Why Classics Matters.

Classics, in short, is the study of the societies of the ‘Ancient World’, and almost always the study of Ancient Rome and Greece. Society is a purposefully vague term, because it means literally everything about the lives of ancient people. If someone asked you to study modern western society where would you start? The prospect would be huge. Luckily for us Classicists though, we can only use what we have. These societies are ancient because they have fallen, and in time have been replaced, for whatever reason. What they left behind is what we use to build up our idea about their lives, and the evidence splits (roughly) into literary evidence and material evidence (pretty much anything physically found). However, it’s in Classics’ nature to focus onto certain aspects of the ancient world, which usually take form of Philosophy, History, Philology (basically linguistics and literature), Language, Art and Architecture.

So now you know in a nutshell what Classics is, if you didn’t already, but Classics has come under fire recently. It has been accused of being elitist by government and was therefore cut from mainstream education (leaving only the schools which can afford to teach it, to teach it – a prime example of the government creating a self-fulfilling prophecy). This signalled the decline of Classics in the UK, and this was reflected on how universities viewed it. It used to be that Latin was a prerequisite for the top universities in England; now that is all changed. Classics remains one of the least popular courses at university, and some argue that this is for the best. Why bother studying societies that are in the past, or even the past at all? Why not invest your time in things which can benefit mankind’s future, like being a physicist battling global warming, an engineer building a bridge, or even a politician (theoretically) trying to make their country a better place?

The answer why is rooted in how Classics has been a monumentally huge influence on our lives today. In an appropriate allegory, when looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, approximately 50% of words can trace their roots back to Latin, and a further 20% back to purely Greek (there are many words which have both languages in their history – yet only one word in the English language that takes two separate words from each language and puts them together – Television), leaving roughly 30% down to other influences. Aside from the big (and more obvious) links like Shakespeare, whose education included Classics, and whose plays are extremely heavily influenced by mostly Greek drama, Classical drama permeates into our lives heavily in our television. When Natalie Haynes was researching her book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, she found that out of the BBC scriptwriters she interviewed, they almost all had either studied Classics at university or read Aristotle’s Poetics (a manual on how to write good drama) as part of their training. Indeed, they try to include storylines from some of the great Greek tragedies as often as they can (apparently they call it ‘Greeking it up’). Time and time again they tried to include a Medea story, but it was deemed too extreme for modern viewership to have a character who, after being dumped, kills her own children to spite their father, as well as killing his new girlfriend.

But why turn back to some stuffy old Greeks with silly beards for advice? The answer is that the Greeks knew what made a good story. Look through the many plotlines of much loved soaps on TV, and you will find that so often the story revolves around families, and conflict between individual members. Or even Jeremy Kyle! This idea comes straight from antiquity; the story of the house of Atreus really was filled with inter-family feuding (in short, the father kills his daughter, goes off to war, comes back, his wife kills him, hitches up with a new man, the son and another daughter then kill the mother). Or perhaps another more disturbing saga is that of Oedipus, who tragically murders his own father (the previous king) and marries his own mother, and only finds out when he has cursed the man who killed the old king – himself, when it is too late. If you want a third example, turn to Euripides’ Bacchae, where the king’s mother tears him limb from limb when her judgement is clouded by the vindictive god Dionysus.

5th Century Athens was a huge culture boom, seeing incredible advances in many fields, started by many now famous people, including none less than the big cheese Socrates. Socrates was put to death by the state in 399 BC (and so is technically 4th century, but we will overlook that) for corrupting the youth, not believing in the gods of the city, and impiety and he revolutionised philosophy for the price of his life. He was the teacher of the much better known Plato, who would go on to teach Aristotle, and the three of them would be so influential in their ideas that their influences can be seen in both Catholic and Islamic doctrine, as well as thoughts that would go on to be discovered during the Renaissance, and influence philosophical thinkers then.

Some stuffy old Greek with a silly beard – Sophocles.

And what of literature and myth? They are included together as so much of Greek literature is inextricably connected with myth. Take the Iliad, telling the story of the war between the Greeks and Trojans over the abduction of Helen from Sparta. This is the plot on a human level, anyway. Half the book tells of the gods feuding between each other, taking sides, going behind each other’s backs to support their favourite fighters on the field. This involvement of the gods is also seen heavily in myth, which are well known in today’s society as nice stories. But they, and the first pieces of western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are so much more than nice stories. Like any good piece of modern literature (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice) they give profound insights into human nature. Take the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth. Theseus used his wits to defeat the minotaur in the labyrinth. Could the labyrinth represent the human mind, with the beastly ferocious monster hidden deep within, that was only defeated by man’s reason and need for an ordered society?

