge) in The Big Sleep, 1946.

In whatever domain it is applied, ‘anachronism’ implies a judgement on the direction of history. The politics of anachronism are laid bare with particular clarity when, in the same issue of the NYRB, the historian Keith Thomas observes that subscribers to the ‘resurgent nationalism’ that lay behind the Brexit vote ‘seemed not to appreciate that the idea of an absolutely sovereign nation-state is an anachronism’. Subscribers to that nationalism have clung to their delusion with such insistence that Keith Thomas’ judgement on the course of history itself might seem anachronistic (witness the cover pages of today’s UK tabloids). And in the meantime the period of our project has seen an upsurge of the sort of appeal to ancient exemplarity that some philosophers of history regard as an anachronism in the age of historicism: Thucydides is drawn on for insights as Britain sets out on its Sicilian Expedition, as the chances of staging another vote à la Mytilene Debate are discussed, and as patriots are called traitors.

There is a wood-panelled pub near Anachronism Headquarters which prides itself on a rather old-fashioned ambience: it is not unknown for customers to be told the price of their pint in guineas and shillings. It has a small but pleasant and leafy outdoor area at the back, a pleasant place to meet for a drink (especially on balmy days such as today). Two or three days before 23 June 2016, I met a MSt student there to celebrate his result. Someone at the bar asked the landlord how he was going to vote in the coming referendum. “OUT” was the loud reply.

50 'Brexit' coin
Proposed 50p coin to mark 29 March 2019.

I will not be going to this pub to celebrate the submission of the book manuscript (the term ‘manuscript’ thankfully being an anachronistic survival); indeed I have not set foot in the pub since that day. The features that seemed quaint now seem grotesque, smacking of the worst sort of nostalgia. So on this of all days ‒ b******s to Brexit, down with anachronism, long live Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Banville, ‘Philip Marlowe’s revolution’, New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016, 38-9 at 39.
  • K. Thomas, ‘Will they really leave, and how?’, New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016, 40-1 at 41.
  • 50p Brexit coin from the Royal Mint‘, Numismag, 30 October 2018.
  • Royal Mint Brexit coin page.

Time on screen: Tacita Dean’s Antigone

Film offers a medium in which multiple temporalities can be accessed simultaneously. A new film by artist Tacita Dean, Antigone (2018), uses cinematographic effects and a double screen to explore multiple perspectives and times, from the classical past to an uncertain present, through a collage of images and reflections that recall both Sophoclean drama and American film.

Dean’s film, currently being shown in her ‘Landscape’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, grows from an autobiographical question. Antigone is the name her elder sister bears, and its mythical resonances intrigued the artist just as much as those of her own name. The story of Antigone, both sister and daughter to Oedipus, came to fascinate Dean, who also links herself to Oedipus through the shared experience of being lame. While a student she repeatedly inscribed their names, describing these acts in the exhibition catalogue as ‘perhaps in art school imitation of Cy Twombly, who seemed able, like none other, to awake his long-dead heroes by drawing their names’.

This practice continues, to feature in her landscape images, including those displayed in the exhibition, such as the narrative drawing Blind Pan (2004) that tells the story of Oedipus as a storyboard for an unmade film.

Blind Pan
Detail from Blind Pan, 2004, by Tacita Dean, currently on display at the Royal Academy, London

As this earlier work shows, Dean had long planned to make a film about the character and story of Antigone. Its evocation of landscape and travel is realised in the film that she finally made, after many difficulties in realising her vision.

Dean’s control of elapsed time in the hour-long film is a reminder of the formulaic temporality of Greek tragedy, with the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex taking place in a single day. Passing time is represented in the film by the image of a solar eclipse progressing, which provides a time-line throughout; at the core of the film, its totality transforms the landscape. Dean drew on the solar eclipse that crossed the USA in August 2017. While Sophocles uses the conventions of tragedy, such as messenger speeches, to bring past and distant parts of the story on to the stage, Dean frames her depiction of Oedipus’ journey with visible sprocket holes to mark the film’s apparent past, and uses split images to provide multiple perspectives on its landscapes, from Bodmin Moor to the mud pools of Yellowstone national park. The natural imagery also invites questions about duration and stability; the temporary change to the usual order brought by the eclipse, and the impermanent features of the geysers and mud pools of the volcanic landscape.

