Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Matt Damon’s Elysium, Plato’s Republic, and Utopias!

I’ve been too far away from pop culture recently, but I am coming back to it. Having seen a trailer for Matt Damon’s new movie Elysium, I couldn’t help but write a post. Of course, the movie’s title comes straight from one classical concept of the afterlife known as the Elysian Fields. This is very much referenced in the movie Gladiator. There is a lot to discuss when talking about Elysium because it is quite controversial. I want to focus more on this movie’s concept and relation to ancient sources than the arguments surrounding the Elysian Fields. I will say one thing about the Elysian Fields, however, and that is that they are not the equivalent to the modern beliefs many religions hold about Heaven. They were originally reserved for heroes (god-related mortals) and, arguably, later considered open to those who were chosen or initiated into the mysteries. It was also not separate from the underworld, but rather a part of it and therefore the Heaven and Hell dichotomy was not in existence.

That’s enough on the Elysian Fields since they really have nothing to do with this movie other than its title. Clearly the title was chosen because the rich are allowed to live in a paradise (Elysium) while the poor are left stranded on Earth which has been left to ruins. That’s about as much of a synopsis as you will get from me because I have not seen the movie and I am writing purely on the concept with a great excitement to see this film. I also want to see how much I can predict from knowledge of classical works and works of “utopian” literature.

It could be argued that Elysium does not present a utopia because there is still an Earth society which is not at all utopian, but I think it is fair to say that the space station where the rich are living is meant to be a utopia that Matt Damon will somehow alter, destroy, wreak havoc upon, etc. The wiki calls it a utopian space station so I am going with that. It also claims that there are instant cures to all diseases in this space habitat (WOAH COOL!).

So take a step back with me to Ancient Greece and let’s take a look at the first utopian works that we currently have knowledge of.  These works would be Plato’s Republica and Plato’s Laws. The Republic actually attempts to set out standards for a utopian society while Laws sets out a society that is as close to that as possible, but could potentially be governed by real (aka flawed) men. Plato’s ideal society is nothing like what I assume Elysium will be, but that’s assumption based on the fact that Elysium must be driven by wealth. In the Republic there is no such thing as private property, everything is communal including children and food. The children are raised by the community without knowledge of who their parents are. Food is simple, not extravagant. Basically it is that everyone lives a moderate life so that no one is below or above another, everyone is equal.

The most important main goal of the Republic was to be devoid of human weakness. This is the part I find most fascinating both about the Republic itself and its connection to the film Elysium. In the film the focus on removing human weakness comes in the form of physically curing everyone in the habitat of all diseases.  While, I think, Plato would argue that human weakness comes from desires for excess, luxury, satisfaction, etc. it is noteworthy that Elysium considers it purely physical. The nature of Elysium is actually the opposite of the Republic because the idea on the space station is that everyone can afford and has everything they could possibly want.

Of course as with all utopian works we will find out that Elysium is actually dystopian for many reasons, I’m going to bank on it being some sort of human nature flaw. It may come in a form we are not used to like compassion or it may be that the people want more and more and we find there are even limits to luxury. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

That is a wandering, smattering of the origins of utopian works and Plato’s beliefs about utopia. I hope it gave you a nice little base of knowledge. I suggest reading more on these things by reading Plato’s Laws and his Republic. I also suggest Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bacon’s The New Atlantis (unfinished, but encourages luxury so may be a good comparison to Elysium).

Leave a comment below arguing with me, telling me your favorite work of utopian literature, or how you think this movie is going to play out. I will hopefully be seeing it shortly and writing a follow up to this.

EDIT: I love District 9 so hopefully this is as good.

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Battle of the Ultra-Athletes: Tarahumara vs. Spartans

The Tarahumara is a tribe of indigenous people in Central America, more specifically in the Copper Canyons of Mexico; they are known for running incredible distances. I think we all know who the Spartans are at this point since that historically inaccurate movie came out.  Ultra-athletes are people who compete in insane endurance competitions which can take place over a variety of disciplines.  I discovered the Tarahumara and Ultra endurance competitions just recently when I began reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is a great book (so far) and I will venture to say from what I have read, it should be on every must read list whether you are a runner or not.

Early on in the book McDougall makes a claim that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors. This, of course, quickly got me scouring my knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and wondering if that was a fair comparison. First I should note that there are plenty of other tribes in the world which have shown excellence in endurance activities such as the Bajau people of Indonesia who are incredible apneists (great greek root there), holding their breath for long periods of time and showing great free diving ability.  So it is probably not the case that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors, but the comparison still intrigues me.

