Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Search for the Lyceum

The Lyceum of Athens stands as one of the greatest educational institutions of all time, serving as a model for later schools of the same name around the world. Most commonly associated with Aristotle, the Athenian Lyceum was actually established in the sixth century B.C, as the office of the Polemarch (general of the army) and a training ground for military exercises. It was also a meeting place for the Athenian assembly prior to the establishment of the Pnyx Hill facility in the fifth century. During the last third of the fifth century, Socrates and Protagoras taught and led philosophical discussions there and Isocrates taught rhetoric there during the first half of the fourth century.

The word Lyceum is Latin for the Greek word Lykeion which referred to the gymnasium, one of the original buildings on the site. It’s was named after the god Apollo Lyceus.

In 335 B.C, Aristotle moved to Athens from Macedonia and decided to set up a school on the grounds of the Lyceum. He purchased some buildings and soon began to lecture there. Aristotle would give lessons in the morning and then lecture in the afternoon for the public. His habit of walking around as he spoke caused the school to be labeled Peripatetic – Greek for traveling from place to place. Aristotle promoted the idea of cooperative scientific research, assigning his students projects to work on in the afternoon. Over time, the Lyceum became a storehouse for animal and plant specimens and the library, made up of lecture and laboratory notes, became world famous.

The aerial photograph below shows Athens today, with the locations of the Acropolis, ancient Eastern Wall, and Lyceum excavations labeled.

Ancient sources have identified several buildings which were included in the Lyceum complex. An Apodyterion (dressing room), mentioned in Plato’s dialog Euthydemus; Dromoi and Peripatoi (tracks for foot and horse races); the Gymnasium; the Palaistra, also mentioned in Euthydemus; sanctuaries to Apollo; seating for judges and spectators; and a pair of Stoa.

Parts of the Lyceum were wooded and river channels were dug to irrigate the vegetation growing there. According to Theophrastus, one large tree had surface roots spanning 33 cubits.
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Monday, July 26, 2010

Sex, Darwin, and the Ancient Empires

It’s interesting to contemplate man as an animal versus man as an intelligent being – the great dichotomy of our life on earth. Originally we were animals with a big brain, unused until we learned to take control of our environment in a way that fostered practical thinking. Domesticating animals and agriculture ended man’s life as a nomad and brought people together in larger groups (villages). The size of these groups led to a division of labor, and man’s brain was finally put to work.

There seems to be a trend these days that seeks to suppress the animal part of us like it’s some barbaric mantle that keeps us from a utopian existence. The adherents of this point of view want us to become sensitive to the needs of all other humans -- logical, caring robots, mass produced in a political correctness factory who will not offend anyone. It’s an era of neglected responsibility where causes don’t matter – only situations.

My position is a bit different. I believe that the refusal to accept man’s animal nature is nonsense based on what would result from attempts to be “un-human”. Would it be bad for a man to be attracted to a woman, for example, because that would exhibit animal behavior? Should we accept a low paying job because the desire to do better is immoral or elitist? There is no question that biology has played an important role in our success as human beings. Men have striven for better lives, invented great things, and pushed knowledge forward because of a motivation to succeed, be the best, or win the race. You can’t legislate away humanness even though some utopians think you can. The progressive movement wants to see a “leveling” of society to make us all socio-economically equal, and part of the plan is to remove humanness as roadblock to societal equality. Strength must be replaced by equality.

I was asked to review the book The Dynamics of Ancient Empires by Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, published in 2009. Although a heavy academic read, the book presents some interesting ideas on humanness, especially in the last chapter, written by Professor Scheidel and titled Sex and Empire, a Darwinian Perspective. His point of view is that not only did the men of antiquity differentiate themselves by ability, but they also sought power because it allowed them access to more sexual partners and control over their own procreation.

Scheidel starts with the notion that humans are driven by their bio-molecules to interact with the outside world for the sake of energy consumption and replication.

“Since genetic survival is contingent on scarce energy resources, reproductive processes inevitably involve competition, which in turn drives evolution in response to natural selection. As a result, behavior of organisms is adaptive if it increases the chances of reproductive success.”

To put it another way, it was more useful reproductively for men to possess a harem of females than for females to possess a harem of males.

“Typically, resources, status, and power co-varied with reproductive success for males. In general, the acquisition of symbolic capital – honor, prestige, and power – translated into the accumulation of material capital, which enhanced reproductive success.”

