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June 15, 2017
This blog will examine The Bacchae by Euripides in 405 BCE to illustrate the position of female sexual agency in ancient Greece. Using sociological analysis, the significance of this text in relation to contemporary society will be demonstrated by comparing ancient Greek beliefs to the ideology of ‘purity’ culture; a movement largely endorsed in conservative Christian movements in the US. This is from the perspective of demonstrating the similarities between both an ancient society and a contemporary society in terms of the inadequacies when dealing with victims of sexual violence.
In The Bacchae, Pentheus expresses his disgust with female participation in a ‘new’ religion spearheaded by Bacchus (Dionysus):
Of fresh evils throughout the city,
That the women have left our homes
For counterfeit Bacchic revels (215-218)
To be maenads performing sacrifices,
But follow Aphrodite before Bacchus. (223-225)
The emotive use of kaka, "evils" when referring to women participating in Bacchic revels such as drinking, dancing, and promiscuity illustrate Pentheus’ feelings towards the worship of Bacchus. Bacchic revelry is discussed throughout the text and implies that female sexuality may run rampant if left unrestrained. Pentheus is also critical of the suggestion that these behaviours are a consequence of worshipping Bacchus. Rather, Pentheus considers Aphrodite a euphemism for engaging in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour due to an uncontrollable desire for sex. When Aphrodite is used sardonically, it condemns whilst simultaneously denies female sexual agency through continual references to external behavioural influences, to which it can be inferred that women’s sexuality is always controlled and exercised by another, rather than her own agency. Resistance against female sexuality may be considered by many to be an archaic preoccupation and not an issue in contemporary, post-feminist, western societies. Yet growing support for a ‘purity’ culture echo many of the arguments put forth in ancient Greek texts and should be analysed when attempting to understand contemporary arguments. More worrying is the implication of female sexuality within fears for moral decline.
‘Purity’ culture is an ideological movement heavily influenced by conservative Christian teachings and is widely endorsed in the US with growing support (Moslener, 2015). Beliefs are based on the premise that a girl should remain ‘pure’ and offer her virginity as a gift to her husband upon marriage. Organised events such as ‘Purity balls’ celebrate the valuableness of virginity and emphasise the economic and moral worth of women for marriage in those terms. As such, a woman’s moral centre resides in her sexual purity - to be penetrated is to be devalued. Female sexuality as a metaphor for morality thus becomes implicated in debates concerning moral decline.
Tiresias responds in a way that may appear to defend female agency:
But where chastity is in her nature,
You may rely on it. For a modest woman
Will not be corrupted by Bacchic rites. (316-318)
Upon closer inspection, phrases like ‘modest woman,’ (317) and ‘chastity is in her nature’ (316) are duplicitous in their insinuations in that women who are overtly sexual are therefore not feminine or female, even. Bacchic rites, including drinking and sexual behaviour, are implied as corrupt when the expectation of the ancient Greek woman (and in modern conservative Christian contexts) is to be pure. Consequently, this renders women into one of two camps - modest, chaste, and good versus vulgar, promiscuous, and evil. Furthermore, not only is immodesty therefore ‘evil’, it is considered an inversion of the very values according to which society operates. Hence, these ‘evil women’ pose a threat to the very axioms upon which cultures are built.
Of greater concern is the link between female sexual purity and sexual violence. Since value is placed on virginity, and devaluation equated with sexual activity, where does this leave rape victims? The cultural emphasis on sexual purity may result in rape victims feeling too ashamed to report victimisation for fear of ostracism from a community like the purity culture, or worse, being considered as partially to blame for their rape (Valenti, 2009). Placing ‘chaste’ women on a pedestal above the immorality of women following Bacchus is comparable to women in the ‘purity’ movement and the immorality of women who engage in sexual activity before marriage. A dichotomous view such as this may make invisible victims of sexual violence (Kerr et al, 2004; Brown & Walklate, 2012). For example, Pentheus argued that all women may be considered sexually rampant if given the opportunity and this remains a common myth disputed in contemporary feminist research into the disbelief of rape victims and accusations of false rape claims based upon a victim’s clothing, behaviour, sexual history, and religious beliefs (Kelly et al, 2005; Rape Crisis, 2013).
