Saturday, 24 November 2012


A fine image by cartoonist Carlos Latuff – you can see more here: This was drawn in 2009, but is sadly as relevant as ever.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Is this Sparta?

300 film posterAdapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, the film 300 (released in 2006) interprets the events around the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE.

When the Greek city states are threatened by an immense Persian army, King Leonidas of Sparta defies opposition at home and takes 300 hand-picked men to lead the Greek defence. His chosen spot is a narrow pass that will render ineffective the Persians’ huge numerical advantage.

The story is framed by a narrator who turns out to be Dilios, a warrior sent home to tell his fellow Spartans, and ourselves, what has happened. The story therefore is being told second-hand and possibly embellished for effect, a device that gives the film licence to stray freely into fantasy.

300 is visually dramatic, but one-dimensional characters, shouty acting and a wearying parade of carnage mean its qualities mostly end there. Politically, too, the film is as sophisticated as a head-butt, glorifying militaristic white males with identikit six-packs as they defend freedom and other cherished ‘Western’ values from a decadent and barbarous Asiatic horde [1].

Reactionism in Sparta

The audience is expected to root for the Spartans in this confrontation, but is given little or no reason to value what they stand for. In fact, their world seems repulsive.

One of the Ephors
The entire film reeks with distaste for disability and physical ‘imperfection’. Dilios observes in his narration that if a Spartan newborn was ‘small or puny, sickly or misshapen’, it was condemned to death. Nobody criticises this practice. The ephors – priests whose blessing is required by law before Sparta may go to war – are described as ‘inbred swine, more creature than man’. Their physical deformity is an indication of their corrupt nature, for the ephors are greedy, treacherous and use their position to exploit young women for sex. The army of the Achaemenid empire is packed with disfigured soldiers and ogres. Another example is the Spartan exile Ephialtes, who follows the three hundred and begs Leonidas to let him join in the battle to prove his worth. Leonidas refuses because Ephialtes is a hunchback whose inability to fully raise his shield would create a weakness in the phalanx. Outraged by this rejection, Ephialtes switches his allegiance to the Persians, revealing a route through the pass in return for a uniform and sex with slave girls. This betrayal leads directly to the defeat and death of Leonidas and his men.

The message from all this is clear: physical disability not only means you are unfit for service, it is synonymous with inferiority, slavery, treachery and evil – a corruption of the body manifesting a corruption of the soul. The ancient Greeks may have agreed with this. But we are not ancient Greeks.

Just as distasteful is the open homophobia of the Spartan warriors. Leonidas dismisses the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’. The warrior Stelios, competing with his comrade to kill the most Persians, taunts him with ‘offering his backside to Thespians’. The Persians, including their king, Xerxes, are often portrayed as effete, wearing jewels and makeup as signs of decadence.

There is a stark racial divide throughout the film. The Persians are dark-skinned and, rather like any Middle Eastern throng on a Western news report, are portrayed as an undisciplined rabble. The first casualty of the film is a black messenger kicked down a pit, the first of many black people put to the sword by the finely chiselled white Spartans. The Persian army is likened to a beast, in particular a fearsome wolf.

On the Persian side, women appear only briefly as beautiful concubines, squirming seductively on the ground. Spartan women come out better than one might expect: Leonidas’s wife Gorgo is strong and proud, and displays her own heroic qualities when she pulls a sword on the wily ‘bad guy’ Theron and slays him before the Spartan council. When Xerxes threatens to enslave Sparta’s women, Leonidas warns him, ‘You don’t know our women.’ Historically, women seem to have enjoyed much greater freedom in Sparta than was usual in ancient Greece. But women in Persia also enjoyed greater freedoms than in most of ancient Greece, and this is ignored. Gorgo declares that Spartan women measure their worth as giving birth to ‘real men’, and is the only woman who merits a speaking part in a film dedicated to an orgy of male violence.

And the violence is extreme and frequent. The title screen of 300 promises blood, and keeps the promise. Director Zack Snyder uses slow-motion sequences so we may enjoy the beauty of slaughter. Sprays of blood and severed limbs fly through the air and the Spartans whirl through the middle of it like ballet dancers, admirable for their perfection as killers. Violence has its place in cinema when used appropriately, but this is an aesthetic that would not be out of place in a Nazi propaganda film. It is accompanied on the Spartan side by a kind of locker room machismo. When thrash guitars burst out to accompany their onslaughts, one is reminded of the passages in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 when US troops play heavy metal as a soundtrack to killing Iraqis. This is not accidental, because these Spartans are fantasy US marines in red cloaks, fighting to keep the world free... for eugenics, homophobia and Asian-bashing.

movie still from 300The US marines stick it to the Iranians. Publicity still from 300. Credit: Warner Brothers.

One might argue in the film’s defence that the story is narrated – the fantastical elements for example may represent Dilios’ elaborations on the story – and therefore perhaps should not be taken at face value. But at no point is the audience invited to doubt Dilios as a narrator, or to challenge his narrative.

The main thing one can do with such a silly film is laugh at it, as many film reviewers have done. Peter Bradshaw [2] of the Guardian concluded for example that “no one could possibly take it seriously.” This is true as far as it goes. But however daft the film, its real interest for critics is the way it lays bare a particular thread of Western ideology.

The clash of civilisations

The message of Snyder’s piece of nonsense is that the Battle of Thermopylae was a battle between an enlightened (white) West that celebrates freedom and reason, and a barbarous (black) East based on submission and decadence.

300 of course is not meant to be taken seriously as history. This is underlined by its extravagant use of fantasy: for example, Xerxes appears as a giant about nine feet tall, seated upon a throne that would sink any ship that tried to transport it. But it is often the weakest works of art that teach us most about a society’s preoccupations. 300 is a crass illustration of the thesis known as the ‘clash of civilisations’, whose best-known formulation appears in the book of that name by Samuel P. Huntington.

Huntington contended that ‘the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.’[3] But the theme is bigger than any single author. Broadly, it proposes that there is a fundamental historical clash between the ‘values’ of the West and the East, above all the Islamic world. It is no accident that this thesis has appeared in the post-Cold War period when imperialism is turning its military focus onto the Middle East. Imperialism’s version of Islam is well summed up in the words of Frank Miller himself, talking about ‘the enemy’ in a radio interview:

For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbours were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.[4]

Although the religion of Islam did not exist at the time of Thermopylae, Persia roughly corresponds to modern-day Iran and its empire embraced a great swathe of the Middle East. The film-makers strongly identify the Persians with Muslim stereotypes: they wear turbans and veils, and are angry and dark-skinned. By contrast, Leonidas sometimes appears Christ-like, most unambiguously in his final shot where he lies with arms spread (pierced with arrows like that other Christian icon, Saint Sebastian). The film was released at a time when US policy towards Iran was particularly belligerent, and the threat of an imperialist attack hangs over Iran still.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ setting requires that the Persian empire must be represented as tyrannical. This approach is not limited to the frat-house world of 300. In 2007, the historian Bettany Hughes repeated the refrain in a mainstream television documentary when commenting upon the Greeks’ victory at Salamis:

All over the city [Athens] public monuments were set up eulogising the victory. The message was clear: Western democracy could, and should, triumph over Eastern tyranny. The schism between East and West had been set in stone.[5]

Here Persia is casually labelled like a pantomime villain. Hughes should surely know that Persia was the first of the world’s great empires, comprising 5 million square kilometres and perhaps 10 million people. Persian rule usually meant minimal interference in daily life: regions were governed by satraps who collected taxes for the emperor, but kept relative autonomy and their local religious customs were respected. Slavery was in general banned in Persia – unlike in Greece! The empire behaved no more brutally than any other ancient empire, or indeed the Greeks themselves when tearing each other apart in the Peloponnesian War [6].

