In a scene from the film version of Umberto Eco's wonderful novel, The Name of the Rose, Brother William of Baskerville and Adso find themselves in a labyrinthine library. Adso unravels a strand from his habit and ties it to a bannister, allowing the pair to find their way out. Brother William drily remarks that Adso has benefited from his classical education.
While limited practical use can be made of the tale of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, there is obviously more of value in the classics than clever strategems to defeat a labyrinth. To cite one example, the Founders, particularly James Madison, were influenced by Polybius' history of the Roman Republic, which described how Rome had managed to incorporate the best features of democracy, oligarchy and dictatorship, with a senate balancing an executive balanced by independent judges. To cite another, there is Sophocles' play Antigone, which pits the individual against the state and religious morality against temporal authority. (There is a fantastic study of the impact of the play on enlightenment, romantic and modern thought by the great critic George Steiner, Antigones. I note that the current edition, unlike mine, doesn't use the wonderful line drawing by Jean Cocteau on its cover -- too bad.)
I thought of Antigone when I read, last week, a commentary by Agit Can in KurdishMedia.com on the recent horror in Fallujah, where four American contractors providing security were murdered and had their corpses mutilated by, as he puts it, savages:
Yesterday the world was treated to news reports that demonstrated that a certain segment of the population of this city is comprised of savages. Not nationalistic fervor or fierceness in battle, but inhuman savagery guide their actions. Historical studies have led many to believe that the first pseudo-religious ritual observed among human beings was the burial of the dead. The right to a proper burial has always been universally accepted among all cultures, perhaps even before the very right to life. It goes without saying that the tenets of Islam, the predominant religion of the Iraq and the Middle East, and those of the other Abrahamic faiths all treat the human body, dead or alive, with the utmost respect.
The savages of Fallujah, who chanted slogans in favor of Islam and their beloved city, murdered four innocent people by attacking their vehicle in a meticulously planned ambush and proceeded to desecrate the bodies of their prey in the most animalistic way imaginable, burning the bodies, dismembering them, and hanging some pieces of the corpses from a bridge while displaying another piece of flesh by hanging it from a power line. This satanic ritual was treated as a community event, as proud men of all ages congregated around the inferno to cheer, chant, and dance, as their smiling compatriots desecrated the bodies. Young children stomped on the bodies and posed with them.
To borrow a term from Qutb, the barbarians of Fallujah are certainly in a state of jahili. Of course, Qutb would argue that the only reason to read the likes of Sophocles is to understand why such writers themselves are jahili, and not for any moral instruction. But I tend to think that the world could do with a bit more classical education.Posted by Ideofact at April 4, 2004 10:30 PM