Solving a 2.4 Minute-Old Mystery: Thinking Critically and Classically

Stop press! Breaking news from Greece! Like a notable compatriot philosopher, a Greek archaeologist by the name of Kostas Sismanidis has this week (metaphorically) run naked through the streets, shouting ‘[h]eureka!’ He has found it – the it in question being the last resting place of Aristotle, philosopher, lecturer, encyclopaedist, tutor to Alexander the Great and all-round Renaissance man.


Renaissance Men by a Renaissance Man (Plato & Aristotle, from ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael)

News reports have caught on quickly to what, admittedly, is potentially exciting discovery. Many Classicists and archaeologists (such as Edith Hall, James Romm and others) have responded sceptically, and not without cause. Personally, I am not in a position to judge the ultimate truth of Sismanidis’ claim, although if this truly is a tomb of a prominent citizen of Stagira from shortly after Alexander the Great’s reign, then Aristotle is at least as good a candidate for its occupant as most. Stagira wasn’t exactly known for much else in Antiquity. To call it the Swindon of the Hellenistic World would probably be an over-billing.

When it comes to truth, however, there is one thing I can say. Contrary to almost every headline I’ve seen so far, this is not a 2,400 year-old tomb, and certainly not the solution to a 2,400 year-old mystery. How can I be so sure? Well, for one, Aristotle died about 2,338 years ago. Secondly…well, actually that’s it.

Nit-picking, I hear you cry. Well, yes, in part. If the various headline-writers were simply rounding up, that might be fair enough, although I still think 2,300 would be the conventional direction. But this isn’t what they’ve done, as is pretty clear from the first paragraph of this report:

Archaeologists at Ancient Stagira, Central Macedonia, say they have found Aristotle’s tomb. Addressing the Aristotle 2400 Years World Congress, they point to the 2,400-year-old tomb as the most important finding from the 20-year excavation.

AristotleThe 2,400-figure is not the result of rounding but has clearly been plucked straight from the name of the conference (sorry, congress). Only this is a conference celebrating 2,400 years of Aristotle, and they started counting, quite naturally, from the year of his birth (384 BC). This might be a little generous towards the contributions Aristotle made to philosophical posterity as a toddler, but on the whole it is a perfectly logical date and clearly where they’ve got their figure from.

In leaping on the 2,400 figure then, most news reports have managed to imply that Aristotle’s tomb was built in the year of his birth, which even with the ancient world’s high child-mortality rates seems a little keen. Indeed, one Guardian by-line (pictured), in calling it a 2,400 year-old mystery, even manages to imply that, having built his tomb in 384 BC, the Stagirites immediately forgot what the building was for, despite placing one ex-Aristotle in it sixty-odd years later.

Now, I may not yet have completely convinced you that this is not nit-picking of the finest comb-size, and fair enough. Does it really matter? Not really. No more than my referring to the mathematician and engineer, Archimedes, as a philosopher in the opening sentence of this article. Absolute accuracy isn’t necessary at all times, and must sometimes be sacrificed for ease of reference (a point of which academics often do need reminding).

But something about the reporting still rankles with me, and seems indicative of a wider attitude. I’m reminded of an incident from my former life in the tourist industry, involving another tomb, the so-called ‘tomb of Archimedes’ in Syracuse. I once had to spend an extremely long time explaining to an irate gentleman that it really wasn’t important that our tour hadn’t stopped to see this particular sight, because the tomb in question was universally recognised as having nothing to do with Archimedes whatsoever, and in any case was very dull and could only be viewed at a distance of a hundred metres behind a large fence. He was having none of it. A tourist-friendly label invented in the 19th Century apparently meant more to him than historical accuracy. But then he was a tourist, so perhaps that was the point.


“If that’s Archimedes’ tomb, I’m a 19th Century Sicilian peasant…”

In fact, there’s been a much more egregious example recently, with the widely reported revelation that scientists have managed for the first time to date Sappho’s ‘Midnight’-poem. Hooray! Fabulous! Chalk another one up for Science! Except for the fact they hadn’t dated it, nor were they the first to do what they had done (which was to give a time of year in which it was written, *if* it was written in 570 BC), and to top it all, the whole thing was based on some pretty silly assumptions about Sappho’s attitude to factual reporting and poetic license in her, er, poems.

Plenty of others have already critiqued both the original study and the media-reporting of it (among them these excellent posts by Rogue Classicist and Darin Hayton), and I won’t waste time here repeating their points. What matters to me is that – as with Aristotle’s over-eager tomb-building – apparently not a single journalist stopped to question their own reports, to ask themselves what they were actually reporting, or even to check it made sense. They were, it seems, simply dazzled by the reader-friendly headline, and ran with it despite the details. In the week that The Sun received its official rebuke for the inaccuracy of its ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ headline, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

Perhaps I’m being harsh on the various poor subs who were clearly being told to throw together an article on Sappho, or Aristotle, from a short press-release on an unfamiliar topic. But it doesn’t take an expert in archaic Greek poetry, or Hellenistic funerary monuments, to correct the mistaken reporting of these stories, it takes about two minutes of thought. At a time when we’re being assailed by facts and figures and arguments for and against E.U. membership, critical thinking and evaluation of evidence seem like skills worth stressing.

Of course, the challenge with the EU debate is the exact opposite of that facing most Classicists, who regularly have to work with an extremely limited range of source material and for whom facts and figures are often in short supply. Only one complete poem of Sappho’s has survived to the present day, alongside many fragments. As Rogue Classicist notes in the above article, ‘critical thinking and source-criticism’ are important skills for Classicists (largely because of this scarcity of evidence), but I would stress that it was these, rather than any specialist Classical knowledge, that were required to correct the bad reporting above.

White paper

Jo Johnson: a tousled blond visage not unfamiliar to Classicists.

Whether at schools or universities, academic subjects, especially in the Humanities, are increasingly asked to justify themselves in terms of transferable skills, and this is not an inherently bad thing. The ability to process and respond critically to information is an important skill in modern life, not just for those writing the headlines but also for those reading and acting on them. According to the government’s recent white paper on higher education, we are living in a ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘the ability to think critically and to assess and present evidence’ will be a skill increasingly in demand by employers in future. This notion, of a highly-skilled job market, has been challenged, but I think it is fair to say that critical thinking is an important trait for everyday life too. The EU Referendum is merely one example of many political questions which require a reasoned response from everyone, whatever their background or occupation.

The government is right to question whether educational establishments at all levels are fostering this skill, but we, in turn, must all be encouraged to think critically about the government’s own proposals, and question them as rigorously as anything else.


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