Sparta was no more ‘free’ than Persia. The film makes no mention for example of the helots, who were kept in slavery so the Spartans might exploit the wealth of Messenia [7]; it was the need to oppress this great mass of slaves that prompted Sparta to develop its ferocious military system in the first place. Sparta, on the film’s evidence, is a nasty regime that kills children with disabilities, abuses those who survive, and scorns any softness or weakness. Even the Greek cities that did have democracy only granted it to a minority of citizens, and never to women. After the victories against the Persians, Athens created its own empire through the Delian League, imposing its authority over other Greeks and punishing cities that tried to assert independence.

There’s no space to expose the full stupidity of the ‘clash of civilisations’ here. Suffice to say, it is misguided to identify the US or Iran too strongly with ancient Greece or Persia, or to try and impose slogans about democracy onto ancient history. The division into west and east would have made no sense to the ancients. Despite this, the battle of Thermopylae, and the Greek victories over Persia that followed, have long been held up by Western scholarship as moments of definition for the West. Here 300 resembles its plodding 1962 ancestor, The 300 Spartans, in which the Spartans again act as proxy Americans defending freedom against the hordes, in this instance, of eastern communism. Today the story has been updated for a new enemy.

Why is there such fascination with the strategically insignificant engagement at Thermopylae, given that the battles of Salamis and Plataea were more decisive in throwing back the Persian invasions? Probably for the same reason that the Greek historian Herodotus grossly over-estimated Persian numbers at nearly two million. Salamis and Plataea have not been as fruitful for comic books, novels and movies because they capture much less vividly the ‘few against many’ symbolism attractive to a superpower ludicrously trying to present itself as a heroic underdog. The real relation of forces at present – a nuclear-armed military superpower and its allies attacking much weaker Third World states – lends itself very poorly to romanticisation. The situation at Thermopylae also lends itself to the racist image, familiar in fascist literature, of a small but superior global community of white people besieged by a vast rabble of black people.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ is intellectual propaganda for a series of wars initiated by US imperialism in the Middle East. These wars are designed to win advantages for the declining superpower that it cannot win by non-military means, most importantly the strategic control of some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Since the peoples of the Middle East will not surrender their resources voluntarily, the US bourgeoisie must kill them in enormous numbers to get its way – a process so brutal that it requires a huge campaign of misrepresentation to make it acceptable to at least part of the masses in the US and its allied Western nations.

It would probably go too far to claim that Snyder’s film is a conscious rallying cry for US warmongering in the Middle East, or that most of the audience who helped it earn nearly $456 million cared much about its reactionary politics. But the work is nonetheless the product of a particular ideological context. 300 is ancient history reinvented according to the most half-witted fantasies of the US bourgeoisie: reactionary in its admiration of a regressive society, repulsive in its homophobia and disabilism, racist in its portrayal of the Middle East, and pro-imperialist in its implicit support for US militarism.

[1] The narrator actually refers at one point to ‘Asia’s endless hordes’.
[2] Peter Bradshaw, 300 (Guardian, 23 March 2007). Although Bradshaw is correct and amusing about the silliness of 300, he recycles the usual stereotypes of Iranians as
quick to quarrel and associated with holocaust denial, and denies any imperialist subtext to the film.
[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). You can watch a lecture by Edward Said explaining and then demolishing Huntington here.
[4] Interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on 24 January 2007. Islam emerged in the 7th century CE, not the 6th as Miller thinks. Genital mutilation is not unique to Muslim communities but is also practiced by Christians.
[5] ‘Athens: the truth about democracy’, Channel 4, broadcast July 2007.
[6] One gruesome episode came at the end of Athens’ failed attack on Syracuse, when the Syracusans packed 7000 Athenians into a stone quarry for ten weeks. Many died of disease and starvation before the remainder were sold into slavery.
[7] Another means of terrorising the helots was the Krypteia, selected from the toughest young Spartan boys, who had leave every autumn to travel into Messenia and kill with impunity whomever they found: a kind of adolescent death squad.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


One of the most interesting characters in the Iliad is neither a god nor a hero, and only appears for one altercation. Apart from Dolon, Thersites is the only named common soldier in the poem, and may be the first example in any literature of a political agitator. Marxists have traditionally taken a special interest in Thersites, and I shan’t disappoint.

In Book 2, Agamemnon gathers his troops on the beach and tests their courage by pretending to give up the war against Troy. The soldiers, exhausted by nine years of war, immediately run for their ships. Spurred by the goddess Athena, Odysseus pursues them and turns their mood with his oratory. But one soldier remains uncowed. Thersites is ‘a blabbing soldier, who had an impudent way with officers’ [1] – the Iliad’s only social critic – and has the courage to stand up and challenge Agamemnon:

What have you got to groan about? What more
can you gape after? Bronze fills all your huts,
bronze and the hottest girls – we hand them over
to you, you first, when any stronghold falls.
Or is it gold you lack? A Trojan father
will bring you gold in ransom for his boy –
though I – or some footsoldier like myself –
roped the prisoner in.
Or a new woman
to lie with, couple with, keep stowed away
for private use – is that your heart’s desire?
You send us back to bloody war for that?
Comrades! Are you women of Akhaia?
I say we pull away for home, and leave him
here on the beach to lay his captive girls!
Let him find out if we troops are dispensable
when he loses us!

Warrior vaseThe ‘warrior vase’ found at Mycenae, dating from approximately 1200 BCE. The frieze on this krater, or mixing bowl, depicts rank and file warriors.

Thersites’ analysis of the situation makes perfect sense. Why should the troops not leave the aristocrats to sort out their marital squabbles between themselves? The war was launched by the ruling class to resolve a dispute over Helen that has not the least relevance or interest to peasant farmers who should be safe at home working their land. It is little wonder that these farmers are sick of the nine years of war that have kept them from their families and maimed and killed their kind by the thousand. They won’t even win glory, because their role in combat is anonymous.

With terse eloquence, Thersites is saying out loud what the great majority of the army has every right to be thinking. It is in this role as truth-sayer that he reappears in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida – coarse in language, but exposing hypocrisy.

Homer, however, makes it clear that he firmly disapproves. He describes Thersites at unusual length. His voice is described as ‘yapping’, ‘jeering’, ‘baiting’. In an absurd equation of physical deformity with deformity of spirit, he presents him as ‘the most obnoxious rogue who went to Troy. / Bowlegged, with one limping leg, and shoulders / rounded above his chest, he had a skull / quite conical, and mangy fuzz like mould.’ In an age of military heroes and Olympic athletes, it seems Thersites has done well to get into the army at all.

