Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

7. Doing it by numbers? The Greeks

No people have been more often or more consistently miscast in the image of their admirers than the Ancient Greeks. To begin with, who are we talking about then we use the term? Unlike the civilisations of Egypt or China which lasted thousands of years, the Greece that is usually studied in schools is the Greece of the 5th Century BC and specifically the Greece of Ancient Athens for the short time when the city was genuinely a democracy. There was another Greece, the Greece of the blind poet Homer, which the Greeks of Athens celebrated in art and literature. This is the Greece of the heroes, Jason and Theseus, and of Achilles, Hector and the great city of Troy. Its historical roots lie in the Bronze Age when Mycenae was the most important place in Greece and the Minoan civilisation based in Crete was at its height. Envoys from Crete appear to be pictured in the Egyptian tomb of Rekhmire (circa 1450 BC), slim and elegant as might be expected of a culture whose chief sport appears to have been bull-leaping. The young Cretan athletes – girls as well as boys – seem to have literally taken the bull by the horns, leaping over its head and somersaulting off its back onto the ground. This is piece of experimental archaeology no-one has yet tried!

This Minoan civilisation, which was centered on undefended palaces like that at Knossos, seems to have been dealt a grievous blow by a huge volcanic eruption centered on the island of Santorini which occurred around 1600 BC (though the exact date is hotly disputed). The eruption may have caused spectacular tidal waves, drowning settlements near to the coast, perhaps giving rise to the legend of Atlantis. The Trojan War itself seems to have taken place about 500 years later when clay tablets discovered in the contemporary Hittite capital of Hattusas refer to a city called Wilusa being attacked by a great king of the Ahiyawa. Homer’s alternative name for Troy was Ilios, whilst the Greeks under the command of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, are called Achaeans. The site usually identified as that of Troy is the mound of Hissarlik in modern Turkey. Excavations at Hissarlik have revealed evidence of a succession of cities, built one on top of another. The one known as Troy VIb shows evidence of major destruction, its high walls having been breached during the course of a siege. It dates to around 1100 BC and may represent the ‘topless towers of Ilium’ brought down by ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’

Did Homer exist? His two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey are dissimilar in style and content and probably represent the first writing down of stories that had been passed down by word of mouth for generations, just like the Aborigine ‘dreamtime’ or the early books of the Bible. In the process many details would change but for the stories to be accepted as genuine by their listeners, the main features must have remained the same. It’s a process that can be simulated in the classroom by the traditional game of ‘Chinese whispers’. If you want your learners to confront the problems raised when different kinds of historical evidence are compared there’s no better example, though beware! It’s very easy to become bogged down in the detail and the real appeal lies in the timeless nature of the legends themselves, which have inspired countless later works of art and literature, including the cinema. Compare, for example, a very recent film based on the Iliad, Troy starring Brad Pitt (2004). The best scene in the movie is that most closely based on the ancient source, namely the one when old Priam, king of Troy, comes secretely to the tent of Achilles to plead for the return of his son Hector’s body. ‘I have endured what no man before me has endured,’ he says. ‘I have kissed the hands of the man who killed my son…’ These are the words of Homer himself. Sadly the Hollywood ending of the film destroys its emotional impact. Letting Paris and Helen escape is like altering the end of Hamlet so that the hero marries Ophelia and lives happily ever after...

For the Greeks the whole point of the story is that we cannot escape our Fate. From first to last the action is prompted and guided by the gods, who often participate directly in the war, using their superhuman powers to decide the outcome of a battle, one way or another. It is their jealousy that sparks it off in the first place with the celebrated beauty contest when Paris, Hector’s younger brother awards the prize to Aphrodite, goddess of love and is awarded the most beautiful woman in the world as his prize. She happens to be the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, brother of Agamemnon, who is none too pleased when Paris carries her off. Equally miffed are the losers in the beauty contest, especially Hera, queen of the gods, who thereafter pursues the Trojans with an implacable hostility which her husband Zeus can barely restrain. The fact that their gods displayed such a range of very human emotions explained a lot to the Greeks: it accounted for catastrophes both natural and man-made. There was no need to invent the Devil to explain evil, when quarrels on Olympus could account for most bad things that occur.

