"The Ancient Greeks and Global Warming"
I am just back from the annual Classical Association conference, this year held in Glasgow jointly with the Classical Association of Scotland. I gave the opening talk on Friday night, on how Cicero might be a guide to the 'culture of Roman laughter' (a quite different lecture from the one on the ancient joke book -- in case you think I'm repeating myself). I thought it went rather well . . .
But before you accuse me of bragging, let me say that I thought that the other 'plenary' lecture at the conference was absolutely brilliant. This was the Presidential Address by Richard Seaford, who has a chair in the Classics Department at Exeter: a 50 minute presentation, without notes, to an audience of almost 400 on "The Ancient Greeks and Global Warming".
His theme was the relationship between political engagement in our own day and being a Classicist (or actually being a Hellenist). He started from Gilbert Murray, who was president of the Association in 1908, and had his own version of political engagement (in the League of Nations -- but Seaford told us of his enthusiasm for the United States, which he thought would turn out at best to be a guardian of world peace, at worst to be an enduring island of true Hellenic life!). But the bulk of the lecture was concerned with two particularly modern themes: money (and its acquisition, hence the golden Klimt at the top of this post) and -- as the title suggested - global warming and environmentalism.
The question was what could we gain by thinking about how the Greeks thought about these issues.
Seaford is well known for his theory of money -- and the crucial role it played in the development of Greek culture.For him, one of the distinctive features of ancient Greece is that it was the first western culture to be pervaded by money, and to theorize money. He neatly pointed to Aristophanes play, Ploutos as the first discussion of economics in antiquity, showing how Aristophanes distinguishes money from other commodities in life -- in the sense that you might always want more of it (in contrast to, say, pea soup, where you can easily have enough, or even Homeric tripods where you couldnt possibly want or store very many).
The modern world had bought into the idea of the limitlessness of money, he suggested. The Greeks warned about just that aspect with instructive mythological exampla. What is the myth of Midas except the terrible story of a man whose whole aspirations are focussed on the 'sign of money'.
Greek culture, as Seaford sees it, insisted on the culture of limit. And that has implications for environmental issues too. The modern disregard for the signs of global warming is reminiscent of Greek stories of those who allow their limitless desires to bring about their own destruction (sometimes even when they know what the consequences of their desires wlll be). One of these is the myth of Erisichthon, who first of all destroys a tree in the grove of the nymphs, in such a way that it brings down most of the grove -- and then, in punishment, is afflicted with insatiable desire for food in the midst of a famine and ends up consuming his own body.
So what can Greek culture do for us in our present dilemmas? It can allow us to see alternatives to our own culture (and cult) of 'the unlimited'?
The other highlight of the conference came at dinner after the Seaford lecture. It was the presentation of the Classical Association prize (for enhancing the public understanding of Classics) to Caroline Lawrence, author of the brilliant series of Roman Mysteries for kids (Famous Five go to Pompeii, as she jokingly and far too self-deprecatingly put it). I hadnt seen her for years and years (she's picctured on the left), but 30 years ago we had both been doing Classics together at Newnham. So it felt like old times.