Peter Swallow looks at Murray’s ‘Shining Dreams of the Future’
Thursday 7 November 1918 was a fine winter’s day in London, cool and crisp and with a fresh breeze blowing. Hope was growing that the interminable war might finally be coming to an end, though few could quite believe it, or knew how close the Armistice really was. But Gilbert Murray, the Oxford classicist and great internationalist, knew. Days before, he had been appointed Chair of the League of Nations Union, an organisation promoting international cooperation and disarmament; his thoughts were now turned firmly to rebuilding the world after the war. Tonight, he was giving the prestigious Creighton History Lecture at King’s College London—and while—quite naturally—his theme would be classical, Murray was not going to let this opportunity pass to share his hopes for humanity’s shared future, at such a pivotal moment in its shared history.
Apart from his diplomatic work, Gilbert Murray is best remembered for his scholarship on Euripides, and as one of the leading voices in the Cambridge Ritualist movement. He is not often thought of as an Aristophanist. But it was to Aristophanes that Murray turned in 1918, titling his lecture ‘Aristophanes and the War Party’. In the speech, Murray used Old Comedy to demonstrate the effects of the War on the private citizens of Athens. This socio-historical approach allowed Murray to offer a stark warning about his own times, in the light of the upcoming Armistice. As will soon become clear, Aristophanes and the Peloponnesian War may have been the nominal subject of his talk—but his focus was squarely on present matters.
Greek history—as we see today from its abuse by the online far-right—is at particular risk of being misappropriated. Murray is conscious of the danger of reading the present into the past, ‘and so twist[ing] the cold and unconscious record into the burning service of controversial politics.’ But with that note of self-aware caution set aside, Murray sets up his comparison. The Peloponnesian War:
‘was in many respects curiously similar to the present war. It was, as far as the Hellenic peoples were concerned, a world-war. No part of the Greek race was unaffected. It was the greatest war there had ever been. Arising suddenly among civilized nations, accustomed to comparatively decent and half-hearted wars, it startled the world by its uncompromising ferocity. Again, it was a struggle between Sea-power and Land-power… It was a struggle between the principles of democracy and military monarchy…’
He is equating Athens with Britain and the Allied Powers, and Sparta with Germany and the Central Powers. Although both sides are ‘civilized nations’, we are to understand whose side we should be on—the side of culture, democracy, Athens and Britain. Murray even laments that in ancient Greece, ‘there was no America to make sure that the right side won!’ There are many points we might quibble with in this over-simplified and partisan account of both conflicts. But the rhetorical point is persuasive enough. And what emerges most is Murray’s description of the ‘uncompromising ferocity’ of both conflicts.
The largest part of Murray’s thesis develops the idea that Greece, and Athens in particular, became unavoidably degraded and weakened by the war. Not at first—Aristophanes’ free speech against the populist politician Cleon was one sign that Athenian values did not fail as soon as the war began—but soon the city was engaging in ‘harsh and unscrupulous exploitation of subject-allies, which at times amounted to absolute tyranny and extortion.’ Slaves were deserting in huge numbers; ‘they were a class without rights, without interests, without preference for one country or one set of masters over another. In modern Europe it seems as a rule to take an extraordinary amount of prolonged misery before an oppressed class loses its national feeling.’ One can feel Murray’s own concern for the subdued proletariat, whether in Europe or in the colonies. Indeed, such comparisons between ancient and modern peoples feature throughout the speech.
Moral failings led to the sufferings of war, and here the relevance to his contemporary Britain is felt most keenly. The scene from the Acharnians in which Dicaeopolis ‘threatens to murder a sack of charcoal, and the Chorus of charcoal-burners are broken-hearted at the thought, is perhaps more intelligible to us this winter than it was before the war.’ There is power in this simple reflection on shared human misery. In 1918, historians and classicists were better able to understand the horrors of the Peloponnesian War, and even the mock horror that could be generated over a joke about wasting precious coal, than they ever had been before. Murray powerfully argues against a detached, scholarly approach to historical warfare. ‘One is tempted in a case like this to pass no judgement on men or policies, but merely record the actual course of history and try to understand the conflicting policies and ideals’, he acknowledges. But we must reject that idea, because the history of warfare is also the history of humanity, wasted. To drive home this appeal to his audience’s emotions, he uses a vignette:
When the soldiers of Nicias in Sicily, mad with thirst, pressed on to drink the water, thick with blood and mire, of the little stream where the enemy archers shot them down at leisure, it was not only an army that perished but a nation, and a nation that held the hopes of the world.
