Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

My 2021: Best* Posts

It is time again for my end-of-year series. Previously: Writing Wrap 2021. Next up: my Best* posts from 2021.

I have published 68 posts so far in 2021, totalling more than 62,000 words (average length 921 words), and including some of the most popular posts ever to go up here. The list below consists of posts I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

This year’s selection is eclectic. It includes reflections on pain of the academic job market, expectations, and writing, two entries on teaching, one post about ancient bread, one post about recent media about Anthony Bourdain, and five that directly or indirectly touch on contemporary politics.

Previously: 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

What is Making Me Happy: Sea Shanty TikTok

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: sea shanty TikTok

I might need to get TikTok. I am not kidding. Although I test-drive a lot of social media apps, I’ve long thought of TikTok as a platforms for teenagers dancing, which always struck me as a) creepy and b) not really my thing. Then this morning I saw videos of people singing “Soon May the Wellerman Come.”

It started with the artist Nathan Evanss throwing the song up:

Soon, there were entire chains of people accompanying him:

But as great as the male chorus is, my favorite version (so far) was when the musician Mia Asano added her violin to mixed group of singers:

I am not exaggerating when I say I have listened to this version more than a dozen times already today. In the purest expression of what is making me happy, sea shanty TikTok is the best thing I have seen to this point in 2021.

Update: there are more!

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.

Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

One Nation Under God

In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics.

One of the things I like about teaching American history, and particularly twentieth century US history, is that it is fairly easy for students to see its relevance on contemporary society, which is a reliable way to turn up student engagement. One activity I like to do with students is to establish a broad premise, talk with the students to establish what preconceived ideas are floating around in the zeitgeist, and then work with them to understand how these ideas came from.

For instance, I do this with students when it comes to American religion in the twentieth century. I begin by asking them whether the United States is, broadly speaking, a religious country in general and a Christian country in particular. Some students will bring up the establishment clause in the Constitution, but eventually students say yes. I then ask how we know this, and, among a variety of answers, some student will inevitably point to “In God We Trust” printed on currency. I then work the students through some of the midcentury religious revivals and particularly the emergence of organized religion into the political sphere in the 1950s out of which public declarations of faith in the pledge of allegiance and US currency developed. My point with this activity isn’t to challenge anyone’s faith or even to explicitly reject the idea that most Americans in any given year considered themselves Christian, but rather to encourage students to see how, when and why these symbols came into being and therefore to think critically about what they mean.

I mention this example because I recently had a chance to read prominent #twitterstorian Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God. The elevator pitch for this book is that Kruse goes looking for how the phrase “one nation under god” made its way into the pledge of allegiance of the 1950s. I was aware of the religious revivals in the 1950s and had always interpreted it as the realization of Cold War branding of the United States as distinct from “godless” communism, though, in retrospect, that was a lazy assumption.

Kruse traces the origin of these revivals and the first steps to bring religion from the realm of the personal to public life further back into the 1930s, when, he says, corporate leaders looked to religion to rehabilitate their brands from the stigma of the depression. In turn, and from a combination of personal piety and cynical self-interest, they helped sponsor events that sparked the 1950s revivals. The wave of religion encouraged and manipulated by President Eisenhower changed the nature of public religion in America and created an alliance between capitalism and christianity that dovetailed with American Cold War propaganda. In addition to the changes implemented to the pledge of allegiance and the face of currency, it was in this same period presidents began hosting the National Prayer Breakfast that has since become an annual event.

Where Americans once blanched at bringing the church and the state too close together because of the risk of corrupting the church, Kruse documents how in some of the early controversies over children reciting non-denominational prayers and the pledge of allegiance in schools, the ACLU was hesitant to take up the case on behalf of the parents.

Even though it took me longer to read than I would have liked (a combination of a busy schedule and a lot of detail meant that this was a slow read for me), I really liked On Nation Under God. I knew most of the broad outlines of this story, but the virtue of this book is that Kruse presents a mountain of evidence rather than relying as I was on general impressions. And within that evidence there are unexpected developments.

Two of my takeaways both came from his discussion of issues of religious faith in schools, which was taken to the Supreme Court.

One was the way in which the religion that made its way into public life was light on doctrine as a way to circumvent theological disputes and generate broad support. Nowhere was this more true than in the attempts to establish a non-denominational prayer to be recited daily in schools in New York. Critics thought its “vague theism” was so diluted as to be meaningless, but it strikes me that this pervasively felt, doctrinally ambivalent Christianity remains a legacy in American public life.

The other was an insight into the composition of the court in the 1950s and early 1960s when it passed down rulings on whether students should recite a prayer (no, it is not inherently patriotic) and the pledge of allegiance with the added language of “one nation under god” (yes, it is a declaration of patriotism, not a prayer). Kruse documents how some of the staunchest defenders of these decisions were themselves deeply religious and active in their churches, but that they believed that this was an unconstitutional act of establishing a religion.

As an outsider to both the field of American history and mainstream American Christianity, I am sure that there are facets of this book and its ramifications that I missed, but the broad strokes of this evolution in American political discourse was supremely enlightening for where they came from and thinking about how this relationship between business, religion, and government has developed in the decades since.

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I finished reading Drago Jančar’s I Saw Her Last Night, a fascinating Slovenian novel about the disappearance of a woman in the last years of World War 2, told through the memories of five people who knew her. I’m between books at the moment, but leaning toward next reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

Do Your Job – a plea from Demosthenes

Demosthenes is an interesting ancient orator to read. On the one hand, his speeches are good (an understatement; he has been the gold standard for political oratory for thousands of years), but, on the other, he is a bit of a one-trick pony. Demosthenes made his career in Athens opposing the rising power of Philip of Macedon, forcefully and repeatedly denouncing the king and challenging his fellow citizens to do something, anything. These speeches continue for a bit over a decade, and culminate in one final crushing defeat of the combined armies of Athens and Thebes.

Preparing for yesterday’s class, I had an opportunity to reread the first of these injunctions, Demosthenes’ First Philippic of 351 BCE. Some of the speech is given over to explaining why people should listen to him (people ought to pardon his youth because older people aren’t getting the job done, 4.1) and a specific proposal for military defense that gets into the weeds of fourth century Athenian fiscal management, but a large portion is dedicated to haranguing his peers for their complacency. Their inaction, explained as a combination of specific Athenian failings and the fact that democracies are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to fighting wars, has put the state at risk.

Above all, though, Demosthenes blames his peers of putting their own comfort and self-interest above the needs of the state. He does not blame anyone of being in the pay of an enemy agent; those accusations come later. There are issues with how Demosthenes makes his case, but reading the speech in 2018 it is hard not to sympathize with him. He just wants Athenian politicians to do their jobs.

Even if something should happen to that one, you would quickly make a new Philip attending to the matter this way. That man has not grown strong out of his own resources, but our negligence. (4.11)

Should we remain sitting at home, listening while speakers accuse and abuse one another, then we will never accomplish that which needs to be done. (4.44)

It is not necessary to consider what could happen, but to know that our future will be a sorry state unless you attend to affairs by being willing to do what needs to be done. (4.5)

καὶ γὰρ ἂν οὗτός τι πάθῃ, ταχέως ὑμεῖς ἕτερον Φίλιππον ποιἠσετε ἄωπερ οὗτω προσέχητε τοῖς πράγμασι τὸν νοῦν: οὐδὲ γὰρ οὗτος παρὰ τὴν αὑτοῦ ῥώμην τοσοῦτον ἐπηύξηται ὅσον παρὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν ἀμέλειαν. (4.11)

ἂν μέντοι καθώμεθ᾽ οἴκοι, λοιδορουμένων ἀκούοντες καὶ αἰτιωμένων ἀλλήλους τῶν λεγόντων, οὐδέποτ᾽ οὐδὲν ἡμῖν γένηται τῶν δεόντων. (4.44)

οὐ γὰρ ἅττα ποτ᾽ ἔσται δεῖ σκοπεῖν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι φαῦλα, ἂν μὴ προσέχητε τὸν νοῦν καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα ποιεῖν ἐθέλητε, εὖ εἰδέναι. (4.50)