What then we should humans do, faced with constant meddling from above? The answer seems to be the one traditionally given to English public school boys: ‘it matters not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.’ The highest virtues in ‘Greek-world’ are constancy, fortitude, patience and wisdom, in other words the courage and self-discipline to fulfil the obligations laid upon you as a citizen, whatever trials and tribulations this involves. Nor are the gods themselves immune from the decrees of fate. Zeus can be compared to the captain of an ocean liner: he has authority over all that happens on board but the ship’s course is determined by a higher power whose motives are beyond our understanding. It has often struck me that this is a very rational view. It accepts that all human explanations for what happens are bound to be incomplete whilst allowing scope for the ultimate question: might not the fact that consciousness is greater than the sum of its material parts mean that the universe itself has a mind?

The open-endedness of that last question is what the Greeks really bequeathed to us – not a specific set of beliefs but a way of thinking that isn’t based upon pre-conceived notions but treats even the most established beliefs as matters for debate and discussion. Not that the Greeks were consistent in their tolerance of ideas: the philosopher Socrates (469-399 BC) was condemned to death, apparently for encouraging his students to question the existence of the gods although it may be that his real crime was an intellectual’s contempt for democracy. He would not be the first or the last academic to doubt the wisdom of elections.

Socrates did all his teaching in a building the Greeks called a gymnasium. Nowadays the word suggests physical exercise – weight lifting, forward rolls etc – but Greek gymnasia embodied a broader concept of fitness. Certainly there was a wide open space where young bodies could develop strength and agility but it was surrounded by shady colonnades where minds could be exercised as well. Clearly Socrates liked to get his pupils thinking which he seems to have done by starting impossible arguments, an example of which might go as follows: ‘some men say the moon is made of green cheese. Can you be certain that it is not?’ Before space travel this would have been a tough challenge, but in true Socratian style let’s consider the proposition that those pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon were really shot in a studio in Los Angeles… what then? The best answer I’ve heard is that the pictures would have been better!

It’s difficult to believe that word games like these are the basis of modern science but science is not about what we know but about what we don’t know. If you believe that all the big questions have been answered, and answered long ago, you have no interest in the kind of experiments scientists do. Moreover there are thoughts you cannot think. Your path to wisdom is one already trodden and your chances of having an original thought are much diminished; moreover, if you do – by accident – find yourself thinking the unthinkable you are likely to be burnt at the stake or beheaded for your pains. Why should this be so? Why should a mere thought be so threatening? Because you are undermining the authority of those who claim superior knowledge of the texts that represent orthodoxy and thus – in their eyes – threatening the very existence of society whose survival they equate with their own. This is why Socrates was forced to drink hemlock and why, even today, heresy is still a worse crime than murder in some countries.

Historians are no less at risk than scientists when it comes to challenging received opinion. One of the main reasons for learning history is to discover that there are alternatives to the present – ways of living and believing that have worked very well in the past and may still be valid in the future. This was precisely the crime of which Winston in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was guilty: he was able to compare what had been true yesterday with what was true today and the difference between the two led him to doubt ‘Big Brother’. Doubt, as tyrants through the ages have realised, is the beginning of dissent, yet doubt is also the starting point for every new idea and every new truth. All the world’s great spiritual leaders began by doubting what the majority of those around them believed and all suffered persecution as a result. It’s one of civilisation’s greater ironies that their teachings have so often been used as justification for the persecution of others.

Fortunately for us the death of Socrates did not deter his disciples from ‘thinking outside the box’, even if they were a little less public in doing it. Whereas Socrates himself appears as a bit of an iconoclast, picking the most sensitive subjects and relying on outrage to get a discussion going (a tactic not infrequently used in the modern classroom) later thinkers like Plato and Aristotle dealt in a more subtle fashion with the interplay of ideas. At the same time what is under consideration is equally fundamental, for example: what is the right way to live? How should a country be governed? Despite rejecting tradition most Greeks were convinced that there were answers to these questions, answers which, once arrived at by logical thought, would be self-evident. In this they foreshadow ‘Mr Spok’ of Star Trek fame.

As even those who are not ‘trekkies’ know Mr Spok’s trouble is that he doesn’t understand emotion, or for that matter anything that can’t be measured. All that vast arena known as ‘sex’ lies outside his comprehension, let alone concepts like beauty which proverbially lie ‘in the eye of the beholder’. The Greeks were not so easily defeated. They came up with a set of mathematical formulae which would enable them a) to judge who or what was beautiful and b) how it could be reproduced time and again. It’s in the work of a Roman author, Vitruvius, that we find the fullest statement of these rules. The most perfect male body is one which fits exactly within a circle whose centre is the man’s navel and the most perfect buildings can be described in a similar way, the most satisfying ratio between breadth and height being the famous golden section where the former represents 1.618 of the latter. Some people claim to have found similar proportions within the faces of the best-looking people.