This description evokes the horrors of trench warfare, a modern iteration of the same ‘blood and mire’. Casting aside the inevitable appeal to Athens specifically as ‘a nation that held the hopes of the world’, Murray’s message is clear. War degrades morality and destroys hope.
Ultimately, Murray tells us, the plays of Aristophanes serve as a stark warning:
The more the cities of Greece were ruined by the havoc of war, the more the lives of men and women were poisoned by the fear and hate and suspicion which it engendered, the more was Athens haunted by shining dreams of the future reconstruction of human life. Not only in the speculations of philosophers… but in comedy after comedy of Aristophanes and his compeers…
He refers here to the utopian plays Aristophanes wrote mid-career, in which themes of peace, equality and prosperity abound; Birds, Lysistrata, Ecclesiazusae and so on. This is not the place to critique Murray’s utopian reading of Old Comedy. What is interesting is his concern about indulging in ‘shining dreams of the future reconstruction of human life’. Why should this be a bad thing? For Murray, because they remained unfulfilled ‘shining dreams’. Athens would never restore the civilization it lost over the course of the war. It would remain degraded.
Here, then, is the dénouement of Murray’s argument. And it is not an argument about Aristophanes or the Peloponnesian War. Murray’s real message is one of peace, a rallying cry to rebuild humanity and thus distinguish ourselves from the mistakes of Athens and the past:
In spite of the vast material destruction, in spite of the blotting out from the book of life of practically one whole generation of men, in spite of the unmeasured misery which has reigned and reigns still over the greater part of Europe, in spite of the gigantic difficulties of the task before us; in spite of the great war-harvest of evil and the exhaustion of brain and spirit in most of the victorious nations as well as in the vanquished, our war has ended right; and we have such an opportunity as no generation of mankind has ever had of building out of these ruins a better international life and concomitantly a better life within each nation.
It is a weighty task, he acknowledges, but vital ‘if we are not to make that sacrifice a crime and a mockery.’
The politics of Murray’s paper are social-democratic and internationalist, in keeping with the politics of the man who wrote it. They speak to the great man’s deep humanity, and his endearing—or possibly naïve—belief in the dual power of poetry and humanity as agents of a better world. One wonders if the organizers of the Creighton Lecture were entirely prepared for the sort of address Murray was going to give them. He makes unapologetic use of Aristophanes and ancient Greek history to discuss contemporary political questions and to champion peace. Indeed, Murray finishes his lecture by borrowing a vision from Aristophanes’ utopian plays, especially Birds, mixed with the language of Galatians 3:28:
“A City where rich and poor, man and woman, Athenian and Spartan, are all equal and all free; where there are no false accusers and where men”—or at least the souls of men—“have wings.” That was the old dream that failed. Is it to fail always and for ever?
Aristophanes’ hopes for and criticisms of Athens did not save it, and the Greek world, from ruin. In fact, they were destructive because Athens was unable to fulfil them. Athens’ democracy was never the same after the war despite Aristophanes’ utopianism. Perhaps, Murray hopes, Aristophanes’ hopes can save the new world.
Of course, they have not saved us yet.
Dr Peter Swallow is a Research Fellow at Durham University working on the popular reception of Aristotle’s natural science. Previously, he held a postdoctoral position at the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King’s College London, and taught at both KCL and Goldsmiths. He has also taught at Notting Hill and Ealing High School. He is the author of Aristophanes in Britain: Old Comedy in the Nineteenth-Century (OUP, 2023) and edited Aristophanic Humour with Edith Hall (Bloomsbury, 2020). He sits on the Classical Association’s Teaching Board as a HE Rep, and since 2017 has worked with the Advocating Classics Education project to expand access to classical education in schools. In 2023, he won the Classical Association Making Classics More Inclusive Prize. Follow him on twitter @PDJSwallow.
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