Socrates’ Athenian jury

Orestes and the Furies

Orestes and the Furies

Slowly, in this thread on Socrates and his surprising relevance to us today, we are leading up to his jury trial, the most famous in all of history. So a word is in order about Athenian juries.

I am skeptical of jury-systems, as I have hinted before and as I may eventually spell out more coherently. But that is neither here nor there today. Today I want to look at what juries meant to the Athenians, and how they worked.

Above, you see a strapping but unfortunate lad named Orestes being beset by the Furies. He is one of the main characters in the Oresteia, a famous trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, the oldest of the three great Greek playwrights (the others being Sophocles and Euripides). It is a heart-rending story about a truly haunted family that, generation after generation, goes from bad to worse until it ends …. in the world’s first jury trial!


Very quickly: Several generations of disastering downstream, a king (Agamemnon) continues the pattern by sacrificing his own daughter (!) so that he can take an army to Troy to get his brother’s wife (Helen) back. More than a decade later, he comes back–victorious, as it were. But his wife is humping another man and hates her husband for killing her daughter and takes revenge: she stabs him in the bath tub.

Now the disastering moves on to the next generation: The remaining children of Agamemnon and his wife, Orestes and Electra, must avenge …. well, whom exactly? Their sister, whom their father had murdered? Or their father, whom their mother had murdered? They settle for the latter, and Orestes kills his mother. The Furies are beside themselves and go to work on Orestes.

What could possibly happen next? It would seem that everybody has to keep slaughtering everybody forever, were it not for…

The Athenian Jury

Aeschylus now did something very cheeky. The Trojan War took place, if indeed it did, around 1250 BCE. It was already ancient mythology for the Athenians of the fifth century BCE. But Aeschylus modernized the story. He added a patriotic Athenian twist: They do not keep slaughtering one another. Instead, they settle things in an Athenian jury trial!

The jury, as it happened, was split. Half thought Orestes was in the wrong, the other half thought he had had no choice. So Athena herself had to join in to break the tie. She voted to acquit, thus setting the precedent for all subsequent Athenian trials that a tied vote meant acquittal.

And so the days of blood feuding were over. The scary Furies turned into something else: the benevolent and beautiful Eumenides (“kind ones”), whom the Athenians would revere among their gods. Civilization had begun. Athens had begun! She stood for freedom and justice.


A few other things are worth mentioning:

  1. The juries were huge, numbering about 500. Sitting on juries and in the assembly was all that Athenian citizens did (slaves and women did what we would call work).
  2. Anybody could bring an indictment.
  3. There were two rounds of voting: First, to decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent of the charges; second, if guilty, to decide between the punishments proposed by the prosecution and defense.

But the most important point is the one you’re supposed to infer from Aeschylus: the Athenians loved their jury courts, their assembly, their free speech, their democracy. The worst thing that could happen would be for something to call these institutions into doubt. And that’s what happened when an Athenian jury put Socrates to death.
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Postcard from (yet another) Mount Olymp

This is where I am at the moment.

In Rome, you ask? The home of Scipio, one of the two heroes in my coming book? The place that Hannibal almost took, almost destroyed, but not quite, and which, as a direct result, took over the world–our modern world–instead?

No, actually. I’m in a sleepy little state capital called Olympia. That’s Olympia, as in the abode of the Greco-Roman gods, the place my four-year-old could tell you all about.

Some of the people that I’ve been talking to in these buildings are very aware indeed of the heritage that their architects intended to remind them of, each and every time they walk in and out of their offices. Sam Reed, Washington’s erudite secretary of state (and apparently a direct descendant of Charles Sumner) could go toe to toe with me on Polybius.

Others here look at me blankly when I opine that it must have been quite a controversy to decide between … Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. (But even then they inform me proudly, as three people have now done, that Olympia’s Capitol has the fourth largest masonry dome in the world.)

In any case, I quite savor these improbable links–visual, symbolic, cultural–to our common Western heritage, and to the world of my imagination, peopled as it is with the likes of Fabius, Scipio, Hannibal, Polybius and all the others who are in my book and in our world.