Antigone: still picture of volcanic landscape
Still from Tacita Dean’s Antigone (2018): volcanic landscape. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Oedipus’ blindness is represented anachronistically by the solar-eclipse viewing glasses worn by actor Stephen Dillane when in character; we too see the light of the sun replaced by its eerie corona, the landscape falling into darkness. This sun is itself then reshaped as a foot cuts through the image, suggesting the fragmentation inherent in the retelling of myth through the image masking and editing techniques that Dean uses to compose her complex images.

Sun and foot image from Tacita Dean's Antigone
Tacita Dean Antigone: sun and foot. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

A breakthrough in Dean’s development of the project came with her meeting with poet Anne Carson and her discovery of Carson’s poem TV Men: Antigone (Scripts I and II), which covered the same part of the myth that interested her, the period between Oedipus leaving Thebes and arriving at Colonus. This poem becomes integral to the film, in which Antigone herself is an ambiguous absence, with Oedipus wandering apparently alone in his blindness, and in which Carson is an informative presence, explaining the story to characters and viewers alike, mediating between the worlds as a chorus figure.

Anne Carson, in Antigone
Poet Anne Carson in the Thebes courtroom. Location photograph from Antigone.

Dean’s Oedipus has forgotten his own story in his long journey, and has many questions to ask the sphinx-like Carson, with whom actor Stephen Dillane is in dialogue both in and out of character. Why has it taken him so long to reach his destiny at Colonus? The myth of the sphinx is reversed; Oedipus must interrogate the poet to understand his own story. Their discussions takes place across time, the character Oedipus at his campfire as he traverses the landscape, and Carson, Dean and Dillane indoors in the present. But that present itself negotiates the recent past: the three discuss the myth in a courtroom in another Thebes, in Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, itself a symbolic location.

Dean draws on the resonance of this American Thebes’ name with that of Oedipus’ city. It also provides an American present, the small town of the American cinematographic imaginary, as well as hints of an American past that recall other exiles travelling in search of a resolution to their stories. The historical courtroom she films is linked with the story of Dred Scott, who had escaped from enslavement and whose failed legal pursuit of his freedom was a significant point on the road to the US Civil War. American history and geology, ancient Greek myth, and Dean and Carson’s own interpretations of them all contribute to a layering of time and space as the film overlays its characters and locations, using the double and split screen to draw the elements together.

Time is already a problem and a source of uncertainty within the narrative of Oedipus’ story, with puzzling gaps between the episodes within the myth that Sophocles chose to dramatise. Antigone’s presence and voice are also problematic; was Antigone even there in the story before Sophocles developed her character in his plays? Carson’s poem appears and re-appears within the film, and documents the erasure of Antigone’s voice and experience from her own story as it is compressed by editorial processes:

For sound-bite purposes we had to cut Antigone’s script from 42 seconds to 7: substantial changes of wording were involved but we felt we got her ‘take’ right.

The characters’ discussions, along with Carson’s text, foreground the processes of working on myth and question the idea that there is an original story to which retellings should adhere; Carson appeals to Theban versions of the story that predate Sophocles’ retellings. But is the version of Antigone produced by Carson’s ‘TV men’ any less valid as work on myth than that offered by Sophocles? Meanwhile, Dean’s film offers a final glimpse of Oedipus, with a comforting touch on his shoulder as Antigone’s hand emerges from the darkness.

  • Tacita Dean: Landscape is at the Royal Academy until August 12 2018.

References

  • Tacita Dean (2018), ‘Antigone’, in Tacita Dean et al. Tacita Dean: Landscape, Portrait, Still Life, London.

