The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday 2 October 2010
An essay mentioned "the grotesque notion that the first world war was won 'on the playing fields of Eton'". The subject of this saying was actually the battle of Waterloo, a century earlier. Another essay in the same collection mentioned George Orwell's observation that at 50, everyone has the face he deserves – but subtracted 10 years from the original version. [An invigilator notes: These essays were written under something resembling exam conditions.]
Mary Beard, classicist
Would it have been better had some surviving works of ancient authors been lost?
Classical studies are driven by the ambiguities of survival. It is not a question of what we have versus what we do not have (the surviving books of Dio's History of Rome measured against the lost books of Tacitus' – no doubt infinitely sharper – history of the last days of Nero). Classics, as a subject, engages in the curiosities, problems and discontents of survival. It builds on the puzzling, changing identifications of works that are transmitted via the scholarly hands of the monkish middle ages, or those dug up from the sands of Egypt. It makes us face how little we know about what the "survival" (or "loss") of literature means.
Sometimes it's clear enough. Diogenes, the second-rate, second-century AD epicurean philosopher, ensured his own survival by having his thoughts inscribed on the wall of his home city of Oenoanda in what is now Turkey. There was little chance of destroying that. But usually "survival" is a trickier question. Take the short essay "Constitution of Athens", now attributed to the anonymous "Old Oligarch". Is this a work of the Athenian renegade politician Xenophon (with whose works it has been transmitted in medieval manuscripts)? Or is it a weird rightwing tract by a not very bright anti-democrat of about the same period – that is, the late fifth century BC? (Moses Finley always used to say that the modern pseudonym "Old Oligarch" was the problem here: it made him sound like an engaging elderly pub-philosopher, when in fact he was the closest the ancient word came to a fascist – with the exception of Plato.)
Or think, rather differently, of the archaic Greek poetess Sappho. A few of her poems survive, brilliant enough to define the history of love poetry for the next two and a half millennia ("Phainetai moi . . ." as the best one goes in Greek, copied by the Roman poet Catullus in "Ille mi par esse . . ."). But maybe Sappho's reputation has been helped by what we no longer have. Most of her output was, we fear, interminable marriage hymns for the young ladies in her entourage. Lost, and well lost, perhaps.
To think more widely (and not to forget that the origin of Christianity was in the Roman empire), what difference has it made that the four canonical gospels have been canonised as such – so effectively consigning the variants to the scrap heap? The recently published Gospel of Judas gives a hint of a very different tradition, and one in which – as never happens in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – Jesus actually laughs (with all the theological complexity that that involves – does God laugh?). Survival, or not, has theological implications and a theological history.
But the key example is that holy grail of classical scholarship – a holy grail because no one can agree whether it is lost or not – the second book of Aristotle's Poetics (written in the mid fourth century BC). The first book of the Poetics deals with Aristotle's theory of tragedy (the famous discussion of pity, fear and catharsis). The second book, or so we glean from other references in Aristotle, brought the reader back to comedy and to that tricky problem of laughter. The usual scholarly line here is to lament that this work did not make it through the middle ages. Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose ("spaghetti structuralism" according to Slavoj Žižek, but fun all the same) dramatised the disappearance of the last surviving copy: literally eaten as a subversive tract by a gloomy "agelastic" monk, before his whole monastery goes up in flames. And recently such leading scholars as Quentin Skinner have mourned its disappearance: if only we had Aristotle's essay on comedy, writes Skinner, we would understand ancient laughter.
But has it disappeared? And what counts as disappearing? According to Richard Janko, valiantly reviving a (nearly lost) 19th-century theory, the weird little treatise "On Comedy" in a 10th-century manuscript (Tractatus Coislinianus, now in Paris, once on Mount Athos) is actually a summary of this lost work.
So is it or isn't it? Scholarship has not gone with Janko. The essay in the Tractatus is a very mediocre little tract, and most likely – so the orthodox view goes – a jejune compendium of Aristotelian thought by a none-too-bright Byzantine monk. It includes, for example, some very plodding ideas of what makes an audience laugh ("silly dancing", is one prompt to laughter). But could we see it differently? According to Michael Silk (no admirer of the intellectual power of lost Aristotle) we might actually think that, in all its mediocrity, this mediocre work was a reasonable summary of some very mediocre Aristotle – altogether not worth saving. Let's not lament its loss.