Of course, a major criticism of this idea is that sexual urges are not known to prompt men to engage in warfare or the exploitation or resources, but the author counters that men can be motivated by a variety of causes and that the desire for warfare can be brought about by the desire to increase a man’s inclusive fitness; driven by such emotions as “we’re better than them” or “they have dishonored us.”

If you look at ancient history, the norm is polygyny (multiple wives) among elites. The data also shows that increased social stratification (based on wealth) increases the level of polygyny. But does this data support a Darwinian point of view?

“Because of the protracted childcare in humans, a premium has been placed on post-partum parental investment, so female mate choice is governed by the desire to obtain resources from long-term mates, an objective that conflicts with man’s desire for multiple partners.”

These forces put man in a position of wanting it both ways – stable long term partners associated with producing heirs and secondary partners used outside the accepted relationship. Indeed, Scheidel asserts that the first monogamous societies (Greece and Rome) were socially imposed. By this he means there was social pressure to monogamous based on the increasing importance of cooperation among coalitions (peer groups), needed to deal with external challenges. This pressure led to a moral standard that monogamy should be the only acceptable marriage practice.

In both Greece and Rome there grew to be severe penalties for having sexual relations with someone else’s wife, but no penalties for relations with slaves or concubines.
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Dreams of Aristotle

Aristotle wrote two short pieces on dreams and their meaning: On Dreams and On Prophesying on Dreams. In the first he presents arguments for the origin of dreams and their relationship to other aspects of human existence. In the second he analyzes whether dreams can foreshadow the future.

Aristotle approaches his subject as a scientist, looking for a practical explanation for an experience men found mysterious and frightful. Given that the only ways to acquire knowledge are through sense perception or intelligence, and that our senses are not operating during sleep, he asserts that the senses cannot contribute to dreaming. That means dreams must originate in our intellect. Of course the experiences in dreams are still based on sense perception (we see things when we dream), but that experience is disconnected from reality.

Residual perceptions are common in everyday life. If you look at the sun briefly and then look away, the image of the sun remains in your eye for a while. In the same way, Aristotle asserts that when the external object of a perception has been removed, there still remains an impression which itself is an object of perception. While we sleep, these impressions are re-created in dreams.

Sensory impressions present themselves when an individual is awake and asleep, but the senses work with the brain during the day to keep reality in perspective. At night there is no balance between impressions because the senses are not available, so dreams produce wild and obscure sensations.

Aristotle describes the dream sequence as “little eddies in a river forming and breaking into other forms by colliding with obstacles.” He believed there could be no dreaming immediately after a meal because the heat caused by digestion disturbed the flow of phantasms in the brain. Similarly, dreams that occur during a fever or intoxication reflect a disturbed state of the body in their weirdness of form and character.

In On Prophesying on Dreams, Aristotle contemplates what he calls the divination that takes place during sleep and whether it caused by dreams. Since there is no known cause of this divination it is normal to be skeptical about it. It cannot come from a god because these experiences occur in common people and god does not communicate to them. So is it merely that dreams act as causes or tokens of divination? Indeed, it may be that some of these representations are the causes of actions cognate to them. We may think and plan some activity during the day whose significance causes a vivid dream at night. In this case the activity has paved the way for the dream. But the converse is also true, because thoughts which occur first in sleep may be the starting points of something that occurs when we are awake.

Aristotle believes that most “prophetic” dreams are coincidences based on the fact that the dreamer has no real participation in the story of the dream. We often mention things during conversation that later come to pass and this same phenomena occurs in dreams. Because the engine of both wakefulness and dreams is the brain, we understand why this has to be so. Again, because god does not communicate to the common people, their visions must be a random result of their physical temperament – “excitable and garrulous”. The common people have chance experiences where visions play a part in their slumber, like the gambler who plays even and odd.

Prophetic dreams are caused by the condition of sleep; the fact that there is less to disturb the body than during the day. There is no wind at night to disturb the senses and compete with the visions of our dreams.

To Aristotle, the most skillful interpreter of dreams is the man who is able to observe resemblances in them. That is he can make sense out the forms in disturbed water; to put the pieces together which, to the common man, can only be seen when the water is calm.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dream believers: ancient actions, modern echoes, a guest post by Vicki Leon

Ancient cultures, from Egyptian through late Roman times, paid as much attention to their nights in the arms of Morpheus as they did to their waking moments. They felt curiosity, awe, and sometimes terror at their dreams, at the strange symbolic language of the sleeper.

