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Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition

by August 3, 2018

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Etruscan art

Detail of two dancers from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi

Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up to the Greeks and a foreshadowing to the Romans. But casting this ancient society as a sideline character might not do them enough justice.
Indeed, despite the importance of Etruria (the wider region of the Etruscans) in its context as a link between the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, modern thought considers Etruscan civilization ‘far superior to the traditional picture of a poor relation of Greece and a mysterious prelude to Rome.’
This new found appreciation of the Etruscans can be most clearly seen in its art and architecture – and distinguishing where they leave off from the Greeks and create their own individual style.
Of course, Etruscan art did owe a great debt to Greece. Even in its primitive form, we are able to draw comparisons between the miniature statues of Etruscan native warriors and Greek Cycladic art (Quick note: the Cyclades is a group of islands including and north of modern Santorini). The unnaturally thin limbs and square faces, although not being a direct copy, certainly look as if the Etruscans must have been aware of the Cycladic statues.
Etruscan sculpture

Warrior with helmet, originally holding a spear. Etruscan art, Southern Umbria, 5th century BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace, NM-H10 4787.

This very early example gives us the impression that trends in the art world, in general, evolve in tandem and that ‘picking and choosing’ Greek elements may not have been a conscious decision by Etruscan artists. Instead, the vast trading links with Greece would have provided constant contact with the art of different peoples.
For example, red and black pottery were introduced into the Etruscan world in the 6th century BC when Greek artists began to settle in towns such as Veii and Cerveteri. This would have made good fiscal sense, as it was far easier, safer and cheaper to relocate one gifted artisan than transport 500 pots. We see this evidence in the discovery of bird, ring, and animal shaped vessels found in Greece and Cyprus, but which are made of native clay. Such items are technically Greek rhytons, a type of drinking horn, despite their Etruscan origins.
Additionally, we can see that the antefix, a type of ornament that hides the joints of a tiled roof, from the temple of Portonaccio at Veii is designed in the image of a gorgon, and can be a direct copy of the Greek style prominent on the pediment of the temple of Artemis at Corfu. Also striking is that the two examples are within only a few decades of each other, implying that not only were ideas from Greece to Etruria transferred, but they were done so relatively quickly.
We can also see these cross cultural transfers in painting, particularly in the practice of portraying females in white and males much darker. This made sense in Greek painting as women were supposed to remain within the oikos, or house, whilst men went about their business outside. However, Etruscan women were given no such restrictions (though more about them later) and therefore this shows us an artificial depiction brought to the Etruscans from Greece.
But in many ways Etruscan art was different to that of Greece. For instance, the roofing techniques found in Etruria were not in Greece, and this can be taken further as we examine Etruscan dwellings in general. An Etruscan funerary urn (8th century BC) depicts a wattle and daub hut most unGreek in style. Also, even if some materials and techniques may have had Greek origins, we still have a good deal of subject matter that is uniquely Etruscan.
Etruscan house

Urna cineraria a capanna forse da Vulci, VII secolo a.C., Museo nazionale di Villa Giulia, Roma

For instance, there is little exaltation of local heroes in the art and no attempt to use it as a tool of fear or propaganda. This may be one of the reasons why the Etruscans are thought mysterious to modern archaeologists and dangerous to Greeks and Romans, as they felt identity was more precious than all else.
There are other ways in which the Etruscans revealed their own unique style. For example, in pot making. While the technique may be Greek, Etruscans introduced their own shapes into the art, making it no challenge to tell apart a Greek from an Etruscan pot. Additionally, more unGreek scenes appear, such as the mauling of a blindfolded man by a dog, and the occurrence of elaborate gold jewellery, which has more in common with the Celtic Le Tene culture, than with Hellenistic artwork. There is also a good deal of material whose origins could be said to be more Egyptian than Greek, such as the appearance of ‘human feline’ statuettes and hieroglyphic markings.
But it is the women in Etruscan art that make it really unique from Greece.
In both Greek and Roman societies even the highest bred women were subject to a greatly diminished status, both domestically and within the state. Whilst we have little to tell us of the official role of women in Etruscan society, we can see through the artwork that they enjoyed a much more even social status.
Etruscan art detail