An angry Odysseus immediately confronts Thersites:

‘Better not raise your voice to your commanders,
or rail at them, after you lie awake
with nothing on your mind but shipping home…

‘Here is my promise, and it will be kept:
if once again I hear your whining voice,
I hope Odysseus’ head my be knocked loose
from his own shoulders, hope I may no longer
be called the father of Telemakhos,
if I do not take hold of you and strip you –
yes, even of the shirt that hides your scut!
From this assembly ground I’ll drive you howling
and whip you like a dog into the ships!’

The original Greek makes an explicit reference to exposing Thersites’ privates – usually softened simply to ‘nakedness’ by translators – as part of the threatened shaming.[2] Odysseus then beats Thersites on the body and shoulders with his staff until the man drops in tears, raising a ‘scarlet welt’ on his back. There’s nothing gracious about Odysseus’ behaviour, but for the aristocrats lauded and celebrated by the Iliad, this treatment is entirely proper. Earlier in Book 2 when Odysseus is rallying the departing army, we see a marked contrast between how he treats the common soldier and how he talks to members of the elite. To the men of rank, Odysseus explains Agememnon’s test and relies on persuasion: ‘It isn’t like you to desert the field / the way some coward would!’

But when Odysseus met some common soldier
bawling still, he drove him back; he swung
upon him with his staff and told him:

go back, sit down, listen to better men –
unfit for soldiering as you are, weak sister,
counting for nothing in battle or in council!
Shall we all wield the power of kings? We can not,
and many masters are no good at all.
Let there be one commander, one authority,
holding his royal staff and precedence
from Zeus, the son of crooked-minded Kronos:
one to command the rest.’

Odysseus’ tirade neatly illustrates Thersites’ sin – it is to have challenged the authority of the king and, by extension, the class system.

Homer, who identifies with the class ideology of the nobles, does not allow the rank and file to agree with Thersites:

The soldiers,
for all their irritation, fell to laughing
at the man’s disarray. You might have heard
one fellow, glancing at his neighbour, say:
‘Oh, what a clout! A thousand times Odysseus
has done good work, thinking out ways to fight
or showing you how to do it: this time, though,
he’s done the best deed of the war,
making that poisonous clown capsize.’

Whatever the troops’ wariness about abusing the nobility, Thersites has expressed a view shared by many of his comrades. These are the troops who, a few lines earlier, gratefully surged towards their ships the moment they thought the war was over: ‘They cheered each other on to draw the ships into the sea; they cleared the channels in front of them; they began taking away the stays from underneath them, and the welkin rang with their glad cries, so eager were they to return.’ This is not the behaviour of men determined to serve their masters’ glory at all costs.

Structurally, the episode illustrates how close the Greeks are to defeat at this point, which is early in the poem but late in the war (and makes all the more dramatic their eventual victory). Now an end to the war is dandled before the troops and then snatched away. No wonder then if Thersites berates Agamemnon, ‘at whom the troops were furious.’

But Odysseus has saved the day, not least through his treatment of Thersites, which brings the ‘irritated’ men together against the scapegoat. The episode is partly intended to be comical, both for the reader/listener – Greek humour could be very cruel – and for the characters – their laughter at the ‘poisonous clown’ helping to restore the normal hierarchy of power. The Greek army rallies around its leaders, and after some speeches and a sacrifice to the gods, Homer gives us a long (and tedious) roll-call of the warriors and peoples participating in the campaign.

The arrogant class attitude Homer reveals here was normal among the ancient Greek writers. G.E.M. de Ste Croix has pointed out that the ideological norm of the period was the poor ‘are not really fitted to rule and that this is much better left to their “betters”.’[3] Membership of the propertied class was an ‘essential qualification’ for rule. The Greek aristocracy was opposed to democracy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle included. It is one of the contradictions of ancient Greek society that the system that allowed philosophy to flower, by encouraging independent thought, was implacably opposed by the philosophers themselves.

In taking issue with the warlike mood of aristocratic honour and due obedience that dominates the Iliad, Thersites actively challenges the dominant ideology of the day. Why, then, did Homer allow Thersites a voice at all?

The poem’s gestation is so obscure that we are forced to speculate. One explanation may simply be that Thersites’ punishment serves as a warning to any listeners who might be feeling resentful of the ruling class. We should also remember that the Iliad was probably created from the contributions of many poets – it is possible that the episode is an interpolation by one of the more daring of them. Afterward, Thersites was permitted to remain as long as he was put firmly in his place. A more subtle possibility, observed by Rupert Graves and the critic Kenneth Burke, is that a great many members of the poem’s audience are struck by the sheer waste of life and resources portrayed in the war, and the oppressiveness of its class structure. Burke wrote:

If an audience is likely to feel that it is being crowded into a position, if there is any likelihood that the requirements of dramatic ‘efficiency’ would lead to the blunt ignoring of a possible protest from at least some significant portion of the onlookers, the author must get this objection stated in the work itself. But the objection should be voiced in a way that the same breath disposes of it.[4]

Homer has found a way to acknowledge an alternative voice, but by making Thersites ugly and ridiculous he distances himself from the seditious remarks.

Ironically, a couple of centuries after the Iliad was written down, Greek democracy would allow a political voice to the common man (not woman). It came far too late to help poor cone-headed Thersites. But we may agree with Hegel that ‘the Thersites of Homer who abuses the kings is a standing figure for all times.’[5]

[1] All quotes in this article are from Book 2 of the Iliad. The translation is by Robert Fitzgerald (1974), my personal favourite.
[2] See John Miles Foley, A Companion to Ancient Epic (2005).
[3] G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).
[4] Kenneth Burke, Language As Symbolic Action (1966).
[5] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837).

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Iliad

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...
– Opening lines of the Iliad, transl. Robert Fitzgerald.

The Iliad is an epic poem that tells the story of a Greek expedition led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, against the city of Troy. By examining internal evidence (such as technology) and references in Greek culture (vase paintings, inscriptions etc), it can be dated to roughly 730 BCE. It is the earliest surviving work of Greek literature, and the most influential, venerated by the Greeks themselves as the keystone of their culture. Its artistic descendants are diverse, ranging from Greek tragedy through Shakespeare and Tom Jones to Wolfgang Petersen’s movie Troy. Reinventing their past, the Romans took the Trojan character Aeneas and showed him journeying to Italy after the Trojan War to found Rome in their own great epic, Virgil’s Aeneid.

The Iliad was of course composed in ancient Greek, which means the vast majority of modern readers depend upon a translation. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate as it depends upon particular words in particular combinations, which lose some of their effect when recreated in another language. Homer’s language is relatively simple and extremely concrete, but this does not mean that translating it is straightforward. The two translations best known to contemporary English readers are probably E.V. Rieu’s prose version (Penguin) and Fitzgerald’s prosey verse version (Everyman), but there are others. If a reader puts together two or three alternatives, he or she will get a very good idea of what Homer’s poetry is like. And it is fresh and direct poetry. There is no mystification here: humans and gods say what they mean and mean what they say.

The story

The Iliad tells directly of only a tiny portion of an immense saga, focusing on just a few days in a war that lasts ten years. It does however find ways to encompass the wider tale: firstly by recollections of earlier events by key characters, and secondly by a kind of illusion of time whereby we see events acted out over those four days that seem as if they must have happened much earlier. Take the duel between Menelaos and Paris, for example – why have nine or so years passed before these two rivals finally confront one another? Why does Helen point out key Greek leaders to her father-in-law King Priam, who must surely know who’s who by now? What Homer achieves by these techniques is to give us an impression of the full span of the war.

