Monday 13 May 2019

Quotations and history

Quotation isn’t history. But it can be a tool for suggesting history. Like any tool, it can be used -- and misused -- in lots of ways.

Films, books, and games have many tools for evoking a sense of history. In films like Braveheart (1995) and Robin Hood (1991, 2010) the main tool is false archaism: a mash-up of tropes from different historical periods, combined to create a flavour of oldness that has nothing to do with the actual setting. Tolkien’s tool is language: he uses invented languages shaped by historical sound-shifts, similar to ones that happen in real languages, to create a historical backdrop for his novels. In games like Tomb raider (1996) and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (2003), it’s about interactive archaeology. Lara Croft is always diving into trap-filled ruins; the Prince starts out in a supposedly Abbasid-era palace, and later descends into an underground ruin with cuneiform-style writing on the walls, suggesting something Assyrian or Achaemenid -- past layered upon past.

Quotations are another tool. Quotations don’t send a story into the past, they bring the past into the present. Often the idea is to claim a kind of inheritance from the past. Sometimes it’s ironic. Sometimes you just want to claim that Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein would have been on your side.
Quit, don’t quit -- noodles, don’t noodles -- you are too concerned with what was, and what will be. There’s a saying. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift: that is why it is called the present.
-- Master Oogway (Kung fu panda, 2008)
Let’s look at some variants. I’ll stick to two themes: quotations in video games, and Alexander and his conquests.
Entrance to Rapture (BioShock, 2007)

Video games


All good things of this earth flow into the city.
-- BioShock (2007)
This quotation is openly political. The line is indirectly based on Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.38 -- Thucydides, that hero of alt-righters who either haven’t read him or haven’t understood him. (The Melian dialogue isn’t an instruction manual, guys, it’s a lesson about the immorality of power.)

In BioShock, the line is set over the entrance to Rapture, the underwater city where the game is set. It plays on a double meaning of ‘flow’. First, a boast about Rapture’s affluence, and the supposed superiority of its libertarian economic system; second, a quiet joke on the fact that Rapture is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and its resources come washing in on the ocean currents.

But the use of a classical allusion also feeds into Rapture’s ideological set-up. The founder of the city in the game, Andrew Ryan, intended the city to be a libertarian utopia. But, when the player actually arrives there, it turns out to be an objectivist nightmare, a monster from the lowest circles of Ayn Rand’s malevolence.

The quotation plays on the way that alt-righters often cast themselves as heirs of Greek and Latin culture. If you see people quoting taglines like si vis pacem para bellum (‘if you want peace, prepare war’, paraphrased from Vegetius), or μολὼν λαβέ (‘come and get them’: Herodotus on the battle of Thermopylae), or Deus vult (a modern Latin motto translated from a mediaeval French one associated with the Crusades), or calling themselves ‘the Spartans’ (Thermopylae again) -- well, then, you know exactly where they sit on the political spectrum. You know what colour their skin is, and what they would like to do to people from the Near East.

So when Rapture’s entranceway quotes Thucydides’ line about Athens at the height of its power and wealth, it seems that the fictional Ryan intended to evoke Athens’ ‘golden age’ and his own politics, both at once.

But it’s a bit of genius from the game’s writers, because it’s also ironic. Athens was obsessed with the purity of its democratic constitution. But if you know your history you’ll know that Athens didn’t owe its prosperity in that period to its democracy, but to its tyrannical imperialism and disregard for the autonomy of other states. The ‘greatness’ of Athenian democracy goes hand-in-hand with ideological puritanism, and flagrant violations of human rights. Just like Rapture.

The BioShock quotation isn’t directly from Thucydides: it comes from the film City hall. There Al Pacino speaks the line, as the mayor of New York: he attributes it to Pericles, as ‘the first and perhaps only great mayor’ --
All things good of this earth flow into the city because of the city’s greatness.
Thucydides’ wording is more literally ‘because of the size of the city, all things come into it from the whole earth’ (ἐπεσέρχεται δὲ διὰ μέγεθος τῆς πόλεως ἐκ πάσης γῆς τὰ πάντα). The minor distortion ‘good things’ for ‘all goods’ (τὰ πάντα) comes from Rex Warner’s translation of Thucydides --
Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us ...
-- Thucydides 2.38 (tr. Warner)
I’m guessing the writers of City hall read Rex Warner’s version. Then, later on, BioShock inherited the phrasing.

