Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”




Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:


Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

The hope of none

The hope of none

In reading Austerlitz last night, I stumbled on the passage in which the relayed memories of Austerlitz tell of his ambling into the strangely desolate town in which lie the ruins from which he has averted his attention for four decades. Here he finds the reason for his long avoidance of his personal and national history. Here he recovers the fate from which he fled as a Jewish child on a train. Here he knows again the loss, the unbearable trauma, that none of his family survived.

There he sees the gate of Theresienstadt, with its slogan in wrought iron decorating its upper border.

Arbeit Mach Frei.

None who entered believed this slogan of the powerful, this siren song of productivity.

Only the eerie freedom of death, if it can be known, was delivered here.

But we have forgotten. Again, we are led to believe that work will set us free.

We need to remember, like Austerlitz, and to turn and face the great destructiveness at the heart of our modern society – this turning of the necessity of work first into a compulsion, and then into a vocation.

Creative destruction? Innovative disruption? None truly believe that surely?

It is not work, but simpler perceptions that can give us all hope, that may set us free.

So says Zbigniew Herbert in “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”:

Beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky 

they don’t need your warm breath 

they are there to say: none will console you


Image: The gate of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, former German concentration camp

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.


13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza IV

The supreme fiction of government is the unity of politics and administration. This fiction is told through many conceits and many variations. Sam Finer’s glorious achievement, his multi-volume History of Government from the earliest times, written after his retirement from the university, distinguished decision-makers and decision-implementers. Woodrow Wilson, long before entering politics, as a young doctoral student, looked to the Prussian bureaucratic tradition to imagine a science of administration not dirtied by “the poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, the sinecurism and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington” (“The Study of Administration” 1887, quoted Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014). There, in an unworldly puritanism sickened the patronage of politics, public administration was born as a field of study.

Weber composed his conceit differently, with a more tragic foreboding, as rational-legal authority. Duller economists compose mathematical formulae on the principal-agent problem to seek to explain away messy human problems. Both hide away in rules or in contracts the divisions between politics and administration.The Westminster system itself, that common resort of scoundrels among the top echelons of the bureaucracy, vests this fiction in myths of Ministerial responsibility and meritocratic appointments. And then there are the true believers in political will, reform, integrity or leadership, who dream that their vision of the world can be imposed through government as one. The leader, their Cabinet, the top officials, the minor officials, the public sector unions, the stakeholders will all get on board as one, and the great Reform, the last Utopia, will reveal itself to the world..

Two cannot be one. Nor can three, and even less any higher number. We live in unresolvable plurality. Our lives are long acts of distinguishing ourselves from others. It is in finding the differences in our being and living together with them, not confusing our leaders with “unifying intelligence,” that we find authentic identities and life-giving freedom. And it is only by abandoning the supreme fiction of unity that we can see truly the presence of the bureaucrat in governing.

After all, it is not as if bureaucrats have been much loved by the politicians who are the true rulers of governments. A government is, as both the Oxford English Dictionary and Stein Ringen (in his masterpiece, A Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obediencedefine it, is a body of persons who govern a nation. That body of persons are the Ministers who form the ruling party. To distinguish the government from governing or the vast strange web of governance is to see clearly the blackbird flying into view like the holy spirit. As Ringen writes:

we need to unwrap the system that generates governance and explore what goes on inside it. For me, the relationship between the political bosses and their civil servants, for example, is very much a part of the mystery of governance, and I don’t want to hide that mystery away in a definition that says that both bosses and servants are parts of the same thing” (A Nation of Devils).

To see the differences, we need to look past the nice compliments and befuddling stories of cohesion traded by serving and retired witnesses of high politics. Behind closed doors, or when pressed by recurrent failures, the venom and the hatred of difference comes out. What better example than that great advocate of reform and vision, Tony Blair, who Ringen magisterially assays as a master of “activism in all things, and accomplishment in none”(A Nation of Devils). A master of appearing across his brief, Blair’s unifying intelligence could never grasp why the institutions at his command did not unify before his fluffy will. His whipping boy was the civil service. He would describe them as the “sinecure cynics who despise anything modern and are made uneasy by success” (Tom Bower, Broken vows: Tony Blair – the tragedy of power (2016)).

His recurrent sallies at reforming the National Health Service all failed, so that he resembled some latter-day Don Quixote, who had lost touch with reality through reading too many business magazines and crisply titled consultants’ charts. He surrounded himself with advisers who comforted him in his delusions, but he could not ever really see the real people in the institution and how it might be made to work better.  The civil service was always wrong, always a problem, always in need of reform and modernisation. Tom Bower’s remarkable account of Blair’s tragic years in power is informed by many interviews with the most senior and many more officials who served around Blair’s sofa court. Through their testimony they make clear that Blair ran a government at odds with itself, and with any decent culture of governing. Politics itself was fragmented, and his intellectual divorce from the “traditional culture of government during his decade in Downing Street” undermined all achievement. His undeclared civil war within government itself led to the tragic failures of Iran and Afghanistan; but more Bowers concludes:

