The Ploughman

There’s a good piece in The Guardian today, likening our response to recession, Global economic crisis and a troubled Euro, to the indifference of the ploughman in Brueghel’s ‘The fall of Icarus’.

Nick Cohen writes:

All Brueghel shows of Icarus is a small pair of thrashing legs disappearing into a vast sea. Farmers on a clifftop carry on ploughing the fields and watching their sheep as if nothing has happened.

It’s easy to focus on Icarus – and the reminder that however high we rise, or low we fall, fewer may turn their heads than we imagine. But the ploughman is interesting too. Ignoring disasters is as much a survival adaptation as avoiding them. Human beings are resilient because we plough on.

Yesterday morning, as the kids were clambering on a climbing frame in the park, a bloke let his big aggressive-looking pit bull terrier scour a hole – as he loudly conversed with his mate and quaffed a can of lager.

It bothered me and drew my attention away from my children. I wondered if I should do something. Am I personally responsible? Should I act?

But then a perverse thought came to mind. There are thousands of people behind closed doors in the Victorian terraces in the surrounding streets. Perhaps some are shouting, perhaps fighting, perhaps worse. The world is full of bad things happening at this very moment. But I can’t and don’t set out to fix them all.

So why choose this one to pick a fight over, just because it’s there and noisy? Why worry more about the pitbull than my kids? In fact why worry about it at all. So I focused back on the kids and ignored the dog.

Although it makes me feel bad, I reckon sometimes it’s ok to be the ploughman. As Auden wrote of Brueghel’s painting:

Everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.

The Greeks reckoned all human life was tragedy, usually played out with cruel drama. Some tragedies deserve our attention, some not. Choose your battles as they say, life’s too short and the sun is hot.


I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.