Etruscan Boccanera Plaques Cerveteri, 560 BC – 55 BC

‘Etruscan woman ‘went out’ a great deal. We see them everywhere, in the forefront of the scene, taking a considerable place in it and never blushing from shame’ (J. Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans). There are several wall paintings of feasts and banquet scenes that feature both men and women enjoying their meals together. The Greeks, rather unreasonably and rudely, used this as evidence that Etruscan women were all drunkards and promiscuous.
This domestic interaction between the sexes is something that is seen nowhere in Greek art. Women are either interacting between themselves, performing sexual acts, entertaining, working or taking part in a festival in Greece. These domestic scenes, therefore, would be wholly bizarre and unnatural to the Greeks.
Etruscan sarcophagus

Etruscan sarcophagus from Cerveteri c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta, length 2 m. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome.

In Etruria we see the women reclining along with their husbands in what the Greeks presumed to be a readiness to perform sexual acts, but seems far more probable to be merely an affectionate sharing of time together. This is supported in the grave markers, where the sculptures of a man and wife lie in peace together. We see one example of a couple with the woman holding a baby on her knees in a scene where presumably libations are about to be poured for the child’s safety. Domestic intimacy like this is an alien concept to Greek art.
Though we can clearly identify a good deal of Greek artistic traits in the art of the Etruscans, we could just as easily claim to identify Egyptian ones (to a lesser extent) and on this tack we could claim that any Greek art is not truly Greek but merely a bastardisation of near Eastern art.
That said, Etruscan art can clearly be identified as an art unto its own. Saying it is merely the evolution of Hellenistic art seems rather patronising towards the Etruscans. Regardless of to what extent the Greeks managed to influence Etruria, it seems that the Etruscans were more than capable of firmly stamping their own individuality on their artistic culture.

Do All Roads ACTUALLY Lead to Rome?

by August 1, 2018

We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The Power of Pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 BC, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 BC, the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
Markers on the Roman Roads

The Golden Milestone

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The Center of the World
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the center of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
‘There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.’
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
Milestones on Roman roads

Roman Milestones in the Bologna Archaeological Museum. (C Davenport)

The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century BC, but from the first century AD, emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances.
Part of the milion - roman roads

The surviving part of the Milion in Constantinople. (C. Davenport)

The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century AD, he built an arch called the Milion at its center, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century AD, even helpfully includes shortcuts for travelers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very center of the known world.
Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana

Tabula Peutingeriana (section)—top to bottom: Dalmatian coast, Adriatic Sea, southern Italy, Sicily, African Mediterranean coast

Proverbial Roads
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:

‘A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.’

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
‘right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.’
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – did all roads actually lead there?’ by Caillan Davenport and Shushma Malik on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

The Rape of a Goddess

by July 27, 2018

by Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Who were Demeter and Persephone and why did their myth resonate so strongly with women of ancient Greece? The story of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld, has inspired many. And while there are twenty-two variations of the myth, it is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (hereafter called the Hymn), composed between 650-550 BCE, that is believed to be one of the oldest.
However, the episode that leads up to the narrative found in the Hymn is as important as their story itself, as it sets the tone straight away. It starts with Zeus, lord of the gods, who rapes his sister Demeter, and the product of that rape is Persephone. They never married. Indeed, Zeus would have been the husband to hundreds if he married everyone he raped.
The famous Hymn then begins with the reciting of Zeus’ agreement with Hades in regards to Persephone. To be sure, his being an absentee father did not stop Zeus from arranging the marriage of his daughter – unbeknownst to either her or her mother – to his brother—Hades, the lord of the underworld.
Rape of a Goddess