Who knows? But this should remind us of the perils of survival (as the question asks us to reflect). Sometimes the best may not survive (and classical nostalgia always suspects that we have inherited some dross while losing some gems). But maybe (and this would be a simplified version of Silk's position on the second book of the Poetics) what we have lost was second-rate all along. Perhaps the history of the transmission of classical texts has been a pretty efficient sorting mechanism: the survival of the fittest.
In a way it was summed up towards the beginning of Tom Stoppard's TheInvention of Love. The play's "hero", AE Housman, Cambridge professor and celebrity classicist, is going down to Hades from the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge. He is delighted to interrogate Charon, the boatman taking him across the Styx, wanting to find out more about what happened in Aeschylus' lost play, Myrmidons. Charon looks as if he can deliver. But the joke is that he only tells Housman the lines that Housman knows already, preserved in later quotations and no surprise at all.
The allure of survival turned out to be the survival of what Housman already knew. It complicates the idea of choice and loss.
Geoff Dyer, writer
Why are face transplants more controversial than liver transplants?
To get to the heart of this question it is worth examining the moment, in a sketch from the 1970s, when Tommy Cooper takes a seat on a train and looks up at the person opposite. We see, immediately, that it is Adolf Hitler. Cooper is a little uncertain – he knows it's someone famous but is not sure who. "Hang on a moment, I never forget a face . . ." Then, after a pause: "That is a face, isn't it?"
This is funny because we think that the problem is that he doesn't recognise Hitler's face, but in fact he's is not even sure it is a face at all. Because he's not sure it's a face, however, does not mean that it could be, say, a liver. He means it's a rather sad excuse for a face. But the question – "That is a face, isn't it?" – contains a deeper question, the one recognised by Martin Heidegger who was a member of the Nazi party, the party started by Hitler to achieve world domination. The question is not what is a face (or liver) but what is "is" ("Was ist das 'ist'?").
In his different, less phenomenological way, Cooper insists that we do not take things at face value. One's initial response to the question is that it's obvious why liver transplants are not controversial. It is widely accepted now, in a culture of binge-drinking, that the liver as biologically conceived is not up to the demands of modern living. In the era of recreational drug use and happy hours and alcopops, the liver just can't cope. It is not an organ that one has any sentimental attachment to. One could not, for example, imagine a bumper sticker with "I ❤ my liver". The liver is just a dumping ground for toxins. Even by the standards of offal it's a horrible little organ. I can still remember, at school, being served liver with those veins in it. I've never eaten it since.
But then – and this is where the Cooper joke forces us to confront things we take for granted – consider how much more disgusting it would have been if we had been served a human face. Or a chimpanzee's face. But where to stop? Quite often we are served fish with the head on, and when we say "head" we really mean "face". The cheeks are widely considered the sweetest part of a fish. It is also worth bearing in mind that, after a certain number of years in the trade, all fishmongers begin to look rather amphibious. There is, in other words, a concealed assumption in the question: that we are talking about the transplant of a human rather than animal face on to a human being. This is considered completely beyond the pale, even though infantry soldiers are popularly referred to as "dog faces".
Of course the real problem is that the face is bound up with personal identity. In John Woo's film Face/Off John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swap faces, effectively becoming each other. If they had just swapped livers it wouldn't have made much difference to either of them; it would have resulted in a completely pointless film that would no doubt have flopped at the box office. George Orwell understood the way that one's face is tied up with one's identity when he said that by the age of 40 everyone has the face they deserve. Martin Amis updated this: everyone gets the face they can afford. This gets to the heart of the matter. Face transplants are still at an early stage. They are experimental and extremely expensive: what you see is what you get; or, more exactly, what you got is what you see. All of this will no doubt be solved as the technology improves and the kinks are ironed out. As that happens, demand will increase and prices will come down, and we will all be able to walk around looking like whoever we want.
Mary Midgley, moral philosopher
"There was a time when people only wanted to sense the moon, but now they want to see it" (Goethe). Discuss.
This is just one more fascinating clue to the way in which the Enlightenment has shrunk and tidied up our European life-world. As the ethologists have told us, every species has its distinctive world, its Umwelt, the peculiar space in which it feels that it lives. A pigeon's world is quite a different one from that of the peregrine that eats it. Neither of them could make any sense of the other. And because we humans vary so much in our cultures, we too live in a number of different life-worlds, which are constantly changing.