Rabelais, Erasmus, and the crisis of exemplarity

‘Was Rabelais an atheist?’ That was the question that the Annales historian Lucien Febvre set out to interrogate in his 1942 monograph The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. His response has become a classic expression of the dangers of applying later conceptions and terminology to earlier historical periods:

‘When dealing with sixteenth-century men and ideas, when dealing with modes of wishing, feeling, thinking, and believing that bear sixteenth-century arms, the problem is to determine what set of precautions to take and what rules to follow in order to avoid the worst of all sins, the sin that cannot be forgiven – anachronism.’

For Febvre, Rabelais exemplified the impossibility of atheism in his historical milieu.

Whatever the case with Rabelais’ (non-)atheism, many historians would be reluctant to rely on so firm a notion of what was historically possible within any given period. Periods, after all, are heuristic tools, and many different historical rhythms can be identified at any one time. We can helpfully pursue these thoughts here by looking at the shifting rhythms of exemplarity in the work of Rabelais himself.

Historians interested in conceptions of the past often present the Renaissance as a decisive turning-point. An increasing sensitivity to anachronism is thought to have led to the collapse of ancient modes of exemplarity based on the idea of an unchanging human nature. According to many accounts, the hold that exemplarity exercised on the early modern imagination proved to be self-defeating. When people actually attempted to put the theoretical model into practice by imitating the ancients (whether in literature, law, or military tactics), the outcome was a much stronger appreciation of their historical distance from antiquity.

A further weakening of the model of exemplarity arose from the profusion and complexity of ancient exempla. Collections of different exempla led to a more nuanced sense of their various historical contexts. They also revealed that some individuals were credited with conflicting character traits ‒ a particular problem given that metonymy was one of the dominant modes of exemplarity: if the very name of an ancient figure such as Alexander was shorthand for particular qualities, what to do when those qualities included drunkenness and lust as well as courage and daring?

The contrast between Christianity and paganism is seen as another important facet of the Renaissance crisis of exemplarity. Important reflections on this religious contrast are found in Rabelais’ comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel (published between 1532 and 1552) as well as in one of Rabelais’ inspirations, the writings of the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Rabelais presents a council scene in which the bad king Picrochole (‘Bitter bile’) is told by his rash advisers that if he pursues wars of aggression he will become ‘the most sprightly and knightly prince there ever has been since the death of Alexander of Macedonia’. Suggesting that he divide his army, the advisers then plot out step by step the conquests he should seek (they even start alluding to those conquests in the past tense, as if anticipating that they have already happened). At one point Picrochole suggests that he should rebuild the temple of Solomon once he has conquered Jerusalem, but his advisers tell him not to rush: ‘Do you know what Octavian Augustus used to say? Hasten slowly. It behoves you first to hold Asia Minor, Caria, Lycia, Cilicia, Lydia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Carrasia, Satalia …’

Charles' V Plus Ultra device, Seville
The Plus Ultra device of Emperor Charles V with the Pillars of Hercules, here displayed on the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) of Seville, Spain

Thus far Rabelais’ scene seems to show the power of ancient models of military conquest. The allusion to Alexander is a hit at the imperial ambitions of the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. Charles promoted comparisons with Alexander and other ancient models: his device Plus ultra (‘More beyond’) showed two columns, standing for the Pillars of Hercules, which in antiquity were emblems of the limits of the world, but had now been superseded by Charles’ conquests in Mexico and Peru. Rabelais’ satire may also be expressed through imitation of a literary model, the speech in Herodotus (5.49) where Aristagoras of Miletus tries to persuade the Spartans to invade Asia Minor by listing the successive stages of the conquest (Rabelais had translated parts of Herodotus).
The Christian twist to the exemplary model comes after Picrochole’s predictable defeat. The Alexander allusion is recalled as the wise giant-king Grandgousier rebukes an envoy sent by Picrochole:

The time has passed for such conquering of kingdoms to the harm of our Christian brothers and neighbours. Such imitation of ancient heroes – Hercules, Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, Caesar and so on – is contrary to the teaching of our Gospel, by which we are each commanded to guard, save, rule and manage his own realms and lands, and never aggressively to invade those of others. And what the Saracens and Barbarians once dubbed prowess we now call brigandage and evil-doing.