Politics was huge in the Ancient World, as anyone who has picked up pretty much any literary source can tell you. Athens saw the birth of the world’s first democracy (albeit slightly off – no woman allowed and with some serious limitations on citizenship) (then again, Britain didn’t allow women to vote until 1918), but the principle is the important thing. After all, don’t we go to war in the name of democracy? The ancient Athenians did exactly the same thing. They even went so far as to turn the idea into a goddess, it was that important to them. The ancient’s take on politics was fundamentally their inquisition into what was the best way to live their lives, and to manage their societies. We may (at least think that we) have found the best solution, a modern democracy, but it was only through experience, which the Greeks started investigating. If they had never decided to give to the people (demos), power (kratia), who knows what our politics would be like today.

A very simple thing which many people forget is that the ancient people were people too, just like us. They were only born 2000 years earlier. Their take on everything to do with life is most interesting when put in comparison to ours, comparing both the similarities and differences, and what this tells us about human nature. How has it changed since the times of antiquity? Does it even change at all? The issues are still very prevalent today, and looking back at what the ancient’s thought can give insights into what we should do now. What can be learnt about the nature of power from the final turbulent years of the Roman Republic and the rise of Caesar? Should we fear death? What is the best way to run a hypothetical society? What is the best way to live our fleeting lives on this Earth? Should we just ‘carpe diem’, or strive to be exemplars of moral virtue? Does morality even exist, or is it a construct invented as a result of law to keep the people in order? All these questions that humans have grappled with over time are incredibly important things to consider now, as these issues are timeless. This is why Classics matters.

Article written by “Rook”

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The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins

In his most famous, and most acclaimed book, Professor Colin Renfrew looks at the development and spread of Indo-European languages, proposing a radical new theory to that which went before it. The book is vast; far too much to cram into a single blog post, but I shall focus on setting out his main proposal for the origins of Indo-European languages.

Renfrew's Ground breaking book.

The first thing you might be wondering is whether Eastern languages and European languages are linked, and, as you may have guessed, they are. Or at least, to some extent. This was first observed by Sir William Jones who noted that Sanskrit shared many grammatical similarities, as well as similarities in the vocabulary, structure and sound of languages. To cite an example of the similarities among languages, I shall give the first person singular and plural of the verb “to bear” in English, Sanskrit, Greek(doric), Latin, Old High German and Old Slavonic:

I bear          bharami          phero          fero          biru          bera

we bear      bharamas        pheromes   ferimus   berames   beremu

Undoubtedly there are numerous similarities, both in the sound of the word and the construction. This, as Jones noticed that no one could examine them “without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which perhaps no longer exists.” For the sake of brevity, if you skip forward 200 years or so, there are several theories of how this occurred, such as stating that there was a common homeland, from which settlers expanded outwards forcing their language onto other, pre-existent cultures around (at the latest) 2000BC, or, the complete denial of the link, stating that the emergence of the similarity was the result of ‘trade words’; words that became involved in the language as a result of meeting with other cultures. A modern example of this would be words like tsunami, karaoke, tycoon and rickshaw, which all come from Japan – they are a part of english, but there is no common, stem language from which both English and Japanese spread. Most of the theories concerning the evolution of language are relatively modern by comparison to the one put forward by Colin Renfrew.

Renfrew proposes that the emergence of similarities in Indo-European language came about not by violent methods, nor of trade words, but through the expansion of farming from 7000BC onwards out of Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor) where it randomly spread both East and West, hence there are greater similarities between more closely linked languages, such as Persian (or Old Iranian) and Sanskrit. This spread did not happen at an unbelievably quickly pace, simply because there was no real need to expand. Expansion only took place when moving from land to find better farm land occurred. For brevity sake, I shan’t list the enormous amounts of evidence compiled in support of this view, however there are a few things which need to be examined. Firstly, he notes that farming was used before and must exist for the use of livestock, removing the view of nomad livestock drivers bringing language quickly about Europe and Asia Minor; rather that there had to be farms to support that. Furthermore, many of the animals that were domesticated were done so in situ rather than being transported over the land. Secondly, he observes that the spread of farming was active in that there were adaptions made by the moving settlers as a result of the environment in which they were situated. So, those in Greece grew one type of crop whilst those who moved further north grew others. Thirdly, this model, known as the wave of advance model, indicates that the probability of the direction taken by original settlers was roughly 50:50 to go either East or West. Thus, it spread relatively equally across the Steppes and, on the other side, down into the Mediterranean. Moreover, the spread is slow, about a kilometre a year. However, when taken in the context of 8000BC, to get from Anatolia to Northern Scotland, a distance of, very approximately 4000 miles, it would take around the same time in years to get there. As observed, the earliest known settlers of the Shetland Isles are around 3500 BC, suggesting a degree of corroboration.