Sculpture by Bernini depicting the Rape of Persephone

As a result, one day while Persephone was out picking flowers with her friends, the earth cleaved open and Hades, on a horse drawn chariot, charged out violently, snatching Persephone to be his wife for all eternity in the underworld. Persephone shrieks at the violence of the attack, alerting Demeter to her peril.
Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of Persephone. No one, god nor mortal, has the courage to tell her what became of her daughter. Finally, through information gleaned by the pre-Olympian goddess Hecate, Demeter is informed of Persephone’s rape.
Upon discovering that Zeus made the perfidious bargain with Hades, Demeter withdraws from her residence on Mount Olympus, and instead makes her home in an agrarian community populated by mortals. After many trials and tribulations there, a grand temple is built in Demeter’s honor with attendant rites to conciliate her spirit. But these honors are not enough to appease the grieving goddess.
It is at this point in the story that Demeter realizes her full strength. As a means of regaining her daughter from Hades, she exploits her power of fertility and stops the seasons, turning the earth into a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds whither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter will not relent until Persephone is released.
Finally, Zeus intercedes on Demeter’s behalf and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Ever obedient to Zeus, Hades adheres to his instruction but not until he lures Persephone into consuming a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year.
The mother and daughter goddesses

Demeter and Persephone reunite

So how did this parable of the kidnapped bride ring true for women living in ancient Greece?
Living under their husbands’ patriarchal thumbs, women were accustomed to being kept out of the loop regarding the matrimony of their daughters, and as such, it was not unusual for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either his wife or daughter.
As a girl was often torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior, abduction can be seen as the equivalent of rape. After all, men were taking young girls to be their wives, that is to say, the begetters of their sons. Indeed, some military campaigns were undertaken for the express purpose of rape; many Ionians and Pelasgians (early Greeks) were said to have gotten their wives in that manner.
Furthermore, in patriarchal ancient Greece, marriage was virilocal. In other words, the young girls—most of whom were sixteen years of age or younger—were forced to reside in their new husband’s family home, which could be a great distance from their original home. This meant having contact with their own family members after their marriage was a rare occurrence.
Consequently, Demeter’s sense of powerlessness against the abduction, and the suffering that ensued at the loss of her daughter, could resonate for most women of ancient Greece.
Mother grieving for daughter

Demeter Mourning Persephone

Additionally, although males are present in the account, it is a woman’s story. All the major roles are played by females, and the areas of concern: marriage, agriculture and sacrifice are indubitably in the feminine domain. To be sure, the dark bargain made by the male deities is a misbegotten one, as the union produces no child and nearly brings an end to the life of the planet. Indeed, although their actions drive the events, Zeus and Hades are remote shadows, whose dark force propels the dissonance felt by mother and daughter.
At its most fundamental level the Hymn is a story about a mother’s grief at the loss of her beloved daughter. Told from the perspective of the mother; it is more Demeter’s story than Persephone’s. At once powerless and inconsolable, Demeter appears more mortal than divine. Suffering profoundly due to the actions of males, Demeter is initially impotent to set things right. It is this sense of helplessness that sets off her sorrow at the loss of Persephone, mirroring the anguish that must have been felt by mortal mothers who lost their daughters to marriage each day.
Although both are parents to Persephone, Demeter’s bereavement is in marked contrast to that of Zeus, who had initiated her abduction in the first place. Bargaining with the lord of the underworld, who most would view as an agent of death; Zeus is indifferent to his daughter’s banishment into the land of the dead. In other words, he is disinterested in his daughter’s fate. Though immortal, Persephone is spirited away from the living cosmos and is compelled to live in the realm of the underworld for eternity.
Indeed, is Persephone’s marriage not a sort of death? Seen as a transition, the marriage of a maiden was viewed by many as a symbolic form of death.
But it is Demeter who does something never seen before in Greek mythology – she dares to defy the will of Zeus. Moreover, not only does she live to tell the tale but she very nearly wins the battle. After all, for the majority of the year Persephone lives with her mother in the light of her mother’s earthly domain. Though life can never return to the way it was before the abduction, most mortal women could envy Demeter’s achievement. In this way, the Hymn was liberating for ancient women, an example of a mother’s triumph over all else.