The sense of change is strengthened by the fact that even the non-Christians Saracens no longer approve of vainglorious dreams of conquest.

Rabelais’ account of Picrochole’s ambitions is a brilliant re-working of themes found in the moral and educational writings of Erasmus. The saying of Augustus to which Picrochole’s counsellors allude ‒ ‘hasten slowly’, festina lente ‒ is the subject of a long discussion in Erasmus’ Adages (a miscellany of discussions of ancient proverbs originally published in 1508); Rabelais seems to expose its dangerous malleability by putting it in the mouth of speakers themselves more intent on haste than caution. Besides the Adages, Rabelais was picking up Erasmus’ 1516 work Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince). Erasmus there warns that the ancient historians have to be read ‘forearmed and selectively’ rather than as storehouses of useful advice:

‘Both Herodotus and Xenophon were pagans and very often present the worst type of prince, even if they wrote history for the purpose of … portraying the image of an outstanding leader.’

Erasmus then turns his attention to the characters the historians depict: ‘when you hear of Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius, or Julius, do not let the prestige of a great name seize you: you are hearing of great and raging bandits.’ Rabelais’ re-working of Erasmus is the more pointed because Erasmus’ educational treatise had been dedicated to the young Charles V.

Reading Erasmus and Rabelais should caution us against constructing too strong an antithesis between classical antiquity and the Christian era. Erasmus openly acknowledges that his condemnation of ‘bandits’ is taken from the Stoic author Seneca (De Beneficiis 2.18.6). And Rabelais’ council scene includes an ‘old nobleman’ Echephron (‘Prudent’) who objects to the planned conquests with an argument that is lifted directly from the mouth of the counsellor Cineas in chapter 14 of Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus: when Pyrrhus/Picrochole, prompted to explain his final goal after all the toils of military conquest, replies that they will then rest at their ease, Cineas/Echephron asks why they do not take their rest straightaway without exposing themselves to danger first. There are also classical precedents for Grandgousier’s analysis of the change in the moral evaluation of aggressive warfare from ‘prowess’ to ‘brigandage’: Thucydides, for example, observes that brigandage was not disavowed by characters in the Homeric poems and was still in his own day honoured in remote parts of Greece that clung to the old ways (1.5).

Looking deeper into the rhetoric of exemplarity in the Renaissance unsettles, then, some of the over-simple polarities used in the construction of intellectual history. And as our project progresses, we will be using anachronism to unsettle scholarly complacency further as we explore the temporal schisms that lurk just below the surface of the ancient discourse of exemplarity.

‘Do this!’ Performing political analogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

BRUTUS: Peace! count the clock.

CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.

Search the internet for a definition of ‘anachronism’ and it’s likely that this exchange in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will be cited as a prime example. Shakespeare uses the conspirators’ response to the sound of the clock striking to interrupt their meeting, reminding them of their limited opportunity for action. But does it also disrupt the audience, reminding them that they are watching an incomplete depiction of an ancient society in which there were no striking clocks? Does Shakespeare deliberately collapse the historical distance between Rome and the present, or is he unconcerned about separating the two or even unaware of the difference? And what are the implications for performances now, when both Rome and Shakespeare are in the past?

Julius Caesar performance
Staging the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as contemporary protest and performance, Bridge Theatre.

