Wednesday 29 August 2018

Freedom of speech

Marcus Aurelius was a pretty cool guy, but no, he didn’t write the First Amendment. Here’s a line that often gets attributed to him, which is almost guaranteed to show up in any discussion of the history of liberalism, especially if American political philosophy is involved.
‘... I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed ...’
-- Marcus Aurelius, sort of (trans. George Long)
It isn’t a fake quotation. But it sure is a tendentious one. The phrases ‘equal rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ here stand in place of the Greek words isotēs and isēgoria. They’re close enough to fool you if you just look in a dictionary, but they’re both really badly anachronistic.

So here’s a translation from a different perspective.
... φαντασίαν λαβεῖν πολιτείας ἰσονόμου, κατ’ ἰσότητα καὶ ἰσηγορίαν διοικουμένης, καὶ βασιλείας τιμώσης πάντων μάλιστα τὴν ἐλευθερίαν τῶν ἀρχομένων ...

... that I adopted the ideal of a constitution with equal laws, governed with equality, and equality of public engagement, and of a kingship which before all else respects the freedom of the ruled ...
-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.14 (trans. by me)
Here are the key differences between my translation and the one at the top by George Long:

Long’s translation Marcus Aurelius’ Greek My translation
idea phantasia (φαντασία) ideal
equal rights isotēs (ἰσότης) equality
equal freedom of speech isēgoria (ἱσηγορία) equality of public engagement
kingly government basileia (βασιλεία) kingship
the governed archomenoi (ἀρχόμενοι) the ruled

(I’ll skip over some differences that I think are less important, like ‘polity’ vs. ‘constitution’, or ‘the same law for all’ vs. ‘equal laws’.)

George Long, the 19th century British translator, has gone out of his way to soften Marcus Aurelius’ sentiments to suit Victorian liberal tastes. (In fact I wonder if Long had links to the Liberal Party: Gladstone awarded him a Civil List pension in 1873.)

But Marcus Aurelius was no liberal. He stood for monarchy. Benevolent monarchy, sure, but still monarchy. George Long lived under what he presumably perceived to be a benevolent Victorian regime, and he may have regarded the two as the same thing. But there’s a big difference between a ‘kingly government’ with people who are ‘governed’, and a ‘kingship’ with people who are ‘ruled’.

Isēgoria, the word that Long translates as ‘freedom of speech’, really refers to equal (iso-) participation in public affairs (agor-). It wasn’t a right or a freedom: it was the central underpinning of classical Athenian democracy: the idea that everyone had to participate for democracy to function, that no one was an authority figure except where absolutely necessary, and that anyone could participate in politics.

(But let’s not overlook the downsides of Athenian democracy: people had isēgoria provided they were male, free, and a citizen -- which disenfranchised somewhere around 80-90% of the population. Also, sometimes they exercised their isēgoria by voting to commit genocide.)

TVNZ, 13 August 2018. When Massey University cancelled a talk by Don Brash this month because of his racism and overt attempts to foster racial hatred, that wasn’t a violation of freedom of speech in the modern legal sense: no one’s obligated to give any old bigot a platform. It also wasn’t a violation of freedom of speech in the ancient sense, namely parrhēsia, the moral right of the oppressed to speak truth to authority. However, it is perhaps arguable that it was not supportive of isēgoria, the principle that everyone is free to participate in the democratic process.

Now, having said all that, the Athenians did have something that is not a million miles away from ‘freedom of speech’. They called it parrhēsia (παρρησία), and on the whole they regarded it as A Good Thing.