The journey home of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus, is the story of Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey. But the broader saga includes not just those two poems but a majestic cast of Greek characters and events whose lives and actions are threaded through the entire corpus of ancient Greek art and literature. There is a body of epic poetry, almost entirely lost, known as the ‘Cycle’ or ‘Epic Cycle’, which explored the stories around the Iliad more fully.

The roots of the Trojan War lie in the wedding party of Peleus, king of Aegina, and the sea-nymph Thetis (who would become the parents of Akhilleus). The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite were invited, but the goddess of strife and discord, Eris, was left out because she might cause trouble. Angry, Eris threw into the party a golden Apple of Discord inscribed with the phrase ‘For the Fairest’. With Hera, Athena and Aphrodite squabbling over who was most beautiful, Zeus appointed a judge: Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy. Each goddess strips naked before Paris and tries to bribe him.[1] Hera offers him power, Athena offers him military prowess, and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Troy. Paris awards the apple to Aphrodite, and this act dooms his city, for unknown to him Helen is already married to King Menelaos of Sparta. Paris visits Menelaos and betrays his host’s hospitality by eloping with Helen (accounts differ about whether she is kidnapped or leaves willingly). Enraged, the Greeks launch a military expedition to take Helen back, and the Trojan War begins.

This context, which the Greek audience would have known well, is necessary to fully understand what is happening. For example, Hera is hostile to the Trojan side because her pride was hurt at the Judgement of Paris, but the episode is only briefly alluded to near the end of the poem [2].

Let’s catch up with the action of the Iliad itself. At the opening the Greeks are camping on the beach before the walls of Troy, about nine years into the war. Their leader, King Agamemnon, is refusing to ransom the captured daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo. Angered, Apollo unleashes plague on the army. When Agamemnon learns its cause he gives in, but he compensates for the loss of his prize by confiscating Briseis, the concubine of his greatest warrior Akhilleus (Achilles). Insulted, Akhilleus responds by refusing to fight: for the next two-thirds of the poem its main hero plays little part. His mother Thetis seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s insult by persuading Zeus to support the Trojans, and Zeus agrees.

The Trojans, led by their greatest warrior Hektor, enjoy the upper hand and push the Greeks back to their beached ships. At one point Agamemnon pleads with Akhilleus to return to battle and offers him handsome gifts, including the return of Briseis – only to be refused by the proud warrior.

When one of their ships is set on fire, the Greeks’ position looks perilous, as without the ships they can never return home. Akhilleus is persuaded to lend his armour to his great friend Patroklos and let him fight in his stead. Patroklos helps drive the Trojans back, only to be killed by Hektor, son of Priam and Troy’s mightiest hero. When Akhilleus hears the news, he is so filled with rage that he vows to avenge his friend. Reconciling with Agamemnon, he returns to battle, bearing new arms forged for him by the smith god Hephaestus. After leading a furious Greek counter-attack, he confronts Hektor, chases him around the city walls and finally kills him, dragging the body behind his chariot in an outrageous act of disrespect. On the advice of Zeus, Priam enters the Greek camp to plead with Akhilleus in person for the return of his son’s body. Akhilleus is moved to relent, and the poem ends with the funeral rites of Hektor.

Shortly after the events described in the Iliad, Akhilleus spies the daughter of Priam, Polyxena, and falls in love with her. He persuades the Greek army to sue for peace so that he might marry her. But as he travels to the temple of Apollo to negotiate, Paris shoots him in his only vulnerable spot, his heel, with an arrow. Akhilleus is killed, and thus his premonitions about his own death come true.

It may surprise readers to find that the Iliad makes no mention at all of the famous Trojan horse [3] – the retelling of that episode falls to the bard Demodocus in Book 8 of the Odyssey, as well as other sources such as Virgil’s Aeneid. Troy’s mighty walls keep the Greeks from victory until cunning Odysseus has the idea of building a giant wooden horse and leaving it on the beach while the Greek army pretends to have surrendered and sailed home. A man named Sinon stays behind and tells the Trojans that the Greeks left the horse as an offering to Athena, assuming the Trojans would destroy it and invoke Athena’s wrath against them. Thinking they are out-manoeuvring their enemies, the Trojans wheel it into the city, unaware that the horse has Odysseus and other Greek warriors inside its hollow belly. At night the Greeks open the gates and their army sweeps out of hiding. The Trojans are massacred [4], and Troy is burned to the ground. At long last, the Greek fleet sails home, carrying Helen back to Sparta.

Decorated pithos or storage jar from the island of Mykonos (7th century BCE), depicting the Trojan horse. It is one of the earliest illustrations of the fall of Troy. Photo: Travelling Runes (Flickr).

Although the Iliad does not show Troy’s final destruction, we are offered foreshadowings of what fate has in store. “The day will come,” says Hektor to his wife Andromache, “when sacred Ilios will be destroyed, and Priam, and the people of Priam.” We are told several times that the death of Hektor will mean the defeat of Troy. Ending with the slain Hektor lying upon a funeral pyre, the poem has said all it needs to.

Homer and the composition of the Iliad

From antiquity onwards, Homer’s name has been associated both with the Iliad and with the Odyssey, composed a generation later. Homer lived in the early days of Greek literacy and so his biography is incredibly scanty. The name Hómēros is a real name from the Aeolic region, and the Greeks themselves mostly regarded him as a real person, not just a figurehead or legend. The poet’s most likely place of origin was Chios, an Ionian island where a school of ‘rhapsodes’ (poetry readers) called Homeridae seem to have existed from at least the 6th century BCE. There have always been theories that the two poems had different or multiple authors. The reality is that there is next to nothing that we can say for sure about Homer, who may never even have existed.

The question of authorship is really about the process of composition. Our text of the Iliad is not identical to the one produced by Homer in the 8th century BCE. The first printed edition was produced in Florence in 1488, and was based on medieval manuscripts, themselves copies of a standard text edited by Alexandrian scholars in the third and second centuries BCE. We know from surviving fragments that the text varied prior to this edition.

When precisely the poem was written down is hard to say. It was created at the beginning of Greece’s rediscovery of literacy, straddling the literate and pre-literate periods, and is likely to have been composed orally. Its opening call to sing of the anger of Akhilleus is a clear indicator of an oral tradition – there is a scene in Book I of the Odyssey in which we see a poet performing for an audience. Storytellers and singers would pass the stories down through the generations, until it finally achieved a written form.

Performing the Iliad would be no easy matter. At 15,000 verses long, it is a massive work whose recitation would have to be divided over several days. The poets would have chanted to a musical accompaniment, and each performance will inevitably have been unique, so the text was not a fixed entity. The process of performance is also one of composition, resulting in innumerable errors, improvements, and edits across the years. So the poem is at once a well-designed structure and riddled with little inconsistencies and errors, such as when Hektor strips armour from Patroklos when Apollo has already done so. Its language is also a mixture of different dialects and periods, of archaic and contemporary forms. These aren’t introduced to create particular effects in different contexts, so there probably two explanations: firstly, the variant forms help lines to scan; secondly, the lines have been composed by a wide variety of poets.