The relationship between Roman past and dramatic present in Shakespeare’s play is fluid, with plenty of other elements – especially material objects and props, costumes, weapons, books – that suggest slippage between the two. But the audible interruption of the clock, itself indicative of his characters’ anxiety about time, is particularly telling. As with his series of English history plays, part of Shakespeare’s purpose appears to be to connect past events with present political concerns, to explore the present through the past, and so one might expect past and present to merge. The Tudor era scarcely lacked political conspiracy and violence, although in a significantly different political landscape from that of the Roman republic; scholars debate the extent to which Shakespeare elided the different societies, although the emergence of strong leadership in a state of growing power offers clear parallels.

For each new production of the play, directors have choices to make in drawing analogies and connections between the Roman past, the Tudor past and the political present. Their choices in emphasising or collapsing historical distance between Rome, Shakespeare and themselves perhaps reveal the political anxieties of the present. They also remind us of the role of drama in providing exemplars and analogies through which we can think about our present concerns.

The current production at London’s new Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bunny Christie, is the first production of a Shakespeare play at this new venue, just as the play’s debut in 1599 was one of, if not the first, productions at the Globe Theatre. For both Shakespeare and Hytner Julius Caesar can perhaps be read as a statement of theatrical intent. The new production’s immersive approach simultaneously acknowledges the active audience of Shakespeare’s theatre, and uses it to foreground present political concerns. Long before the clock strikes, the audience through its participation has bridged past and present. The standing audience in the pit is co-opted to represent the mass of Romans – but kitted out in red baseball caps labelled ‘Caesar’, and exhorted to ‘Do this!’, emphasising their performative role. Like crowds at a contemporary demonstration or festival the spectators wave flags and sing along to the rock band performing for the rude revels of the Lupercalia, its cover versions of rock standards standing in for the low culture of the mob scene that opens Shakespeare’s play.

The audience surges around performers as they rise into view to speak, enacting the changing allegiances of the Roman crowd, as Brutus and Mark Antony take the stage in turn at Caesar’s funeral, to defend their actions and to claim the loyalty of the crowd, many still wearing their Caesar-branded hats. But the constantly moving staging also generates uncertainty and division. As the Roman factions enter battle, the audience is scattered to the margins, performing the collapse of civic order along with the actors.

One aspect of the production’s own manipulation of past and present is to dress the proto-tyrant in the costume of a presidential contender, as other recent US productions have done, to some controversy. In doing so they insist that both Roman politics and Shakespeare’s drama can inform our analysis of present-day events, and that a play insistent in its concern about time can become a timeless commentary.

Indeed, as Mary Beard notes in her note on Roman history for the programme, the whole play is an exercise in exemplarity, setting up Caesar’s death on the Ides of March as the prime example of assassination. And as an exemplar, it benefits from connection to the present through analogy marked by anachronistic references. But as Matthew D’Ancona notes in turn in another programme note, it is not Caesar himself who provides the exemplar for us in our present political circumstances, but Brutus, played in this production by David Calder and Ben Whishaw respectively. D’Ancona sees Shakespeare’s Brutus, the idealist and philosophical conspirator happiest at home with his books, as a paradigm for the failure of Britain’s liberal elite to explain itself and its political projects to the wider public. He connects this to the ‘post-truth’ political rhetoric on which he has written in his book of that title. But Brutus’ inability to match the rhetoric of Mark Antony also taps into a long classical tradition that begins with the disdain for the philosopher depicted by Plato, or even in the Sicilian Expedition debates of Thucydides, and shows no sign of ending.

  • Matthew d’Ancona (2017) Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury).
  • Dennis Kezar  (2005) ‘Julius Caesar ’s Analogue Clock and the Accents of History’, in Zander, H. (ed.), Julius Caesar: new critical essays (New York: Routledge), pp. 241-255.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Anachronistic Antiquities of Rome

Recent historiographical thinking has often denied to the ancients an understanding of history as a domain of inquiry in its own right, separate from experience of the present. Antiquity’s under-developed sense of history is conceptualized as a stage in a developmental narrative that culminates in the critical temporal self-consciousness that emerged after the French Revolution. Proponents of this view argue that the ancients’ inability to conceive of anachronism is symptomatic of their comparatively inchoate sense of historical time, and their commitment to cyclical models of history. Zachary Schiffman, in his recent book The Birth of the Past, makes this case at length. For Schiffman, the ancients were never able to elevate ‘differences between past and present … to a principle of historical knowledge’. Possessed of ‘a static view of the world that focused on recurrent patterns in history rather than singular events, on the universal and immutable over the contingent and variable’, the poets and historians of the ancient world could only conceive anachronisms on a non-systematic, ad hoc basis, rather than as phenomena indicative of fundamental differences between past and present, and between different historical periods.

