Saturday, November 20, 2004


The Church of England was recently asked by Islington municipal council to rename one its schools to avoid alienating "people from other faiths and non-believers". The Islington municipal council had ironically been stripped of its school supervisory powers due its poor performance. Its duties were subsequently transferred to a private firm. But that did not prevent them from holding strong views on the naming of schools.

Islington council plans to incorporate the existing St Mary Magdalene Church of England Primary School into a new City Academy for five- to 18-year-olds. The church, which is giving £2 million towards building costs, has been told by the local authority - a partner in the scheme - that the name of the new school cannot be religious.

James Kempton, children and young people spokesman for the council's ruling Liberal Democrat party, said a consultation had been launched because of concerns over the use of the word "saint". "We want to create a school that is open to everybody in the community, not a school that selects through the back door," he said. "We need to ensure this is a school which is appropriate for Islington in the 21st century. "Church-going is now a much less significant part of people's lives."

It would not have been the first time that public authority had forgotten its cultural roots. In medieval England the legacy of classical Greece was often regarded as a form of heathenism, even though it lay at the root of Western Civilization. Homer was regarded as the "devil's entertainment". The knowledge of classical antiquity was largely forgotten. It was not until the Renaissance that Europe rehabilitated its wellsprings, readmitting it into public life partially because of its technological utility.

The reappraisal of classical texts may also have paved the way for another crucial development in west European history -- the Scientific Revolution. Until recently, scholars have seen little connection between the rise of modern science and the Renaissance. The latest research, however, has suggested a number of ways in which interest in ancient science may have fostered new approaches to the natural world. The astronomer Copernicus (1473-1547), for example, was educated in the humanist tradition, his scientific work owing much to the revival of Platonism in this period. Copernicus was the first to formulate the revolutionary proposal that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Likewise, the famous illustrated anatomical treatise published by Vesalius (1514-64) in 1543, owed much to Vesalius's deep-seated desire to emulate the work of the ancient Greek physician Galen. The critical re-evaluation of ancient texts, such as the botanical treatise of another ancient Greek physician, Dioscorides, and the Roman writer Pliny's Natural History, was also instrumental in promoting the revival of botany in the 16th century.

Eventually Homer became respectable again. The Iliad was again taught in the best circles and Aristotle placed at the service of the Church.

The great intellectual movement of Renaissance Italy was humanism. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life and the best models for a powerful Latin style. ... In the course of the fifteenth century, the humanists also convinced most of the popes that the papacy needed their skills. Sophisticated classical scholars were hired to write official correspondence and propaganda; to create an image of the popes as powerful, enlightened, modern rulers of the Church; and to apply their scholarly tools to the church's needs, including writing a more classical form of the Mass.

Nowhere was the resurgence of classicism so complete as in the English upper class. Maurice Baring, striving for a metaphor to describe the loss of a friend in the aerial combat of the Great War turned to his natural models:

And after days of watching, days of lead,
There came the certain news that you were dead.
You had died fighting, fighting against odds,
Such as in war the gods
Æthereal dared when all the world was young;
Such fighting as blind Homer never sung,
Nor Hector nor Achilles never knew,
High in the empty blue.
High, high, above the clouds, against the setting sun,
The fight was fought, and your great task was done.

Lord Byron, living a century and a half before the councilors at Islington, did not want to be "open to everybody in the community". At the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, he did not prevaricate, but took sides: the side of a Christian Englishman certainly, but also that of what he regarded as Western Civilization's roots, as if Poseidon himself were cheering from 'the wooded top of Thracian Samos', and fought for the re-establishment of Greece.

Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. He employed a fire master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command and pay, despite his lack of military experience. But before the expedition could sail, on February 15, 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which was aggravated by the bleeding insisted on by his doctors. The cold became a violent fever, and he died on April 19.

He left a testament, which though heartfelt, is astonishingly partisan by today's standards; the thoughts of a man more certain of his perspective than may ever be again at least in Islington; a man who could name his saints and remember his Homer.

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,---
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

Must we but weep o'er days more blest?
Must we but blush?---Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.

What, silent still, and silent all?
Ah! no; the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent's fall,
And answer, "Let one living head,
But one arise,---we come, we come!"
'Tis but the living who are dumb.