And they sought help. How do we know this? Ancient literature is littered with speculations and advice about dreams, along with insights about their medical use as diagnostic tools. Furthermore, a handful of millennia-old dream manuals have survived—to be gleefully recycled by cut-and-paste oneiromancy entrepreneurs today.

The earliest dream translators

In Egypt 4000 years ago, interpreters made dream symbol lists, indicating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ outcomes. In these laconic tables, we learn fascinating minutiae of long-ago life. For example, to dream of drinking warm beer: bad—suffering ahead. To dream of copulating with a jerboa, a small, jumping rodent: also bad. On the other hand, to dream of eating excrement was labeled good.

Then as now, the topics of keenest concern: digestion, copulation, and elimination. The Babylonian and Assyrian dream crowd had urine issues. If the dreamer dribbled urine on his foot, his eldest son would die. If, however, the dreamer sprinkled himself with his urine, his sheepfold would expand—prosperity ahead. Another hot topic in Mesopotamia? The dream significance of meat consumption, including human body parts and one’s own entrails.

Greek dream treatments

In pre-Classical times, Homer wrote, “Dreams come from Zeus.” Because medicine was in its infancy, by circa 500 BC the wellbeing franchise was taken over by the healing god Asclepius. Although few would recognize him and his single-snake staff in a lineup today, Asclepius set up shop in Epidaurus, the first of what would be a chain of Mediterranean-wide healing centers that resembled today’s luxurious spas in natural settings.

In 293 BC, Asclepius gained further prominence. Summoned from Epidaurus to combat the plague in Rome, he appeared as a sacred snake aboard ship on the Tiber River. Slithering ashore, Asclepius took up residence on Tiber Island, where his temple was built; the plague obediently stopped.

Although he never made the Olympian twelve, the divine Asclepius stayed busy, also looking in on dreamers who weren’t at his healing centers. For example, his circa-300 BC dream visit to Anyte, a talented Arcadian poet. Asclepius ordered the young woman to drop her sonnets and head north to Naupactos to hand-deliver a message. Anyte awoke to find wax writing tablets in her hands. After an arduous land and sea journey, she presented the tablets to a vision-impaired gent, urging him to read it. Amid protests that he couldn’t see, he obeyed—and presto, eyesight restored to 20/20. The tablet message also directed him to reward Anyte with 2000 gold staters. Poetic windfall! As a thanks offering, the new visionary built an Asclepian outlet in Naupactos. Five hundred years later, it was still going strong when author-historian Pausanias stopped by.

Oracles and other competition for Asclepius

Besides the incubation overnight chambers where patients sought Asclepian intervention to dream their cures, the facilities emphasized holistic healing, from diet and exercise to drama and the power of music. Aristocratic writers like Aristides, a career hypochondriac, heartily endorsed the Asclepieia, having spent lengthy periods of time at facilities in Pergamum, Epidaurus and elsewhere.

More eloquent are the stone testimonials to the god’s healing powers, left by grateful patients in huge numbers. A typical inscription: “Gorgias of Kerakleia..his lung pierced by an arrow in battle, he suppurated so profusely for 18 months that he filled 67 basins with pus. Then he slept here and saw a vision: he dreamed the god removed the arrow point from his lung. When daylight came, he emerged healthy, holding the point in his hand.”

The Asclepieia weren’t the only option for desperate patients and mystery afflictions. Healing oracles throughout the Greek-speaking world offered similar services: spending a night at a god’s sanctuary, just as pilgrims to Lourdes and other sites still do. Some oracles, like that of Amphiaros, had complex purification rites. Others, such as the cult established by the first Ptolemy for the god Serapis near Memphis, Egypt, maintained quarters for longterm residents. Studies made of a delightful cache of papyri from the Serapeion sanctuary have revealed that men, women, and even children lived there “in divine custody”—busily recording their dreams for a surely undreamed-of posterity to read.

Roman dream stories with a moral

Famous dreams from antiquity were much-told tales, a case in point being Roman Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudians. As a pimply teen, his path to the top had been cleared by convenient deaths, engineered by his mother Agrippina. Compared to other megalomaniacs, fearful Nero did not slaughter an excessive number of people. It’s who he killed, and how he carried out his nasty business that’s made him one of history’s monsters.

