Speech to the Classical Association of NSW - St Andrews College

October 4, 2012

Long before you saw him, you knew he was there.

Hanging like a smoky whisper in the cool air of the morning,  the unmistakeably sweet smell of his tobacco left a trail through the panelled corridors.

The old school was only just starting to stir. I was there early, keen to get started, and even keener to have a word with the smoker before the halls were tumbling with  Samsonite suitcases and cricket bats and tennis racquets and the boys who owned them each delighting in his own noise whether it was stamping up the ancient staircases or shouting the news of  his latest triumphs, real or imagined.

The distinct sweet smoke was Balkan Sobranie and there was only one teacher who smoked it, pushing it into the bowl of his pipe from a round white tin which, for reasons never explained, showed two, presumably Balkan, women smoking  as a wagon train of tobacco passed them on the road below.

Balkan Sobranie was a blend of Virginia tobacco, solid and conventional, with  Yenidje leaf from what is now Macedonia and leaf from Latakia in Syria.

John Sheldon, like his tobacco, was a blend of the conventional and the exotic. With his determined waistcoated earnestness, a passer by would take him for a lawyer, like the judge his father, but his interests were far from the mundane deliberations of the Sydney courts.

John was as entranced by the ancient world then as he is today.

In aid of Latin, Greek or indeed Sanskrit he made no claims of utility or relevance – although there were and are many to be made.

But you could not help feeling that without a more than fleeting acquaintance with the classics, John Sheldon would not regard you as, well, adequately educated at all. He radiated a love of learning that was, for me at least, quite irresistible.

In those days, we felt a strong sense of cultural continuity. As we trudged through Kennedy’s Latin primer or Hillard & Botting, we knew we were treading a well worn path. Some of our textbooks had been printed in the 1890s and one of the Latin masters, Mr Swan, would invariably address boys by their father’s names if he had taught them – it was never clear whether this was because he actually thought we were still in the late 1930s, or perhaps it was simply because when you are considering Caesar’s suppression of the Gauls, a generation here or there is easy to overlook.

My study of Latin and Greek was not particularly successful. I was an average student and always more interested in the substance or story of the texts than in taking the time to learn how to read them in the original.

John had taught us Greek in Second Year, in 1968, and I had done fairly well and continued with the subject with another teacher the following year. I was so underwhelmed by the experience that in my Third Year Greek exam I scored 6% - presumably for writing my name.  I resolved to give up the subject entirely, but John persuaded me to continue and I did so with much misgiving and only because he was taking Greek the following year.

In that year with John Sheldon as my teacher,  far from 6%, I finished third in our class and fourth in the State.  

John Sheldon did teach me a little Greek and less Latin, but he taught me something much more valuable and that is the profound, the central,  importance of the charismatic teacher.

And when I reflect upon the thoroughly dilapidated buildings and fire traps that constituted Sydney Grammar School in 1967 and the dedication of John Sheldon and so many other great teachers of my old school – I cannot help but think that investing in teachers is of much more importance than investing in buildings.

After all, Plato’s class room was but an olive grove.

One of John’s many remarkable qualities is that he doesn’t appear to age. I have found this quite disturbing for many years. Indeed I recall in 1995 taking my then twelve year old son, Alexander Turnbull, for his first assembly at Sydney Grammar which in the touchy feely fashion of the modern era involved the attendance of parents as well as the pupil himself.

There on the stage was John Sheldon, still the Master of the Lower School, and looking exactly the same as he had when I first met him in 1967. Seventeen years further on, John remains barely touched by the ravages of time.

Some would say that he has a raddled old portrait in his attic like Dorian Gray, but I suspect he has followed in the footsteps of the Ikthyophagoi from Aswan who, according to Herodotus,[1] were sent by Cambyses to spy on the Ethiopians and there discovered a fountain of youth.

John of course has recently published “Texts of Greek and Latin Authors on the Far East” a translation of George Coedes “Textes d’auteurs relatives a l’extreme Orient depuis le Quatrieme Siecle avant Jesus-Christ, jusqu’au quatorzieme siecle.” And I should also note Frances Muecke has recently published two books one about Domizio Calderini’s Commentary on Silius Italicus and in 2010 her Oxford Readings in Lucan edited jointly with Dr Tamara Neal, who is also here, and the late lamented Charles Tesoriero who is here only in spirit.

The visitor to Washington DC is quickly reminded that the founders of the American Republic determined to emulate another republic – that of  Rome.

Jefferson, entranced with a Roman temple in Nimes writes to his friend Madame de Tesse. “Here I am madam gazing whole hours at the maison quaree  like a lover at his mistress.”