Did Constantine Really Convert?

by July 25, 2018

By NATALIA KLIMCZAK
Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However, legends and archaeological evidence suggest a different story– it seems that Constantine had a secret about his faith which was hidden for centuries.
Constantine built many churches. He celebrated the faith in one (Christian) God and his son Jesus by creating many of the greatest churches of the world, including: St. Peter’s in Rome, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, The Eleona on the Mount of Olives, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and others.
***Editor’s Note: St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius II in the 6th Century, which replaced the original 4th Century structure which had indeed been built by Constantine. This is to say that the current St. Peter’s Basilica is not the one built by Constantine.***
Painting of Constantine becoming a christian

Baptism of Constantine

Constantine became emperor in 306 AD, and ruled for 31 years. According to tradition, just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (Rome) in 312, he experienced a vision of a flaming cross with the inscription ”In his sign conquer”. As the legends say, he understood it as a sign from the Christian God asking him to convert. Constantine believed that he would be awarded with unusual power, the support of a deity, and the greatest kingdom of the world if he followed through with the vision.
By the decree of Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 324. However, did he really become a true Christian, or was he just seeking the support of powerful bishops for political purposes?
The Christian Emperor of Rome
In the group of his closest advisers there were bishops such as Hosius, Lactantius, and Eusebius of Caesarea. He appointed the group of converted Christians to high positions in many parts of his empire. The Christian ministers had special privileges. He also extended many benefits to pagan priests who became Christian ministers. For example, they received monetary support from the Empire and didn’t pay taxes.
Eusebius

Eusebius in a modern imagining. ( Public Domain )

The bishops were a faithful army for the ruler, but apart from creating some laws, temples, and supporting the growing group of priests, Constantine didn’t appear to be much of a Christian. He agreed with the bishops’ suggestions to legislate against magic and private divination. But if a change in these kinds of laws was not put forth by an influential bishop, Constantine wasn’t interested in making the changes.
With his decree many pagan temples were destroyed. For example, he ordered the damage of the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon, but also many other ceremonial pagan places. It seems that he was interested in destroying some of the important places of pre-Christian cults, but at the same time destruction didn’t apply to all of them. In every decision to destroy a pagan temple, it was written that the place could not exist because it was a site of misguided rites and ceremonies – a place of true obstinacy. He never outright banned pagan rituals like sacrifices, but only closed and destroyed important temples when the bishops felt the sites were dangerous to their own faith.
Apart from his political motives to support the growing army of priests, Constantine may have had a secret. What is more interesting, is that it seems that the bishop of Rome knew about it, and supported him in this hidden aspect of his life. The truth was that Constantine outwardly supported the new religion but still worshiped the Sun and pagan symbols.
A Sun-Worshipping Christian?
Constantine grew up in the court of the emperor Constantine Chlorus, who was a Neoplatonist and a devotee of the Unconquered Sun. His mother, Empress Helena, was a Christian who traveled through the Middle East searching for key sites connected to Jesus. According to the ancient texts, she was the one who identified the most important places known in the Bible. Young Constantine didn’t appear as a follower of his mother’s religious interests. He worshiped the Sun, or was devoted to Mithraism.
Icon of Constantine

Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Constantine and his mother, St. Helena. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

After his official conversion to Christianity in 312, Constantine built his triumphal arch in Rome. It is interesting that it wasn’t dedicated to the symbols of Christianity, but to the Unconquered Sun. During his reign, he changed many aspects connected with pagan cults, but that doesn’t mean that he stopped the cultivation of old traditions. He often named them differently, but still allowed for pagan practices in many ways. For example, in 321 Constantine legislated that the celebration of the Day of the Sun should be a state holiday – a day off for everybody.
The Confusing Column of Constantine
In 330, Constantine set up a statue which is a key to understanding his private beliefs. After decades of supporting Christianity, he appeared as a statue of the Sun god in the forum. The column became the center of the Forum of Constantine, nowadays known as the Cemberlitas Square in Istanbul. Today, the column is 35 meters (114.8 feet) tall, but in the ancient times it was 15 meters (49.2 feet) taller, and ended with an impressive statue of the emperor. The column was decorated with pagan symbolism supported by some Christian decoration.
Confusing Column of Constantine