In 59 AD, it was his mother Agrippina (whom he had disemboweled on her own couch); in 65 AD, his pregnant wife Poppaea (whom he kicked to death for excessive nagging after he came home late from the chariot races). But his most heinous act (for posterity, anyway) was to scapegoat an unknown number of early Christians as the arsonists of the Great Fire of 64 AD, turning them into human torches for Nero’s garden party.

According to ancient sources, for the first five years of his reign, Nero slept like a baby, suffering no qualms about his homicidal activities. After the murder of his mother, however, she began to haunt Nero, whereupon he brought in a Persian exorcist to call off her vengeful ghost.

But rest was no longer to be found. As Lives of the Twelve Caesars author Suetonius noted, Emperor Nero began to have extravagant nightmares. In one, Nero was buried under a mass of winged ants. In another dream, he was terrorized by the sight of his favorite Spanish horse, with only its head still in equine form—the rest having turned into a hairy ape. (The first “Godfather” film took this nightmare idea and ran with it, to staggering effect.)

Dream secrets for dummies: Guinness record breaker?

Divination expert Artemidoros of Ephesus wrote a dream handbook that stayed in print 19 centuries, a fate writers can only dream about. A well-researched book, the author cited 16 now-lost sources, and interviewed dream interpreters from one side of the Med to the other. In his overview, Artemidoros broke dreams into five types: enigmatic, oracular, prophetic, apparition, and nightmare. (The Latin word for nightmare is “insomnium,” with which most modern sufferers would agree.)

Then as now, sex sold. The most riveting section of Artemidoros’ book may be the smorgasbord of interpretations that apply when dreaming about having it off with one’s mother, alive or dead.

Other types of sexual activities that might not have occurred to you were also examined by this thorough investigator; dreaming of sex with the moon, for instance. As Artemidoros put it, “Having intercourse with the moon is altogether auspicious for skippers, pilots, merchants, stargazers, tourists, and tramps, but for other men it signifies an attack of dropsy; for the moon is helpful to the first group through her movement…but, because she is wet, is harmful to the others.”

Dream beliefs, a shadow of their former selves

Dream classes remain popular today, most being gentle forms of DIY psychoanalysis, often Jungian, where individuals work to gain insight into their shadow selves. On a day-to-day basis, however, individuals in our western cultures tend to use dreams in a utilitarian fashion, most often to find objects or to decipher dreams that forecast a warning or a future event. Unlike the believers of millennia past, we no longer live in a framework of dream healing possibilities.

* * * * *

Vicki Leon’s latest book, How to Mellify a Corpse, discusses divination, dreams, and ghosts as well as ancient science, including the technical secrets of the theatre at Epidaurus, the most famous dream healing center in the ancient world.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Battle without Tears

In 369 B.C, while Sparta was trying to recover from Leuctra, the rest of Greece came under attack from Thebes, who saw itself as the next great power. Aligned with Athens, the Spartans debated with their ally how to overcome this new aggressor. At the same time, Thebes was aligned with the Arcadians and Argives, giving them assets in the Peloponnese which could threaten Sparta. But that alliance did not survive the ascendancy of Lykomedes of Mantineia who argued that the Arcadians and Argives were great in their own right and did not need an alliance with anyone. He convinced the Arcadians and Argives to break away from Thebes and act on their own.

Meanwhile, Dionysios, King of Syracuse, sent an armed force to the aid of Sparta. The Athenians wanted them to be used against Thessaly, but the Spartans successfully argued they were needed in Laconia to fight the Arcadians.

The King of Sparta, Archidamos, joined the Syracusans with his own force, and began a campaign against the Arcadians. As he was attacking Parrasia, the Arcadians and Argives started to apply pressure and he retreated to the hills above Melea. At this point, the Syracusan commander, Kissides, said that his appointed time had expired and he departed with his army. As he marched south, The Messenians blocked him so he sent to Archidamos for help. Then, while the Spartan Army was marching to join him, they were cut off by the Arcadians and Argives, who had inserted themselves between the two allies.

Archidamos placed the Spartan Army in battle formation and exhorted his troops to fight saying,

“Let us no longer feel shame before our children and wives, elders and
foreigners, those very people in whose eyes we were in past time the
most renowned of all Greeks.”

The subsequent attack was a rout and the Spartans achieved a great victory. Archidamos sent a message to Sparta telling of the great victory and how it was achieved without a single Spartan being killed. All in Sparta wept for joy making the Spartan victory “tearless” from grief even though it brought many tears of joy.