But it was not just the architecture of Rome that inspired the founders. Rejecting the British monarchy which oppressed them, and apprehensive of unbridled democracy, they appealed to the example of the noble Romans, the republican Romans, Cincinnatus, Fabius, Cato  – men who had selflessly served the state and defended the rights of the people against tyranny just as the Pilgrims had opposed the established church.

And the course from republic to empire has been run by the Potomac as it was by the Tiber.  I remember in 2002 visiting Washington with John Howard. It was very clear from our hosts that there was an unequivocal determination to invade Iraq. Surveying the Capitol one morning, a more sardonic member of our party observed “Rome has been attacked and the Parthians must be taught a lesson.”

Lets hope they do better than Marcus Licinius Crassus, I thought, whose disastrous invasion of Parthia in 55 BC was opposed by many in Rome including Cicero who described it as with “nulla causa” -  without any justification

But while imperial Washington recalls imperial Rome, over the last decade or so the ancient text to which I have returned for inspiration is a Greek one, Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta.

It must be said that viewed in the great sweep of the history of the Mediterranean, the Peloponnesian war was not the most momentous or the most significant – compared to the campaigns of Alexander or of the Caesars or even the Greeks’ war with the Persians, it seems more parochial, a series of battles and campaigns fought within a fairly narrow geographic compass.

The Peloponnesian war lives on in our imagination, inspiring (and misleading) generations of statesmen and generals simply because of the quality of Thucydides’ history.

Consider the hopelessly confused state of public debate in the world today – news is replaced by partisan opinion – you can wade through acres of newsprint and webpages in a vain search for a clear analysis of any policy issue. And as for politicians, well most of the time, too many of us find it easier to mislead and exaggerate rather than carefully laying out the facts of the matter, the challenges we face, the different alternatives for dealing with them.

Given the paucity of materials which have survived to the modern era we cannot be sure how revolutionary Thucydides’ approach was in his own time – but there are many circles in 2012 when it would be refreshingly revolutionary were it to be adopted.

Noting the all too ready acceptance of “the first story that comes to hand” and the way in which political myths are rarely examined if they suit the narrative of the city, Thucydides lays out as clearly as he can an historical method centred on getting to the truth of the matter.

There are many speeches in his history, arguably its best feature, but Thucydides acknowledges these have been reconstructed from various sources, including himself, recognising how hard it is to remember word for word what was said. “So my habit was been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”

And how, in an age before audio recording, could you do better than that?

As to the course of events, Thucydides said he did not derive it from the first source that came to hand, “I did not even trust my own impressions but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests available. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witness, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.”

This approach, he predicted, would make his history a little dull but he consoles himself with the observation that he has not written it for the applause of the moment but “as a possession for all time.”[2]

Now I don’t imagine that my speeches and writings and interviews will win either much applause of the moment or be cherished in two years, let alone two thousand, but I do reflect on Thucydides’ method a great deal and seek always, with mixed success,  to lay out the facts, as I best understand them, and while making my case and putting it in its best light endeavour to do so in a manner that enlightens the public debate rather than misleading it with spin.

As Thomas Jefferson observed, in words carved in the stone of his beloved University of Virginia,

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”[3]

The challenges of our own time are as momentous, and far more complex, than those of Thucydides’.

And the need for clear sighted, civil public discourse is greater than ever.

In my view, all of this requires politicians and others in the public square to be especially careful to remember  our responsibility to explain the big issues of our time. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect “Struggle Street”, it treats its residents with contempt.

Thucydides above all respected the intelligence of his readers.

Modern parallels are constantly sought from the History of the Peloponnesian war. Admirers of democracy, liberalism and indeed multiculturalism look to Pericles’ funeral oration in 431 BC for inspiration.

Athenians are different from other Greeks, Pericles said, they are all, regardless of their means, equal before the law. They are tolerant of private conduct “far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no real harm.”[4]

And we can note that in this way Pericles reminds us that, equality before, and the rule of, law – isonomia – is vital in a free society otherwise the untempered and unconstrained rule of the people – demokratia – can readily become a shocking tyranny.

We might reflect on that in the context of the Arab Spring – a democratic Syria may well empower the hitherto repressed Sunni majority, but what will be the fate of the Christians, Alawites and Shiites?

