The Philistine

Count me a Philistine

Home or garden? Town or country? Civilisation or culture? Civilisation gets a bum rap in literary circles, though it has given modern authors the opportunity to truck, barter and exchange their ways to a grubby kind of living. Literary life in ancient Arcady seems to have offered fewer paid gigs, but it was admittedly a much more cultured affair. Sappho never had to edit proofs. Homer never had to write on deadline. It is true that Virgil was denied his dying wish that the Aeneid should be burned, but that was probably no more than poetic grandstanding anyway. It all sounds as if it must have been nice work, if you could get it. Which is not to say that it wasn’t work: culture, as the word implies, comes from cultivation, and there’s no work like farm work. Only in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, and it takes a busy bee to succeed in agriculture, as in any kind of culture.

Salvatore Babones column
will be a regular Quadrant feature

Those apian Ancients filled their literary beehives with honey and wax, “got by infinite labour and search; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light”. This, according to Aesop, speaking in a fable within a fable in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books. Swift had the fabulous Greek fabulist disdain us “Moderns” as literary spiders, spitting and spinning out works from our innards, while scorning “to own any obligation or assistance” from the cultured Ancients. If these days creativity comes from within, it’s only because we have eaten up the works of the Ancients, digested them, and spat them out again as our own “dirt and poison”. Swift’s Aesop acknowledged our “great skill in architecture and improvement in the mathematics”, but denied us Moderns any genuine originality, “unless it be a large vein of wrangling and satire”. Score: Ancients, 1; Moderns, 0; Swift, 1.

Swift’s intellectual heir, the high-Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, identified the modern bearers of the ancient sweetness and light as the “Barbarians” of the European aristocracy, the leisured (and, if so inclined, cultivated) descendants of the historical barbarians who long ago dismembered and subdued the Latin-speaking western half of the Roman Empire. In a series of essays published under the title Culture and Anarchy, he divided modern Europeans into three types: the Barbarians (aristocrats), the Populace (self-explanatory) and the Philistines. Arnold’s Philistines were “the people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich”. As Arnold explained:

The graver self of the Barbarian likes honours and consideration; his more relaxed self, field-sports and pleasure. The graver self of [the] Philistine likes business and money-making; his more relaxed self, comfort and tea-meetings. The sterner self of the Populace likes brawling, hustling and smashing; the lighter self, beer.

Arnold reckoned America a land populated almost entirely by Philistines, “with the Barbarians quite left out, and the Populace nearly”. Substitute Starbucks for tea-meetings, and he was probably right. For Arnold, the United States, “that chosen home of newspapers and politics, is without general intelligence”—and certainly lacking in sweetness and light. He did, however, admire the strong strain of “Hebraism” in America, which is odd, since if any intellectual tendency should be opposed to Hebraism, it is Philistinism. Then again, Matthew Arnold never visited America, and he certainly never met a Philistine, so maybe his paean to sweetness and light should be taken with all the seriousness of Swift’s Battle of the Books. Never trust a man with two first names, even if he writes for Quadrant.

The United States awaits the verdict of history, but the Philistines have long since been convicted of every crime in the book. The Good Book, that is. The Bible tells us that the Philistines lived along the coast of what has since become the Holy Land, settled in the five “royal” cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath. The first three still stand, though Gaza only just. Ashdod is modern Israel’s primary commercial port, while Ashkelon boasts one of the world’s most advanced desalination plants. The suspected locations of Ekron and Gath are currently unoccupied, which is a shame, because ancient Ekron was the original home of Beelzebub (and thus surely a lot of fun to visit), while Gath gets a mention in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The Philistines were the original bad boys of the Hebrew Bible. Sure, Gog and Magog are none too nice, and Pharaoh is a kind of cross between the elf-king and a James Bond villain. The mythical beasts Behemoth and Leviathan were used to scare children (and political philosophers) by land and by sea, respectively. Looming behind all of these was the phantom menace Lucifer, who got back-storied into the Garden of Eden as “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan”. They’re all bad, but the Philistines took bad one step further. They weren’t just wicked, greedy and impious. They were also friends, family and neighbours. The Babylonians might burn down your Temple and enslave your entire race, but a Philistine will catch you sleeping and cut off your … hair.

From the Burning Bush down to the era of the First Temple, the Philistines had a recurring role as the Good Book’s bêtes noires. Sometime around the turn of the twelfth century BC, they even beat Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazis to the Ark of the Covenant. They captured it and held it for seven months, before voluntarily returning it to the Jews—together with five golden haemorrhoids and five golden mice. Yes, haemorrhoids (and mice). They had a sense of humour, those old Philistines. Or maybe what they really sent were golden buboes and rats, commemorating the bubonic plague that God had visited upon them for stealing His ark. Either way, they certainly didn’t get any credit for giving it back. Maybe it had something to do with the haemorrhoids.

Ever since David bumped off Goliath with a stone slung from a cowardly distance, the Philistines have suffered from bad press. Had a neutral Egyptian scribe reported the incident, it might have gone down in history as “Israeli parents recklessly endanger public safety by encouraging children to throw stones at patrolling soldiers”. Goliath, well-trained professional that he was, kept the peace in no-man’s-land for forty days before David ventured out to harass him. Even the Hebrew prophet Samuel records that Goliath didn’t want to fight the young David, who seemed to be unarmed. As that ancient Egyptian war reporter might have written, “man-with-staff raven right-arm double-feather snake rabbit”: Philistine soldier killed by radicalised Jewish youth. Some things never change, while other things come full circle.

For the modern-day Palestinians are ultimately named for the Philistines, from Hebrew via Greek via Latin to the classically-educated British colonialists who named their 1920 League of Nations mandate after a long-defunct Roman province. The Romans had changed the name of the province from Judea to Palaestina just to annoy the Jews, after they unwisely revolted against Roman rule for a record third time. The Jews were upset about the Romans sacrificing pigs on an altar to Jupiter that they had built on the Temple Mount. Go figure. The Palestinian Arabs of today may be connected genetically to the ancient Philistines (who knows?), but culturally the Philistines are believed to have been proto-Greeks. They apparently swept in just before the Jews, overwhelmed the local Canaanites, and left some nice pottery, before being obliterated by the Babylonians in 604 BC.

Oscar Wilde convinced the world that “there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. If there really is no such thing as bad publicity, the Philistines have it. They probably wouldn’t have cared. Like their American descendants, they seem only to have been interested in “business and money-making; comfort and tea-meetings”, though for the original Philistines, substitute wine. The Philistines’ literature seems to have been as ephemeral as newspapers and politics; in striking contrast to that of their highly cultured Jewish rivals, none of it has survived. As a result, we don’t even know for sure what language or languages they spoke. But legend has it that the Philistines were rich and sophisticated, well-travelled and well-off. Comfort and tea-meetings may not make for heroic literature, but they are the very essence of civilised life.

So keep your high culture, your Ancients and Barbarians, your “sweetness and light”. This column won’t be bitter or dark, but it will be thoroughly civilised. Call it ephemeral. Count me a Philistine.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, and an associate professor at the University of Sydney

5 thoughts on “Count me a Philistine

  • Peter Sandery says:

    Thanks very much for that, Salvatore; it was a ripper.

  • Salvatore Babones says:

    Thanks!! Salvatore

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Looking forward to more of the essence of civilised life from you, Salvatore.
    A very civilised afternoon tea does it for me in conversational terms.
    Starting with Champagne, of course. 🙂

  • Trevor Bailey says:

    At last! A take on our querulous species that highlights the gorgeous paradox at the heart of the human condition: only cultivation grants authority to mock cultivation.

    Obvious, you say? Well, there is something of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind here. As Chesterton chided: “Angels can fly – because they take themselves lightly!”

    Thank you, Professor Babones. On a dark, winter’s Sunday morning here in the scrub, you did for my old spirits what 3 coffees had failed to do.

  • talldad says:

    Hmm, are you sure you were referring to the Philistines or to the Phoenicians as “rich and sophisticated, well-travelled and well-off”? The Phoenicians were the Mediterranean traders and world seafarers who set up empire in Carthage and ventured beyond the straits of Gibraltar. Their great hero was Hannibal of the elephants crossing the Alps fame, and their main adversary was a Roman Senator named Cato.

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