With farms, the settlers brought with them language, languages which evolved and changed as they got further away from their origin, yet keeping distinctive features. They then split again; take Latin for example, which has spawned, influenced and been the model of Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian to mention a few. The spread of these languages tended to overcome the pre-existent languages already in existence, either by élite dominance, or by filtering down. Renfrew observes the only still existing non Indo-European language in Western Europe is Basque.

I’ve only managed to touch on a tiny aspect of the book, on a topic that is huge, in a depth that barely touches the surface, but it is nonetheless an enormously significant topic and one which I don’t believe is yet closed.

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It seems bizarre to us now; in an era when colours can be digitally recorded and demarcated into a selection of numbers somewhere between magenta, cyan, yellow and black. But, historically, colours have not always been so easily defined. Indeed, the actual words for some colours didn’t even exist. Despite being able to define millions of different colours, we only have the vocabulary for about 30.

Colours aren't always universal.

In some languages, some colours aren’t even existent. The Ancient Greeks had no word for blue, and even by the Middle Ages, there was no word for orange in English. Anthropologists who studied the development of the language of colour noted that colours emerge in a strict hierarchy:

All languages have black and white; if there are three words, the third is red. Then, if there are four, it is either yellow or green. Whichever didn’t make the cut before, is now introduced. The sixth is blue, the seventh brown. If there are eight or more, purple, pink, orange and grey are added in any order.¹

That said, it is not always so clear. Italian has three words for blue; celeste, azzuro and blu. Swahili had no so coined bulu from the English. French has two words for brown; brun and marron yet Japanese, Chinese, Welsh and Inuit don’t.

Most fascinatingly of all, a tribe in the Highlands of New Guinea still speak a black and white language, and distinguish colours by how bright they are. Colours, it appears, are more to do with perception than what an object actually looks like. Think of someone who is colour blind – the ‘colour’ may be the same, but the way they see it is entirely changed.

¹Martin Gardner, Order and Surprise

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10,000 Hours Of Practice

It is an old cliché that practice makes perfect, and yet, according to highly acclaimed sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, that is just the case. Gladwell argues in his 2008 book Outliers, that by putting in 10,000 hours of practice, people can become the top of their fields. He looks at The Beatles, noting that they put in around 10,000 hours practicing live in Hamburg, where they performed live over 1200 times. He deems this pivotal to their success. Indeed, he does not go as far as to say that it is the only factor that deems success; as he puts it:

“No one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone,”

telling us that there are other factors; upbringing, the environment one lives in, life skills one has accumulated. Yet it is a fascinating topic of discussion; the very concept that all we need to do to manage success is put in the time, and, at the same time, a very rewarding one.

Time is all you need

So how long is 10,000 hours. Well, if one did 20 hours a week of a chosen activity, for ten years then the mark would be reached. But, it is important to clarify that the 20 hours cannot be slacked about hours; they must be hours of hard work, regardless of the chosen topic. It is the obsession drive and love of something, that, according to Gladwell makes them good. Tennis players, footballers and golfers, indeed, any sportsman who is at the top of his or her game has done so by putting in enormous amounts of time into that profession.

And as for genius, says Gladwell, that is no guarantee for success either. He gives the example of two notable geniuses; J. Robert Oppenheimer and Christopher Langan. Langan, reported to have an IQ of nearly 200, superior to Oppenheimer, was a bouncer and currently works on a horse farm. It is the difference in upbringing, according to Gladwell that differentiates the two men – the social status of Oppenheimer, brought up in a rich Manhattan area, with Langan, deprived of any such privilege divided the two. Of course, IQ is not the ultimate measure of intelligence, but it is a good guide, and this goes a long way to point out the tragic reality.

So, if you want to be good at something; anything, the best way to do it is to put the hours in.

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Deceptive Good Looks

An interesting experiment has been performed. The aim of this experiment was to investigate the nature of being good looking, beautiful if you will. Scientists took a large group of people, of men and of women and took photos of all of them. Then, they made two average faces, taking common features from all involved, making an average female face and an average male face. Then, they took the group, a group who did not know the other people in the group, and asked them to select the best looking male and female.

Astoundingly, the best looking face selected was… the average one. What is so incredible about this experiment is that it subverts all our expectations and assumptions of beauty. Beauty, according to the experiment is mediocrity. Or, is it that we recognise something of ourselves in the average face? After all, there is a part of oneself in that face; do we have a narcissistic love of ourselves that we love whatever we identify ourself in?

© Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com

Beautiful, or average?

