Neutrality and Richard Armitage: It’s all a matter of source.

One thing I struggle with as a fan of Richard Armitage is the temptation to take all the source material that emerges about him at face value.  It’s hard not to do when some completely charming new interview or article is released.  I want to believe that every bit of it is a true, unbiased account of this man who fascinates me.  I want to, and I probably do for a minute, but, as a scholar, I’ve been relentlessly drilled on the reality that NO source is completely unbiased or neutral, so I have to step back and consider the source.   There was a really interesting discussion about this concept this week  in Armitageworld, on a non-RA topic (gasp) that brought this issue back to the surface for me.

In studies of the ancient world, neutrality is an elusive thing.  Perhaps the most neutral source I’ve studied is material that I’ve pulled from the ground myself.  Material that has not seen the light of day in almost 3000 years.  It has no voice, it carries no inherent bias, it just is.  The attachment of bias begins pretty quickly though as I look at it and form an opinion as to what it is…which basket it belongs in – pottery?  bone?  stone?  metal?  It goes on from there, acquiring the opinions of all the scholars before me who have studied similar material.  See what I mean about the elusive nature of neutrality?

It is much more difficult to find an neutral written account of the ancient world.  Even in the modern world when news agencies carry taglines like “Fair and Balanced”  a wise consumer should know that this is only marketing – every source carries at least some bias.  I have a favorite example that I use to illustrate this to my students which I think makes the point well:  the word TYRANT entry for TYRANT entry for TYRANT

Most English speakers are aware that this word carries a negative connotation in English.  Few contemporary rulers would find it a compliment to be referred to as a tyrant.  Looking above at the etymology, or origin of the word, we can see that it originates in the Greek word τύραννος (tyrannos).  Consulting the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon.   That’s by far the most famous and often employed Ancient Greek to English dictionary…mine is a Middle Liddell…as opposed to the pocket version Little Liddell or the “only libraries have space for this”  Great Scott.  (I am not unaware that it is more than a little funny that classicists name their dictionaries…I’d like to note, for the record, that I’m an archaeologist 🙂 – I named my trowel)  Sorry, I got distracted – my more observant students notice this happens often and find ways to cultivate it .  Back to the matter at hand:

τύραννος…according to Liddell and Scott, prior to the 6th century BC,  meant “an absolute sovereign unlimited by constitution.”   This definition will probably throw up a lot of red flags for a modern audience accustomed to a larger degree of participation in elected, constitutional governments, but for the vast majority of ancient Greeks, the “unlimited by constitution” part wasn’t particularly problematic.  It all comes down to who wrote the constitutions and who they protected really.  I’ll come back to that idea later, but first I’d like to illustrate one of the reasons why τύραννος became a nasty word for the Greeks and came into English as such.

In large part, this is due to the rule of two generations of tyrants in 6th century Athens known as the Pisistratids.  When Pisistratus seized power in the 6th century, he was a tyrant by Greek definition since he had no constitutional authority to rule Athens.  Even so, he was tremendously popular with the majority of the population…that is, the common people.  In general, he was a capable and qualified ruler who made a multitude of changes to the Athenian state and economy that primarily benefited the common people, but often at the expense of the elites, making him wild popular with one group and increasingly hated by the other.  Athens flourished under his rule.   As is often the case in history though, the seduction of establishing a family dynasty was powerful, and when he died, Pististratus “left” the control of Athens to his two sons (Hippias and Hipparchus) which started out well enough, but went south quickly.  In a weird sequence of events related to a love triangle, Hipparchus was assassinated, and after his death, Hippias began to act much more like the modern definition of a tyrant, leading to his eventual exile and the foundation of the famous Athenian democracy at the end of the 6th century.   In the following years, the murderers of Hipparchus, Harmodios and Aristogeiton were held up as symbols of the new Athenian democracy, having defeated the evil of tyranny (leaving out the fact that they had killed Hipparchus for personal, not political reasons).


Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Naples. Roman copy of the Athenian version by Kritios and Nesiotes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So there’s the backstory, but how did the word tyrant become so universally understood as a negative term?  How did a few bad decisions by his son wipe out all of the progressive changes made by Pisistratus?  It becomes a matter of the source of the accounts…that is, who recorded these events?  By and far, the history of the ancient world was recorded by educated elites – in this case, the very same educated elites whose power and wealth had been systematically attacked by Pisistratus, and later his sons.  These same elites wrote the constitution of Athens (which benefited them over the common people) that Pisistratus had violated to seize power.  Despite the notion of a democracy in Athens, functionally, the wealthy elites still dominated it, in the early stages especially.  Pististratus and his sons became the fall guys of tyranny, Harmodious and Aristegeiton, the martyred heroes of democracy.   Considering those sources,  it is any wonder that the word tyrant carries a negative slant?  There is really no such thing as a neutral source of this event.  Even the most even handed ancient historian, Thucydides, himself a landed and wealthy citizen of Athens, carried bias.

To approach neutrality, I think we have to be willing to look beyond what is written, to read between the lines.  For me, this is much harder to do when it comes to accounts on Richard Armitage.  I have a much more emotional reaction to him that seriously impacts my immediate ability to be critical of what is written.

yet another ascroft

Yet another Robert Ascroft

Just look at him for goodness sake!  How’s a girl supposed to remain neutral!?

32 comments on “Neutrality and Richard Armitage: It’s all a matter of source.

  1. phylly3 says:

    I will unashamedly admit to believing everything good about him until it is proven otherwise and then only maybe…. 🙂

    • obscura says:

      You are definitely not alone 😀 Imagine what the burden of proof for anything remotely negative would have to be – I almost feel sorry for that reporter…nah, not really – how dare they say something bad about our guy! LOL…

  2. Leigh says:

    Thanks for elucidating the impossibility of neutrality, revealing it for the illusion we may use but must ultimately question. Fascinating discussion of “tyrant”; to my mind, the real problem with tyranny is that, for good or ill, it is one person’s caprice. Certain modern examples come to mind, but the ancient Greek ones are less politically “loaded”.

    Armitage? Well, I go on the evidence available to me and on the feelings he evokes in me. It’s an illusion, naturally, but it’s all I have.

    • obscura says:

      It is pretty well proven statistically that the “one man show” as far as government is concerned is not usually beneficial – Plato’s idea of the philosopher king is tantalizing, but over and over again, human nature rears is often ugly head

      Armitage neutrality – I can only try. (and usually fail 🙂 ) I think illusion is just fine – as long as we always are able to maintain the difference between what is real and what is illusion for ourselves.

  3. guylty says:

    You named your trowel? Ah, not to worry, you are in good company. Some men name their “weapon” *coughs*… And guess what – my camera has a name, too (“marky Mark”).
    Thanks for this “historical etymology” of the term tyrant. You have explained very well why there is no such thing as “objectivity”. – I really enjoy your exploration of ancient Greek artefacts as well as philosophy and lasting influence on language. It becomes so much more tangible when someone explains it as entertainingly as you.

    • obscura says:

      Yes – her name was Dig It I say was, because she has been a missing implement for some years now 😦 Incidently…how is your “research” on weapon naming coming along? *giggle* Marky Mark! Mark Wahlberg will forever be Marky Mark to me! Sometimes I’m convinced the best we can ever do is objective subjectivity! (ask me about how history has treated Cleopatra sometime…feminist rant coming on 🙂 )

      • Leigh says:

        Re. “weapon naming”, there have been times when it took all my fortitude not to guffaw. Why is it that some males feel the need to name it, as if it is not a part of themselves, but something other? On the other hand, I suppose I ought to name my sword and my computer, the latter something other than an expletive.

