Values that are worth dying, and living, for

This is the second and final part of this year’s Runciman Lecture by Paul Cartledge, delivered in London on February 6. Cartledge is professor of Greek history, a former chairman of the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Clare College. Commenting on the events of September 11, 2001, he says they have «provoked a salutary spate of Western reflection on just what it is to be ‘Western,’ on what ‘Western civilization’ is, or should be. Some of us Westerners have been provoked, specifically, into wondering aloud whether any definition of our civilization and its cultural values would justify our dying for them – or even maybe killing for them. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece have wondered that with especial intensity. For the world of ancient Greece is one of the principal taproots of our Western civilization. «The two best known exemplars of ancient Greek culture that have meant most in and to the Western tradition are Athens and Sparta. Often they have been opposed to each other: luxury versus virtue in the 18th century, democracy set against patriotism in the 19th, liberal democracy against authoritarian fascism in the 20th. The battle of values continues on into our own 21st century, and the literal battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, arguably Sparta’s finest hour, provides a suitable focus for the discussion. The downside of the Spartans’ achievements, most notoriously their treatment of the Helots, cannot be overlooked. Yet the ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae, the concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for, still resonates today. ‘Utopia’ is formally ambiguous: It can mean either ‘No-Place’ (ou-topia) or ‘Place of Well-Faring’ (eu-topia). I’d like to think that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be too bad a place to be.»