Burning Cities

Part Two. Ionian Science and the League of Nations

16 JUNE 2017,
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece

Now ready yourselves for a large millennia leap, a backward leap to the end of the Bronze Age at a time when the great civilizations of the Aegean and Near East, unraveled and suddenly collapsed. Cities burned, trade became almost nonexistent, and large groups of people migrated from one place to another. It took on immense proportions. In scope it was cataclysmic; many sites in Greece were simply abandoned, with refugees settling as far off as Cyprus and Ionia. The population of Greece shrunk to a quarter and the Greek Dark Ages had begun.

After a long period of darkness new colonies emerged such as Militus in Asia Minor. In its flourishing became the desired plum of Persia, well before Thermopylae. This Eurasian tension contains the seeds of the myth of Europa, the girl with the wide-eyed gaze who captivated Zeus. Philosophy and science developed starting with Thales who gave us electrostatics and electron a word derived from amber.

According to Maureen O’ Sullivan an Australian philosopher, the father of philosophy Thales was the wiliest of characters. After several years of olive crop failure and hunger, he predicted a bumper harvest and bought up all of the olive presses in Ionia. When the olives began to ripen and a bumper crop was in sight he rented them back at considerable profit. She says Thales typified the phrase of Francis Bacon, ‘knowledge is power’. What is better known is that afterwards, he was given a wide birth and left to philosophize for the rest of his life.

Plato was unsettled with the explanatory power of science, unsure with descriptions of nature in terms of atoms, without any reference to the gods. It was sacrilege to deny, either their existence, or to deny their concerns for human beings. After all Prometheus gave man fire. The gods still lurk in our languages. In English Wednesday - that is today - we have Wotan; Thursday - Thor; Easter - goddess of springtime and dawn. Plato’s thoughts were echoed in reform Oxford, two thousand years later. The university opposed the coming of the railway, its first professor of geology reconciled geology with the biblical account of creation while another professor thought that physics without god would be a dull inquiry into certain meaningless phenomena. This about the time of the public debate on evolution when the Bishop of Oxford wanted to know whether, Huxley’s claim of decent from monkeys came from his grandfather or from his grandmother? I’m not ashamed in having a monkey as an ancestor replied Huxley. I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who uses great gifts to obscure the truth.

No one knows for sure what great force destroyed the great cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean circa 1000 BC. Whatever the force of grand destruction and those that wielded it, lacked the power and knowledge to rebuild. Thebes the home of Oedipus a man of compassion with a sense of justice was the first city to burn. Athens survived the destruction but poverty prevailed. From the ruins of razed cities an oral tradition emerged with descriptions of chaos recorded by folk singers and story tellers that were pieced together in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer gives descriptions of the first epidemic in history thought to be malarial fever and Troy’s destruction.

From the resulting chaos, the Greek creation myth emerged recorded in Hesiod. New forms of agriculture emerged that lead also to the Mediterranean diet. Night and death came out of nothing. Their coupling gave birth to day and light. This nothing, had to be something and it had to be understood. As science evolved this resulting cosmology-cosmogeny was found wanting, first in Ionia.

The first American Nobelist in physics mastered Greek mythology before mathematics. Michelson the boy was fearful of mathematics. His smart teacher told him that mathematics should contain no fear since he knew Greek mythology. Α scientist who captured the fastest thing in the universe, side-tracked it to pin down its speed in a most elegant experiment, knew that before there was a world, confusion reigned and the Greeks called it chaos.

This thing called light found in Greek cosmogeny is found also in Greek fire, naphtha. Accompanied by terrifying blasts, it incinerated enemy ships, and created confusion and chaos. Light is found more peacefully in the celebratory light of church lamps 'in a glass, which is a glitering star'. As Cavafy says, in Byzantine churches our thoughts turn to glories and spendours of Hellenism and the Byzantine heritage, accompanied by the reverberating sound of Byzantine chants. Each Greek myth contains a memory. The Lernaia Hydra is malaria. Its slaying by Hercules symbolizes eradication of malaria from the marshes. The Athens School had its own Hercules. Between 1930 and 1950 it eradicated malaria in Greece.

Freud gave us the Oedipus complex as a way of coming to terms with our own demons. Cronus devoured his own children to increase infant mortality. Cronos also held sway over the first Golden Age which came on the footsteps of patricide, infanticide and the heavenly battles of the Titans. The age achieved the squaring of the mortality curve. Men fell into deep sleep and returned to the earth, after a long healthy life; no disease, no accidents, no need for physicians, health services, vaccinations, imaging technology, spinal cord units, evidence based medicine or primary health care and certainly not public health. The pharmaceutical industry and health economics were millenia away. But nothing lasts forever.