The continuing relevance of ancient Greek perceptions of female sexuality within contemporary society demonstrate that despite various social movements, legislative changes that support social progress, and the impact of feminism, female sexuality remains a contentious issue. This brief examination of an ancient text in relation to a contemporary social movement demonstrates a far cry from social progress. The dichotomisation of women as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an attempt to control female sexuality continues to be prevalent in contemporary and historical accounts and must be considered critically in order to adequately protect victims of sexual violence in modern society.
Brown, J. & Walklate, S. (2012) Handbook on Sexual Violence. Routledge.
Kelly, L., Lovett, J. & Regan, L. (2005) "A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases." Home Office Research Study 293. London: Home Office.
Kerr, J., Sprenger, E. & Symington, A. (2004) The Future of Women’s Rights: Global Visions and Strategies. Zed Books.
Moslener, S. (2015) Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and the American Adolescence. Oxford University Press.
Rape Crisis (2013) ‘CPS confirms false rape allegations are very rare’. Available at: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/news/cps-confirms-false-rape-allegations-are-very-rare (Accessed: 30 May 2017).
Valenti, J. (2009) The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Hachette UK.
Georgina Riggs holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of Leicester and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Warwick. She is currently working on applications to study a PhD in Criminology. In particular, she is developing a research proposal to study sexual violence in higher education using a multi-sectoral approach in the context of post-feminist and neoliberalist ideological positions. More broadly, her interests within the social sciences stem from a social constructionist approach and range from the relationship between gender, politics, sexuality, and the law. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 15, 2017
The UK government spends roughly £13billion a year on Disability Living Allowances and Personal Independence Payments. (visual.ons.gov.uk/welfare-spending/: 2017) These payments, claimed by over 3.5 million people, are intended to cover the extra costs incurred from living with impairments, irrespective of the claimant’s financial status.
However, the government believe that this system is being abused by fake or exaggerated claims. In a recent statement, George Freeman, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, emphasised that the payments are only intended for the “really disabled” not, as he put it, those who are “taking pills at home, suffering from anxiety.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39097019: 2017) Such claimants, Freeman suggested, should no longer qualify for financial assistance. These unfortunately phrased comments have since been widely condemned. Freeman stands accused of trivialising the debilitating effects of mental illness by insinuating that those who experience it are not really experiencing a disability at all but are instead abusing a system which is intended only to care for the ‘most’ impaired.
These comments are the result of an announcement that the government are planning a £3billion funding cut to the disability welfare system. As such, deciding as a society what is, and more importantly what is not, a disablement deserving of our government’s continued financial assistance appears to be an immediately pressing concern.
However, financial assistance for the impaired was not always decided upon in such medically categorising terms. The judicial system of the Athenian court, for example, took a different approach, one which should perhaps be considered again today. A law court speech from the 5th Century BCE clearly demonstrates this system but first, an ambiguity in its translation needs to be corrected. This speech, entitled “On the Refusal of a Pension”, (Rose: 2017) hinges on the following statement:
“φησὶ γὰρ ὁ κατήγορος οὐ δικαίως με λαμβάνειν τὸ παρὰ τῆς πόλεως ἀργύριον: καὶ γὰρ τῷ σώματι δύνασθαι καὶ οὐκ εἶναι τῶν ἀδυνάτων…” (Lysias 24: 4 Trans. W. R. M. Lamb: 1930)
“My accuser says that I have no right to receive my civil pension, because I am able-bodied and not classed as disabled…”
From this common translation, the approach of the Athenian court does initially appear to be identical to that of modern day. The prosecution seems to be accusing the unnamed defendant of not being ‘disabled enough’ to justify financial benefits, just as George Freeman was asserting. However, this translation of the term άδυνάτος, although widely accepted, is in fact inherently misleading. The term has here been translated as ‘disabled’ yet, objectively speaking, the term simply means to be unable to do something; to be weak, poor, or powerless. None of these definitions are, necessarily, exclusively concerned with a person’s physical inability.
By translating the term άδυνάτος as ‘disabled’ then, the modern translation focuses purely on the physical interpretation of the word, implying that physical inability was the condition for financial assistance. However, this is not the case. Unlike our modern disability welfare system, which provides benefits on the basis of need regardless of financial earnings, the Athenian judiciary required the receiver of a pension to be financially incapacitated as a result of physical inability. With this is mind, when the prosecution suggests that the unnamed defendant is considered able rather than άδυνάτος, they mean he is able, rather than unable, to function and support himself. It is his ability to support himself which, the prosecution argue, ought to preclude him from seeking financial support, regardless of his physical status.
Indeed, every argument that the defendant is forced to refute is based not on his physical ability but on his supposed financial ability. For instance, the primary accusation is that the defendant engages in a trade (τέχνην ἐπίστασθαι). The prosecution are not arguing that an impaired man would not be able to engage in a trade, but that by engaging in a trade, the man would earn a living that outstripped his need for state aid. In a similar vein, the second accusation is that he rides a horse (ἵππους ἀναβαίνω). Again, what seems to be at issue here is not that an impaired man would not be able to ride a horse but that a poor man would not be able to afford one. (Rose: 2003 pp. 95-100)
Perhaps however, the most telling indicator that this is an argument of proving financial rather than physical need, is that the defendant spends none of his speech elaborating on his physical condition. (Amundsen: 1977) In fact, beyond the knowledge that he uses two sticks to get around, we have no idea what his physical impairment may have been. If this had been a case which rested on the defendant needing to prove his disability, it would be expected that the defendant would attempt to garner pity from the judiciary by elaborating on his physical ailments and how they manifest themselves. However, this is conspicuously lacking within the defendant’s arguments. What this case helps to prove is that
in ancient Athens, the validation of inability lay not in the physical impairment but in the financial consequences that this impairment may have incurred.
In contrast to the Athenian courts then, the question our current government is wrestling with is this: Who, based solely on the severity of their physical need, is most deserving of financial assistance?
The Athenians, on the other hand, would likely have advocated a different question: Who, based upon the severity of their fiscal need due to physical impairment, is most deserving of financial assistance?
Perhaps, in the face of a struggling welfare system, this is a better question to be asking ourselves today.
D. W Amundsen (1977) ‘The Physician as an Expert in Athenian Law’ in the
Bulletin of the History of Medicine. v. 51. no. 2. pp. 202-213
Lysias Lysias Translated by W. R. M. Lamb (1930) Loeb Classical Library 244. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
M. Rose (2003) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (London: University of Michigan Press)
M. Rose ‘Ability and Disability in Athenian Oratory’ in C. Laes (2017) Disability in Antiquity (London: Routledge)
Annie Sharples is a first year PhD candidate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interest is the study of impairment and disability within Ancient Greek culture and society. Annie is currently investigating the language of disability and how it has been used, or more often misused, within modern discussions and translations of ancient texts. Her wider academic interests include the unideal body within Greek art, aging within Greek society, and the relationship between ancient medicine and the gods.
January 16, 2017
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.
David Fearn is Associate Professor in Greek Literature at the University of Warwick. Email: D.W.Fearn@warwick.ac.uk
December 15, 2016
The Boaty McBoatface controversy, although seemingly innocuous, made conspicuous a concept that would become the subject of greater concern to Western consciousness throughout the course of 2016: democracy.
On 17th March 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched its ‘Name Our Ship’ campaign, which hosted votes for suggested names for a newly planned research vessel. This campaign was particularly democratic insofar as any candidate could be submitted and put to vote. This resulted in some rather charming entries, such as ‘RSS Jules Verne’ (3 votes), but it also encouraged the whimsy of the masses and gave rise to ‘RSS Boaty McBoatface’ (124,109 votes) – by far the most popular suggestion.
One month later, after an unprecedented blast of PR exposure for the NERC, the decision was made and we can expect the RSS David Attenborough (11,023 votes) to be operational by 2019. The decision to overrule the public vote sparked minor outrage, with some labelling it an affront to democracy. One commentator went so far as to claim that "the people should get what the people want" despite admitting that the popular choice was "a bad idea, voted for by idiots" (Heritage, 2016).