The American scholar Milman Parry argued in the 1930s that the Iliad was too big to have been the product of a single poet. Instead, it was an oral-improvisatory form that grew out of a long tradition, using a formulaic system to make performance easier. For example, certain lines and phrases are repeated, characters are referred to by stock epithets (e.g. ‘fleet-footed Akhilleus’). The classicist Michael Silk makes an interesting parallel with jazz, “the only developed improvisatory art that is native to the modern Western world”:

Any performer or student of jazz could have told Milman Parry something about oral composition, its products and its practitioners: the creative individuals who learn their craft from a living tradition of fellow-artists in a milieu of mutual respect, personal ambition and restless experiment... Jazz was improvisatory when it began and, in all its many varieties, has remained essentially improvisatory – and yet musical literacy has been absorbed into it for two full generations. The jazz soloist, in particular, may improvise his performance; he may have memorised it, in whole or part, from an earlier performance or from practice or even from a score, composed by himself or an arranger; he may read the solo from such a score: the same solo might result... We have here a clear equivalent to a more or less standardised – formulaic or thematic – mode of poetic composition.[5]

All this evidence suggests that the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey was a process. If the poet called Homer ever existed, he was probably more an editor than a creator, pulling the poems into their written, canonical forms, perhaps altering or introducing verses along the way and refining their symmetry. His own contribution may have been extraordinary enough to earn him his fame, but we cannot know. What we can do is assess the text itself on its own merits.

The heroic age of Greece

Although composed in about the 8th century BCE, the poem is set in an earlier, heroic age, whose warriors were mightier than anybody alive in Homer’s time. This was almost certainly a folk memory of the so-called Mycenaean culture from approximately 1600-1100 BCE. As we have already seen, these Bronze Age Greeks (whom Homer refers to interchangeably as Akhaians, Argives or Danaans [6]) displaced the Minoans as the dominant force in the Aegean, building a warlike culture of great wealth governed from fortified palaces.

The late Bronze Age was the setting for most of the stories of Greek mythology. There seemed little reason to think there was any factual basis to the Iliad until the 1860s, when a citadel was excavated at Hissarlik in modern Turkey, situated at the entrance to the Dardanelles in Asia Minor. Its Greek name was Ilion, hence Homer’s title: Iliad, the song of Troy.

Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

This site is much less magnificent than the mythological city, but its existence helps to bring the stories a little nearer to history, and it is generally accepted by scholars as the historical Troy. The archaeological layers reveal that the town was destroyed several times during the Bronze Age. One destruction layer dates to around 1220 BCE, but we cannot be sure if it corresponds to a historical Mycenaean war with Troy, and no such war could have come close to the mighty scale of the conflict described in the Iliad

We still don’t know precisely who or what overthrew the Mycenaeans in around 1200-1100 BCE. Their downfall was part of the ‘Bronze Age collapse’ that we have discussed before: this general crisis plunged Greece into a relative ‘Dark Age’ lasting hundreds of years. When the Greek recovery began in the 8th century BCE, it was signposted by the inauguration of the Olympic games, the founding of the Delphic Oracle and the revival of literacy via the adoption of an alphabet, all of which contributed to a sense of common culture. The Iliad is a cornerstone of this development at a time when Greece was heavily fragmented into squabbling city states with their own religious customs, laws and dialects. As a celebration of united Greek action, it sits comfortably alongside the other signs of a new, pan-Hellenic identity – the beginning of a national literature.

Homer’s version of the Bronze Age is a mix of archaeologically demonstrable fact, historical hearsay and licence, and pure legend. Homer knows that weaponry and armour in that period were made of bronze, but wrongly thinks ordinary tools are made of iron like in his own day. In the Bronze Age, chariots were used for direct engagement, whereas Homer’s heroes follow 8th century practice by using them merely as transports to the battlefield. Mycenaeans were buried when they died, but the Iliad’s heroes are cremated, as in Homer’s time. 

The Iliad, then, is an imaginative and symbolic reinvention of an era already a few hundred years in the past when Homer was composing. The Homeric world is a bringing together of Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Whether it is historically accurate or not is, from a literary point of view, not very important. What it does is define the Greeks as a culture by offering them a vivid picture of their ancestors as they liked to imagine they were.


Ancient Greece was completely steeped in superstition. Religion in 8th century BCE Greece was not monolithic – beliefs and customs varied across the region, and the Iliad does not represent any one tradition of the time. Nonetheless it is consistent with the attested religious practices of later generations. It is possible that Homer, together with Hesiod, helped to bring consistency to Greek religion, as Herodotus believed:

And it is they [Homer and Hesiod] who have composed for the Greeks the generations of the gods, and have given to the gods their titles and distinguished their several provinces and special powers, and described their forms.[7]

This is another illustration of the Iliad’s pan-Hellenic role: in so superstitious a society, to define the Greeks’ gods is to define their civilisation. Homer’s are not localised gods based in particular towns or places but gods residing on Mount Olympus for all of Greece.

Homer takes it for granted that the gods are real, and so do his characters. These gods are independent and active participants in the events of the Iliad, fascinated by human affairs and, for various reasons, siding with nations or individuals like fans of different football teams. For example, the powerful goddesses Hera and Athena hate the Trojans, whereas Ares, Apollo and Aphrodite protect them. We have observed elsewhere that supernatural beings, because they are inventions, always end up resembling ourselves, and these are some of the most anthropomorphic deities in literature. As Agamemnon is undisputed lord of the Greeks, so Zeus is undisputed lord of the pantheon. The gods closely resemble the aristocratic heroes and share their values: their sense of honour, their swaggering, their feuding. Several of the heroes are the children of immortals – Akhilleus was the son of the nymph Thetis – and those gods look out for their children.

The gods actually come out poorly in the Iliad. Unlike the human characters, they are immortal and therefore have nothing to lose. Their interventions into human affairs are motivated by intrigues, hurt feelings, paying back favours, domestic strife and the need to placate one’s spouse rather than the grandiose divine plans assumed in the Abrahamic religions. By contrast, the humans, struggling to be remembered in the face of death, are rather magnificent. The gods influence human affairs, but do not determine them entirely – there would be no glory for individual warriors if they were mere puppets. Rather, the gods’ interventions lend symbolic distinction to the feats of the aristocrats: firstly because the heroes are worthy of their help, secondly because divine involvement lends greater meaning to what is happening, and, by extension, to all of human life.

Class society

The Iliad is a poem of heroes, which is to say, it celebrates the military exploits of a semi-legendary aristocracy. Most of the heroes are ruling class males who by their very nature are more special than the rest of us. Even the gods think their affairs worthy of interest. Though endowed with superhuman gifts and descended from the gods, they are nonetheless mortal. Akhilleus was the son of a nymph, but he was also the son of a mortal father, making him mortal himself. It is possible for heroes to be immortalised, as Herakles (Hercules) was, but they must die first.

Greeks and Trojans alike adhere to a warrior code which is probably not an invention of Homer’s. This governs the highly ritualised form taken by combat – one warrior throws his spear while the other waits, then the opponent throws his. But this ideology is more than a set of rules for conducting war. Its philosophy is that death is inevitable, so the manner of one’s death is as important as one’s conduct in life. By earning honour and glory (kléos), we may be remembered or even celebrated in verse, and thereby achieve a kind of immortality. As Akhilleus puts it: “If I stay here, waging war on Troy, my hope of home is lost, but I win immortal glory.” He would rather have a short and glorious life than a long and safe one. (He is succeeding so far, as we are still reading about him nearly three thousand years later.) Of course, audiences change, and the modern reader may become bored by the bragging, the speeches about honour, and the relentless spear-chucking and goring.