Parrhēsia meant frankness and bluntness. It was also a political ideal. Citizens of classical Athens prided themselves on the right to that bluntness, even if they recognised that being blunt wasn’t always wise. Our sources often see it as something uniquely Athenian. Here’s the playwright Euripides --
Ion. I hope the woman who bore me is an Athenian,
so that by my mother I may have parrhēsia!
-- Euripides, Ion 671-672

Jocasta. What is it, to be deprived of one’s country? Is it a very bad thing?
Polyneices. The worst -- for real, and not just as an idea.
Jocasta. In what way? What is the hardship for exiles?
Polyneices. The very worst thing is this: not having parrhēsia.
Jocasta. Not saying what you think -- that’s slavery.
This is obviously jingoistic -- anyone who really thinks their country is unique in its respect for free speech either hasn’t travelled much, or is being very selective about what counts as ‘free’ -- but the idea isn’t confined to plays. Actual Athenians could think this way too.
For free people, nothing would be a worse misfortune than being deprived of parrhēsia.
-- Demosthenes, no named defendant fr. 21 Baiter-Sauppe

A masculine thing to say, and parrhēsia worthy of the Athenian name!
These two were lifelong enemies -- Deimades supported Philip II of Macedon and was notoriously open to being bribed, Demosthenes was bitterly opposed to Macedon -- but on this point they were in solid agreement: parrhēsia was essential to freedom, and it was a specifically Athenian value. And Deimades goes even further, linking it to gender.

So, parrhēsia was a right, in custom if not in law. At the same time, the Athenians knew it wasn’t always wise to exercise this right.
There is something bitter about truthful speech when someone uses pure parrhēsia and spoils hope of great things. Gentleness persuades listeners, even if it is false.

If the people had been happy to use parrhēsia in treating with Philip [II of Macedon] -- asking him to strip away the Thebans’ arrogance, and to establish walls in Boeotia -- the people would have decided that in a vote.
-- Aeschines, On the embassy 104
I’d better make sure to mention that the 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault made a big thing of Greek parrhēsia, especially in connection with Diogenes of Sinope, the 4th century BCE Cynic philosopher. We don’t have much trustworthy evidence about Diogenes. Anecdotes from centuries after his lifetime cast him as an ascetic and iconoclast, and that’s probably accurate as far as it goes. But the anecdotes that cast him as a paradigm of parrhēsia that shocks others -- commanding Alexander not to block the sun, masturbating in public, and the like -- are historically dodgy. That’s a Roman-era caricature of parrhēsia -- nearly half a millennium’s worth of myth-making.

CNBC, 28 August 2018. Who’s exercising parrhēsia by speaking truth to authority? (I hope the answer is obvious)

Still, Foucault does reach the most important conclusion: parrhēsia wasn’t the freedom to say whatever you like. It was freedom from self-important authoritarians. It was the right to speak the truth to people who are threatening you and trying to control you -- as the snippet from Aeschines, above, makes clear.

If you look at classical-era Athenian sources, you see that parrhēsia wasn’t about being an iconoclast. It wasn’t the right to shock, or the right to be rude, and it certainly wasn’t the right to lie. Here’s Aeschines again.
Let each man understand clearly, that whenever he goes into a courtroom to sit as juror on an illegal suit, on that day he is about to cast a vote for or against his own parrhēsia. That is why the law-giver put this at the start of the jurors’ oath: ‘I shall vote according to the laws.’
-- Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 6
That’s parrhēsia. Not the right to say anything, but the right to speak the truth. Speech designed to distort reality, or to sow factionalism, is the exact opposite of parrhēsia.

Above all, I find it hard to imagine the Athenians calling it parrhēsia to spread bigotry against minorities. The whole point of parrhēsia was to allow minorities to speak against authority. The Athenians were all kinds of horrible, but not that particular kind.

Monday 6 August 2018

Thunderbirds in Atlantis

My young son has been on a Thunderbirds Are Go binge for the last several months -- he can articulate the differences between the 1960s and the 2010s models, he’s been on the Thunderbirds tour at Weta Workshop, and he often watches an episode over breakfast. Recently the episode of the day was ‘Lost kingdom’ (season 2 ep. 8), where the Thunderbirds visit Atlantis.

Adam Savage interviews Ben Milsom (Thunderbirds Are Go production designer) at the Thunderbird 2 launch strip, one of the highlights of the Weta Workshop tour.