      • guylty says:

        Shame on me! I completely forgot about my research into male weapons… eh… or rather: the naming of. Must get to that. Step by step… ooooh baby…
        Dig it – I dig that – and I think it is a sign of loveable eccentricity to have names for well-loved and well-used things. Although I draw the line at appendages and body parts.
        I have to point out here that I never ever had a thing for Marky Mark aka Wahlberg. (The NKOTB came out just sliiiiightly after my time.) My camera is a distinctly masculine tool (uagh, that sounds really weird), hence it had to have a male name. And since it is a 5D Mark ii, the name came up. Funnily enough, my photographer friends refer to my camera as marky Mark, too. LOL.

        • obscura says:

          LOL – get on that research – inquiring minds want to know 🙂 “Loveable eccentricity” is very judicious of you! RE Marky Mark – duly noted – my first notice of him was the now infamous Calvin Klein underwear campaign. I can see a camera as masculine tool – put on a telephoto lens and it takes on a distinctly phallic look 😀

  4. obscura says:

    LOL…if the names were ever in the realm of reality, it might be more understandable for those of us without a “weapon” of that nature 😀

  5. Servetus says:

    I love Thucydides to the point that if I could, I would force every single undergraduate I teach to read the Pelopennesian Wars before they took a course with me. It is for me the very best history of anything that I have ever read in any language ever, bar none.

    That said, Thucydides makes up speeches. Makes THEM UP! And he buries this is one of the most evocative statements about objectivity of all time:

    “With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

    My doctoral adviser would have said that if you know you are writing about a topic in which you have an emotional investment (as Th clearly does) you need to be extra scrupulous about the role your parti pris takes in your work …

    I’ve been banging on the drum of source critique w/r/t understanding Armitage for years, though, and my main conclusion is that people believe what they want to believe.

    • obscura says:

      To a certain extent it seems to be human nature doesn’t it? I struggle with it myself, but maybe only because my training makes me more aware than the average bear of the potential for bias. I don’t think (and I don’t say this as an insult to anyone, just an observation) that many have ever been taught to really question sources. The flock mentality of recent US political discourse would bear this out. Reminds me of a conversation I overheard recently. I was out for lunch (again) with son and we were regrettably seated next to a table of people who were conversing about their religious beliefs loudly enough for me to hear every word and the conversation immediately began to grate. When they got around to talking about the Bible, namely which version was the best, I looked at my son and said, loud enough that couldn’t not hear me, “So you see son, it’s very important that you choose to read a translation of the Bible that says exactly what you want it to say.” (I may have followed that with a crack about how we’d better leave before our apostate butts burned holes in the seats.) I often pray for the wisdom not to speak…

    • Leigh says:

      Thank you, thank you, for that piece by Thucydides. I remember when I first read it, thinking yes, there is someone aware of his own bias in the story he’s telling.

      • Servetus says:

        That passage was so striking to me that I can even tell you where I was when I read it the first time. The book is just so CRAZY good.

        • obscura says:

          I’ll bite – where were you? I was in Milwaukee – Sandberg Hall 🙂

          • Servetus says:

            I was in Dallas for Spring Break, freshman year, which I was spending w/my boyfriend at the time and his family. We had the Finley Greek historians compendium — and had just finished Herodotus and I was complaining to him that if Thucydides was such a slog as Herodotus had been I was going to go crazy. He was majoring in Intl Studies and said essentially, well if you didn’t take these boring classes … I was in there anyway b/c it was a distribution requirement that met at a good time, I wasn’t a history major then. Anyway, he wanted to study together in his bedroom and make out but his mom was not into that (they were good Catholics) and I said I needed to concentrate on the reading and his mom put me in his father’s study at this very, very well appointed desk (they were wealthy, or so they seemed to me at the time). The prof had given us a sort of worksheet / questions to guide our reading through the book and I pulled it out and got out a pen, and I opened the compendium and started reading and within paragraphs, I was gone. I can still kind of smell the leather in the study …

          • obscura says:

            How studious of you – studying on Spring Break! The whole experience sounds surreal for the academically inclined! Two sides of a coin – I loved Herodotus since it read like a story…and tolerated Thucydides, but then, I’m not an historian either 🙂 As a teacher, I can really appreciate Thucydides much more though. Herodotus requires A LOT more background to be useable as a source.

          • Servetus says:

            I think, in retrospect, that it must have been a kind concession to me. The children of the TX elite go to the Gulf for Spring Break but I was on full scholarship and couldn’t afford that. We did also do some Dallas tourism.

            My issue w/Herodotus was that it seemed essentially like it was made up. (Yes, I know how he is considered a step ahead of his predecessors, but It seemed to me like he was repeating all this stuff that could never possibly be true.) If you think I’m hyperrational now, you should have met me when I was 19 🙂

          • obscura says:

            LOL – That’s probably why I liked Herodotus- it was something like historicized (is that a word?) myth to me. Fascinating from a socio-cultural standpoint. (oh, and easier to read to 🙂 )

          • Servetus says:

            This may be why I am essentially sympathetic to my cranky student’s problems — when I was 19, I felt like I’d been surrounded with lies and half-truths for so long that I wanted something “real.” I agree, Herodotus is like historicized myth (it is a word).

          • obscura says:

            I can see that…I rarely get a student who is even able to criticize on that level, but I spend the bulk of my time teaching 101, so most of them are still wet behind the ears….in terms of an exercise on weeding out truth from source, I’m not seeing Herodotus as potentially very useful for more advanced students…ie, what “truth” can you actually extract from this? How might it have wrongly shaped the opinions of generations of schlolars…darn – I already committed my seminar class to Rome for the fall…

          • Leigh says:

            Herodotus always felt like history-according-to-Disney to me, but that’s just me.

          • obscura says:

            No, it’s at LEAST half fantasy – but entertaining if one goes in eyes open. (I’m also the teacher who allowed students to do a historical analysis of Disney’s Mulan as and extra credit assignment, so as always….consider the source! 🙂 )

          • Leigh says:

            I was having tea and hot buttered toast with Dundee marmalde on a rainy afternoon, when I spotted this old book in my grandmother’s bookcase. Couldn’t put it down..

          • obscura says:

            🙂 “Well Educated, well read” yep, that makes sense!

          • Servetus says:

            what is Dundee marmelade?

          • Leigh says:

            It’s a Scottish brand of marmade made from bitter Seville oranges and sugar, quite dense, with a bitter-&-sweet flavour I really like. No other brand is quite like it. It used to come in a stoneware jar witha sealed paper lid, but now you can get it in markets that carry British products in a stoneware-look glass jar with a screw cap.

  6. katie70 says:

    This a good post. I find that people find it easy to take something for face value and not look at the whole picture. I try to be a free thinker as in I want to know all I can and come up with my own opinion. I don’t know how much in our world can be neutral. The other thing I seem to see is taking out only what you want to believe and passing that off as the whole truth.

    As for Richard I hope I keep an open mind.

    My husband has named his WWII jeep Traveler and his new jeep trailer something ( I don’t remember), and the lawn tractors. I am not even sure why.

    • obscura says:

      I think that keeping one’s mind open is a huge part of having a complete picture of any subject – it can be very easy to close off from some aspect that we might not like.

      Seems to be a guy thing – naming their stuff 🙂

      • katie70 says:

        On the day of my son’s 14th birthday party we had my husbands mom, brothers and SIL over and they came 1st the started talking about this that and everything. I can find them the most closed minded people I have ever met. They will not even look at a view different than there own. I was in the kitchen still cooking, staying out of the conversion but putting my listening skills to good use, I could not believe what was coming out of there mouths. Talk about feeling like my husband and I where the outsiders in are own home. I did use the experience to write my paper on listening for school. They are a good reminder to keep an open mind.

  7. […] were talking about one the other day, here. Servetus has it, bad, for […]

  8. […] Richard Armitage, source neutrality, and tyranny! A heady combination. […]

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