Conversations: Ashley Berner

berner2015_3_pyramidAshley Berner (left) is an assistant professor and Deputy Director of the Institute for Education Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and a past guest blogger here at the Law and Religion Forum. Last month, Palgrave Macmillan released her new book, Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School, in which she advocates a new approach to education in America. It’s a great book, readable and thoughtful. She agreed to answer a few questions about the book, and about her approach, “educational pluralism,” as part of our Conversations series. Our interview covers topics like the costs of state-sponsored uniformity in education, the proper place of religious schools in a pluralist system, and why Ashley thinks of her approach as a middle way. Thanks, Ashley!

L&R Forum: You argue that American education took a wrong turn in the 19th Century, when it moved from a pluralist model to one of state-sponsored uniformity. What’s the history? Why is it particularly relevant for people who study law and religion in America?

Berner: Until the end of the 19th century, school systems in the United States funded a variety of schools – from Jewish and Congregationalist to Catholic and Presbyterian. This was the norm amongst democratic nations, and continues to be. The Netherlands currently funds 36 different types of schools on equal footing; the UK, most Canadian provinces, Sweden, and Singapore (to name a few) support diverse schools as a matter of principle.

In our country, the vast number of 19th century Catholic immigrants threatened the majority Protestant culture and sparked nativist activism at elite and grassroots levels. The Ku Klux Klan and post-Civil War Republicans shared a common resistance to Catholic education. Nativists influenced both Congressional and also legislative agenda. Perhaps the most concrete consequence was the creation of so-called Blaine amendments, named for the U.S. Speaker of the House who tried, and failed, to pass an amendment to the federal constitution that barred funding to religious schools. Thirty-six states passed their own constitutional amendments to this effect. Depending upon how they are constructed, the Blaine amendments seriously impede educational pluralism today. A Blaine amendment case is up before the Court this term; it will be interesting to see what the Court decides.

L&R Forum: You argue for “educational pluralism,” which you say is a “middle path” between state-sponsored uniformity and a libertarian, privatized model. Could you explain what you mean? How would educational pluralism work in practice?

Berner: Educational pluralism asks us to de-couple funding schools and operating schools. Thus in the Netherlands, only 30% of students attend state-funded, state-operated schools, while the rest attend schools that are funded and regulated by the state but Continue reading

Berner, “Pluralism and American Public Education”

Ashley Berner, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a past guest blogger here at the Law and Religion Forum, has just written an important and readable book on educational pluralism, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (Palgrave Macmillan). I highly recommend it for anyone interested in public education in America, including the place of religious and other non-state schools.

I’ll be doing an interview with Ashley later this month. For now, here’s Palgrave Macmillan’s description of the book:

51qs7fvxql-_sx328_bo1204203200_This book argues that the structure of public education is a key factor in the failure of America’s public education system to fulfill the intellectual, civic, and moral aims for which it was created. The book challenges the philosophical basis for the traditional common school model and defends the educational pluralism that most liberal democracies enjoy. Berner provides a unique theoretical pathway that is neither libertarian nor state-focused and a pragmatic pathway that avoids the winner-takes-all approach of many contemporary debates about education. For the first time in nearly one hundred fifty years, changing the underlying structure of America’s public education system is both plausible and possible, and this book attempts to set out why and how.

 

Dispatches from Kabul: French Words and Fighter Jets

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

There’s an art gallery just off Armenia street in the Mar Mikhail district of Beirut that sells a variety of novelty goods – soap from Aleppo, hand-stamped Iranian linens, black and white photographs from the Lebanese Civil War, books on art. As I was perusing the shelves I came across a notebook with text clippings and war motifs pasted to its cover, a dècoupage of French words and fighter jets. Along the bottom of the front cover there was a phrase: Parce que l’incohérence est preferable à l’ordre qui deforme. It’s a quote from the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, which translates directly to: incoherence is preferable to an order that deforms. I haven’t read Barthes, nor do I claim expertise in French post-structuralism or constructivism or semiotics, but taken on its face, and in light of the unstable political systems in which I live and work, it gave me pause. Dans quelle mesure cette déclaration est-elle correcte? To what extent is that statement true? Precariousness becomes a form of identity in places where nothing sticks – not ideologies, not empires, not armies – but surely chaos and disorder is the regrettable result of circumstance, not rational belief. The fight for successive orders is the history of war, and I imagined Barthes’ words in the mouths of radicals from Raqqa to Kandahar.

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In the late afternoon, the church bells at St. George’s ring out loud and clear across the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and it feels, for a moment, as if you’re standing in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Marian church that inspired the cathedral’s neoclassical design. Soon after, the call to prayer begins, projected from the 72-meter- Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: An Interlude in the Holy Land

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Somewhere near Ramallah, we looked up from our newspapers and noticed the high walls topped with razor wire to our left and right, a telltale sign that we were driving through the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Situated to the east of the security barrier and once ruled off-limits to Israeli government ministers because of a flare-up of violence – namely, Molotov cocktail attacks on vehicles – it appears as any stretch of highway does, grey and a little desolate. Perceiving our awareness, the driver looked at us anxiously through the rearview mirror. “We avoid traffic by taking this road today. To our left is Ramallah and to the right is Hebron,” he said in an official tone, hoping, I think, that we weren’t familiar with the villages of the Palestinian territories. “This one wants to go to Ramallah to see a brewery,” said my friend, Alec. The driver shot me an incredulous look. “Okay, yes, go,” he said. “That is, if you want to risk your life for a beer.” I laughed and Alec explained that my perspective is slightly different because I currently live and work in Kabul. “I just want to feel at home,” I said sarcastically. “This stretch of highway is really doing it for me right now.” He ignored me and started on a lengthy and rather partisan history of the First and Second Intifadas that lasted all the way to the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem where we were staying.

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Alec and I met on the first day of law school and spent the subsequent three years poring over legal texts and treatises together, a humbling experience that challenged us intellectually and emotionally. It was in the midst of this rational endeavor that we occasionally discussed politics and religion, our conversations about the former often ending with a fiery exchange of epithets and accusations; democratic progressives and classical liberals don’t often see eye-to-eye. But the one subject we could discuss without theatrics was religion, and perhaps more importantly, it was religious ritual that often brought us together with our friends in one place: a Shabbos table in Crown Heights. We spent innumerable evenings there sharing a meal, listening to the Hebrew prayers, and discussing ideas, the law, and our lives. And so it seemed quite natural that we should travel from opposite sides of the world – New York and Kabul – to meet again in the Holy Land, a place that is intensely foreign but intimately familiar to both of us as Americans raised in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions.

Holy Sepulchre
The streets of the Old City were nearly empty in the late afternoon on Easter Monday, and as we wandered inadvertently from the Christian Quarter, with its well-lit shops and gregarious shopkeepers, and into the less commercial Muslim Quarter, an eerie silence settled over us. Some idling inhabitants ventured a greeting – A-salaam alaikum – and beckoned us in for tea, but we declined politely and kept walking, feeling that perhaps we had wandered too far off the beaten path. I recalled a friend’s warning: “Don’t go near the Damascus Gate,” and thought about the “No knifing” stickers plastered on utility poles up and down Jaffa Road that we had seen earlier in the day. I wasn’t afraid – a kid with a kitchen knife is less intimidating than a Talib with a Kalashnikov – but the aura of the Old Continue reading

Dispatches From Kabul: Walls of Separation and the Call to Prayer

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

In New York it was the sirens that nettled, piercing through triple-paned glass seventeen stories above the avenue at all hours of the day and night. In Kabul it’s the call to prayer that distracts, albeit less frequently, and which I wake to most mornings. There’s the initial crackle of the loudspeaker, a clearing of the throat, and then a momentary struggle to find the right pitch. The opening words of the azan ring out clearly and confidently – Allahu Akbar – but sometimes, part of the way through, the voice wavers and there is an awkward adjustment of the register, an interruption that could be obviated with the initial use of a pitch pipe or the playing of a middle C, I’ve thought. Then again, I’ve never seen a pitch pipe in Afghanistan, and I suppose it would be difficult to put a piano in a minaret.

Since September, we’ve had a string of mediocre muezzins, criers who never fail to rouse us from our sleep just before dawn, but whose recitations of the takbir and shahada – the Muslim Statement of Faith – leave much to be desired. It’s a bit ironic that they’ve been so lacking, considering that muezzins are traditionally chosen for their superior vocal skills. The first, Bilal ibn Rabah, was supposedly plucked from obscurity by the Prophet Mohammad for his beautiful voice. The idea was that the more melodious and clear the expression, the more powerful the azan, and therefore the more compelling would be the spiritual ideology of Islam sung in those eight verses. Allahu Akbar (four times) / I acknowledge that there is no deity but God (twice) / I acknowledge that Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah (twice) / Hasten to Prayer (twice) / Hasten to success (twice) / Prayer is better than sleep (twice) / Allah is greatest (twice) / There is no deity but God (once). This standard of qualification seems not to be taken seriously in my Kabul neighborhood. Perhaps the benchmark here is pünktlichkeit, in which case I’ve no doubt that our muezzins would be considered rousing successes. It’s disappointing, though, that their rendition of the azan does not resonate across the land as an otherworldly call to the divine.

To make matters worse, our current prayer leader has taken to conversing with himself over the loudspeaker after the initial recitation. The intonation is thoughtful, even philosophical, as if he is contemplating deep and important questions out loud. One morning, as I was lying in bed listening to his slow, punctuated words, I started thinking about America and Constitutional law and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. That wall was adopted by the Supreme Court, becoming authoritative in Reynolds and “high and impregnable” in Everson. In context, Jefferson’s pithy metaphor concerned his opposition to an established national church rather than a belief in strict separationism, but it is a comforting metaphor at dawn while being sermonized over a loudspeaker. In such moments, prayer is not better than sleep.

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They call the enormous concrete blast wall surrounding the U.S. Embassy near Massoud Circle the King Kong wall because it is a barrier so overwhelming that only a fictional movie monster could surmount it. Last week as we were driving by, a colleague said, “That thing should be considered a wonder of the world.” The grey concrete casts a long shadow on passers-by and dwarfs all of the buildings in its vicinity. I’ve wondered recently if the song of the muezzin reaches past it, through the security maze of the Green Zone, and into the container homes of my compatriots at the U.S. Embassy. It must, I think, since after Continue reading

Justice Scalia and Conservatism

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This posting was originally a short speech given to students at the University of St. Thomas Law School on February 29.

We will all miss the unique and iconic personality of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Few if any Supreme Court Justices have been gifted with such charm, humor, charisma and pizzazz. He was a man of great faith; a brilliant and memorable writer; a witty raconteur; a powerful and bracing intellect. He argued law, as he lived life, with passion and gusto. In his impact on the American public, he was in a class of his own: among the Justices of the past, perhaps only Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall can be compared to him. One might even say, with all due deference to Senator Cruz, that Justice Scalia was the living epitome of New York values.

But we are here to discuss his influence on the law, especially on constitutional law. And for all his great and varied gifts, his long tenure on the supreme bench, and the vigor and clarity of his opinions, his influence on constitutional law, at least judged from our current perspective, was very limited.

The two doctrines one associates most closely with Scalia’s jurisprudence are, of course, originalism and textualism. Others on this panel will no doubt discuss them, and I will say something about them a bit later. But what I want to consider briefly here is another important but neglected strand in his jurisprudence: his use of custom or tradition in constitutional adjudication. This aspect of his jurisprudence is, in my view, the most distinctively conservative element of it. There is no inherent connection between textualism or originalism and conservatism, but there is such a connection between custom and conservatism.

Nineteenth century legal conservatives such as James Coolidge Carter went so far as to identify law with custom. Or more accurately, they identified the common law with custom. One could say, in that spirit, that the common law identifies, articulates, stabilizes, and occasionally revises and improves, custom. And much of American Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: Herat, A Photo Essay

As part of our Dispatches from Kabul series, CLR Alum Jessica Wright ’14, who’s currently working as a lawyer in Kabul,  files the following photo essay. It’s from Herat, one of Afghanistan’s westernmost cities, in close proximity to Iran and Turkmenistan. To see the slide show, please click on the first image.

Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.

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While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone Continue reading

The War Cycle

We are coming to the end of Euripides’ great drama.  The final scenes naturally divide into two parts.  First, the chorus of the sons of the fallen Argive warriors enters, bearing the urns in which their fathers’ ashes are gathered.  They engage in a colloquy with their grandmothers.  The episode ends with a brief exchange between the two kings, Theseus and Adrastus, in which they exchange farewells.  Second and unexpectedly, the goddess Athena appears on stage.  She peremptorily issues two sets of instructions:  first, to Theseus, to forbid the Argives to return with the remnants of their dead warriors until they swear to accept certain terms to the advantage of Athens, in accordance with ceremonies she prescribes; and then, to the Argive sons, to enjoin them to renew the war with Thebes once they come of fighting age.  Theseus pledges to obey the goddess; the Argive women’s chorus also agrees and departs; and so the play ends.

Cycles of peace and war

The drama has come full cycle.  It began with the prayers of Aethra in the sacred precincts of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis – a divinity associated with peace, abundance, agriculture and civilization; a mother who mourned the disappearance of her daughter Kore; and a foundress of Athens.  It ends with the appearance of another goddess, Athena, who is associated with war: “she is a warmonger from the moment she is born shaking her armour and making her war cry.”  Susan Deacy, Athena (2008).  In one of the Homeric Hymns to Athena (ll.2-3), it is said that Athena, together with the war god Ares, “makes her business the works of war, the sack of cities and the shouting and the battle.”    She is often depicted with a helmet, shield and spear, is childless and a virgin, and was not born of a mother, but of Zeus.  (In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in casting her vote to acquit the matricidal Orestes, she says, “No mother gave me birth,/I honour the male, in all things but marriage./Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.”) (Robert Fagles trans.)  Like Demeter, Athena is associated with agriculture, civilization and the founding of Athens; but she gave the Athenians the olive tree, not grain. Demeter’s shrine at Eleusis is suffused with panhellenic ideals; Athena is the patroness of a particular Greek city, Athens.  (The forces that Theseus deploys against Thebes in the panhellenic cause are nonetheless called “the army of Pallas [Athena].)”  The play opens with Aethra praying that Demeter grant “prosperity” or “good fortune” (“eudaimonein”) to Theseus and Athens; it ends with Theseus asking Athena to deal with the city so that it may live “in safety” or “securely” (“asphalos”). (Notice that Theseus’ more modest request is suited to harsh, wartime conditions.)  The world of human action shown in the play occupies the space between the opposing poles of these two goddesses.

During the course of the drama, we have moved from the aftermath of war to a peace that is preparatory to war; then to war; and finally to a peace that is again the aftermath of war and again a preparation for war’s renewal.  As if to mark the stages of this pattern, it appears that the same actor would have played, successively, Aethra, Evadne, and Athena.

War, it seems, is a recurring and inescapable part of the cycle of human existence, and peace a mere respite from it: there is a season to harvest the wheat crop, but there is also season for reaping human bodies.  The Argive messenger has described Theseus in battle as brandishing his mace so that “necks, helmets, heads/ [were] mowed down or lopped.”  Now the buried bodies of the Argive warriors have been sown and will yield a crop of avenging warrior sons.

Even if the gods are just (as part of the Argive women’s Chorus problematically assumes, while it anxiously awaits news of the fate of Athens’ forces at Thebes), “[y]et justice calls to justice, blood to blood.”  The pattern of violence and counter-violence is never-ending; war has the repetitive character of a blood feud.

The war cycle and revenge

The war cycle feeds on revenge.  The Greeks never underestimated the power of that motive.  Greek historians frequently cited the desire for revenge as a cause of interstate war, and vengeance wars do indeed seem to have been a feature of Greek foreign affairs.  See J.E. Lendon, Homeric vengeance and the outbreak of Greek wars, in Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000). The revenge motive also operated on the individual level as well.

In the Iliad, Homer has Achilles say that revenge is “much more sweet than liquid honey” (Book XVIII, l. 102).  In his Rhetoric, Book II, c. 2, Aristotle cited this passage of Homer, saying “anger is always accompanied by a certain pleasure, due to the hope of revenge to come. For it is pleasant to think that one will obtain what one aims at; now, no one aims at what is obviously impossible of attainment by him, and the angry man aims at what is possible for himself. Wherefore it has been well said of anger, that ‘Far sweeter than dripping honey down the throat it spreads in men’s hearts.’”  Odysseus’ son Telemachos, listening to the story of how Orestes avenged his father’s death, desires to act similarly:  “what a stroke of revenge that was!  All Achaeans/will spread Orestes’ fame across the world,/a song for those to come./If only the gods would arm me with such power/I’d take revenge.”  Odyssey, Book III, ll. 230-35 (Robert Fagles trans.).  In Sophocles’ Ajax, Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at the spectacle of his maddened foe Ajax, saying “Is not the sweetest mockery the mockery of enemies?” (Jebb Trans.).  Herodotus speaks of one Hermotimus, castrated as a child by Panionius of Chios, who, after a successful career as a eunuch at the Persian court, re-encountered Panionius years later, persuaded him to bring his whole family to a feast, and there compelled Panionius to castrate all four of his sons there, after which he forced those sons to castrate their father.  Thus, Herodotus says, Hermotinus managed to exact “the greatest revenge for an injustice.”  Book VIII, cc. 105-06 (Strassler ed.).

Reflecting on his native Montenegro, the Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas said:

Revenge is its greatest delight and glory.  Is it possible that the human heart can find peace and pleasure only in returning evil for evil? . . . Revenge is an overpowering and consuming fire.  It flares up and burns away every other thought and emotion.  It alone remains, over and above everything else. . . . Vengeance is not hatred, but the wildest, sweetest kind of drunkenness, both for those who must wreak vengeance and for those who wish to be avenged.

Quoted in Jon Elster, Norms of Revenge (1990).

Euripides implies that it lies beyond human power to end the war cycle.  Here, there is to be no final resolution to the blood-letting, unlike the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, where Athena appeases the avenging Furies, the helpers of justice, persuades them to reside in Athens, and institutes a court of law.  (Other societies also managed to escape in a similar way from the retaliatory spiral of the feud to law, see Michelle Daniel, From Blood Feud to Jury System:  The Metamorphosis of Cherokee Law from 1750 to 1840 (1987)) Euripides’ implacable Athena permits no such escape route.  The contrast with the Eumenides is clear:  “for Euripides, unlike Aeschylus, there is no triumphant finale to this chain of fatalities; no development of justice; only a traumatic repetition of follies.”  J.W. Fitton, The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides (1961).

Here, even when divine justice intervenes in human affairs, it is to order the war cycle to be resumed, not to bring it to a halt. “Peace is the moment when history catches its breath in order to hurl itself once more into war.”  Janine Chanteur, From War to Peace (1992 (French ed. 1989)).  The gods belie Theseus’ theological optimism: he tells us that divine power has separated mankind from “brutishness” (“theriodous”); but Athena promises the young Argives that they will become “lions’ whelps.”  A conflict that began with Apollo’s prophesy about a lion and a boar will return with Athena’s prophesy to the lions’ cubs.  Theseus seems to have misunderstood the gods’ intentions as much as Adrastus did: the gods speak as they must, but we hear what we will.

The Sons’ Chorus

The suicide of Evadne and the lament of Iphis are followed directly by a procession of the sons of the dead Argives, bearing their fathers’ ashes in urns.  Their entrance may well have reminded Athenian audiences of the traditional ceremony in which the orphans of Athens’ own war dead were led into the orchestra before the performance of tragic plays in festival of the Great Dionysia. The Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill explains this pre-play rite:

In Athens, if a boy’s father died fighting for the state, the boy was brought up at state expense, and at the end of this maintained childhood was presented with armour and weapons by the state, to take up his place in the state’s fighting forces. . . .  These ‘ephebes’ or the class of ‘young males about to become proper men’, were paraded in the theatre in their military equipment.  A herald announced the boy’s father’s name and made a moving speech which expressed in glowing terms how the fathers had done their duty, and how their boys, now to be men, would also fulfill their military obligations to the state.  The boys then took a stirring oath of loyalty to the state.  They promised by a long list of the gods of the state to stand by their comrades wherever they were placed in the line, and declared that they were prepared to fight and die for the city as their fathers had done before them.  Then they took up their special seats, reserved for them.

Love, Sex and Tragedy (2004).  It would be easy for the Athenian ephebes, watching their “Argive” counterparts on the stage, to see this part of the play as specifically intended for them.  (We should also remember that Euripides himself had become an ephebe in 466 and was given a spear and shield for the occasion.)

To this point, the sons’ chorus has been silent.  Now they speak, exchanging words with the chorus of their grandmothers.  The sons mourn their fathers, the women, their sons.  Then the sons say:

            Father, your son mourns for you;

            Do you hear? Shall I one day,

            Shield in hand, avenge your death?  God grant it!

            Justice for my father’s blood –

            It will yet come, with the favour of God.

The women’s chorus responds — somewhat enigmatically, perhaps because the text may be uncertain.  In Vellacott’s translation, the women say:

            This wrong sleeps not yet.

            Why must we always weep?

            I have had enough of disasters and misery.

If this translation is correct, the women seem to be expressing dismay at their grandsons’ declared intention of seeking revenge.  The women have had enough of war and killing:  they have lost their sons, are wretched, and want no more deadly violence.  Remember, however, that these same women (or some of them) have earlier said that “blood calls to blood.”   Do they want the war cycle to be breached, or have they instigated its renewal themselves?

The sons are adamant:

 The day will come when Asopus [a river near Thebes (RJD)] gleams in  welcome

          As I march bronze-clad at the head of a Danaid army

          To avenge my father’s death. 

          It seems to me that I still see you, father. . .

Not for these young Argives are the sentiments that Rudyard Kipling expressed in his poem The Settler, written in 1903 to mark the end of the Boer War.  Kipling’s “Settler” (both meanings must be intended) sought to bridge the divide between the victorious English and the defeated Dutch:

             And when we bring old fights to mind,

            We will not remember the sin –

            If there be blood on his head of my kind,

            Or blood on my head of his kin –

            For the ungrazed upland, the untilled lea

            Cry, and the fields forlorn:

            “The dead must bury their dead, but ye –

            Ye serve an host unborn.”

In Kipling, the future bids old enemies to bury the past; in Euripides, the future, in the person of the sons, resurrects the past.  Herman Melville’s war poetry expresses the mood of these youngsters far better than Kipling’s:  “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys/The champions and enthusiasts of the state.” (The March into Virginia (1861)).

After the choruses, Theseus and Adrastus exchange parting words.  Theseus tells the Argives to bear Athens’ gift of the dead bodies “always in thankful memory . . . repeat this story to your sons,/And they to theirs in turn.  Teach them the honour due/To Athens; let them recall in perpetuity/Kindness received.”  Adrastus replies graciously, “Our gratitude will not grow old.”  Then, as suddenly as Evadne did and in the very same place, Athena appears above the shrine.

The judgments of Athena

The goddess Athena’s connections to war and strategy on the one hand, and to Athens on the other, were extremely strong. Joan Bretton Connelly writes that as her legends developed, Athena “becomes a fierce advocate for the land of Attica.  She is a shrewd architect of military strategies designed to protect it and a warrior goddess prepared to defend it with all her might.”  The Parthenon Enigma (2014).  The first thing that worshippers who approached Athens’ Acropolis would see was the temple of Athena Nike [“Victory”]:

Temple of Athena Nike

Construction of this lovely Ionic temple was begun in the mid-420s, around the time The Suppliants was produced.

When worshippers then entered the sacred space on the Acropolis, they would discover “the astonishing excess of military booty, trophies, and treasures that would dazzle [them] once inside, culminating in a treasure trove of dedications within the Parthenon itself.”  (Connelly).  And within the Parthenon, the great sculptor Pheidias’ bronze statue of Athena presided:

Athena

This was the statue named as Athena “Promachos” (“Fighting in the front rank, and leading her people to victory”), where the virgin goddess was worshipped as a warrior.  Athena brought victory to Athens, and victory brought wealth.

Athena’s message here is abrupt and peremptory:  “Theseus, I am Athena; listen to my words.”  She orders him not to permit the unconditional return of the bodies to Argos.  Instead he must make the Argives swear an oath never to march against Athens in arms, and to take up arms in Athens’ defense if she is attacked.  Athens is under no reciprocal obligation:  the promise of non-aggression binds Argos only; the defensive alliance is to be one-sided.  Argos’ oath is to be sanctified by a blood sacrifice.  (Again, we see Greek international law resting on supernatural sanctions.)  Theseus is to slay three sheep and to capture the blood that runs off in a bronze tripod that the hero Heracles took at Troy and that Theseus has been storing.  After the sacrifice Theseus is to inscribe the Argives’ oath in the hollow of the tripod and present it to Apollo’s temple at Delphi, so that all of Greece may be witness to Argos’ pledge.  Theseus is also to bury the knife that he will use in sacrificing the sheep and bury it in the earth near the seven pyres of the fallen Argives, so that if an Argive army encroaches on Athenian territory and reaches this crossroad, it will be reminded of the city’s oath (and take the route to Thebes instead).  The buried knife will be a lasting reminder to Argos of the buried dead whom Athens had restored to it.

Athena’s instructions to Theseus recall the bitter wisdom of Bias of Priene, whom the Greeks considered one of their seven sages, and whose maxims were often quoted.  Bias cynically counseled mistrust: he advised his listeners to love their friends as if they would one day hate them.  In the Rhetoric (1389b13-25), Aristotle cites Bias’ maxim, saying that old men, who know that “most things turn out badly,” tend to agree with Bias.  Theseus is still young, and he trusts Argos as if it would always remain a friend to Athens.  Athena demands that Theseus, as king, think like an old man instead.

Athena and the young Argives

Then Athena turns to the Argive sons.  “When you reach manhood you shall sack the city of Thebes/In vengeance for your fathers’ blood.”  The young Aigialeus, the son of King Adrastus, is to take his father’s place as commander-in-chief.  (It is as if Adrastus, who is standing by, is already dead.)  Diomedes, the son of the kin-slaying fugitive Tydeus, is to accompany him.  The young soldiers are to hurl their bronze-armed forces against Thebes as soon as they are of age. They shall be the “lions’ whelps,” and they will sack the city.  (Recall that Theseus had spared Thebes from that calamity.)  The term for “sacking” the city is repeated twice, as if to emphasize the importance of that action, an extreme of violence that was rare in classical Greece:  sacking is “[c]ognate to the Homeric practice of mutilation of the body” (Lendon).  They must do this in order to avenge (“ekdikazontes”) their fathers; the word for “avenging” has the word “justice” (“dike”) as its root.  “This is how things must be,” Athena declares (Euripides:  Suppliant Women (James Morwood ed. & trans. 2007).)  They will be called “The After-Comers,” and they will be remembered in heroic poetry sung throughout Greece.  Their expedition against Thebes (unlike Adrastus’ one) will have the gods’ blessing (“sun theoi”).   She does not say whether Thebes in its turn will seek revenge.

Two kings, the just warrior Theseus and the unjust warrior Adrastus, stand before the goddess, humbled and abashed.  Theseus at once promises to obey, telling Athena “by your voice/Alone I am saved from error.”  He will make Adrastus take the oath Athena prescribes.  Adrastus is silent.  So thoroughly has Adrastus been marginalized that the Argive women, not he, promise to give the oath to Theseus and Athens (even though Athena has said that Adrastus as King had the authority to make the pledge).  Indeed, it is possible that Adrastus has neither seen nor heard Athena, who has not addressed him.  (In the Ajax, Odysseus hears but does not see Athena, Ajax both sees and hears her, and Tecmessa neither sees nor hears her.)  The Argive women thank Theseus, and the play ends.

Can war be “just”?

In these scenes, the question of war’s “justness” seems to shrink in significance;

Ixion on his wheel

Ixion on his wheel

what matters about war is its inevitability.  It seems that we do not, after all, choose it; it comes to us.  Like Lear towards his end, Theseus, Adrastus, indeed all of humanity, are “bound/Upon a wheel of fire,” King Lear, Act, IV, scene 7; and that wheel is war.  One commentator suggests that Athena’s promise to bless the sons’ future war against Thebes is “needed to ensure that an act of war can function as justice,” but that seems plainly wrong to me.  See Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Athena’s Justice (2009).  The divinely-guided war that Athena ordains will surely be less just than the purely human war ordered by Theseus.  Athena, who brings a just resolution to violence in the Eumenides, is here the renewer of revenge.  She is like the gods in Book IV of The Iliad who, after debating whether to perpetuate the fragile truce that the Greeks and Trojans have made or to stir up war again, decide on war, and chose Athena as the instrument for tricking the Trojan archer Laodocus into targeting Menelaus and breaking the truce.  Let humans try to establish peace if they can; their efforts are useless.  The mind of the gods is on war, and they will thwart our plans.

Pursuing the logic of this interpretation to its limit, we could be led to think that war, as Euripides dramatizes it here, is a necessity of nature, not an activity subject to human control, and hence is “beyond good and evil.”  To ask whether a war is just or not would be like asking whether a drought or a plague or an earthquake or a crop infestation was just or not.  War is a recurring, ineliminable feature of human existence, necessitated by the basic circumstances, forces, passions and drives that structure and constrain our lives, or by what men otherwise once called “the gods.”

Justice and the order of nature

Let me briefly explore a still bolder interpretative possibility.  This is that even if Euripides is saying that the question whether any particular war is just has at best limited significance, nonetheless war as an institution or practice is just.  Moreover, he might even be taken to be saying that even if war is a necessity of nature.  How might he have reached that startling conclusion?  At the risk of being extremely imprudent, let me offer this suggestion.

In a brilliant and influential essay, the Princeton historian of philosophy Gregory Vlastos argued that several “pre-Socratic” Greek thinkers taught, in various ways, that nature was maintained in a state of self-regulating, dynamic equilibrium by the unceasing conflict of equal, opposing forces.  See Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies (1947).  At various times, one of the forces would prevail, and its opposite would recede; then the receding force would in its turn prevail, and the force that had once prevailed, would recede.  Thus, summer would give way to winter, and after its season, winter would give way to summer.  The continuous balancing and rebalancing of opposing forces would produce a healthy equilibrium: the onset of winter would prevent the lassitude and indolence that would be caused by an endless summer, the return of summer would relieve the harshness and asperity of an unending winter.  These ineluctable regularities or laws established, not only a natural pattern, but an immanent cosmic justice.  By “invading” summer, winter would do summer an “injustice;” but the subsequent return of summer would constitute winter’s “reparations” for that injustice; and so on in turn.  Indeed, justice is assured by the facts that all of the opposing forces are equal in strength, all take precedence in turn, and all exist in subjection to a “common law.”  The resemblances to a democratic polity’s understanding of “justice” are not accidental.  The “commonwealth of nature,” as Vlastos calls it, is the democratic city projected onto the plane of nature as a whole.  Cosmic justice is ensured by cosmic equality.

Vlastos sees this philosophical concept of nature in several of the pre-Socratics, including in this fragment quoting Anaximander (Vlastos’ trans.):

And into those things from which existing things take their rise, they pass away once more, according to just necessity; for they render justice and reparation to one another for their injustices according to the ordering of time.

Vlastos argues that this physico-moral conception of nature eventually became “the common property of classical thought.”  We can also discern its influence on Greek tragedy, as in these lines that Sophocles gives to Ajax in the play of that name:

Things of awe and might submit to authority. So it is that winter with its snow-covered paths gives place to fruitful summer; night’s dark orbit makes room for day with her white horses to kindle her radiance; the blast of dreadful winds allows the groaning sea to rest; and among them all, almighty Sleep releases the fettered sleeper, and does not hold him in a perpetual grasp.

(R. Jebb (trans.)).

Now it is very likely that Euripides, who was personally acquainted with some of the pre-Socratic thinkers, was both aware of this conception and influenced by it.  He might, e.g., have heard about it from Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who was only fifteen years older, a close friend and adviser of Pericles, a long-time resident of Athens and, reputedly, Euripides’ teacher.  While we cannot be certain of this, we do know that Anaximander’s ideas were still being discussed in Athens (by Aristotle) well after Euripides’ death.

Granting these assumptions, it is possible to surmise that Euripides is saying that the endless cycle of war and peace is a manifestation of cosmic justice. War purges away the staleness and tedium of a protracted peace; peace relieves the terror and cruelty of war.  There is no “just war.”  But because war is natural, and what is natural is just, so war is just.

What should we conclude?

What are we to make of this strangely beautiful, perplexing play, and particularly of its unexpected conclusion?  Why, in the warm afterglow of Theseus’ and Adrastus’ mutual promises of lasting amity and good will, does Athena suddenly appear, speaking in the cold voice of power politics?  (Fitton describes her here as “the conscienceless voice of State Power.”)  Why does she insist that the mere obligations of gratitude are insufficient?  What accounts for her peremptory demand for political rationality and realism, for one-sided treaties ratified by blood-sworn oaths, in place of reliance on the ties formed by friendship and generosity?  Is Euripides saying that realpolitik alone must be the guide to the conduct of international affairs, and that the memory of past benefits conferred is as likely to create resentment as affection?  Is Euripides contrasting the strength and self-confidence of the pre-war Athens with an Athens weakened, wary and coarsened after years of war?  Is the final image he gives us one, not of a benign and civilized Athens, but of a harder and more cynical city?

The play’s conclusion raises even deeper and more intractable questions than these – questions that go, not to fifth century Athens alone, but to the nature of war and peace as such.  How should we read the play as a whole?  Is it, as some critics have argued, an encomium on war-time Athens?  Or, as others have said, is it a denunciation of war and imperialism?  Is it blueprint for just war, or a demonstration that war cannot secure either peace or justice, even for a little while?  Is it a vindication of Theseus’ rational theology, or a proof of the opacity of the gods’ intentions?  An argument for human self-reliance and the exercise of intelligence in the face of an indecipherable universe, or an acknowledgement of human helplessness and the futility of action?  A plea for civilization, humaneness, and international law, or the bleak recognition that the defense of civilization must itself engender atrocity?  A disparagement of human justice, but an affirmation of cosmic justice?

Must we choose between these alternatives, or may we affirm them all?  We cannot be sure even as to that.  To call the play “dialectical” is only to scratch its surface.  Euripides’ greatness is to leave us with questions that are as urgent as they are unanswerable.

Whatever is destroyed is regretted

Theseus at war

Theseus and the Theban herald part; the outbreak of war is imminent.  As he leaves, the herald taunts Theseus, who refuses to be angered.  One who holds himself out as the “punisher of injustice” cannot undertake to wage war from the passion of anger.  Euripides models Theseus as a self-disciplined, as well as a just, warrior.  And as Theseus sets out, he invokes the aid of “all those gods/Who respect justice.”  His piety complements his justice and his moderation.

The chorus of Argive women awaits news of the battle anxiously.  Suddenly, an Argive messenger arrives.  He had been taken prisoner in the Argive campaign against Thebes, having served under Capaneus, one of the seven Argive leaders, “whom Zeus blasted with a lightning-flash.”  (More on Capaneus later.)  Now he has escaped in the confusion of battle.  He brings the Argive women news of Theseus’ victory.  (Note that he does not address Adrastus, his king.)  The women are elated, hailing Theseus as a demi-god:  he is not only the son of Aegus, but also “the son of Zeus.”  (Perhaps the latter description is meant to tells us something about the tyrannical constitution of Argos:  Athens is a republic of equals, and denies the possibility of semi-divine leaders; if they did exist, they would be dangerous to the city.  See Walker, Theseus and Athens).

The messenger gives a detailed account of the battle.  He says that once the two opposing armies faced off, Theseus made a final bid for peace.  The Athenian herald announced to the Thebans “We have come to bring/Those bodies home for burial, in accordance with/The law of all Hellenic states.  We have no wish/For further bloodshed.”  Theseus goes to war only as a last resort.  The Theban King Creon remains silent.  Then battle is joined.

It is a hard and bitter struggle.  The messenger’s descriptions of the horrors of the battle is reminiscent of The Iliad in its unsparing and gruesome detail.  At a critical moment, Theseus demonstrates his generalship.  He rallies his troops: at his call, “[c]ourage flared up in every heart.”  The Athenians break the Theban line.

Athens buries the dead

The population of Thebes is in despair.  Thousands expect Theseus to capture their city. “But Theseus,/With the way clear before him, would not enter the gates.  ‘I have not marched from Athens to destroy this town,’/He said, ‘but to demand the dead for burial.’”  The campaign ends with the recovery of the Argive bodies, not with the sacking of Thebes.  The requirement that if a war is to be just it must be “proportionate” is plainly met.  See Christopher Greenwood, The Relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello (1983).

Theseus buries most of the recovered Argive bodies on the high cliff of Eleutherae, on Athenian soil, just across the border from Theban Boeotia.  Athens had annexed Eleutherae, which had once been part of Boeotia, in the sixth century. But this borderland site seems to have been contested between Athens and Thebes, and perhaps changed hands from time to time.  By burying Argive soldiers there, Theseus reinforces Athens’ claim to it.  See John Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (2004).

But Theseus does not bury the remains of the Argive leaders who were the “Seven against Thebes.”  He brings those bodies (or such as are still near Thebes) back to Athens for a ceremonial funeral.  Who has taken those bodies, Adrastus asks the messenger; surely a slave would be reluctant even to lift them?  To Adrastus’ astonishment, the messenger answers that Theseus has tended to the bodies himself, washing away the blood-stains of their wounds, preparing their Continue reading

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