The Column of Constantine in its original form, with the statue of Constantine as Apollo on top. ( Public Domain )

The statue on the top of the monument presented Constantine in the figure of Apollo with a Sun crown, the greatest symbol of the kings from the times of Alexander the Great. It is said that he carried a fragment of the True Cross in his hand – a relic of the cross of Jesus. At the foot of the column there was a sacred place which contained relics, including other parts of crosses, a basket from the biblical story of the loaves and fishes miracle, a jar which belonged to Mary Magdalene, and a wooden statue of Pallas Athena from Troy.
The Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143 – 1180) saw this monument as too pagan, and he decided to place a cross in place of the statue on the top of the column. The monument was damaged a few times in history, but the column has survived until modern times. Parts of the statue of Constantine are located in a museum, but the Column of Constantine is still one of the most important examples of Roman Art in Turkey.
True Christian, Secret Pagan, or a God?
After his death in 337, Constantine became one of the pagan gods. An analysis of archaeological sites suggests that Constantine, like previous emperors of Rome, had never stopped seeing himself as a son of the ancient deities. It is hard to believe that Constantine’s Christian beliefs were as strong as his mother Helena’s. He appears more as an intelligent politician than a man who truly wanted to Christianize the world.
Head of Constantine

Colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4th century, located at the Capitoline Museums, in Rome.

The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by July 20, 2018

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. Only one year later, his father would be killed in World War I. Camus was raised by his mother in extreme poverty. At the age of 25, Camus traveled to France where he would develop into a highly successful author and existential philosopher. He was involved with the French resistance during the Occupation of Paris during World War II. Editing and writing many underground newspapers during this time, Camus would attempt to undermine the Nazi control of Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, only to die tragically in a car crash three years later.
Photo of Albert Camus

Albert Camus

In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a corner stone on which to build his unique school of existential thought. Following some of the teachings of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Camus’ philosophy would later become known as Absurdism. Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
“The Absurd” is the feeling that Camus describes when we are forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of our existence. It is the uneasy realization that all purpose we may believe we have does not exist out there in the universe, but only in our own hearts and minds. And so life is an endless struggle to perform tasks that are essentially meaningless; we are born into this world, we fight vainly for understanding, and we are eventually sealed away by death.
It is not hard to see how Camus would find inspiration for this thinking from the myth of Sisyphus. The unfortunate mortal is unduly bound to his boulder. He will suffer for all eternity, straining all the while to perform a task that serves no purpose and inevitably must be repeated. It is this realization that would prompt a human being to tackle what Albert Camus considers the most important philosophical question. He poses this fundamental problem, rather bluntly, within the first few lines of his essay…
“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” -Albert Camus (The Myth Of Sisyphus)
Photo of the philosopher Camus

Albert Camus

It is important to remember that Camus is not necessarily advocating suicide, but he does admit to consider it, at least partially, to be justified when faced with the absurdity of life. Camus writes that any healthy man is capable of considering the possibility of suicide, even if he never acts on it. And much like Hamlet when he muses “to be or not to be…”, Albert Camus makes an eloquent consideration for the prospects of taking ones own life. Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words…
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self reflection that we are happiest. By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
Shakespeare quote

To be or not to be…

To accentuate this point, Camus retells the horrors of Oedipus. A man who tried to outrun fate, he inadvertently falls prey to it. It is only near his final hours, when he is blind and broken, does he cry out “…all is well”. Oedipus has accepted his condition, accepted his actions as his own. And he is free. Camus points to this as the recipe for victory for the absurd hero. He writes… “Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism”.
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair. It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say ‘All is well’…