What Goethe was talking about was, no doubt, the explosive effect of Galileo's telescope on the European world-picture. Seen through that telescope, Jupiter suddenly had moons, and what had seemed to be the slightly uneven silver disc of our own moon turned out to be as rough, as pitted and as messy as the surface of the earth itself. Notoriously, this drastically affected cosmology and religion, both of which had taken for granted a secure and perfect heavenly realm, in which the moon was included. But Goethe, I think, was talking about another imaginative effect which has not had so much attention.
What did he mean by sensing the moon? We don't have his German word, but I take it he was distinguishing between taking in something directly as a whole and being able to sort out its different elements. David Copperfield sensed that Miss Murdstone didn't much like little boys, and he didn't really need a fuller analysis to tell him he was right. After Galileo, European inquirers were able to give the moon that detailed analysis, and they have eventually provided it with a pretty full street guide, filling in the Mare Imbrium and the Mare Tranquillitatis and all the rest of it. This is surely a splendid achievement. But is this process of increasing detail – of continually sharpening up the focus – enough? Does it need a wider background?
When people just sensed the moon, they were admiring that silver disc in the context of the heavens as a whole. They saw it reigning among the stars, being lost among shifting clouds and emerging from them, rising and setting over the earth. That variable heaven was for them a symbol of majesty, of the vaster background that gave a sense to their lives. As Kant put it in the Critique of Practical Reason: "Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."
Today, it is not possible for many human beings to see that starry heaven at all because of the light pollution that covers our towns. Details of the moon, and the other heavenly bodies, are, however, brought to us in books or on television. If we wish, we can know infinitely more about them than our most learned ancestors could ever have dreamed of. Indeed, the Enlightenment has done a magnificent job of increasing our knowledge. The further job – which its original prophets glimpsed very clearly – of putting that knowledge in its wider context hasn't been done so well. It is not a job for science but for wisdom. It needs more work.
Will Self, writer
Is there something inherently coarsening about sport?
Montaigne said, "Mistrust a man who takes games too seriously; it means he doesn't take life seriously enough." Yet this remark, coming as it does from an essayist who elsewhere in his multifarious oeuvre confesses to great enjoyment of both parlour games and the chase, may strike us as an admonition aimed at the author himself. It seems to indicate that Montaigne saw his own sensibility as poised on a knife-edge between being submerged in the ephemeral trivialities of contingent competition, and the lasting importance of life properly engaged with.
We are all familiar in our own lives with the spectacle of the sports fanatic, or the compulsive games player, whose engagement with the wider world is mediated through the lens of their pursuit. In British culture it seems sometimes to be the casethat discussion of football has the character of an ulterior male language, running beneath the main course of communication in such a way as to suborn its function.
To hear men in pubs – or on trains, in offices, indeed anywhere at all – speak of this goal or that team selection is instantly to apprehend that what they discuss is not football per se, but rather life in all its conflict and variety; and that the proximate dispute about refereeing decisions may stand only as a proxy for misgivings about anything from the presence of British ground forces in Afghanistan to the wisdom of cutting government spending so far and so fast.
Men – and some women – watch football, dispute and debate football, and even occasionally kick a ball around, because it offers them a small-scale model of life, not necessarily because it distracts them from life altogether. Claude Lévi-Strauss observed in The Savage Mind that the virtue of a small-scale model is that it sacrifices the sensible in favour of the intelligible. Life, it is true, can be grasped in all its confused futility merely by opening one's eyes and sitting passively, a spectator on the stands of history – but to understand the social processes and conflicts, the interplay between individual and group, even the physicality of human experience, we have need of small-scale models.
As the render is to the building, and the blueprint to the machine, so sport is to social existence. Within the compass of football or rugby pitch; on the baize of a roulette or poker table; in a squash court and around a running track – all of these are confined arenas within which the application of normative constraints to the vagaries of individual character and the valences of individual aptitude can be assessed and, more importantly, projected. It is fair to say that insofar as sport is taken seriously by those who play it, then to that extent their conduct in play – their ability to deal with loss or victory, their ability to meld strategic thinking and brute force – can be taken as a small-scale model of how they, or others like them, might behave in life.
Surely it is this aspect of sport which makes it quite so beguiling for those that follow it. I stress, this is not simply a retread of the grotesque notion that the first world war was won "on the playing fields of Eton". In what sense at all could that war be said to have been won at all? The compulsive application of sporting metaphor to the conduct of entrenched slaughter was just one of the figures within which can be discerned the extent to which mechanised warfare veered away from any social contract whatsoever. The famous "Christmas truce" of 1914, when British and German troops staged a football match in no man's land, was utterly eclipsed by subsequent episodes when advancing British troops dribbled footballs in front of them after going over the top, the aim being to kick the ball into the enemy's trenches.