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Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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Greek myths for 4-year-olds


My daughter parks her head in my arm pit, gets under her covers and is ready. In German, I begin:

So Zeus told Prometheus to re-people the earth with human beings, because all the mortals had died in the big war that he, Zeus, had fought and won against the Titans. So Prometheus made people out of clay. But they were cold and dumb. So he asked Zeus for some fire from Mount Olympus.

‘Sorry, that’s just for gods,’ said Zeus.

‘Ok, sorry,’ said Prometheus. Then he stole the fire when Zeus wasn’t looking and gave it to the new human beings, who suddenly warmed up, started cooking, started thinking and building huts and tools.

Zeus noticed and got angry.

So the humans started sacrificing their animals to the gods to appease them. But Prometheus, who was on the humans’ side and saw how hungry they were, said ‘Hey, do it this way: Put the bones and crap on one side and wrap it in fat. Put the meat on the other side and throw some fur on it so that it looks like leftovers. Then let the gods choose one of the two piles.’

The gods chose, and gods can be dumb, so they chose the bones wrapped in fat, and for once the humans had enough to eat.

But Zeus again noticed and now got really, really mad. He had Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver which then grew back at night so that the eagle could rip it out again the next day, and the next and the next. Wonderful.

How a 4-year-old hears this

Too gruesome for a 4-year old? Oh, no.

My daughter loves the Greek myths and insists on a few every night as part of her bedtime ritual. And not only does she get these stories at some simple, deep, archetypal level, she extracts very interesting and quite sophisticated insights about life. Such as:

4-year old: But Prometheus only meant well. He did something good. Didn’t the gods know that?

Dad: Oh yes, they knew that. But they were still angry, because they were vain.

4-year old: Gods can do whatever they like.

Dad: That’s right. And they’re a silly as people, and that’s how the Greeks explained all the stuff that happens in the world.

She got it. And I felt great. A few days ago, I talked to a child psychologist about this, and she said that children connect to myths and folk tales such as Hansel and Gretel so well precisely because those stories are archetypal, even and especially when they strike us as gruesome. We don’t give kids enough credit. It’s a mistake to tell them only sweet nonsense that amounts to a lie about life and eventually bores them. All within reason, of course. The child shows the way.

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Ancient scroll worms

As a writer, I am naturally interested in reading. That includes all the ways in which technology changes reading habits. How is reading different on a Kindle? Do you retain more if you “delete through a text“?

And: What if we were still reading scrolls?

That was the fun insight in this piece by Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She takes us on a tour of reading and writing in ancient Rome. Some aspects of the trade were eerily familiar, but others quite different:

The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves, whose job it was to transcribe one by one as many copies of Virgil, Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy. And it was a large market. Imperial Rome had a population of at least a million. Using a conservative estimate of literacy levels, there would have been more than 100,000 readers in the city. The books they read were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century, “book rolls” – long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right- hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page.

Reading was a very different experience with this technology. You could not really skim, for example. You could not easily go back to check something you had forgotten. And you really had to concentrate, because often the Romans did not separate words with spaces but wrote in one continuous stream of letters.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering where papyrus came from: It came from Phoenicia, the mother country of Carthage and thus Hannibal. The Phoenician city that did the briskest export trade was Byblos. Hence: Bible, bibliography, bibliophile, etc.

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Homeric storytelling (2): the midlife crisis


Homer, as I said in the previous post, is one of the great story-tellers because in The Iliad he gave us a heart-rending and timeless look at wrath. Now look at what he did in the Odyssey! Wow. Those two stories could not be more different.

There is a theory on the periphery of academia (is that a redundancy?) that the Iliad and Odyssey were actually written by different authors. The Iliad, in this theory, was authored by a man; the Odyssey by a woman. I don’t know and I don’t care, but the mere hypothesis is telling because the two stories are so very different.

The Iliad is about young men being heroes. They either win or die, heroically. It is a story written, if not by a young man, certainly for young men.

The Odyssey is a story about and for older people: It is about trying to return to something lost and traversing a liminal realm known today as the midlife crisis. (Just think of the main character in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)


The return is a classic theme of the monomyth theory by Jung and Campbell. For example, there is an entire genre of plays and stories that have to do with the heroes of the Trojan War, now as older men, trying (and often failing) to return home. Agamemnon comes home to be murdered by his wife in his own bathtub. Aeneas wanders all around the Mediterranean. Ditto Odysseus.