The Wholly Spirit of Aristotle

by July 18, 2018

by Ben Potter
When considering the origins of Western philosophy there is a clear, almost indisputable holy trinity which gave birth to a dynasty of thought that is still with us to this day.
Whilst Socrates was certainly the father and Plato undeniably the son, it was Aristotle who exuded a ‘wholly’ spirit.
He was complete and comprehensive in the sense that, unlike his forerunners, he was no mere philosopher, but also wrote extensively on physics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, biology and zoology.
He was, more than any other individual, responsible for shaping the European mind; and by extension, the minds of those in the Americas and Antipodes.
Indeed, it is impossible to deny that Aristotle gave the world an academic cornucopia that was so varied and detailed that some of his assertions were only finally being corroborated, or in fact refuted, in the 19th century, over 2000 years after his death.
Of the trinity only Aristotle, unlike Socrates and Plato, was not an Athenian. His association with Athens only began in his 18th year when he enrolled as a student at Plato’s Academy.
However, it is difficult to accurately speculate about his education prior to this.
His father was a physician at the court of King Amyntas II of Macedonia, making it likely that Aristotle, between his birth in 384 BC and his migration to Athens in 367 BC, would have spent some part of his childhood in these auspicious circles.
Also, it’s hard to imagine he was quite so precocious that he would have been able to slot so neatly into life at Plato’s Academy without at least some degree of formal education.
Regardless of his level of ignorance or brilliance when he entered the Academy, over the next 20 years he managed to establish himself as Plato’s protégée; learning from, but by no means kowtowing to, the elder thinker.
Much has been made of Aristotle’s departure from Plato, with some saying that the younger man rebelled against or even betrayed his tutor with the evolution of his philosophy. However, there is too much consensus and similarity between them to be quite so dramatic; evolution is a far more appropriate term than rebellion.
Indeed, Aristotle only left the Academy when its founder died in 347 BC and the reins of power were transferred to Plato’s nephew, Speusippus.
But why did Aristotle leave?
Was he unhappy at the direction in which Speusippus was taking the Academy? Was he irked by being overlooked for the top job? Or was his concern the amount of anti-Macedonian sentiment rising up in the city which was lazily misdirected toward him, despite the fact that there was nothing to suggest that Aristotle was anything other than a loyal Athenian citizen?
Whatever the reason, Aristotle decided that, for now, a hiatus from Athens would serve his interests best.
And so he made his way to Assos, due south of the traditional site of Troy. There, under the protection of a former Academy classmate, the slave-turned-tyrant Hermias, he established his own school and married Hermias’ (presumably dentally challenged) daughter.
However if Assos was where Aristotle cut his teeth as an educator, it was on Lesbos, where he moved in 345 BC, that he had the opportunity to examine and chronicle the flora and fauna of the island and surrounding sea; pioneering classification by genus and specie, and attempting to explain the very nature of each organism.
Aristotle's life on a map

Map of Aristotle’s Life

He did this in an impressively academic manner; not content merely to observe, but also to understand the benefit of logging changes.
Aristotle was not quite ready for a return to Athens when he opted to terminate his studies in natural history with the Lesbians. Instead he took a more circuitous route and retrod the ground he walked as a child; following in his father’s footsteps as an employee at the Macedonian court.
Though not like his father as a medic, but a tutor and, as chaos theorists would have us believe, one that may have seriously altered the course of history… as the pupil he taught was none other than Alexander the Great.
However, some questioned Aristotle’s motives for taking up the post.
Aristotle Teaching Alexander
Was he tempted by the glamour of the position? By the riches it must surely have brought? Was it because Alexander’s father, King Philip II had the power to liberate and rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira?
Well… we could potentially answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions. However, if he was following the teachings of his mentor Plato, then Aristotle would have had no choice but to tutor the young prince. He would have seen it as his duty to make Alexander not merely Great, but a great philosopher king.
Aristotle did what he could with Alexander, but perhaps did not have sufficient classroom time as the young man was actively involved in his father’s government from the age of 16. Thus, when Alexander came to the throne in earnest (still at the tender age of 20), Aristotle had long since become superfluous.
With his globe-trotting days behind him, and his attempts to philosophise with the soon-to-be most famous man in the world not wholly successful, Aristotle decided that the centre of the cultural world, Athens, was in need of fresh intellectual guidance.
However, an absence of 13 years and open collusion with Athens’ subjugators, Macedonia, hadn’t given Aristotle, described in one source as a dandy with rings on his fingers and a fashionable hair cut, the authority to walk brazenly back into the Academy and expect to be welcomed with open arms (though his flash appearance did manage to bag him a second wife).
So instead he opted to establish his own school, the Lyceum.
The school and its followers were often referred to as Peripatetics, a term derived from the Greek word ‘to walk’ and apocryphally thought to reflect Aristotle’s penchant for teaching while wandering the grounds.
Aristotles' school