One weakness of such accounts is their selectiveness. Schiffman focuses on Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, and a similar range of authors is covered in Reinhart Koselleck’s masterful book Futures Past, to which Schiffman’s approach is indebted. However, a particularly rich set of meditations on the ‘differences between past and present’ is found in a work which neither author considers at length, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian active in the late first century BC. Dionysius’ basic aim in this work is to illustrate the close links between Greek and Roman civilization. On Dionysius’ view, the settlements from which Rome eventually developed were founded by Greek colonists, and many Roman rituals and cultural practices were Greek in origin. In reflecting on these connections, Dionysius pairs historical and ethical analysis, arguing that manners and conduct have in many respects declined through the course of Roman history. As a result, both people and ritual practices can appear as anachronistic remainders of a previous age, and serve as the basis for a critique of contemporary behaviour.

A telling instance of the former occurs in his juxtaposition of the qualities that characterised early Rome and with the habits found in his own day. He claims that Rome’s early leaders ‘worked for themselves, were modest, and did not resent honourable poverty’ (αὐτουργοὶ καὶ σώφρονες καὶ πενίαν δικαίαν οὐ βαρυνόμενοι, 10.17.6), and they did not aim to achieve ‘royal power’ for themselves. ‘The men of today’, on the other hand, ‘do the opposite in all respects’. Yet Dionysius concedes that some contemporary Romans do not conform to this trend. In them, he says, ‘the dignity of the state and the preservation of a likeness to those men [sc. of the past] still abides’ (δι᾿ οὓς ἕστηκεν ἔτι τὸ τῆς πόλεως ἀξίωμα καὶ τὸ σώζειν τὴν πρὸς ἐκείνους τοὺς ἄνδρας ὁμοιότητα). Such men stand out, being few in number, different from the majority of their contemporaries, and as a medium in which outdated qualities remain legible. Dionysius here anticipates the conceptualization of individual people as anachronisms that only becomes fully explicit in English in the nineteenth century.

Rituals can also be sites of anachronistic survivals. When discussing Numa’s institution of boundary stones as markers of property and the accompanying festival of the Terminalia at which sacrifices were offered to the stones as sacred objects (2.74), Dionysius comments that ‘memory’ of these practices ‘is still preserved today’ (τούτου μέχρι τῶν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς χρόνων φυλάττουσι Ῥωμαῖοι μνημεῖα), but is undertaken ‘for form’s sake’ (τῆς ὁσίας αὐτῆς ἕνεκα). And yet the capacity for awe at the numinousness of these objects has not entirely vanished. According to Dionysius, the Romans still regard the boundary stones ‘as gods’ and make yearly sacrifices to them (θεούς τε γὰρ ἡγοῦνται τοὺς τέρμονας καὶ θύουσιν αὐτοῖς ὁσέτη). Such a conception is not of itself sufficient to stimulate good conduct; the Romans should also ‘observe the motive’ that led Numa to ‘conceive the boundary stones as gods’ (ἐχρῆν δὲ καὶ τὸ ἔργον ἔτι φυλάττειν αὐτούς, οὗ χάριν θεοὺς ἐνόμισε τοὺς τέρμονας ὁ Νόμας), by being content with their own possessions and not seeking to appropriate those of others by ‘force and trickery’ (βίᾳ … δόλῳ). Instead, contemporary Romans’ ‘desire for all things’ (ἡ πάντων ἐπιθυμία) leads them to compromise the socially beneficial model that their ancestors bequeathed.