“We now realise that the path to the two wars was not an aberration but all of a piece with the way his government behaved across its entire domestic agenda, especially in the areas of health, education, energy and immigration. In a tragic sense, Blair had been consistent.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p 594

Unusually, Bowers in his biography of Blair leaves the last word to a bureaucrat. There were three top civil servants, Cabinet Secretaries who served Blair – all competently and loyally in Bowers’ judgement. They all Bowers said, after witnessing the strife of politics and administration and Blair’s many questionable acts, later judged that “Blair had not been a laudable guardian of the public’s interest.” The book closes with the reflection of longest-serving under Blair of these Cabinet Secretaries, Richard Wilson:

“There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end so little was achieved.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p. 594

More disappointment had been harvested from the supreme fiction of government. What might have been if this illusion had been dispelled, and stronger leaders of public institutions had acted with a belief that in unity is death?


Image source: Daily Telegraph

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat: vigilance amidst stillness

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
(Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, stanza 1)
We citizens flatter ourselves sometimes by believing that government, big brother, and ultimately some bureaucrat somewhere in a police or intelligence agency, is really watching us. The ever vigilant state is more a paranoid dream of libertarians, artists and entrepreneurs – all rebels against bureaucratic rule – than a genuine historical phenomenon. Yes, there have been states where individuals and their errant minds have been tracked down, followed, and described in exacting, excruciating detail. Anna Funder’s Stasiland recounts the underworld of eternal vigilance created by one such state. More powerfully, I recall that Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem was painstakingly written on cigarette papers, committed to the memory of her friend, and then silently burned so that no all-seeing eye of the KGB would detect her lament of dissent.
It is also true that we live in times of both unprecedented scrutiny and uninhibited exposure of our digital communications. The collaborations between national intelligence agencies and large information technology firms, exposed by the leaks of Edward Snowden and to a lesser extent Julian Assange, have created not an ever-twitching, omniscient eye, but a vast and messy drain in which all the banal facts and words and digits of our lives swoosh down into a dense black big data mess. We are told that clever algorithms and super-smart graduates of the best universities can see patterns in this oozy, sticky mess. I wonder if this is just hubris.
In any case, the super-spies huddled over their super-computers are a rare and atypical form of bureaucrat. And their form of vigilance is not the only kind practised by other bureaucrats. For the most part bureaucrats observe their field with the same tools we all have – publicly available information, intuition pumps that read social behaviour, the ready-made ideas that circulate in the popular press and magazines, the cultural memes of our times. This great majority of bureaucrats content themselves with recycling and rehearsing the mantras of the day – whether those mantras are taken from some inept consultant’s report, the editorial of the Financial Review, or the opinions and  prejudices fostered by their social circle. They draw their interpretations of the world from a common stock of ideas that requires little searching for truth and little investigation of deeper questions. These ideas find their confirmation quickly, and reflect the governing consensus of their patrons and the powerful kingpins who guide the networks to which they belong. These bureaucrats are the conformists and lackeys of those zombie ideas that so dominate our governments, especially after the degradation of public intellectual culture over the last 30 years. They are the managers who cannot find a better argument in favour of the changes they propose than that change is always happening and you can’t fight change. Ironically, they cannot see that the same change undermines their calls to reform the world in the static image of their own utopias and interests.
But there are some other bureaucrats, perhaps a small but significant minority, who are less like squawkish parrots with their imitative cries, and more like the eye of Stevens’ blackbird, restlessly searching a vast immoveable world of snowy mountains for a clue to the unfolding of this world. This kind of bureaucrat seeks out contrary opinions and conflicting information. This kind of bureaucrat regularly scans the best academic journals of their field to find an idea that is better than their own. This kind of bureaucrat speaks after a meeting to the quiet voices in the room, and looks carefully and meticulously at the surprising data, that does not fit neatly the line graphs of progress or decline. When this kind of bureaucrat is challenged by their Minister to find some kind of model of cultural change – “someone must have one, surely?” – they will look outside management journals, and read deeply in anthropology, biological sciences, behavioural psychology and history before realising that we are posing again the enigmas of Heraclitus, but with no patience for oracles. Such a bureaucrat will pose to themselves everyday fundamental questions that try to make deeper sense of the social patterns they observe in their reading and in the social and cultural worlds around them.
I know such bureaucrats exist; because I have been one. It is true we are a small, and likely dwindling minority. Yet are not all of our most precious cultural heritages the same scarce, endangered species? To preserve this tradition is essential if our societies are to be governed well, and our great intellectual traditions are to be conserved against degradation by the chic and stupid mantras of people on the make. It is given to a few perhaps to be the seers: to observe the things that others cannot see, and then to find the words to communicate them so that the great ship can keep sailing on. Those seers are rarely the grand mandarins who control large organisations. They do not receive the medals and the gongs. Their photoshopped faces do not appear on the Mandarin news site. Nor are they the self-confident consultocrats who trade up their reputations with the latest fashionable nonsense. They suffer the exile of all prophets, and are often found wandering wounded, lame, even blinded in the organisations who neither like nor support them. They do not even promise utopia and transformation. The long vigil has taught them of the limitations of the human animal. But if we see them, if we find a way of truly looking at this kind of bureaucrat, if we hear what they have learned through their long years of vigilance, then perhaps we can save our bureaucracies from the depredations of management that mistakes ambition for thought.