It is customary to condense this struggle for glory into a metaphor for the human condition. But we should recognise that this heroic ideology belongs to the ruling class. With only two exceptions (Thersites and Dolon), the ordinary soldiers of the two armies are left unnamed by Homer, are ignored by the gods, and do not share the same code of honour. Although the unpleasantness of war is recognised by all participants, including the heroes, it is the rank and file who rue it most. When Agamemnon tests his troops’ morale by pretending to call off the war, they immediately stream for the ships in a grateful surge, much to the king’s dismay. And when Menelaos reports to the troops that he and Paris will duel to decide the conflict once and for all,

All hearts lifted at his words, for both sides
Hoped for an end of miserable war.

This response is perfectly rational, as there is no gain for the rank and file in risking death pursuing their masters’ wars. The boldest challenge comes from Thersites, a common soldier who challenges Agamemnon directly for wasting the soldiers’ lives in his pursuit of women and booty:

I say we pull away for home, and leave him
here on the beach to lay his captive girls!

As Thersites has been something of a hero to the left, we shall give him an article to himself. Suffice to say that he is given a good beating for daring to speak the obvious.

Another powerful departure from the heroics of war comes in a fleeting image when Akhilleus chases Hektor around the city walls and by the two springs of the river:

Near these fountains are wide washing pools
of smooth-laid stone, where Trojan wives and daughters
laundered their smooth linen in the days
of peace before the Akhaians came.

At these pools working women, in normal circumstances, would be out washing clothes. It is a poignant juxtaposition of (female) peace with (male) violence, but also of aristocratic arrogance with everyday working life. If Paris and Helen had been peasants instead of aristocrats, then thousands of men would not have been separated from their families or killed to avenge the pride of a Spartan king.

The Iliad and ideology

War in the Iliad is accepted as a fact of life that tests men’s characters. Characters like Paris who seem cowardly or keen to avoid battle are exposed to scorn. But Homer recognises that war causes suffering and destroys families, on both sides. No family illustrates this better than Priam’s. The king of Troy loses all his sons; when Hektor is killed, Andromache loses a husband and Astyanax a father. A dark image of the human condition is recounted by Akhilleus in his story of the urns of Zeus: Zeus hands out gifts from an urn of sorrows and an urn of blessings, and sometimes only sorrows, and all that unfortunate mortals can do is learn to endure. Homer doesn’t invite us to think the war is wrong or wasteful. It is a legitimate means to earn glory, and a true hero chooses battle over his family every time, even when he has been warned that it must end in his death.

This is a world of hierarchical order, even stasis. This is reflected in the action of the poem: huge sections could be cut without changing the story in the slightest. It’s also reflected in Homer’s stylised language. Characters are often described with epithets, i.e. stock phrases which evoke some aspect of their character. Akhilleus for example is ‘swift-footed’, Athena is ‘grey-eyed’, dawn is ‘rosy-fingered’, Menelaos is ‘red-haired’. These characters are of course plenty of other things – e.g. Akhilleus could fairly be labelled ‘proud’ – but only a few qualities are used, over and over again. This would have been a useful mnemonic to help minstrels remember their lines, and something more: the effect is to ritualise the action, to encourage a sense of permanence. This stylisation extends to the regular use of long similes, the poem’s most obvious use of figurative language. It is echoed in the deeds portrayed: the ritualised sequence of single combat, the ritual of giving and receiving gifts, the laments and prayers. The duel between Hektor and Aias is called off because of bad light, like a cricket match, and in fact is overseen by an umpire. The stylised language does not jar, because it complements perfectly the ritualised world it depicts. This is not to say that there are no debates or uncertainties amongst the characters. But the poem is the product of a fatalistic culture that changes very slowly. Even as we follow the ebb and flow of events, it is made clear to the audience that Greek victory is a foregone conclusion.

We see little of the characters’ interior life in the Iliad, and there is no equivalent of the social dilemmas that characterise modern fiction. There is no real character development. Each character knows their place and knows what they must do. Only Akhilleus offers us something resembling the complexity expected by a modern audience.

The essence of his character seems simple: formidable and uncompromising, his motivation is to win glory through a violent death rather than be forgotten. It can be hard to identify with this severe man – modern readers will probably feel more sympathy for Hektor, whose farewell to his family is unusually affecting. Yet Akhilleus is not a simplistic character. He refuses to fight despite longing to do so; he breaks the rules of war due to individualistic rage; and when he weeps for Priam he shows pity for his enemies and shifts from vengeful slayer to compassionate proxy son.

Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. Athenian vase, 6th century BCE. Photo: Sebastià Giralt (Flickr).

The opening words of the poem refer directly to Akhilleus, and the very first word cites his character flaw:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...

Akhilleus is the greatest warrior in the war, but his raging pride sometimes prevents him from acting with honour. It leads him to ask Zeus to help the Trojans slay his own army, because of Agamemnon’s insult; to abandon his comrades during the Trojan counter-attack; to abuse Hektor’s body contrary to the rules of war. Yet it is his moment of self-understanding, when he gives in to Priam, that raises him to the peak of humanity in the poem. Pleading with Akhilleus for the return of his son’s body, Priam appeals to the memory of Akhilleus’ own father, Peleus. Moved, the Greek agrees to return the corpse to the Trojans. For the first time he seems capable of real empathy, and allows his enemies time to give Hektor a proper funeral. It is a rare moment of psychological insight in a work in which the characters often hardly seem to think themselves responsible for their actions at all.

Akhilleus, though he is the poem’s greatest warrior, disturbs the generalised ideology of war. All the heroes live by this ideology, and are celebrated by the poem. But Akhilleus’ refusal to fight, to the point of risking his army’s defeat, is stubborn to excess, and his mistreatment of Hektor’s corpse is seen as dishonourable by Greeks, Trojans and gods alike. This has tempted some critics to read an implicit challenge to the aristocrats’ code. Here is Michael Silk again:

Let us suggest here that with the glorious, but extreme, hero Achilles at its centre, the poem is so structured as to reveal the negative implications of heroic values along with their obvious splendour. The Iliad does not read like a studied critique of accepted values – as if Homer was a Brecht, say, a Marxist before his time. The greatest literature, however, as neo-Marxist theorists like Eagleton have pointed out, is wont to subvert the dominant ideological categories that it purports to, and does indeed also, embody: and, thanks to Achilles, the Iliad surely does just this.[8]

Whether Akhilleus’ character has ‘developed’ by the end of the poem in the way we expect of modern storytelling is unclear. But perhaps the funeral pyres mark the death not only of Hektor, but also of Akhilleus’ egotism.


Homer’s Iliad is above all a celebration of an aristocratic class seeking immortality in song through feats of arms. It represents a hierarchical world, dominated by rules, in which everyone knows his or her place and nobody thinks that things could be better than they are. In that sense, the poem is thoroughly conservative.