An Aesop quotation about archery, without any context or relevance to the role of archery in the game (Civilization V, 2010)

Sid Meier’s Civilization

Some entries in the Civilization series (1991 to present) display quotations at moments when the player’s civilisation discovers a new technology or completes a world wonder. Many of them are attributed to ancient sources, and many of them are genuine.

That isn’t praise. Civilization generally has a casual approach to history. The quotations are there precisely to give an appearance of historical content, without any historical method. It’s a veneer of history-flavoured ganache on a dry cake. Some very bad misunderstandings of history have come from Civilization.

I can’t go through all of the quotations because there are too many. Ancient Greco-Roman sources account for sixteen quotations in Civilization VI (2016), seventeen in Civilization V (2010), and fifteen in Civilization IV (2005). Another four appear in the spin-off Alpha Centauri (1999).

As a first impression, generally the older games are the more careful, and pay more attention to nuance and context. The quotations in Alpha Centauri are exact quotations from Plato’s Republic, Symposium, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics, and are chosen to reflect the ideological positions of factions within the game. In Civilization VI, the quotations are a blend of accuracy and inaccuracy, and are chosen merely because they’re roughly related in some way. These quotations are accurate --
‘And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield ... And he forged on the shield two noble cities.’ -- Homer (Civ VI, ‘Metal Casting’ technology)
= Iliad 18.478 and 490-491 (tr. Robert Fagles, uncredited)

‘At Rhodes was set up a Colossus of seventy cubits high, representing the Sun ... the artist expended as much bronze on it as seemed likely to create a dearth in the mines.’ -- Philo of Byzantium (Civ VI, ‘Colossus’ building)
= Philon of Byzantium, On the seven wonders §4 (tr. Denys Haynes, uncredited)
-- but the game obviously has zero interest in the purpose of Hephaestus’ shield, or in the irony that the historical Colossus collapsed in just a few decades. And these ones are just wrong --
‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ -- supposedly Aristotle (‘Education’ tech)

‘I sprang upon the swift ship in the form of a dolphin, pray to me as Apollo Delphinius; also the altar itself shall be called Delphinius and overlooked forever.’ -- supposedly Homer (‘Oracle’ building)
The first one starts out with some real Aristotle, but everything after the word ‘mind’ is made up. The second one isn’t Homer, and if you’re thinking it doesn’t make sense, that’s because they missed out part of the sentence.
It is characteristic of an educated man only to look for precision in each class of things so far as the nature of the subject admits. Getting an argument from likelihood from a mathematician would be like asking for theorems from a rhetorician.
-- Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics i.1094b.23-27 (§1.3)

Since, when I was first seen in the murky sea and I leapt onto the swift ship, I was in the form of a dolphin, so you should pray to me as Delphinian. And the altar will itself be ‘Delphinian’ and ‘Overlooking’ forever.
-- Cynaethus, Hymn to Apollo 493-496
Civilization is, in a limited way, good for the public understanding of history, to the extent that it gets people interested in history. But the game’s overall structure is antithetical to history. Every aspect of gameplay revolves around technologies, and every branch of the ‘tech tree’ is teleological, guiding every civilisation to a pre-determined goal, which looks exactly like the technologies available in present-day western countries -- or, in the ‘futurist’ stage of the game, something that looks like western science fiction.

The whole thing presupposes that anything that doesn’t get us towards modern Mechanized Infantry and Mobile SAM isn’t a valid part of history, and isn’t worth knowing about. The point of history, according to Civilization, is to lead towards us. Ever heard anyone ask ‘What has Africa done for us’? Or ‘Why study the Byzantines, when it’s the western Roman Empire that gave us roads, Vergil, and Catholicism’? I have. And that’s teleological history. Or, to put it another way: not history.
Right to left: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, James Shigeta as Joseph Takagi, Alexander Godunov as Karl (Die hard, 1988)


Hans Gruber vs. Plutarch

‘And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ {chuckle} Benefits of a classical education.
-- Hans Gruber, Die hard (1988)
The idea behind this ‘quotation’ is to cast Gruber (Alan Rickman) as an opposite to the hero John McClane (Bruce Willis). Gruber is educated, McClane relies on street smarts; Gruber is evil, McClane is good; Gruber wears a suit, McClane looks like a redneck for most of the film; Gruber is European, McClane is John Wayne (‘yippie-ki-yay’).

It’s a pretty straightforward message: education corrupts.

