I never thought I would write about the Elgin marbles. But it is worth sketching an argument for the benefit of George Osborne and Sir Mark Jones.
There are two reasons why the Greeks think they should have the Elgin Marbles. One is particular and cultural, the other is general and political. The two reasons are fused together.
The first is because Europeans have made a fuss about classical culture since the long Middle Age which runs from Charlemagne to Machiavelli. It is an entirely European obsession, which was originally not particularly focused on objects. At first it was about imitating Christ and imitating Caesar and imitating Cicero and imitating Aristotle: only later, after the Renaissance, did civilising Europeans start to go on Grand Tours to wander in the Forum, read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and collect objets d’art. It was all very admirable, very pompous, very civilised, very curious, very avaricious and very classificatory. Very collectable: Italy, Greece, Egypt. The Greeks want this junk back now because they, too, have acquired the late E.U. habit of making secular idols (behind plate glass) of cultural artefacts. Greek politicians reflect: “These bits of marble have prestige, the foreigners fuss about them, and they came from our land originally, and we would like to have this prestige and fuss ourselves.”
The second, political reason is also European in origin, though of more recent vintage. This is because Greeks belatedly needed to invent a Greek tradition, a national tradition, to distinguish themselves from their Ottoman imperial overlords and spuriously claim some sort of grand and recoverable antiquity. Nationalism is European, the invention of Germans trying to recover from the Thirty Years’ War, and the fact that, even in the time of Napoleon, Germany was a nation without a state, and, hence, emphatically a nation with a grievance. Everyone was affected by nationalism afterwards, especially once ‘self-determination’ bypassed Byronic romanticism to become standard liberal nationalism of the Garibaldi-Gladstone type in the middle of the 19th Century and eventually Woodrow Wilson’s slogan at Versailles in the early 20th Century. Once the empires tottered, the great resource for holding onto any sort of state was nationalism.
Eric Hobsbawm enjoyed telling us that traditions are invented. Well, not all traditions are invented. But many modern ones are: especially since the 18th Century. Flags, anthems, kilts, all that. So the Elgin marbles, once just bits of curious stone found by a curious foreigner (at a time when no one present cared for them), are now fixated on in Greek schools where teachers try to identify the spurious origins of the modern Greek nation. Recovering the marbles seems to have become the great idée fixe/bête noire of the Greeks.
Jane Clinton writes in the Observer:
In March Rishi Sunak vowed he would protect the Parthenon marbles from being returned to Greece.
“The UK has cared for the Elgin marbles for generations,” he said, using an alternative name derived from the British earl who removed them from the Acropolis in the early 19th Century. “The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”
An alternative name? I checked Google ngram. Nay: ‘Parthenon marbles’ is the ‘alternative name’, dear Observer! ‘Elgin marbles’ is what those objects are called. Consider:
- Of course, one has to be balanced and sceptical about this.
- Elgin marbles’ is the name used by those who vote ‘Retain’.
- ‘Parthenon marbles’ is the name used by those who vote ‘Leave’.
Niall Ferguson is fond of the historical explanatory trick of justifying the British Empire, not by making moral arguments of the Nigel Biggar sort (which give too many hostages to the anti-imperial moralisers), but by saying that the British Empire was a self-liquidating empire. We ran the Indians until they were capable of running themselves. And so on. I suppose one corollary of that amusingly cynical and frankly patronising argument is that we might suppose ourselves to have been the stewards of the marbles, called ‘Elgin’, until the Greeks were capable of stewarding them themselves. One can toss a coin about this sort of problem if one is arguing about it in a bar, or worrying about it in an office somewhere in the British Museum, or exchanging received opinions over lunch in the Reform Club. Perhaps, as Douglas Murray argues, this is all about mid-life crisis and the need of George Osborne to wokewash his political laundry. But as the great David Stove always used to argue, the arguments for fiddling with the status quo should be at least 10 times more persuasive than the arguments against fiddling with it. And the most decisive conservative truth of all is that the arguments are almost never that persuasive.
I suppose that if we are sceptical we have to imagine that, at some point in the future – say, in a thousand years – some mixed-race self-identifying Brit, speaking some modern and un-anticipatable pidgin, will visit the Chinese Imperial capital (in Samarkand), or one of the Sinosatrapic palaces (say in Brussels), and beg for the return of Stonehenge, Excalibur, Boudicca’s wig, Cnut’s throne and Tower Bridge. The Chinese will likely engage in ‘constructive negotiations’, which will go on for a few more thousand years. In the meantime we will be allowed to exhibit Chinese porcelain, which was originally imported from China in the 18th Century and was then sold back to the Chinese in the late 21st Century (along with the Benin bronzes, the Elgin marbles – sweet irony! – and the Guildhall with its contents): sold in exchange for a consignment of wind turbines, Ulez cameras, 60 million social credit cards, a state-of-the-art AI nudge propaganda system and a billion tons of coal.
The point is that the reasons for giving the Elgin marbles back are tawdry. Our reasons, the ones we can find now, for holding onto them might also seem tawdry. But the original reason for taking them was love. We were saving the vestiges of a civilisation we loved from a state which cared almost nothing at all for them. The Greeks are not in the same position: they are simply envious, and I’d say they can have them when we are tired of them, or are at least 10 times more committed to the defence of Western civilisation than we are.
This is a serious argument. Perhaps we have tired of them. Perhaps we have decided we no longer love the Greek-Roman-Hebrew civilisation which is crowned by Christianity and which is the rootstock of everything we have believed since the time of Oswald – that is, since the 7th Century. This civilisation is, note, older than our kingdom of England. My own view is that if we were willing to give up the Elgin marbles it would be a very bad sign of how little we care about our own civilisation.
But I expect the men in the British Museum to keep tossing coins.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.