Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo in ancient Greece

In the aftermath of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a number of right-wing commentators in the West have faced a dilemma. On the one hand, these commentators hate Charlie Hebdo for the cartoons it publishes poking fun at nuns and priests and Christianity; on the other hand, they also hate Muslims, and can see that the massacre offers a good opportunity for a bit of anti-Muslim propaganda.

It's always fascinating to see one prejudice battling another, contrary prejudice in the mind of a bigot.

In an online magazine (mis)named American Thinker, Selwyn Duke has tried to reconcile his distaste for the godless liberals who publish Charlie Hebdo with his contempt for Muslims. According to Duke, the attack on Charlie Hebdo showed the true nature of Islam, and should be condemned. But we shouldn't, Duke insists, forget that Charlie Hebdo 'was an enemy of Western civilisation'.

Duke's words might be true, if we equate Western civilisation with religious authority. But if we understand Western civilisation in terms of reason and argument and art and freedom of speech, then we need only look to the ancient Greeks to find parallels with the provocations of Charlie Hebdo.

In their different ways, philosophers like Diogenes and Socrates and writers like Aristophanes ridiculed the gods of their own society as relentlessly as Charlie Hebdo has attacked the religions of the twenty-first century. At a festival in the fifth century BC, Aristophanes presented his play The Frogs, which made audiences laugh by putting the god Dionysus onstage in a costume of buskin boots, a saffron cloak, and a lion skin, and sending him on a bumbling adventure through the underworld.

Aristophanes would surely be amazed that, nearly two and a half thousand years after he staged The Frogs, so many human beings spend so much time worrying about the proclamations of religious fundamentalists.

When he founded a school called ‘Atenisi, or Athens, on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa fifty years ago, the Tongan philosopher Futa Helu argued that his society needed to learn from the free thinking of the ancient Greeks. Today, I would argue, the whole world needs the spirit of Aristophanes.


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We do not know who Homer was, but that is what the ancient Greeks called him. Scholars have debated whether there was ever a single actual author rather than a collection of oral stories but it is now thought that such an author existed. His defining works are The Iliad and The Odyssey. The adventures described in these two epic poems have shaped our thinking about the ancient Greeks – their religious and social structures – and have profoundly influenced subsequent writers, who have used his characters in multiple ways, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, James Joyce to Star Trek, and several poets have adopted his verse forms. The two poems are so vivid and detailed that we are seduced into thinking that he has written an actual history, and to this day we quote from Homer as though we were rehearsing actual history. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

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