Yet it is also much more. It is a lament for the sufferings inflicted by war. It even allows a glimpse of the ancient class struggle, through Thersites and the war weariness of the rank and file. The Trojans are not quite presented as the equals of the Greeks, but they live by the same code and are accorded all due respect. Even if the Trojans ‘deserve’ their fate because of Paris’ betrayal of Menelaos’ hospitality, Hektor is as much as a hero as Akhilleus. There is no clash of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ in the Iliad. Instead, we witness human beings struggling with fate, in the thrall of gods as flawed, emotional and bloody as themselves.

[1] Centuries later this episode, the ‘Judgement of Paris’, was a favourite topic in the (overwhelmingly male) oil painting tradition because it gave a titillating opportunity to portray three beautiful women stripping for the benefit of a male onlooker.
[2] At the beginning of Book 24. Homer assumes his Greek audience will know the story.
[3] There is also no reference to the famous ‘Achilles’ heel’, the vulnerable spot that eventually proves fatal to Akhilleus, though it features in later Greek and Roman literature.
[4] According to Virgil, the only Trojans to survive are a small group led by Aeneas, who ends up founding Rome.
[5] Michael Silk, Homer – The Iliad (1987).
[6] This approach gives Homer flexibility in his versification, as each variant is metrically different.
[7] Herodotus, Book II of The Histories.
[8] Michael Silk, op. cit.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Gerald Edelman on consciousness

Anyone interested in the origins of art needs to study how human beings evolved their distinctive creative intelligence. One of the leading writers and researchers in the field of human consciousness and neuroscience is the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Gerald M. Edelman. In this article we shall take a very brief walk through his theory of consciousness and try to keep this incredibly complicated topic accessible to the general reader.

Edelman’s goal is simply to answer the question: What is consciousness? “How can the firing of neurons give rise to subjective sensations, thoughts and emotions?... A scientific explanation must provide a causal account of the connection between these two domains”[1]. In the theory he calls ‘Neural Darwinism’, Edelman argues that consciousness – “what you lose when you fall into a deep dreamless sleep and what you regain when you wake up” – is a product of natural selection. His ideas emphasise the brain’s plasticity in response to the environment, and he rejects reductionism, metaphysics and wrong-headed analogies with computers.


Consciousness is rooted in the operations of an individual body, above all the brain, and in its history and experiences. Importantly, “consciousness is a process, not a thing”, the “dynamic accomplishment of the distributed activities of populations of neurons in many different areas of the brain.” It is individual, continuous, intentional and unitary or integrated. At any given moment,

The scene is not just wider than the sky, it can contain many disparate elements – sensations, perceptions, images, memories, thoughts, emotions, aches, pains, vague feelings, and so on. Looked at from the inside, consciousness seems continually to change, yet at each moment it is all of a piece.

Human beings are conscious of being conscious. So we must make a distinction between ‘primary consciousness’ – the “state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present”, which we have in common with many animals – and higher order consciousness – allowing “the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affections”. The latter includes the ability to have intentions for the future and requires the use of symbols, which in its most advanced form means language capability. Besides ourselves, the only animals thought to possess higher order consciousness to a debateable degree are the higher primates.

When conscious, individuals experience qualia. The term ‘quale’ refers to our particular experience of a property: such as redness, or warmth, or pain. Edelman describes qualia as “high order discriminations that constitute consciousness… experienced as parts of the unitary and integrated conscious scene”. All conscious events involve a complex of qualia – a quale cannot be experienced in isolation.

Neural basis of consciousness

To develop a theory of consciousness we must first understand how the brain works. This is no easy matter, as the human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe and is still poorly understood. Its dominant feature is the cerebral cortex, a convoluted structure making up about two-thirds of the brain mass which lies over and around most of the brain. It contains 30 billion or more neurons (nerve cells) and a million billion synapses (connections), and most of the brain’s information processing takes place there. The cerebral cortex is divided into regions with different functions, e.g. areas involved in sight, hearing, touch, movement, and smell.

Neurons are connected to each other to form a dense network to pass signals around the nervous system. They are very diverse, but a typical neuron has a long extension called an axon, which connects the neuron to other neurons at gaps called synapses. The synapse allows the neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell.

A region essential to consciousness is the thalamus, located at the centre of the brain and equivalent in size to a pair of walnuts. It serves to relay signals from the nerves (e.g. in your eyes, ears or skin) to the cerebral cortex, acting like a kind of central switchboard. For example, information from the retina of the eye is sent to a nucleus of the thalamus, which forwards it to the part of the cerebral cortex responsible for processing visual information. Another subcortical region is the hippocampus, important for short-term to long-term memory.

The brain’s motor functions regulate not only movement but also assist the forming of images and concepts. The primary motor cortex sends signals down the spinal column to the muscles, and the cerebellum, a structure at the base of the brain, helps coordinate our physical actions. Located in the centre of the brain are the basal ganglia, which connect to the cortex via the thalamus. They are associated with voluntary movements and regulation of motor systems.

Edelman concludes that there are three neuro-anatomical ‘motifs’ in our brains. The first is the thalamus and cortex. The second is the inhibitory circuits of the basal ganglia. The third are the ascending systems: nuclei of the brain stem that release neuromodulators such as serotonin and dopamine.

We should not think simplistically of specific areas of the brain controlling specific functions. Certain activities tend to be region-specific, but the regions are connected up in a complex and integrated system. This integration is essential to consciousness.

The brain is not a computer

Although he sometimes uses metaphors such as brain ‘circuitry’, Edelman makes a strong case against describing the brain as a computer. There is rich variation within the formation and movements of cells during the brain’s development, meaning no two brains are alike. The brain is not hard-wired, but develops patterns of neural activity, captured in the phrase ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. Although there are programmed stages of development, the behaviour of cells is always variable or plastic. “The result is a pattern of constancy and variation leading to highly individual networks in each animal.” This is no way to build a computer, which demands precise wiring and predictable programming. Inputs to the brain are not a sequence of ones and zeros – they are ambiguous. The computer analogy is too rigid to describe the organic, dynamic processes of the mind, which has to deal with a world that is unpredictable and is based on pattern recognition rather than logic.

An example of this pattern recognition is the so-called ‘binding problem’, i.e. the question of how brains combine elements of complex patterns of information. When we see a red car drive past, there are separate processes to register colour, movement, orientation, and so on. A perception emerges in various contexts, and theory must find a mechanism to explain how it works.

Another complication is degeneracy, which in this context means the ability of structurally different parts to perform similar functions under certain conditions, while performing different functions in other conditions. Again, this really doesn’t resemble a computer.

Neural Darwinism

The brain evolved – it was not designed. Darwin argued that new organisms emerge from selection among the variant individuals in a population, based upon their fitness for survival within a particular environment. One of the tasks of neuroscience is to work out how precisely this process created the human brain.

Just like any population of animals, brains show a huge amount of variation between individuals. Edelman sees this variation as fundamental:

selection from such a population of variants could lead to patterns even under unpredictable circumstances, provided that some constraint of value or fitness was satisfied. In evolution, fitter individuals survive and have more progeny. In the individual brain, those synaptic populations that match value systems or rewards are more likely to survive or contribute more to the production of future behaviour.

Edelman calls his selectionist theory the theory of neuronal group selection, or TNGS. This has three basic tenets.