I’ve heard that the Odyssey is often used in seminars for Vietnam vets. Apparently the story speaks to them in a particularly direct and intimate way.

Midlife liminality

Limen is the Latin word for threshold. The Greeks and Romans often put little statues of Hermes/Mercury near their thresholds, because they believed that crossing thresholds was of particular significance and had its own divinity. The biggest thresholds are death and middle age (the “death” of the young hero and “rebirth” as old man.)

The Odyssey is about this extended liminality of midlife. Odysseus (like Aeneas) literally walks through Hades, the underworld of the dead, with Hermes. For ten years, he has a full-blow midlife crisis: Dangerous women, crazy ideas, irresponsible behavior. But he also yearns for stability and reconnection with his son, Telemachus, and wife, Penelope, whom he last saw twenty years ago. His home is in chaos; his status is in question; he no longer knows who he is and must redefine himself. This is midlife!

So don’t be fooled by the colorful stories of Sirens (pictured above) and Cyclops and what not. All of those famous adventures are part of a story within the story, a speech that Odysseus himself gives to his hosts to explain what he has been through. It is assumed that he is spicing some of his adventures up for the telling.

But most of the Odyssey is about his son Telemachus trying to find his absent father, about Odysseus trying to come home, and then about trying to reestablish himself at home.

So how does my story-telling theory fare? The Odyssey is less simple than the other stories I’ve featured so far, but that’s because it aims at older audiences that savor complexity; it has great momentum; and, yes, it has a universal idea.

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Homeric storytelling (1): wrath


What an intriguing cast of characters this thread on story-telling is becoming: Scheherazade, Ira Glass, Herodotus and Truman Capote, the Grimm Brothers… I like this mixing of high-brow and populist; grown-up and children’s; oral, audio and written; ancient and contemporary…. After all, it’s all story-telling. So let’s move on to Homer.

What makes the Iliad (and, in the next post, the Odyssey) such an enduring story?

For the time being (because you’ve not yet dissuaded me), I will continue to apply my emerging theory: the Iliad is a great story because it has:

  • simplicity
  • momentum and
  • universality.

What could be simpler than to tell your audience what your story is about in the very first word! The first word in the original Greek is menis (as in mania), which means wrath. The wrath of Achilles and of all mankind is what the Iliad is about. The Trojan War is “merely” the backdrop.

We meet the characters: Achilles and Agamemnon, childish and vain, but awesome to behold. Here is our hero and he is … sulking! We get tense. This isn’t good. Something awful will happen. But what?

Then, a delay. And what a build-up. We have looong sections listing all the heroes and ships that sailed to Troy. To us this is boring, but to the ancients this was an occasion for cheering, because each and every Greek was waiting for his ancestor to be named. The list signaled the grandness and the inclusiveness of what was about to unfold.

Then, action: Gory, individualized fighting, with spears piercing through breasts and swords cutting off limbs. The excitement and horror build.

Before long, we are disgusted. Achilles takes things too far. He defaces Hector’s corpse, and one just doesn’t do this. We sympathize with both heroes (Achilles = wrath; Hector = duty) and both sides in the war at this point. We suffer as humans, because we see how wrath has destroyed civilized behavior.

And this is the thought that gives the story universality. We come down from the thrill of the violence and are exhausted. We yearn for civility. And we get it. The Greeks stage funeral games for Achilles’ fallen friend, and now at last we see conflicts resolved without violence. It is as though everybody, even Achilles had learned.

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Look who reads Plutarch

I’ve told you about Plutarch, the father of biography, who has an important place in my bibliography. A lot of people of course love Plutarch. J.K. Rowling does, Truman did. And so does Sam Donaldson, who recommends the Parallel Lives here:

Plutarch’s Lives is simply the biographies of people back in an ancient era, Caesar and the Antonines. You study how they lived and what they did, and how they thought. I can’t tell you I came away from it saying, “Now I’ll pattern myself after this guy, and this guy.” But I came away with the sense that some of the people who were very ordinary when they started out could make something of themselves. … But lives, what is it about various people’s lives who are successful, who make something of themselves, who make a mark on history and on the world? That book influenced me.