And contrasting Athens with its enemy Sparta he said “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts, exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens, while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”[5]

But Thucydides while providing such comfort to free societies, like our own, is nonetheless a sceptic about democracy. Athens’ own democracy was most effective, he tells us, when it had a wise guide in the form of Pericles. His successors, “more on a level with another and each grasping at supremacy, ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.”[6]

And one of those blunders was of course the Athenians’ invasion of Sicily in 415 BC – misconceived and then even worse executed – a time in Athens’s history when in W B Yeats’ equally immortal words “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold...The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”[7]

Again and again we are reminded that democracies are more peaceful than authoritarian regimes. That defies historical experience and there are no better examples than the Athenian aggression described in Thucydides’ history.

The Sicilian Expedition is one of history’s most famous military disasters – right up there with Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. But the most chilling military episode in the History, and the one that resonates as cruelly today as it did then, is the destruction of Melos in 416 BC.

The Melians, living on their island about half way between Athens and Crete, were neutrals in the war and wanted to stay that way. The Athenians, lords of the sea, demanded Melos become its tributary.

The Athenian ambassadors met with the Melian leaders privately and so were able to speak very frankly. The dialogue remains the best exposition of real politik in any language.

The Athenian case is pretty simple. If Melos is allowed to remain neutral it will make Athens look bad – how can she claim to be the ruler of the sea and allow such a strategic island, and one so much weaker than her, not be subject to Athens. The Melians must submit, if for no other reason, pour encourager les autres.

The Melians speak of justice – the Athenians speak of power.

We won’t waste your time, they say, “of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Persians, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us  - and make a long speech which would not be believed....since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[8]

And just to rub it in the Athenians went on to say to the plucky Melians:

“Hope danger’s comforter, may be [only]  indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss, at all events without ruin...”

Stalin no doubt was channelling the Athenian ambassadors when, responding to Churchill’s remark that Poland, a Catholic country, could not be communist, asked “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

And coming back to our own time and our own region and the tension between China and the United States, we can recall Thucydides’ own opinion as to what was the real cause of the war between Athens and Sparta.

“The growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.”

And this is why we should encourage greater clarity and candour on all sides as we discuss the rise of China and how its neighbours and rivals will respond to it.

Finally let me turn briefly to a more prosaic author who has been a great, if more practical, inspiration to me.

Julius Sextus Frontinus was a first century AD Roman noble who had many public roles including that of Governor of Britain – a real hardship post in those days.

However it is in his role from AD 95 as curator aquarum, or as we might say today managing director of  Rome Water Corporation, that I found him of most interest.

I was responsible for national water policy in 2006 and 2007, years of shocking drought, when not only were farms devastated but cities, large and small, threatened to run out of water. And I could not help but be amazed that in the 21st century with all of our technologies of huge dams and pumps and steel pipes we could be running out of water when 2000 years before without any of that, Rome a city of one million people could deliver over one billion litres of water – a 1000 litres for each resident -  every day into the city.

The network of aqueducts both in Rome and elsewhere in the Roman world is truly one of the greatest achievements of Roman engineering – right up there with the invention of concrete.

Frontinus wrote a book about his time as curator aquarum describing the aqueducts of Rome and reading it today it is thoroughly contemporary.

One of the big issues in water management today is treating water fit for purpose – you will have seen those purple pipes which contain recycled water fit for gardens and industrial purposes but not for drinking. Well Frontinus notes the Alsietinian water (among others) was unwholesome to drink and thus was only used for filling up the Naumachia (an arena where gladiators staged naval battles) and for irrigating gardens.

He describes the design of the aqueducts in great detail, although it is not yet entirely clear what are the modern equivalents of some of the Roman measurements.

Frontinus on taking office did an audit of the aqueducts and remeasured the flow of all the aqueducts – a thoroughly modern CEO.

By checking the intake of the aqueduct and then measuring the output at various reservoirs he discovered widespread water theft, due in large part he says to the dishonesty of plumbers and landowners who tap the conduits “whence it comes that the public water courses are actually brought to a standstill by private citizens just to water their gardens.”[9]

And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was getting harder and harder, he writes, to find good slaves. There were two large slave gangs to work on aqueduct maintenance, but all too often they were being sent off by the crooked foremen to do private work!

So whether it is in international or domestic politics or indeed in the management of public water supply we have a lot still to learn from the classics and so I have great pleasure in proposing a toast to the Classical Association of NSW.

[1] Book 3:23
[2] Book 1 – Richard Crawley’s translation.

[3] Letter to Count Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours April 24 1816

[4] Book 2:37

[5] Book 2:39

[6] Book 2:66

[7] “The Second Coming”  Willam Butler Yeats 1919

[8] Book 5:89

[9] Accessed at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Frontinus/De_Aquis/text*.html

On 4 October 2012

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