And so, for those in ordinary life who are considered good looking, what implications does this have? Should they be concerned at their mediocrity? Are they simply good looking because they have features that others can associate with? And whatever happened to the abstract concept of beauty? Whilst this seems to suggest that good looks on humans may not be an abstract principle after all, it does not take away from the beauty of other things.

Finally, it leads on to, by extension, the unusualness of the ugly. Are they perceived as ugly because they are unusual or are they perceived as unusual because they are ugly? Indeed, historically many ‘ugly’ people have been brilliant intellectually; Socrates was deemed hideous, Lincoln described by a contemporary as,

“to say that he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque, is to convey no adequate impression.”

Perhaps, as Oscar Wilde put it, “to be popular is to be a mediocrity”.

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Sound Symbolism

Once again, an article from New Scientist (viewable here) about sound symbolism. I want to take a look at that, and another interpretation – semiotics. Sound symbolism argues that words have their meaning at the least suggested to by the sound that they make. The example given in the New Scientist article is of the words “kiki” and “bouba” – one means round and one means spiky (they’re invented words) by 95% of people asked said that “kiki” meant spiky and “bouba” round. This begs the question; are words simply signs or do they have some of their meaning encapsulated in their word?

Are words merely signs, or do they hold meaning in and of themselves?

In Brian Friel’s most famous play, Translations, set in 19th century Ireland, he discusses the nature of words as encapsulating more than simply an equivalent concept or object. In the play, there are Irish characters and English characters and a prevalent theme is the breakdown of communication between them. One Englishman, Yolland says this;

Even if I did speak Irish, I’d always be considered an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be …hermetic, won’t it?

What this suggests, through the differentiation between ‘password’ and ‘language’ highlights that while communication at its simplest level may merely be signs, words include cultural identifiers which cannot be truly maintained in translation. So, in that sense, words can communicate some of their meaning not simply by being a ‘sign’ but in the word itself there rests some meaning.

On the other hand, according to sound symbolism, the sounds words make carry with them a part of the communication. As outlined in the example above, “kiki” just sounds spiky – the two short syllables and the quick vowel sounds communicate it, whereas “bouba” with the longer vowels ‘sounds’ round. What I am unsure about is the degree to which one can tell what a word means without the options – is it more that one sounds like more like the given definition than the other? Of course, that isn’t to say that there isn’t a communicative factor in the sound, merely that it is limited.

So, the idea that words are merely signs I feel lacks some credibility – words communicate both cultural identifiers and have intrinsic to them some meaning, they are not merely signs. Of course, I don’t know in great detail the workings of semiotics, so if you do, please comment.

One final thing, which sounds round and which sounds sharp?

óstryĭ and krúglyĭ (phonetic, from Russian)

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The Double Slit Experiment

There are many things which excite wonder, but this is one of the most miraculous things ever encountered by the curious mind. The double slit experiment, also known as Young’s Experiment is the demonstration that matter displays both wave like and particle like behaviour. What happened was thus:

Scientists fired a stream of electrons through a plate with one slit in, and as expected they got a pattern shaped like the slit on the screen behind. So, when they tried two, they were incredibly surprised to see that instead of creating what they expected – the pattern of two slits, instead they got a wave pattern on the screen, showing several more patterns than they expected. But how was this possible? After all, in order for a wave pattern to exist, you had to have particles interacting with each other to create the disordered pattern. So, the scientists being sneaky, to make sure the light wasn’t interfering with other parts of it fired an electron at a time through the slit. Yet still they got the wave pattern. This seemed to suggest that the electron was passing simultaneously through both slits and interacting with itself! The scientists were stumped; how was this possible? So they decided to peek – they put a method of observation by the slits to see what happened – did the electron go through both or was it doing something strange. Yet, and here’s where things get even weirder, by the very act of observation, the particle no longer acted in the way outlined above, but instead acted in the way they had originally expected – two slits were created on the screen behind.

Ever seen a tennis ball interfere with itself?

What I find so incredible about this whole experiment is the idea that something can be two different things at once, whilst simultaneously being neither. This idea, the basis of quantum physics is extraordinarily complex; something I’ll never understand, but nonetheless something incredibly fascinating. That observation can alter the way things are must have enormous repercussions on, well, everything. After all, the particles fired: electrons (and other experiments have shown that the same is true of the sub atomic particles which make up protons and neutrons) make up everything. What is interesting is that they don’t behave in the same way when they are much larger – ever seen a tennis ball interact with itself? Thus there are enormous numbers of unanswered questions like why they change when larger, why they change when observed and how it works in the first place. Does the act of observation changing the state of being suggest a level of consciousness at the start of the universe? I’ve no idea, and frankly neither do physicists. However, with the help of CERN and other particle accelerators, perhaps one day we’ll have a clearer picture of why.

For a better explanation (and a more visual one) click here

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