Soon after Bettany picks up the phone she warns me that she doesn’t have long before she has to rush off to meet a publishing deadline. Always on the move seems to describe her lifestyle. She splits her work between books, TV series, lectures, educational charities and much, much more; in fact she took a trip to Istanbul during the time we were organising the interview. She is however quick to assure me that the life of a historian is far less glamourous than it sounds, with more sitting in cramped rooms, pouring over dusty books than anything else.
Bettany’s recent documentary, “Genius of the Ancient World”, centres on ancient philosophy – specifically, Buddha, Socrates and Confucius – and gives the impression that philosophy in the ancient world was very dynamic and exciting, Socrates was condemned to death for his beliefs, after all. So I ask Bettany why it now seems so stuffy and unapproachable? “Because it became a discipline,” Bettany tells me, describing how as philosophy became something primarily to be studied it became the reserve of academics and the elite. It slowly disappeared from everyday life until its contemporary image became that of aloof, white-haired, toga-clad men. In reality, it was these toga clad ancients who brought philosophy “down from the skies and onto the streets” or so Cicero described Socrates.
The definition of philosophy is a love of wisdom, which Bettany describes as “a very empowering and democratising way to understand the world” and she is right – this definition would mean that as long as we enjoy thinking and considering the world
around us “each and every one of us has the capacity to be a philosopher”.
The problem with philosophy is that it is abstract in nature and according to Bettany this attracts people “just trying to prove how clever they are” and excludes others from the dialogue. So how to save this ailing discipline? Bettany’s prescription is to go back to the way the ancients approached philosophy, as a social thing that everyone can engage in, something to be included in everyday discourse. If we want philosophy to once more become a part of the modern world, we are the ones who have to change. We must leave behind our preconceptions about the subject and our embarrassment of having intellectual conversations if we want to put philosophy “back on the streets”. She pictures a philosopher curled up quietly in the corner of every committee meeting, analysing all our discussions – our own personal Jiminy Cricket to stop and say, well that’s all very interesting, “but where is the good here, in what way is this serving society?”
Philosophy is also distanced from modern society as almost all philosophers are men, a problem Bettany has also encountered as a historian. I ask her whether she has ever felt the pressure to conform to societal and academic discourse norms and, although she acknowledges the temptation, her answer is a definitive no! For her the fact that the historical field was dominated by men when she was growing up was proof to her that she was needed. She argues that history aims to fill in the blanks and uncover hidden stories and a lack of women in historical discourse would obviously leave gaping holes.
Challenging the orthodox is something that Bettany is not afraid to do and she believes that it forms a vital part of being a historian. This could also explain why she is not fazed by modern attitudes towards her passions ancient history and the classics. Like philosophy, many see ancient history as irrelevant. Playing devil’s advocate, I ask her what role they do the two subjects play in society? First off, she points out that maybe 40% of our conversation now is of Greco-Roman origin and thus it helps us to understand modern language. In addition, our political systems are based on ancient ideas, but most importantly “we mustn’t forget that the ancients aren’t an alien species”, they too are human and examining ancient history, language and culture can be “a very fresh way of looking at the human condition, because we are separated by so much time that it really forces you to think about what’s going on in human terms.”
We might not be as different from our ancient counterparts as we would like to think. We run into equally large cultural and linguistic barriers in the modern world and yet we find ways of getting around them, although admittedly we don’t have the luxury of talking face to face with the ancients to help us. Bettany states that, the ability to breach cultural and linguistic barriers is particularly relevant as we are an Island nation and it is therefore easy for us to feel disconnected if we don’t reach out. This is why she asserts the fact that English is the new lingua-franca is “our blessing and our curse” because whilst shared language opens up a whole wealth of opportunities it also makes us lazy. Language learning and reaching out across cultural divides is also increasingly important due to the rise of far right and isolationist political movements, particularly across Europe. As Bettany puts it, “our strength comes from our connections and so we should never underestimate the value of our connections with others”.
So how would the ancient philosophers have approached the problems we face today, of sovereignty, language and identity in the wider world? Bettany warns upfront that we shouldn’t see the ancient philosophers through rose tinted spectacles and that they too could be narrow minded, yet philosophers seemed to concur that you should always be reaching out and testing your understanding of the world and they would be “very anxious about the idea that we decided to cauterise the possibility of those connections rather than to facilitate them”, in other words, would Socrates have been pro EU I ask her? “Yes, I suspect he would”.
Bettany Hughes is currently working on a new history of Istanbul (amongst other things) for more information on her and her work see: www.bettanyhughes.co.uk