Claude - Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum
Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682) – Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum, 1634, Art Gallery of South Australia

Like the men in whom a likeness to the great Roman leaders of the past is preserved, the ritual acts as a window on to early Romans’ ethically exemplary thinking and conduct. In reading this account, readers are invited to sense something of the impulsion towards ‘frugality and modesty and the desire for justice’ (2.74.1) that Numa’s regulations originally created. Yet the possibility for such a renewal of readers’ ethical capacities is balanced by the pessimistic acknowledgement that most people do not behave in this way. Good conduct has been made anachronistic by the predominance of appetites over ethical principles. Closely related to this predominance is the tendency for economic developments and accompanying changes in material culture to make ancient practices seem outdated. Having praised Romulus for instituting simple rituals, Dionysius notes that many if not all of these sacrifices are still being carried out ‘in the ancient manner’ even in his own time. Dionysius declares his admiration for the way in which those who carry out such rituals ‘adhere to ancestral custom and in no respect diverge from the ancient rites into the bombast of extravagance’ (διαμένουσιν ἐν τοῖς πατρίοις ἔθεσιν οὐδὲν ἐξαλλάττοντες τῶν ἀρχαίων ἱερῶν εἰς τὴν ἀλαζόνα πολυτέλειαν).

With this last phrase, Dionysius acknowledges that Rome’s vast empire and revenues enable rituals to be adorned with trappings and finery unavailable to the city’s founders. But trinkets such as ‘gold and silver vessels’ do not, Dionysius implies, make encounters with the gods any more meaningful. By contrast with ancient rituals ‘free of all attempt at display’ (πάσης ἀπειροκαλίας ἀπηλλαγμένα), the superficial allure of precious metals risks distracting worshippers from the rituals’ deeper purposes. Those who ‘adhere to ancestral custom’ are all the more admirable because of the background against which they now take place, which differs considerably from that in which the rituals were created.

In each of these passages, readers are challenged to adopt an historical self-consciousness that mirrors that of Dionysius himself. When reading about rituals practiced ‘in the ancient manner’ and the description of the Terminalia, readers are prompted, by reflecting on the processes by which they have come to seem anachronistic, to a fuller awareness of the features that enable the rituals to afford participants an efficacious engagement with the gods. The men who preserve ‘the dignity of the state’ similarly become paradigms against which readers might measure their own behaviour. Far from being incidental to Dionysius’ history, passages such as these make anachronistic phenomena into ‘a principle of historical knowledge’ around which the work’s ethical designs are structured.

  • Schiffman, Z.S. (2011) The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Seeing Homer

Rubens’ The Death of Hector is a scene from the Iliad replete with un-Homeric details. The armour and red cloaks recall Roman soldiers. Putti are common in Renaissance paintings but not in ancient Greek representations of the Trojan war. For viewers familiar with the Iliad, the putti’s role as spectators is jarringly different from the poem’s presentation of the gods, and Hector’s family, watching the battle (recalled in the painting by the onlookers on the walls). And yet these ‘anachronisms’ are not mistakes, as it would be to say that Rubens lived and worked in fifth century BC Greece. Showing Achilles and Hector in the dress of a later age creates a tradition of heroism in which they act as exemplars, while the putti remind viewers that they necessarily see the painting through modern eyes.

rubens-achilles
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Death of Hector, Musée Des Beaux Arts, Pau, c. 1630-35

This capacity of ‘anachronistic’ phenomena to be more than simply redundant or out of place prompts Jacques Rancière to push aside the pejorative ‘anachronism’ in favour of ‘anachrony’. He uses this term to refer to ‘a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left “its” time’. He locates the power of anachronies in their ‘capacity to define completely original points of orientation’, from which we might see the world, and our temporal experience of it, in unexpected and revealing ways. Such reorientations emerge in many creative engagements with Homer and other ancient writers, and they play a particularly important role in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a poem that fragments the Iliad into similes and casualty lists. Hers is a poetics that acknowledges its difference from Homer – she aims to convey the poem’s ‘atmosphere, not its story’. Yet by reaching towards the Iliad’s ‘bright, unbearable reality’, she also transplants readers into a frightening, alien world, using the words of the Greek text ‘as openings to see what Homer was looking at’.