Massacres in history

Massacres in history

As the violence and brewing disorder of our times disturbs us, we can readily fall into a comforting delusion: either our liberal minds have conquered the violent instincts of the human animal, or our modern ideologies (whether Nazism, Marxism, Imperialism, Neo-Conservatism or Islamism) or our powerful nation states have a peculiar talent for blood-curdling murder and total war.

Alas, neither is true. The pages of history are littered with massacres and community violence. Of course, the history reader need not give their attention to these stories. There are so many other threads to follow – the glories and diversity of culture, the grandeur of art, the suffering of ordinary people, the conflicts over resources, power, status, belief, or the blooming and fading of faiths. But all those threads are mixed with blood on the wattle.

It is difficult to face this squarely. The wound to human pride caused by the repeated violence of our kin is deep, and we naturally seek to numb the pain. Either we turn away to more pleasant thoughts, or we develop elaborate denials of the common humanity of the perpetrators of violence. They become dictators, monsters, barbarians. Or we pursue an absurd nobility in fighting for justice – bandits, thugs, and rebel yells so become freedom fighters, poetic champions of a noble cause wrapped in mystic illusions, like Byron going to fight for the Greeks.

The greatest affront is to our idea of progress, which accompanies our modern culture like an ever-vigilant chaperone. Darker thinkers know this. John Gray’s work has long taken apart the modern belief in human progress. In reviewing Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Gray zeroes in on this necessary illusion:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible. John Gray, The Guardian, 2015

Gray compares the elaborate theories of Pinker and similar liberal optimists, with their reliance on big data and google, to Tibetan prayer wheels, turned forever to produce an assurance of meaning in life, progress in history, and the goodness of humanity. With such a prayer wheel, the bloodied pages of history that tell of massacres and communal violence, the descent of civilised people into barbarism, can be carefully, mindfully willed away.

For whatever fortuitous reason, I came across one such bloodied page last night in reading Richard J. Evans, The pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914 (2016). The story concerned the struggle for Greek independence, or release from the “cruel yoke of Ottoman power” in the 1820s.

The Greeks held a national assembly at Epidauras in 1822 where they declared, despite the fractious rumblings within their own ranks, a “holy war” against the Muslim Ottoman overlords, who had ruled since 1453. Like many holy wars, the Greeks’ fight for a separate, Christian nation soon justified massacres. A British observor recoiled at the violence of the rebels when they killed the local Muslim population:

“Women and children were frequently tortured before they were murdered. After the Greeks had been in possession of the city for forty-eight hours, they deliberately collected together about two thousand persons of every age and sex, but principally women and children, and led them to a ravine in the nearest mountain where they murdered every soul.” (George Finlay, quoted in Evans, p 55)

The Ottoman rulers and the Muslim local population responded with massacres of their own. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul was hanged on his cathedral’s gate. At Salonica local crowds massacred the Christian population turning it into a “boundless slaughterhouse.” On the island of Chios, Greek rebels were besieging a Ottoman garrison, which itself held hostage many of the wealthy Greek Christian merchants of the island. When Ottoman troops and boats arrived  to reinforce the garrison, the balance of the siege turned. The Ottoman soldiers tortured their hostages to reveal the hidden locations of their treasures, and then massacred them. The island’s town streets were littered with corpses, and its buildings burned to the ground. Nearly 30 000 Christians were killed. Others were sold into slavery. The island’s population was quartered, falling from 120 000 to 30 000.

Yet this next link in the chain of communal violence inspired a humanitarian response to fight to defend the birthplace of Western civilisation. Eugene Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824) [the featured image of this post, with image credit to Le Louvre] rallied the educated classes of Europe, seeped in the love of classical cultures. Across Europe idealistic young men, full of civilised illusions, went to fight for the divided and compromised Greek rebels, if in their own mind they were in a struggle for justice for a civilised nation. One observor noted that “All came expecting to find the Peloponnesus filled with Plutarch’s men and all returned thinking the inhabitants of Newgate [London’s main prison] more moral.”

Of course one of the famous foreign fighters was the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. He left behind the ravages of his incestuous and treacherous relationships in England, and dedicated himself to his great Cause, a greater delusion. He told an aristocratic friend (Marguerite, Countess of Blessington) of his motives: “he who is only a poet has done little for mankind” so that he would therefore “endeavour to prove in his own person that a poet may be a soldier.”

He died there at Missolonghi in April 1824. And the Romantic martyr was born from his 36 year old corpse. Today he is considered a national hero in Greece. The phenomenon of young men and women fighting and dying uselessly in a civilisational struggle, drunk on dreams of justice and glory and romance and martyrdom, are older than the Islamic rebels of ISIS.