Developmental selection: selection creates a wide variety of brain ‘circuitry’ within individuals during their growth and development. No two people will have exactly the same synaptic structures in comparable areas of brain tissue – a bit like unique fingerprints.
Experiential selection: overlapping that first phase and after the major neuroanatomy is built, variations in environmental input continue to create variations in synaptic strengths, favouring some pathways and weakening others.
Reentry: ‘reentry’ is an interchange of signals that continuously relates parts of the brain to each other, relying on networks of connections between groups of neurons that have arisen out of the other two processes above. Reentry is not sequential but involves many paths acting simultaneously; it is the means by which bits of the brain communicate directly with each other. If a computer is organised by logic, a brain is organised by the process of reentry.

The consequence of this process is the binding of neuronal groups with different functions into a coherent system. “How can it be,” asks Edelman, “that… up to thirty-three functionally segregated and widely distributed visual maps in the brain can nevertheless yield perception that coherently binds edges, orientations, colours, and movement into one perceptual image?” His answer is: through reentry. Degeneracy is also important, as it allows different neurons and neuronal groups to yield similar outputs despite their different structures. “Different cells can carry out the same function and the same cell can, at two different times, carry out different functions in different neuronal groups.” The TNGS means that we do not need any fixed, computer-like plan to explain what happens in consciousness.

During natural selection, neuronal groups (rather than individual neurons) are selected for fitness from among the available variations.

Mechanisms of consciousness

How do these workings of the brain give rise to consciousness?

One of the most basic processes is the ability to categorise information from outside to make sense of the world. For example, we continually process various signals to categorise them as stable objects – chairs, cars, cats and so on. For Edelman, this categorisation is carried out by ‘global mappings’, i.e. sensory maps linked by reentry, and linked in turn to other systems such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Global mappings sample the world of signals and categorise them through the connections between neuronal groups.

However, these signals could not help an animal learn without memory, which Edelman defines as “the capacity to repeat or suppress a specific mental or physical act”. Memory is essential to a theory of consciousness.

Global mappings, concept formation and memory, along with the three neuro-anatomical ‘motifs’ of thalamus-cortex, subcortical organs and ascending value systems – these are the necessary evolutionary precursors of conscious activity. Then, Edelman argues, at some point in evolution, a new connectivity developed in the system. The critical development that allowed primary consciousness was the linking of memory to perceptual categorisation, granting an animal the ability to construct complex scenes and discriminate between elements of those scenes by referring to its memory of previous experience. This construction of a ‘remembered present’ improves the animal’s survival chances: it can make better choices about how to respond to its environment, for example by remembering that the last time it heard a particular growl, a predator appeared shortly after.

Primary consciousness is experienced by many animals besides ourselves. Animals with only primary consciousness have no real sense of past or future or of a socially defined, named self, and they are not conscious of being conscious. This doesn’t mean they don’t have a self, or don’t have memory. The difference between them and us, according to the TNGS, is that they have no semantic abilities, i.e. “they are not able to use symbols as tokens to lend meaning to acts and events and to reason about events not unfolding in the present moment.” This doesn’t quite mean that language is necessary for higher order consciousness – some apes have semantic abilities, including the ability to use symbols, without their being able to talk. But our real reference for higher order consciousness is ourselves. At some point, we realised that an arbitrary token, such as a gesture or word, can stand for a thing or event.

When a sufficiently large lexicon of such tokens is subsequently accumulated, higher-order consciousness can greatly expand in range. Associations can be made by metaphor, and with ongoing activity, early metaphor can be transformed into more precise categories of intrapersonal and interpersonal experience. The gift of narrative and an expanded sense of temporal succession then follow. While the remembered present is, in fact, a reflection of true physical time, a higher-order consciousness makes it possible to relate a socially constructed self to past recollections and future imaginations. The Heraclitean illusion of a point in the present moving from the past into the future is constructed by these means. This illusion, mixed with the sense of a narrative and metaphorical ability, elevates higher-order consciousness to new heights.

We later evolved additional ‘circuitry’ – hand in hand with the evolution of the vocal tract, increase in brain size, bipedal posture and other developments – that made large-scale connections between conceptual systems, allowing symbolic communication and language, and for the higher order consciousness characteristic of the human mind. The heart of this was the dynamic core, a huge network of neurons that maintain a continual and integrated picture from a range of possibilities despite being constantly re-arranged; it is not a specific brain area but a constant process. Semantic and linguistic ability required new reentry pathways and circuits and greatly expanded the range of conscious thought. We could now invent narratives and fantasies.

Because the reentrant circuitry of our minds is degenerate, Edelman doubts that there is a one-to-one correlation between a representation of an image or thought with any particular circuit or neurons. A neuron may help a representation one moment and not help at all the next. Representation is created by a complex network of neurons, synapses, environment, history and other contexts in which there are many ways to make the same meaning.

There are no functional states that can be uniquely equated with defined or coded computational states in individual brains and no processes that can be equated with the execution of algorithms. Instead, there is an enormously rich set of selectional repertoires of neuronal groups whose degenerate responses can, by selection, accommodate the open-ended richness of environmental input, individual history, and individual variation.

Just as every organism has a unique biological identity, each consciousness has a unique history.


To summarise: Consciousness is rooted in the brain, but the brain is embedded both in a body and in an environment. Consciousness is unitary, while at the same time it shifts and changes. Our earliest interactions with the world involve information from motor areas and emotional responses, and therefore create a self which acts as a reference for memory. In primary consciousness, this self exists in a ‘remembered present’ constructed around an integrated scene over a short time period. Even an animal with only primary consciousness and very little understanding of past and future can make many conscious discriminations between states, experienced as qualia. Primary consciousness depends on parallel, recursive activity within and between areas of the thalamus and the cortex.

With the evolution of higher order consciousness based on semantic ability, concepts of self, past and future emerge. Human beings have a self acting in a remembered present, but also a defined self; we are conscious of being conscious, have awareness of the past and can imagine the future. We have language, i.e. not only semantic ability but full syntactic ability as well. We can use symbols to divorce ourselves from the remembered present by acts of attention.

Neuroscience is still in its infancy. Scientists dispute whether there is any need to introduce Darwinism into the connecting of neurons, and Edelman does not give enough emphasis to consciousness as belonging to active people rather than brain processes. But Edelman’s account, with its correct emphasis on the mind as dynamic, plastic and organic rather than rigid or machine-like, may yet prove seminal for our understanding of consciousness.

[1] Quotes are from Edelman’s succinct and relatively accessible book Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2004).

Saturday, 18 August 2012


“It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: all of the significant evolution in our species occurred in populations with brown and black skins living in Africa. At the beginning of hominid evolution five million years ago, our ape-like ancestors had dark skin just like chimpanzees and gorillas. When modern Homo sapiens evolved a hundred thousand years ago, we still had dark skins. When brain sizes tripled, they tripled in Africans. When sexual choice shaped human nature, it shaped Africans. When language, music and art evolved, they evolved in Africans. Lighter skins evolved in some European and Asian populations long after the human mind evolved its present capacities.

“The skin colour of our ancestors does not have much scientific importance. But it does have a political importance, given the persistence of anti-black racism. I think that a powerful antidote to such racism is the realisation that the human mind is a product of black African females favouring intelligence, kindness, creativity, and articulate language in black African males, and vice versa. Afrocentrism is an appropriate attitude to take when we are thinking about human evolution.”

From Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind (2000).