The Peripatetics

Incongruously, it is quite possible there was very little altruism in Aristotle’s desire to teach. He openly admitted that knowledge and teaching were intertwined to the extent that a man could never truly understand something unless he could then impart that knowledge to another. Thus to teach was for Aristotle, first and foremost, beneficial to himself.
It’s hard to know if the Lyceum was more important as a college of research or one of individual enlightenment, but it was certainly during this period that Aristotle and his acolytes seem to have done much of the work for which he is now famous.
In addition to those texts (Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, etc), he (or his ‘interns’) also collected maps, codified the Athenian constitution, added a 5th element to those established by Empedocles, attempted to link good grammar practices to logic, and revealed the scientific principles behind the camera obscura.
Bust of Aristotle

Bust of Aristotle

Significantly, though often overlooked, the school also drudged through the archives at Delphi to log the athletes who had competed in the sporting events held there whilst additionally cross-referencing them with those who had participated in Athenian dramatic festivals.
This was done not merely for the love of bureaucracy, but in an attempt to establish an accepted chronology. After all, it’s easy for us to forget that the ancient world didn’t have the luxury of a quick and easy ‘Before Christ’ or ‘Anno Domini’ way of looking at things.
And so life continued in this vein for Aristotle right up until 323 BC when Alexander the Great, fresh from conquering most of the known world decided at the age of 32 to, rather selfishly, drop dead of a tropical disease (though many prominent figures were rumoured to have poisoned him – Aristotle among them!)
The end of the Great life was the end of a chance for a worthwhile life for Aristotle, as it now became very difficult to live in Athens if one had, or was perceived to have, Macedonian sympathies. While Alexander was alive the Athenians knew that there was no chance of fighting for independence, but with his death, there was instability and a chance of revolt.
Consequently, Aristotle fled to Chalcis in the following year as, in his own words, he “would not allow Athenians to sin twice against philosophy”; a reference to the public trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC.
For whatever reason, life on Chalcis was not sympathetic to Aristotle. After only one year he died of natural causes, aged 62.
Aristotle’s legacy flourished with barely an interruption in the AD period, but from his own time until the first century BC, Peripatetics were severely marginalized in the Greek world. A story that Aristotle’s texts were lost, hidden in a basement for centuries, before being taken to Rome in 86 BC accounts well for this gap, but is more than slightly fanciful.
There is no satisfactory explanation for Aristotle’s temporary wane in popularity, but we can say with some authority that when it waxed again it did so with dramatic virulence.
Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

His influence was not restricted to the Latin world, he was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle-ages while their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’.
He is said to have had a mind which was “ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious”. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all the information that it was possible (in his own time) to learn.
There is almost limitless choice from which to choose some fine words of Aristotle’s to leave you to mull over. However, as he was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, his words should ideally be heard and not read. So read the following inspirational thoughts aloud (unless you’re on a crowded train or alone in a cafe – Aristotle didn’t directly advocate looking like a loony) and try to hear, through the echoes of time, the buzzing thought processes of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth”.