As Ingrid Rowland says “We still puzzle over the dilemmas of the most dysfunctional families in history of Oedipus in Thebes and Orestes in Mycenae responsible people compelled by the chaos of their times to face unspeakable choices, desperate despite it all, to preserve their humanity”. In the words of Aeschylus it was a “Pain so intense, which even in our sleep cannot forget as it falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God”. These words were used by Robert Kennedy on the assassination of Martin Luther King. Following his own assassination, the same quotation is inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy.

Our short journey is coming to its close. Times have been good, times have been bad, the best of times, and the worst of times; seven fertile years, seven years of famine. The Bible is peppered with locusts. Life rarely unfolds as expected or predicted; slaves, who took the offered opportunity to win freedom and took a stance for and against the American Revolution, died of smallpox. The settling of Australia had desperate moments of hope in departure and terrible despair on the long sea voyages, harsh and unhealthy. The first arrivals were shackled in cramped space, in damp, in darkness and cold. They suffered from fevers and dysentery, scurvy and pneumonia, which weakened most and killed many. It is all summed up on one Sydney tombstone “what hopes, have perished here with you our daughter”.

In Salonica two European consuls, French and German were brutally murdered during a frenzied search for a Bulgarian orthodox girl who had fallen in love and converted to Islam. She was found safe in a city where Christians, Muslims, and Jews peacefully commingled. Back in the Balkans, Mark Mazower a notable historian calls our attention to the frequent borrowings by one religion from other, to ward off or treat sickness, and said that “fear of infertility, ill health, envy, or bad luck” can remove barriers between different faiths. This suggests that public health can be and must become a lingua franca. Leon Sciaky, circa 1915 says that the world of hunger for the many and power and plenty for the few is a world that must die, lest we all perish. He found the phrase liberty, equality, fraternity simply hollow words lacking conviction. And he quotes Byron: fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great.

The only golden age that ever existed was in mythology, as a wish, a dream and it followed on from unbelievable turmoil. Violence, misery, insecurity, insanity, and corruption have accompanied mankind throughout his existence, his span of life on the planet. When flight from violent death is the only possible path, resettlement elsewhere becomes the only practical policy. This is the story of migration today.

We should remain thankful for several things: the German tradition in social medicine which gave inspiration to the development of American Schools of Public Health, the British tradition of public health legislation circa 1848 to offset some of the worst things in the Industrial Revolution, the work of the international division of the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported development of Schools of Public Health including the Athens School and finally the League of Nations which put together international Health Committees, one of which examined the lack of health in Greece. Today we should be supportive of the Council of Europe, the Red Cross, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.

Today, the European problem space consists of overlapping and coupled humanitarian disasters, one is austerity, and the other is the refugee crisis. These problems are unfolding differently, to a background of rising social trauma from terrorism and are exceedingly complex. They unfold to a background of the demise of our earth. One effect is to weaken the external and internal sanitary shields of Greece, another is to have austerity’s problem space denied in the European Union. Both public health and population equality are “endangered species”.

As we complete our brief tour in the magnificent setting of the Acropolis Museum, my hope is that in the ongoing crisis and in the coming storms, public health will finally emerge as a social instrument to minimize harm and optimise equality. Where reconciliation is necessary, it is a natural lingua franca for diplomacy and has a special voice in foreign policy, health politics and health diplomacy. European ears should remain open to the needs of public health. European doors should remain open to properly screened refugees and closed to agents of disease. Public health, its interdisciplinary instruments and its culture can make a difference. Politics wake up!

Read also Part One

Source Material
The New York Review of Books
Leon Sciaky, Farewell to Salonika, HAUS Books, 2007 (Given to me by Barbara Schwepcke, publisher)
Ivo Andric, Bridge over the Drina (Sent to me by a distinguished Serbian surgeon)
Maureen O’ Sullivan, The Four Seasons of Greek Philosophy, Eftathiadis, 1982
Jan Morris, The Oxford Book of Oxford, OUP, 1978
Jeffrey Levett, A besieged lighthouse nears 80, Athens News, 9 April, 2009
Maria Mandyla et al. Pioneers in the anti-malaria battle in Greece (1900–1930) Gesnerus 68/2 (2011) 180–97
Jeffrey Levett, Tuberculosis and the Athens School of Public Health Acropolis Museum, Lecture, 2011
The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet, UN Secretary-General Report