Now, I put ‘quotation’ in scare-quotes, because it isn’t one. ‘Hans baby’ may be an exceptional thief, but I’m afraid his classical education was shonky. In this case, though, I don’t think that’s what the writers intended. This misquotation is more a reflection of America under Reagan than it is of Gruber’s morals. The line echoes something Plutarch wrote (though Gruber doesn’t attribute it to Plutarch, as WikiQuote claims). Die hard gets its version of the line from The Twilight Zone -- ‘he cried because he had no more worlds to conquer’ (‘Of late I think of Cliffordville’, 1963) -- but both of them reverse it: it’s the exact opposite of what Plutarch says.
When Alexander heard Anaxarchos speaking about an infinity of universes, he wept. His friends asked what was wrong. He said, ‘Isn’t it worth weeping if there are infinite universes, and we haven’t yet become the masters of even one?’
-- Plutarch, On tranquility of mind 466d (§4)
Plutarch’s fictional Alexander doesn’t weep because he’s run out of conquests, he weeps because there’s too much to conquer and he can’t get the job done.

(The variation between ‘worlds’ and ‘universes’ is fine, by the way. The Greek word kosmos is just like ‘world’ in English: it can mean the universe as a whole, but also ‘the (human) world’, that is, earth. Plutarch’s Alexander is pretty clearly thinking about conquering the earth, not the entire universe.)

The point of this misquotation isn’t to showcase the laziness of the writers, though: no one cares about that. It’s the notion that education is a sign of moral depravity. And that’s a pretty clear reflection of Reaganism.

‘The Great’

Any time you call Alexander ‘Alexander the Great’, you aren’t doing it because that’s his due title. Because it never was. What you’re doing is supporting the Great Man theory of history.

That’s the theory that the course of history is driven by outstanding individuals, movers and shakers, heroes: Alexander, Caesar, Washington, Napoleon. Historians tend to be very, very hostile to that theory, and for good reason. The famous individuals of history don’t emerge into the limelight because they create limelight around themselves, but because they encapsulate historical ideas and forces that are coming to a head in their lifetimes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t exceptional individuals -- just that history doesn’t revolve around them.

Nowadays the Great Man theory mainly serves to keep the ‘right’ people at the centre of everyone’s attention: it makes sure people talk about rich powerful men. It’s a way to prevent you from thinking about women, minorities, and people who are enslaved or poor.

It’s especially artificial because it isn’t real. Wikipedia names Alexander
Alexander the Great (Ancient Greek: Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μέγας ...)
as if it’s a formal title, but there’s nothing to suggest he was called ‘the Great’ during his lifetime. Evidence for the nickname only starts to mount up 250 years after his death, towards the end of the 1st century BCE.

Here’s a whole article on the subject by Professor Catherine Rubincam. She agrees with earlier scholarship that ‘the Great’ was actually originally used for the Seleucid king Antiochus III, around 205 BCE, over 100 years after Alexander died. But after a thorough look at the evidence, she concludes that the popularity of Alexander’s title doesn’t come from Antiochus: its popularity comes from Roman writers talking about Alexander.

Rubincam thinks that process did begin around Antiochus’ time, shown by a reference to ‘great Alexander’ in one of Plautus’ plays (Mostellaria 775-777). I have my doubts. In Plautus it could just be a general term of adulation. Rubincam herself shows that the main support for ‘the Great’ as a title comes from books written centuries later, around the time of Augustus: Trogus, Livy, and Velleius Paterculus. Not that it’s conspicuous that Alexander isn’t called ‘the Great’ any earlier -- I’m just suspicious of granting so much weight to a passing reference in Plautus. Evidence of Alexander being called ‘the Great’ in Greek doesn’t start to pop up until another 200 years later. The earliest references are in Plutarch and Athenaeus, in the mid-to-late 100s CE.
References: Plutarch, Life of Aemilius Paulus 23.5; Life of Pyrrhus 11.2, 19.2; Life of Pelopidas 34.2; On the fortune of Alexander 336e9, 340b4, 341c11; Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 6.19 p. 231 = FGrHist 76 F 37a. The reference in Athenaeus cites a much earlier author, Douris of Samos, but Douris is lost and Athenaeus’ text is a paraphrase, not a quotation. Another early author, Timaeus, is paraphrased in a similar way with a reference to Alexander ‘the Great’ in Longinus On the sublime 4.2.