Peter Jones

Sophocles vs the luvvie Remainers

Owen Smith’s new allies didn’t get the best of press in the ancient world

Is the Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith, who longs to reverse the obviously undemocratic outcome of the recent referendum, aware of the company he is keeping — artists, writers, pop singers and other riffraff? Plutarch would not have rated these know-alls as especially useful allies.

Plutarch (c. AD 100) mused on whether classical Athens gained its reputation more from its military or cultural achievements. He agreed that Athens was the ‘mother and well-disposed nurse’ of many arts, inventing some and burnishing others. But it was all a matter of priorities. Take historians and painters: since they lifted their subject matter from military leaders’ famous victories, they had little to add. And tragedians? ‘For all the cleverness of Euripides, the eloquence of Sophocles, or grandeur of Aeschylus, tragedy never dealt with any of Athens’ difficulties or gained it any magnificent successes to compare with its memorials to heroism.’ Orators were just as bad. They might make fine speeches, but what was arranging antitheses, balancing clauses and counting syllables to sharpening spears, the clash of arms and shock of battle?

Plato, meanwhile, depicted Socrates submitting Ion, a vacuously self-important rhapsode who recited Homer, to a grilling on the nature of his skill. Socrates argued that a capacity to sing a good song did not qualify him to say anything useful about anything else. Ion strongly objected, saying that his ability to sing convincingly, as Homer did, of horsemanship, playing the lyre, steering a ship, the prophetic arts and so on meant that he was an expert in all of them. ‘So your knowledge of generalship makes you a general?’ suggested Socrates.

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