This balancing of dependence and departure is especially pronounced in her renderings of the Iliad’s narratives, which she terms ‘paraphrases’ and which often fold complex scenes out of a few sparse hints. Homer’s characterization of Abarbarea as ‘a nymph of the springs’ (νύμφη / νηῒς Ἀβαρβαρέη, Il. 6.21–2) becomes

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea …

Oswald cleaves closely to ‘what Homer was looking at’ by accentuating the nymph’s strange dual identity as woman and water. We first meet Abarbarea as ‘a blue pool’, while a few lines later her lover ‘jumped … into her arms’. We can see in her ‘clear-eyed staring’ both a fully anthropomorphic gaze and the pool’s water reflecting the trees. Yet ‘loved her loneliness’ is an un-Homeric notion; isolation tends to be associated with despondency or suffering in the Iliad, as when Achilles stares out to sea after his quarrel with Agamemnon, and there is no word in Homer that corresponds precisely to ‘loneliness’. Similarly, no Homeric character manifests the contemplative absorption evoked by ‘staring at trees’. Like Rancière’s ‘anachronies’, these phrases open up a new ‘orientation’ by making us imagine Abarbarea’s experience of her world.

In other passages, Oswald uses vocabulary and ideas that are even more obviously ‘anachronic’, in the sense of not belonging to Homer’s world. Isos and Antiphos ‘came home as proud as astronauts’ before riding out to their deaths, while Hector

… used to nip home defended by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running.

In a rendering of a simile, ‘tribes of summer bees’ are ‘A billion factory women flying to their flower work’. The astronauts, the running motorbike, and the factory show the poet’s workings, tracing imaginative equivalences through which the Iliad becomes freshly meaningful. Hovering between the modern and the ancient, lines like these lay bare the untimeliness of our engagement with Homer. They create a ‘time’ untethered either to that of the Iliad or the experiences of the modern reader, while also intimating that we as readers can never quite be at home in it.

twombly-shield
Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978

Distance from Homer is also at issue in Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days at Iliam. Representative of its attempt to reprogramme our sense of what it might be to ‘see’ the Iliad is ‘Achilles’ Shield’, in which the refusal of canonical representational conventions is the more provocative for being directed at the foundational ecphrasis of ancient literature. Whereas Homer represents the shield as an ordered series of pictures encompassing a range of social, political, and military activities, Twombly sets a title alongside swirling, apparently amorphous brushstrokes. Homer’s highly structured opposition between scenes of war and peace is replaced by contrasting colours. The painting invites us towards a ‘point of orientation’ in which something is represented to us, while also encouraging us to find between the marks on the canvas and the ‘shield’ of the title correspondences formally different from those that paintings such as Rubens’ establish with their subjects. The position of the ‘shield’ to one side of canvas creates an impression of movement, and we might see the blur of lines as enacting the impression the shield makes on its viewers within the story: at the beginning of Iliad 19, for instance, Achilles’ soldiers are seized by fear at the sight of the shield, and cannot bear to look at it.

Rubens, Oswald, and Twombly create new means of encountering the stories the Iliad tells, but they also evoke a ‘bright, unbearable reality’ that emerges from (their readings of) the poem, and yet is separate from it. Their ‘anachronic’ realizations of this domain remind us that the Iliad itself is not entirely ‘of its time’. The very clarity with which the Iliad projects its world ensures not only that that world can be encountered as an endlessly compelling imaginative resource, but that it can be apprehended as a ‘reality’ in relation to which the poem itself is epigonal.

  • Oswald, A. (2012) Memorial: an excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber).