It seems to have been too long since I last sat down and wrote at length about a many number of issues which interest me dearly and hopefully continue to interest others whenever I dare continue speaking about them. I have not been on hiatus from an act of will (perish the thought), but more from some niggling practical matters. In any case, sat here in my flat in Chelyabinsk, Russia, the ability to write again is now at my disposal, and high time too. Randomly, though often, some interesting things stumble into my mind, they may be issues of the day or of matters old, but I try to think about them carefully, and then pursue them in more detail if they are worthy of further attention. I will make some comments and statements about two issues which are currently circulating around my mind simultaneously. It sounds almost like a mini-mental circus or at least feels like one (a juggling act of sorts), but I am sat with a modest glass of Malbec and Franz Lizst (‘Un Sospiro’, highly recommended) permeating the room to bring some order which I hope will show in the following words.
Boris Johnson & Our Parliamentary System
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland now has a new Prime Minster, one Boris Johnson (not his full name). I will not join in with the annoyingly easy trend of bashing another Tory and highlighting anything from their past which one might not like. Boris is not my cup of tea, that must be said, neither was Theresa May, but there is something about Boris which should be mentioned, and it is continuously surprising to me the more I pursue it
Theresa May was never fit to hold a cabinet position, let alone the office of Prime Minster, and her record in the cabinet should have been all that was needed to see just how unfit she was for that office. Boris may too be unfit for it, but we simply do not know yet. Regardless, the most unique thing about his character is the disparity between his public perception and his actual force, as it were, by that I mean what he is like underneath. His personal behaviour in relations is certainly worrisome for any civilised person, but that has already been written about elsewhere.
The most interesting thing for me is the fact that Boris is a classicist; his knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome is incredibly impressive, so much so that he can at the drop of a hat recite the Iliad at length. His appreciation and profound understanding of Greek and Roman literature would dwarf the majority of people’s knowledge on those things, including mine, I am ashamed to say, though one does one’s best. Why is this important? Does it make him a great Prime Minister? No, not necessarily, but it is important because these things are important in themselves, and not least because there is a trend among historical Prime Ministers and even once prospective Prime Ministers (e.g. Enoch Powell) that classicists tend to do a better job than your very vanilla PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) graduate who learned nothing but how to climb the greasy ranks of politics within their pathetic parties.
And one simply must address the issue of how our parliamentary system works. Again and again all over social media I hear soy-ridden cries of how ‘We did not vote for Boris!’, and how allegedly undemocratic this result was. And this annoys me because it demonstrates just how ignorant the typical so-called man is about his own constitution and political system. We do not have a presidential system. It is true that no one (all members of the electorate) voted for Boris Johnson, but no one has ever voted for any Prime Minster in history. We do not have ballot boxes with the names of the leading candidates for each party who will then govern the nation. Instead, each party chooses local candidates to represent their party who will stand for office in one’s local constituency as a Member of Parliament. The Prime Minister will be whoever is the leader of whichever party happens to command a majority in the House of Commons upon the end of a General Election (the party which wins the majority of elections in each of the 650 constituencies). The leader of the party is always selected by the party, not the electorate.
The Elgin Marbles
Now, an issue which has spiked my interest for several weeks, which is the age old controversy of the Parthenon Marbles (often referred to as the Elgin Marbles). I have neither the space nor the time to give a full comprehensive background on the matter and will henceforth assume that those reading this will be aware of the debate or will at least go and look it up for themselves.
Whether the British Museum should return the marbles to Greece is a question we can interpret in different ways, but mostly in two: legally and morally.
Firstly, I understand the rationale for keeping the marbles in the hands of the British Museum. There they can be much more widely seen and appreciated. The British Museum is one of our hallmarks and is one of the best in the world, a carrier of so much tradition, knowledge and expertise that it would be foolish to suggest the marbles were in unruly hands. The Acropolis Museum, impressive though it is, does not hold the same status or reception like as seen in the British Museum. Secondly, to keep hold of the marbles does not appear to me to necessarily be a matter of some lustrous desire to maintain our image as a once imperial power. Many great pieces from all over the world are shared around the world in the museums of other nations in the name of education. It is not a loss on our part that some of our works are in foreign lands, rather it is more akin to an export of our genius and craftsmanship, which is surely something to be proud of.
Having said that, the rationale returning them I think is stronger. The primary reason being that the lifting of the marbles was not legitimate whatsoever, not even nearly legitimate. The history here makes this reason a very strong and well-supported one. The extent of Lord Elgin’s legitimacy in carrying out his excavation resides solely in a decree (a ‘firman’) given to Lord Elgin from Ottoman authorities, a foreign occupier. Not only does the evidence for the existence of the original decree appear not to exist, the evidence in its favour is pretty thin. To claim that you have rightful ownership over something which was not handed to you from its actual owners is a bizarre idea. It’s easy to see why this may be regarded as tantamount to looting, and looting of the worst kind, that is, to do so with the pretence that it is in the name of the law. Some senior figures in Britain made their dissatisfaction known at the time. Lord Byron, a champion and hero of Greek independence, remarked on Elgin’s endeavours at the time in Child Harolde’s Pilgramige, in which he wrote,
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
So the legitimacy argument seems insufficient, but let us be charitable and assume that it does not matter. It may very well be the case that whatever is or was illegitimate (illegal) is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many situations in which it is not just okay, but perhaps commanded of you to do something ‘illegitimate’ pro bono. There are some who say that Lord Elgin saved the marbles from further destruction as opposed to greedily stealing them. I can grant that, sure. The Ottoman Empire was unquestionably one of the worst empires in humanity, to be a part of or occupied by her would have been cataclysmic. To preserve something Greek which the Ottomans may have taken or outright destroyed is not an action too hard to justify. But even if we were to say that this was the principle reason for excavating the marbles, let us not forget that the Greeks finally gained independence from the Ottomans in 1832. If were saving them on behalf of the Greeks and of Ancient Greek culture no less, then why did we not return them at the first opportune moment?
Is there another rationale to return them? Yes, I think so, and I suppose it is actually a matter of artistic custom supported by a very simple philosophical justification.
What if the head of David was in the Louvre and the body in Galleria dell’Accademia, wouldn’t it seem odd that two parts of the same piece were kept separate in different countries? For the marbles of the Parthenon are not random bits of a relic, the Parthenon frieze is one whole which was designed to be seen on top of the Parthenon. And so we are no longer talking about mere restitution of the marbles, but actually the rightful unification of two halves. What’s more, it is surely more culturally appropriate that such pieces (wherever they came from) are in their country of origin, not least because it is without doubt more aesthetically appropriate.
To conclude on this matter, I believe it right for the marbles to be returned, even if it may cause a small blow to the temporary dignity of some of our imperial adoring classes, most of whom I actually sympathise with and find myself on the side of in most cases, but not this one. Returning the marbles is not something we have a strict obligation to do, but I think it would be the best thing to do, and certainly a very classy thing to do, given what the Greeks have had to go through in modern times.