THE WAY IT WAS: Men without honour and justice


Herakleitos writes “All men think”. Do they really? We have been doing reasonably well without thinking, haven’t we all these 50 plus years? “Change alone is unchanging”, which is true, but hasn’t man changed for the worse in recent times? Ideas and values, the spirit of self-sacrifice, truth and courage are today scoffed at, as old-fashioned clichés

It is quite amazing how little changes with time. Across the millenniums certain human feelings passions, which were recognised and valued by the ancients, continue to inspire us even today. In the last few years I have been on and off glancing through the ancient Greek poets, almost forty years after my first acquaintance with Greek drama. They say it is never too late. There is no such thing as missing the bus, there is always one later if you wish to catch it. The Greeks upheld reason, courage and truth and scorned ignorance, arrogance and riches. The same way as we do now or at least pretend to do. Their observations about other spheres of human engagement such as love or war, or daily commerce, have all remained poignantly pertinent and real to this day. What lends veracity to their utterances is the ease and clarity with which they establish, analyse and pick up images from common life to reveal their minds. The Greeks believed in reason, which was for them synonymous with virtuous life. The main cause for the decline of Greek civilisation was its love of wealth and of power for their self. Archilochos of the 7th century BC was regarded after Homer, as the second great poet of the West, cursed the Ephisians thus, “Ephisians be rich! I cannot wish you worse.” Archilochos was feared for having a “nettled tongue”.

There is a tradition that wasps hover around his grave. He may have been well-received by society out of fear but couldn’t possibly have been popular with the gentry when he referred to it as; “The highly polished minds of accomplished frauds.” He doesn’t hesitate to chide the generals either. In the days when wars were fought with swords and spears, he writes,

I despise to see a tall,

swaggering General

with a beard of curls.

Give me an officer

Who’s short and bow legged

With his feet planted well apart.

Archilochos took pride in being a soldier but like all sane people today despised war. When he draws our attention to “Fields fattened by corpses”; we are revolted against the futility of it. The Spartans banned his poems, which would surely fluster the Jihadis and “swaggering generals” even today, for their mockery of foolish courage and bravery. Archilochos was a professional soldier but observed nature and life with a “tender eye”. He had developed a studied lyric eroticism. He believed:

The nature of man is diverse and surprising

Each finding his pleasure where the heart wills.

He observes and admonishes:

A slender, lovely, graceful girl

Just budding into supple line,

And you scare her make her shy.

I must not mention here when he refers to “women eager to recline”, but it may suffice here to quote, what the poet had to say about Madam Xanthe:

Twice the age of her apprentices,

That wrinkled old madam Xanthe

Is still regarded as an expert.

For Sappho a poetess of seventh century BC, sexual frenzy was not considered a disreputable passion as it may appear to many today. In Sappho’s time society was undergoing a dramatic change when human form, which was rigid and stiff in Egyptian and early Greek sculpture, was losing its stiffness and being gracefully animated. The image of fat Aphrodite with large breasts and buttocks, a symbol of fertility, was being replaced with Sappho’s Aphrodite who was trim and slender. In this changing milieu Sappho brought out human passions that were kept in darkness. She did not separate beauty from intelligence and considered yearning for beauty at once as love, sexual desire and adoration. When Dante rediscovered romantic love in the second age of western lyric poetry, it was equally removed from sex.

Lucius Appuleius says, “The educated Love; others breed”. Sappho on one occasion pleads to Aphrodite, “Untangle from Longing and perplexities, O lady, my heart”. While on another she begs, “Give my tethered heart its full desire”. Sappho is unpredictable because she cannot grasp the uncontrollable passions that overwhelm her. Similar passions reverberate in the hearts of most heroines of the 19th century European novel. When ignited by love “The fire spreads beneath my skin”. Sappho declaims:

And I yearn

And I hunt

Sappho delighted Socrates, but we who are more ashamed of our bodies than our morals may upset our liver if we venture too close to what has been described as her “psychological nakedness”.

Herakleitos, the fifth century poet and philosopher reminds us, “Bigotry is the disease of religious.” Plato regarded him a transcendental intelligence. He has inspired modern poetry as well as modern physics. He wrote, “Defend the law as you would the city.” What about those who manipulate their constitution ever so frequently, I ask? He insists, “Law gives the people a single will to obey.” But only when, I may add, it is uniformly applied to all. He writes, “Change alone is unchanging” and “The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand”, because, “everything flows, nothing remains.”

How true! I believe once a Persian emperor sought a Sufi’s guidance. The Sufi had the following words inscribed on the royal ring; “This will also pass”. The words were meant to comfort the emperor when he was under a cloud and restrain him from becoming smug and conceited in good times. Herakleitos writes “All men think”. Do they really? We have been doing reasonably well without thinking, haven’t we all these 50 plus years? “Change alone is unchanging”, which is true, but hasn’t man changed for the worse in recent times? Ideas and values, the spirit of self-sacrifice, truth and courage are today scoffed at, as old-fashioned clichés. What we need today is not a Socrates, who could show us the way but Diogenes whom the Athenians called “a Socrates gone mad”, who could possibly prick us into self-awareness.

Diogenes scolded people without mincing words and was a powerful moral and critical force. He maintained, “Of what use is a philosopher if he does not hurt anyone’s feelings”? He took great pride in being independent but wished, “If only I could free myself from hunger as easily as from desire.” However he took pride in the fact that “Aristotle dines at King Philip’s convenience, Diogenes sat his own.” About learning he writes, “There is no stick hard enough to drive me away from a man from whom I can learn something.” So unlike us who use a hard stick to drive away a man whom we fear can teach us something. To end it may suffice here to quote something of Diogenes again, which may come handy in our present predicament, “to be honourable and just is our only defence against men without honour or justice.”

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a leading painter, teacher, art critic and political activist. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee