Last night I stayed up late, to watch a remarkable documentary on a fallen hero of our times – Lance Armstrong. On the day the Tour de France hit London, it couldn’t have been better timed.

The ordinary background, the “f#ck ’em all” early years, the descent into cancer and vicious chemo, the fight back and astonishing, triumphant 1999 Tour de France victory. Then the doping rumours, allegations, flat denials, Feds, hubris, betrayals (of him and by him) and the final fall.

His is an epic story of Greek proportions. But I come away confused… Charming, brutal, controlling, intimidating. But now vanquished: a quieter, reflective and for me, a better man.

A modern Achilles, it’s not for nothing that all Greek tragedy had a narrative arc. There are no gods in real life, only mortals. And in acknowledging he has done wrong – albeit too late and with a trail of lies and damaged lives in his wake – he has begun the steep climb to redemption.

I wish him well on that road.

Great Men


The Greeks invented tragedy. Shakespeare explored its every facet. Hollywood is more ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. But does greatness invariably end in disaster? It depends on what you think great is.

Most of the ‘great’ men I’ve met have been greatest in either stature, ego or self regard. Far fewer in warmth, kindness or humility.

It’s this simple I reckon: if you’re great on the backs of others – expect one day to fail and fall.

If you’re great for and because of others – great of heart, integrity and kindness – you may stumble, but I believe you will never truly fall.

Why? Because those you have truly cared about and cared for will reach out to catch you in your hour of need, and will gently forgive you your honest mistakes.

The only greatness worth having is that which is earned for, from and freely bestowed by others.

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.


Aristotle is always refreshingly plain on a subject. So when I read him, I find it easy to think he’s simply making a useful summary of a well known issue. But often he was creating the entire discipline; the first known thinker to frame or classify it. This makes his clarity and brevity all the more remarkable. And all this in 350 BC.

Among his intellectual inventions was the first setting out of the principles of ‘Poetics’, covering drama, tragedy and a lost volume on comedy.

Here he explains the origins and evolution of poetry:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry, myth and tragedy played important roles in Ancient Greece. According to Nietzsche they were instrumental in maintaining the vitality and optimism of Greek culture. Poetry, myth and tragedy also captured the essence of Ancient History. As Aristotle said:

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history. For poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.

Perhaps, like philosophy, poetry is less central to modern culture. But it’s still takes the same courage and skill:

Constantly risking absurdity, whenever he performs above the heads of his audience, the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958)

It also connects the sublime with the ridiculous in the human condition:

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. (Carl Sandburg, 1928)

But philosophy and poetry can still bring happiness, fulfilment and an opportunity to develop our natural gifts – till our ‘rude improvisations’ give birth to our own poetry.


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.