Here, sport as a re-enactment – on a small scale – of the social contract is replaced by a lopsided metaphorical instantiation of sporting zeal. After all, what would it have been like for the British dribblers to have scored a goal, let alone "won" the one-sided match they were engaged in? It is in contexts such as these, where sport runs up against life situations that cannot be mediated by the same normative rules, that sport risks looking too facile and too juvenile to be anything but a coarsening influence on the lives and minds of people.
The "rumble in the jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman; the kidnap and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the disasters at Ibrox stadium and Hillsborough – these are not, properly understood, sporting events at all: they are sociopolitical occurrences that have imploded into the small-scale models of life that sport offers. And it is when we see sports pundits, commentators and fans struggling to come to terms with such events that we feel most strongly the pathos of the sporting life, and the bewilderment of its habituees.
It is not that sport, over-indulged in, coarsens the mind; it is that it dulls it. If I were to recast Montaigne's aperçu it would be thus: "Mistrust a man who takes games too seriously; it means he may be incapable of taking life seriously enough." In static and small-scale societies – one thinks of the ancient Greek city states, or of contemporary traditional societies (if there are any such truly still existent) – there may be no necessary conflict between the seriousness of sport and the seriousness of life. Moreover, in as much as the former coarsens it may do so for a purpose: the ritualised forms of conflict employed by Native Americans such as the Cheyenne and the Sioux, prior to the fulfilment of Manifest Destiny, can be seen as just one example of the way sport and warfare merge seamlessly to provide a graduated response to the problem of collective male aggression. (And arguably, so-called football hooliganism in our society is another example of the same phenomenon; it's worth noting that in both arenas the mounting of raids and the taking of scalps is crucial.)
I say "arguably", because we do not live in a static or self-contained society, and it's almost impossible to view local and amateur sport as an analogue of the social process. On the contrary, if sport in our culture exists on a continuum, it is one that ascends from the local kick-around pitch to such mighty boondoggles as the 2012 Olympic Games, or the farrago that was the England football team's petulant failure at this year's World Cup. The extreme professionalisation of sport and its internationalisation exposes the fallacious character of how the small-scale model of sport might operate.
In lieu of young sports players discovering how to conduct themselves in constrained playing environments, so as to be able to take their place in similarly delimited social and economic contexts, we have the spectacle (if it's possible to imagine such a thing) of multi-millionaires refusing to train for their professional games unless they are allowed access to their computer games consoles. That this really did take place in South Africa confirms not merely an inability to take life seriously enough, or a coarsening of the individuals' concerned sensibilities, but a deep and painful kind of stultification.
I cleave to the Montaigne quote with which I began this answer, but lingering in the back of my mind was a series of observations made by the protagonist of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter. In all his years of observing sportsmen and women train, this character – the sportswriter of the title – has come to the conclusion that sport, even if it attracts intelligent people, succeeds ultimately in dumbing them down by the sheer force of the repetitive physical activities they are engaged in all day every day. As it is in complex late capitalist society, so it is in complex late capitalist sport: intense specialisation equals mindless repetition.
In conclusion: sport may not inevitably coarsen, but in the particular form of society we have it undoubtedly stupefies. But then, since most of us are stupefied anyway, why not play up! And play the game!
•Blog: Could you set harder questions?
http://education.helixated.comAn Open Source Education Project
GCE 'A' LEVEL GENERAL PAPER NOVEMBER 2005PAPER 1
question from this Paper. Answers should be between 500 and 800 words in length
1.Is effective farming possible without science?2.‘There is no such thing as luck. People determine their own lives.’ Do youagree?
To what extent should the State involve itself in the world of business?4.Do the arts, such as music and literature, really play a significant part in theSingaporean society?5.‘Medial science has been so successful that people now expect too much of it.’ Do you agree?6.‘Hosting major sporting events creates more problems than benefits.’ Do youagree?7.Examine the claim that the world is too dependent on oil.8.‘The tourist does not see the country the inhabitants know.’ How far is this trueof Singapore?
‘Instead of speeding up the pace of life, we should be slowing it down.’ Whatdo you think?10. Consider the view that the study of mathematics is intellectually satisfying,but of little practical use.11.‘Too much attention is given to criminals; not enough to their victims.’ Is thistrue?12.How far do magazines or television programmes aimed at young people inSingapore have a positive effect?