Deep Thinking: The EdStone and Beyond
The UK Labour Party’s 2015 general election campaign-pledges were set in stone quite literally by party leader Ed Miliband. Yet the purported permanence afforded these pledges by their inscription on stone transmuted into ridicule, as national news media consumed the monument – the EdStone, as it came to be known – for what it seemed to represent (vanity; hypocrisy; presentational gaffe; popular cynicism about politicians) rather than what it appeared to intend (earnest – if hopelessly vague – policy).
Doesn’t the EdStone, in context, seem uncannily Classical? The attitudes of Classical texts to the memorializing powers of material culture, from Homer, through Simonides, Pindar, Herodotus, and beyond, reveal the aesthetic and politicized controversies of mortal claims to permanence.
The opening of Homer’s Iliad 12 takes seeming pleasure in Poseidon’s destruction of the Greeks’ wall, doomed not to outlast the memorializing power of the heroic song that creates but then destroys that condemned construction.
Simonides attacks the earlier Kleoboulos of Lindos for foolishly proclaiming the permanence of stone in a poem (581 PMG).
Pindar seemed to eschew the inferior memorializing powers of statuary:
“I am no sculptor, one to fashion stationary statues that stand on their same base. No, on board every ship and in every boat, sweet song, go forth … and spread the news…” (Nemean 5.1–3)
Classical examples also remind us that inscribed stone monuments (stelai, the EdStone’s ancient Greek equivalent) served a range of functions. Stelai could list achievements (Olympic victory-lists survive in the material record but are also alluded to as early as Pindar and as late as Pausanias), set out the laws of states, and document their ambitions (for instance, the Athenian Tribute Lists). But they also recorded deaths, as grave-markers.
Might we (rather smugly) suggest, then, that ancient Greece supports a cynical reception of the EdStone as political epitaph? Or (even more smugly), that Miliband should have known better than to reach out to a symbol whose resonances he would be unlikely to control: the frailties of an overreaching policy-wonk?
Perhaps. But maybe not quite so fast. One lesson is that non-inscribed texts seem to hanker after the materiality and the potential permanence of stone – literary texts seem to protest too much, don’t they? For Classicists, such hankering forms the basis of debate concerning the interdependence of art and text across the ancient world. The flaws of the EdStone might also symbolize a journalistic nostalgia for the simpler political world of 2015.
Moreover, what of the literary contexts of these ancient moments of transformation from material culture into text? And what is at stake in even feeling a sense of a connection across time between things ancient and modern?
The Greek historian Herodotus may guide us. Herodotus’ most well-known transmutation of the fame of physical monumentality into textual significance is the story of Cleobis and Biton in Histories book 1. The intellectual curiosity of his writing also resonates for the complex relation between enquiry as thirst for knowledge (the diagnostics involved in ‘wanting to get to the bottom’ of an issue – the contemporary EdStone helping us to think we ‘know’ classical Greek politics and aesthetics better?) and enquiry as thinking about the emotional and intellectual investments involved in the histories of that process of ‘wanting to know’. The story of Cleobis and Biton also stages the political issue of speaking to power.
The story gains its force as part of the advice given by the Athenian sage, ‘wise adviser’, and statesman Solon to Croesus, King of Lydia. The otherwise unknown Cleobis and Biton are an example of ultimate happiness provided by Solon to answer Croesus’ narcissistic quest for flattery (Herodotus 1.30–4). Cleobis’ and Biton’s fame relies, for Solon, on their memorialization in the material form of statues at Delphi. But Herodotus’ animation of their fame is a story with a point, a lesson for Croesus, and for us too. Solon’s feint when confronted by Croesus’ overbearing personality is part of a broader strategy. “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering”, says Solon to Croesus. “Man is entirely a creature of chance”. Happiness and good fortune are much too powerful concepts to be corralled by the rich and famous for particular moments in time. The ‘long view’ is essential.
One insight of Herodotus’ Histories – one that Classics can hope to project anew – is that self-awareness of our own complex temporalities comes with a double mandate. We should be humble in our assumptions about the knowledge we have acquired from the past – as opposed to the arrogant appropriation of alleged Classical certainties for (for example) political grandstanding, educational policy, or other social and cultural interventions (such as the immediate diagnosis of the EdStone’s failings through Classical paradigms, for instance). And we should feed off Herodotus’ magnanimity, in the world-creating potential of literary texts, shaping futures through their inquisitive power to inspire.
We respond creatively, not abandoning ourselves to the past as a dead end sought out in shameless acts of atavistic intellectual recidivism. Herodotus’ own sense of the importance of the past – in which materialist metaphor plays a prominent role – is shaped by facing up to impending vicissitudes:
“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents intellectual enquiry as exposé, so that human events may not become faded through time, and great and wondrous works … may not become inglorious…” (Book 1 preface).
Herodotus encourages us to look into the future, creatively to plot our paths into it, and so to shape it. We are enjoined, subtly and wryly, to use his exemplary source-gathering and source-questioning skills as a trusty companion (and despite contemporary deprecation of ‘experts’) in the face of, and handhold against, perceived existential threats: the rise of ‘fake news’ and the nefarious political sway of individuals whose significance cannot possibly be permanent come immediately to mind (cf. Dewald, 1987: 169–70). Never has Herodotus seemed more of our time, and more worth living with.
Butler, S. (ed.) (2016) Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (London).
Dewald, C. (1987) ‘Narrative surface and authorial voice in Herodotus’ Histories’, Arethusa 20: 141–70.
Fearn, D. W. (2013) ‘Kleos v stone? Lyric poetry and contexts for memorialization’ in P. Liddel and P. Low (eds.) Inscriptions and their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford) 231–53.
Fearn, D. W. (forthcoming 2017) Pindar’s Eyes: Visual and Material Culture in Epinician Poetry (Oxford).
Grethlein, J. (2008) ‘Memory and material objects in the Iliad and Odyssey’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 128: 27–51.
Immerwahr, H. R. (1960) ‘Ergon: history as a monument in Herodotus and Thucydides’, American Journal of Philology 81: 261–90.
Munson, R. V. (2001) Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus (Ann Arbor).
Pelling, C. B. R. (2006) ‘Educating Croesus: talking and learning in Herodotus’ Lydian logos’, Classical Antiquity 25: 141–77.