Now, ‘Lost kingdom’ gave me pain at the time -- the kind of pain that a geneticist feels when watching Jurassic Park -- but my own love of Thunderbirds prevents me from doing a tear-down.

And of course a children’s cartoon (or animated show -- or miniature-and-CGI hybrid -- whatever) is allowed a lot of artistic licence. So what if Thunderbird 3 has to have its rockets firing to move around in space, or if Thunderbird 1’s canonical airspeed (Mach 19+) ought to make its nose as fiery as its rear ...

Besides, as mistreatments of archaeology go this episode isn’t very momentous. There are plenty of people out there pointing out bad archaeology where it really matters: like the way Indiana Jones habitually destroys archaeological context, or the barrage of lies in Ancient Aliens. The excellent David S. Anderson (@DSAArchaeology) is a bountiful source of sanity and good humour on the topic. High-profile stuff like that is where it’s really important to point out the nonsense.

How to ‘do’ Atlantis

I did a post on Atlantis nearly a year ago. That time, I was simply addressing the most popular misconceptions about the story, as told in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. Today I’d like to talk about the adaptation of the Atlantis story in fiction.

There’s a bunch of ways you can approach Atlantis. My favourite fictional treatment, in fact, comes from Indiana Jones: he may be a terrible archaeologist, but he does have some good stories. I refer to the computer game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992). There, the writers realised that it’s futile to try and make Atlantis plausible. If you try to do that, you have to make excuses for the source material, because the Atlantis story is intrinsically silly. Instead, they collaborate with the source material. They create a story that unwinds both from Plato and from other Indiana Jones stories. Many details from Plato’s dialogues show up, like the use of orichalcum, the layout of Atlantis, and the canals surrounding its citadel; at the same time, Indy gets to swing on his whip, sneak aboard a U-Boat, and have fist-fights with Nazis. There’s also more actual archaeology in the game than in any of the films -- Indy visits archaeological sites on four landmasses, and a lost third Platonic dialogue turns up in a library. All this makes for a story that rewards Indy fans while at the same time rewarding engagement with Plato. (Plato genuinely did foreshadow the third dialogue, by the way, but it seems he never actually wrote it. I won’t spoil the title, as it’s part of a puzzle in the game ... but anyone who knows the real dialogues should be able to guess it.)

In most modern treatments, though, Atlantis isn’t the star. It’s just a hook. The implausibility of Atlantis is something that has to be redeemed: either by the plot, or the characters, or the visual design.

That’s certainly the case in the Disney version (Atlantis: the Lost Empire, 2004). The main character, Milo, goes on a journey of exploration and discovery, but the discovery of Atlantis itself is always secondary. The real interest lies in the characters that accompany Milo on the expedition, and the steampunk tech that they use. When they actually find Atlantis, it turns out to be a mash-up of other films, especially The Road to El Dorado (2000) and Castle in the Sky (1986). There, and in Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009), you could replace Atlantis with any old lost city and the story would work just as well.

The Tracy family hears about the discovery of Atlantis (Thunderbirds Are Go, ‘Lost kingdom’)

Thunderbirds lies somewhere betwixt and between. The writers throw in some ancient Greek things for flavour. There’s a colossal statue of Poseidon. There’s an Ancient Mystery in the ruins, an advanced mechanical computer whose controls are labelled with letters of the Greek alphabet. This version of Atlantis aims at being slightly more than just a convenient name for a lost city.

The mash-up effect

But there’s no interest at all in the details of Plato’s story. Plato’s Atlantis is in the Atlantic (hence the name!); in Thunderbirds it’s near Greece, in the Aegean Sea. Plato’s story is about Athens’ resistance to an overwhelming threat from outside; Athens doesn’t even get a mention in Thunderbirds. Plato’s Atlantis is flooded under shallow, muddy water; the Atlantis of Thunderbirds is hundreds of metres down.