This article raises some interesting philosophical questions – namely: if we are to understand democracy as 'the (majority of) people getting what the (majority of) people want,' should no further qualifications be added to this principle in order to make it more nuanced, more precise? Should there not be some kind of caveat with respect to people's capacity to recognise what's in their best interests? To put it simply: what is the significance of the relation between education, freedom and democracy?
This philosophical concern is over 2000 years old, taking up a significant proportion of Plato's famous political treatise, the Republic. In this work, Plato argues that the education of its citizens is the bedrock of the ideal polis – the maximally just city-state. That is, proper education is the vital ingredient that, once established, would be sufficiently conducive to the propagation of the ideal polis:
And surely, once our city gets a good start, it will go on growing in a cycle. Good education and upbringing, when they are preserved, produce good natures, and useful natures, who are in turn well educated, grow up even better than their predecessors, both in their offspring and in other respects, just like other animals. (Rep, IV, 424a-b)
This is because, according to Plato, if people are properly educated they become good and reasonable. As such, they will therefore be able to recognise the constituent requirements for the ideal polis and organise themselves into these structures and modes of living of their own volition:
...the final outcome of education, I suppose we'd say, is a single newly finished person, who is either good or the opposite. (Rep, IV, 425c)
...for if by being well educated they become reasonable men, they will easily see these things for themselves. (Rep, IV, 423e)
We can clearly see that, for Plato, education is of vital significance for the successful operation of the ideal political system. Moreover, once this significance is recognised, it becomes immediately apparent that education bears an essential relation to the second of our concerns: freedom. That is, on the Platonic account, proper education entails a greater degree of freedom for those who receive it. This is because those who are properly educated warrant no governmental interference insofar as they can and do identify and conform to the optimum conditions of life. As Plato says:
It isn't appropriate to dictate to men who are fine and good. (Rep, IV, 425d)
As such, it could be suggested that the Platonic political setup endows people with a greater degree of individual liberty and representation than that of modern day democracies. That is, although Plato's political vision is technically not a democracy, the only role played by its ruling class of 'philosopher kings' (Rep, V, 473c-d) is that of installing and safeguarding this initial requirement of education. Once this is in effect, the people effectively govern themselves.
Alas, Plato's ultimate vision is not democratic, but how might his strict commitment to education play out in democratic scenarios? And to what extent is his urgent emphasis on education compatible with modern democracy?
In the case of Boaty McBoatface, the Platonic model would have ensured that 'RSS David Attenborough' (assuming this was the most suitable choice) would have been selected by the majority – in fact, it would have been selected by everyone.
As mentioned above, this example might appear trivial, but it does have implications for the more serious political controversies of 2016. Problems highlighted during the post-mortem of the European Referendum, such as widespread misrepresentation, might not have occurred if the stress Plato placed on education was in effect today. People would have simply rationally and independently identified the correct resolution without recourse to the vying campaigns of conflicting governing bodies. Moreover, for Plato, there would have been no conflicting alternatives, as reason would have guided everyone to the same conclusion.
Plato's strict emphasis on education evidently alleviates some contemporary problems. It does, however, rest on an underlying presupposition: the suggestion that there is such a thing as the correct resolution. Plato subscribes to this view because he claims values to be objective features of reality. Unfortunately, this metaethical position is not immediately compatible with our modern scientific worldview. Does this mean we have to abandon any attempts to incorporate a potentially freedom-enhancing way of thinking into contemporary political thought? Or is there a way of accounting for Plato's commitment to education without recourse to a problematic metaphysical worldview? The answer to this question, I suggest, will determine the applicability of Plato's theories to the political landscape of today.
Plato, Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve. In "Plato: Complete Works". Edited by John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company 1997).
Heritage, S. (2016, April 19). "Boaty McBoatface: Tyrants have crushed the people's will". URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/19/boaty-mcboatface-tyrants-have-crushed-the-peoples-will. Accessed: 13 December 2016.
National Environment Research Council. URL: https://nameourship.nerc.ac.uk/. Accessed 13 December 2016.
George Webster is a graduate of the University of Warwick, having completed the MA in Continental Philosophy in October 2015. He is currently applying for funding in order to further his research into accounts of metaphysical immanence, such as those found in Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze. He is interested in how systems of value issue from such accounts, as well as how they explain subjectivity and the distinctly ethical character of human being. Email: email@example.com