Over the years I have tried to find out whether any of my male students actually measures up to the Vitruvian ideal. Very few of them do, even the sporty ones. Almost always their legs prove to be too long. However, when we re-examine Greek statues we find that their legs look too short, as is the case with the nudes of Michelangelo who seems to have followed Greek rules. I suspect that none of this would have bothered Socrates or his followers: what they wanted was a standard so that deviation from it could be clearly seen. Nor need such a principle be restricted to buildings or bodies: it can be applied to almost anything – tables, dogs or even teachers. Thus a way of ordering experience is arrived at which allows prizes and certificates to be awarded on a completely fair and objective basis.

At this point I hear those old Greeks laughing. ‘You didn’t really take all that seriously, did you? Do you think that somewhere there’s an ideal table, or dog or teacher?’ For Plato and his comrades the pursuit of knowledge was an end in itself, not a programme for action; they used science to create toys (and sometimes engines of war) but they never believed they could conquer nature through it. They would have seen our current fear of global warming as ‘hubris’, the punishment that is inevitable when men think they can equal the gods.

Take for example Plato’s idea of the perfect state. Not surprisingly, bearing in mind the way his fellow citizens had voted for the death of Socrates, it isn’t a democracy. Instead it’s a monarchy where the king is a philosopher. The definition of a philosopher is one who seeks, in Benthamite fashion ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’; thus a state governed by such a person is bound to be governed well and its citizens have no need of a constitution or human rights legislation to protect them. We don’t have to be a Greek to point out that no such state has ever existed and that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Plato knows this and is merely defining the degree to which all real rulers fail. The danger lies in thinking the opposite.

We have ended up with a paradox reminiscent of our discussion about the structure of the brain: we know how good things might be but we also know how bad they often are. Sensible people seek a path between the two without losing sight of either. ‘Never exceed: the middle way is best’ was the motto carved over the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi. As we shall see when we come to look at modern history it was precisely those regimes which lacked any form of internal control that met most speedily with disaster. Nor can it be accidental that the recent crisis in the world’s financial system seems also to have originated in a lack of regulation.

So the Greeks deserve their place in the curriculum for their contribution to the development of human civilisation and for the relevance of their way of life and thought to the dilemmas we face in the modern world. But our debt to them goes further than that. In seeking to understand the world about them they invented most of the disciplines into which the curriculum is divided – history, geography, science, maths and PE – though their attitude to the latter was profoundly elitest. The aim of sport in Ancient Greece was to identify winners – there were no prizes for second place and certainly no philosophy of ‘sport for all.’ Moreover, the events were all designed to test the skills required in battle, for example running, jumping, boxing and chariot racing. And here we reach one of those points of divergence when cultures that seem to have so much in common prove to be actually very different. Though women had their own competition the premier sporting event in Ancient Greece – the Olympic Games – was open to men only; women (except for certain priestesses) were not even allowed to attend. Moreover, the whole spectacle had a deeply religious flavour, with participants taking an oath to Zeus not to cheat and the proceedings commencing with the sacrifice of a bull. Finally, the athletes competed naked, apparently after someone’s shorts fell down, bringing the runner in question crashing to the ground along with the rest of the field. Nevertheless when the games came to be revived at the end of the 19th Century, their fundamental character – an international gathering designed to promote fellowship between young people throughout the world – reflected something of the spirit of the original. As opening ceremonies grow ever more elaborate the semi-religious aspect seems to be returning too.

One question remains to be asked. Why was it that so much that was important for the future happened in one small country over such a small period of time? Geography provides one answer: Greece is a mountainous country with a long coastline: each city had its own hinterland but none possessed sufficient resources to conquer the others as the series of Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta proved. As a result the cities sought to increase their prestige in more peaceful and productive ways. Another explanation lies in the ‘near death’ that Greece experienced when attacked by the super-power of Persia at the start of the 5th Century BC. Just as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 seems to have led to a remarkable outburst of creative energy in Elizabethan England, so the unexpected defeat of the Persians gave an enormous boost to the Greeks’ self-esteem. ‘What doesn’t completely destroy you, strengthens you’, to quote Terry Venables (amongst others).