I wouldn’t criticise this by calling it a hodge-podge. It’s obviously not meant to be systematic. What it is meant to be is a mash-up.

This Atlantis is a constellation of evocative gestures, not a creative expansion on the source material as in Indiana Jones. It points at themes and genres, rather than at a single story.

The first gesture is the colossal statue of Poseidon that the characters take as a sign that Atlantis has been found. This statue evokes Plato, and so it evokes an appearance of authenticity, without actually being a faithful representation of Plato’s story. Plato does say that the main civic cult of Atlantis is devoted to Poseidon -- but he also explains that ‘Poseidon’ is a translation of an Egyptian god’s name, which is in turn a translation of an Atlantean god. So it wasn’t really ‘Poseidon’, but an Atlantean equivalent. (By the way, there is no Egyptian god that ‘Poseidon’ might have been a translation of. The Egyptians didn’t have an equivalent to Poseidon. They had deities responsible for specific bodies of water, but none for the sea in general. This bit of Plato’s story never ... er ... held water.)

Another obvious gesture is the mechanical computer that the characters find in the ruins, called the ‘Solar Kythera’. The ‘Solar Kythera’ doesn’t appear in Plato’s Atlantis or any other ancient story. It’s added in by the writers. And it’s transparently an allusion to a real machine, the Antikythera device, a 2nd-1st century BCE astronomical computer found in an ancient shipwreck in 1902. ‘Antikythera’ isn’t the device’s actual name, by the way: it’s called that because the shipwreck is near the island of Antikythera. So the ‘Solar Kythera’ takes us away from Plato, but it still keeps us firmly in the realm of ancient Greek things under the sea.

A third gesture relates to the size of the ‘Solar Kythera’ and its role in the story. The real Antikythera device is the size of a toaster; the Solar Kythera in Thunderbirds is as big as an office building. Totally impractical as an astronomical tool. But useful as a gesture.

In the final act of the episode, the Solar Kythera’s controls have to be adjusted to avert a disaster, and so two characters climb up it, bounding from one level to the next, and rescuing each other from fatal drops as they go. At this point it becomes much more obvious what its real inspiration is: it’s a jumping puzzle out of a video game. It’s become a bit of a tradition in video games to have a gigantic orrery that the player has to climb and adjust. Real orreries, by contrast, are compact table-top devices, mostly dating to the Georgian era. I say ‘video games’, but the earliest example I can find of someone climbing a colossal orrery comes from the film Tomb Raider (2001). Still adapted from a video game, mind.

Starting at top left: (1) a working model of the Antikythera device; (2) the colossal orrery from the film Tomb Raider (2001); (3) the ‘Solar Kythera’ from Thunderbirds; (4) and (5) colossal orreries from the video games Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (2003) and Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands (2010).

Between them, this mash-up of gestures evokes authenticity (Plato’s Atlantis); the flavour of Atlantis in the modern imagination (Greek, ancient, underwater, sophisticated); and the excitement, rapid pace, and physicality of a video game jumping puzzle (the colossal orrery Solar Kythera). This episode doesn’t have as much space as usual for the Thunderbirds’ technology fetish, so the Solar Kythera acts as a substitute.

As archaeology, it’s hopeless. For a children’s programme -- well, I’ll take it.

David Graham's roles
Shout-out in closing to David Graham, the legendary British voice-actor. Some of his many roles: in Supercar (1961-1962) as Dr Beaker; in Doctor Who (1963-1966) as the co-originator of the Dalek voice; in Thunderbirds (1965-1966) as Kyrano, Gordon Tracy, and Brains; in Timeslip (1970-1971) as Controller 2957; in Doctor Who ‘City of Death’ (1979) as Dr Kerensky; in Moomin (1990-1991) as the Snork; in Peppa Pig (2004-present) as Grandpa Pig; in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom (2009-2012) as the Wise Old Elf; and perhaps his most iconic role, unless that honour goes to the Daleks, in Thunderbirds (1965-1966) and Thunderbirds Are Go (2015-present) as Parker.