The Spartan warriors are famous in modern times because of the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae who are legends for their military prowess. Most scholars agree that it was not just 300 Spartans at this battle, but I will leave it at that as to not burst the bubble of myth lovers. That being said there is a lot of evidence of the amazing athletic ability of Spartans. Those selected to be warriors were put into training at the age of seven. The Tarahumara start running as soon as they can although it is not exactly regimented training as was the case in Sparta. The Tarahumara are not an attacking people. They choose to retreat into the hills and use the terrain to stay hidden from enemies. Many will jump and say that is the main difference between the Spartans and the Tarahumara, but I want to remind you of Herodutos’ account of Thermopylae (book 7 around 222).  He talks about the retreat into the hills and ensuing battle in a narrow pass advantageous to the Spartans.  At the same time the poet Tyrtaeus claims that men in Sparta were trained neither to run away nor surrender.  Born to Run says that the Tarahumara have people who are very old running alongside people who are very young without notice of a difference in step. The Spartans were enlisted until age 60 and had to maintain fitness up through the age of 65 because they could be called upon up to 65 in war times.

Both groups wore a sandal-like footwear while doing their athletics for those of you on the barefoot running train.

As for comparing the actual athletic ability of the two it is a very difficult thing to do. The Spartan warriors are in fact warriors and are known for their athletics in terms of war. When we talk about distances they can march or run those numbers must be considered differently than marathon runners since they are weighed down by armor and equipment.  I have looked all over the texts I have for anything referencing a numerical value that I could use to compare the speed of the Spartans to that of the Tarahumara and I can’t. Pure athleticism will have to be left debatable, however the comparisons above should give an idea in terms of lifestyle about how the two measure up.

NOTE: The Athenians are actually granted credit for the term Marathon as they sent a messenger, Pheidippides, back to Athens from the battle of Marathon, a reported distance of 26 miles. The messenger collapsed dead upon completion, obviously not an ultra-athlete (Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens).  It is said that the last two tenths of a mile were added to accommodate a viewing box for the Queen of England many years later. I have no source for this information; I know it only as a legend passed around some running circles.

SECOND NOTE: I have not included any of Thucydides comments on the Spartans, but he provides a very different view, in fact he calls them weak a lot. The reason for this is most likely his historical bias, but I should note that his opinion on the Spartans is out there and can be found.

For more on the Bajau people see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009j7nc

Born to Run http://www.amazon.com/Born-Run-Hidden-Superathletes-Greatest/dp/0307279189

 

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Battlestar Galactica and Sophocles’ Ajax

In case this blog isn’t nerdy enough, I thought I would up the nerd factor a little bit and write about not only classics, but Battlestar Galactica. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi anything, but people kept telling me to watch this show so I finally broke down and started it. Now I’m addicted. I should note here that I have just started the 3rd season and therefore I may be missing things and I will most likely not be spoiling much.  For the sake of this post not being incredibly long and unfocused, I would like to ignore some of the more obvious allusions to Greek mythology like the usage of Greek gods and even the less obvious use of the Pythia oracle. This post will focus on one (possibly accidental) reference to Greek mythology: The relationship between Gaius and Number 6 (also known as Caprica 6, but she shall be called Number 6 here).

Their relationship is definitely a large focal point for the show, but what got me really interested in it is that after only a few episodes I saw a parallel between their relationship and that of Ajax and Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax. In the Greek tragedy Ajax is continually manipulated by Athena who speaks directly to him. Some scholars have interpreted Athena as Ajax’s madness incarnate (well sort of since she’s a goddess).  Some theatrical interpretations and adaptations have shown Athena as only being seen by Ajax and being on stage the entire time to direct the events of the play. The use of deities as mental illnesses or madness in many of Sophocles’ plays has been contemplated by scholars. I enjoy entertaining the notion that Greek playwrights used the gods to portray what we today would consider internal working of the mind as well as mental health issues.

As I have not finished the series yet I cannot say what is going on between Gaius and Number 6, but when she is instructing him and manipulating him aboard Galactica while he is the only one who can see her, there is a striking resemblance to Ajax and Athena. I look forward to seeing how this plays out, if he is crazy, a cylon, or there is another explanation. No matter what though, there is no denying the similarities between the two relationships. I wonder if this was influence or accidental, but either way it is awesome.

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