What’s in a word: “Liberal”

Adam Smith

As you may have noticed by now, I am a lover of words–to the point of pedantry–and it gives me indigestion to hear people abuse my little darlings. Americans are especially prone. For example, they are scandalously liberal with the word … liberal.

Traveling around America, we at The Economist get at least two questions in any gathering. 1) Why don’t we have bylines? 2) Are we liberal or conservative?

Folks, the way you (the Americans) ask that second question, it does not make any sense! You, unique among nations, did something quite uncivilized to this word, liberal. You unilaterally and wantonly changed its meaning, without telling the other 6.3 billion of us. You cannot do that! As The Economist has demanded before, it’s our word and “we want it back.”

Here is what liberal means: It comes from the Latin liber, free, and refers both to a philosophy and worldview that treasures individual freedom (as in Liberalism) and to the habits and learning befitting a free individual (as in Liberal Arts). That’s all.

The origins of liberalism go back to classical Greece (the “left leg” in this analogy of the Western Tradition as a “body”). It thrived during the Enlightenment, especially its Scottish flavor; found a permanent fan group when The Economist was founded; came under undignified attack in the past century; was defended valorously by people like my great-uncle Ludwig Erhard; became a whipping post in France (especially in the phrase “neoliberal”) for people who like to roll tractors through McDonald’s outlets; and now lives this bizarre American double life among barely literate TV-show hosts.

Liberal means: Tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the eccentricities of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles, as long as nobody is harmed. Hence, a modern Liberal is likely to support the right of gays to marry, as The Economist has done far longer than any other major publication that I’m aware of.

It also means being tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the willingness of individuals to take risks for gain, without any sour-grapes Collectivist outbreak of envy after the fact.

It means skepticism about huge efforts to change human nature; about naive faith in governments or companies always being “good”; about any attempt to subordinate the individual to society.

But Liberalism does not mean (as anti-Thatcherites in Britain once tried to imply) denial that there is such a thing as society.

And it does not mean (duh, really!) salivating over “big government”. Whatever that is called, it is not Liberalism.

Finally, is it the same as what Americans call Libertarianism? In theory, it comes close. In practice, not. American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.

Liberals are not loonies. They don’t foam at the mouth. If you need an image, it is of a dour Scot like Adam Smith, pictured above. Slightly dull, but excited about the fun that others get up to. Sort of like The Economist.

Socratic irony

Somewhat unexpectedly, the topic of irony is becoming a subsidiary thread in the Hannibal Blog. It started here, continued here and, I’m sure, will continue even more. You recall that my definition of irony is “the savoring of contradictions in life and people (others and yourself) and of turns of phrase that are slightly and adroitly off-key and thus meaningfully surprising.” This wording found approval, at a minimum, by Cheri.

Suddenly, however, I find the plot thickening. Robert Bartlett, a professor at Emory University who teaches this course on the three greatest Greek thinkers, informs me that

Irony in its original Socratic sense, in Greek eironeia, is really pretty different. In brief, it’s the habit of concealing one’s superiority. Aristotle, in the Ethics, lists irony as a vice, though he says it’s a vice characteristic of those who are refined.

Why refined? Because if irony is a vice opposed to the virtue of truthfulness, it is a kind of deceit. It is also much better or more attractive than the vice of boasting, of claiming to be more than you are. The ironic person claims to be less than he is, and in particular to be less wise. Aristotle, by the way, gives only one example of the ironic person: Socrates.

Socrates is famous, then, for his irony, for his kind of graceful concealment of his wisdom; he’s not a boaster, in this sense. This means that Plato chose as his spokesman, or at least as the central character in almost all the dialogues, an ironist, somebody who’s not altogether frank.

This is, of course, very different than my definition of irony. Then again, as I think about it, the genealogy does show up even in the modern phenotype. Which means: For those of us today who appreciate irony, it may  be worth remembering what the Athenians did to Socrates, and what many societies would like to do to ironists. Sarah Palin might claim afterwards that she mistook me for a moose. Put differently, here is the great man as the hemlock does its lethal work: