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10 Questions for Broadcaster Bettany Hughes | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Broadcaster Bettany Hughes

10 Questions for Broadcaster Bettany Hughes

She's done Divine Women. Now for three thinkers: Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha

Bettany Hughes in Athens: 'What is the point of glittering statues and warships and high city walls if those within them aren't happy?'

How do you live a good life? Is wealth a good thing? How do you create a just society? The United Kingdom's electorate recently pondered such questions in the polling booth, and made their decision. The Labour Party is agonising over them as it chooses its next leader. And yet while these anxieties may feel very now, they have deep roots.

According to the historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, such questions first crystallised in the minds of three thinkers, born within a century of one another 2,500 years ago, who are the subject of her new series. Across three episodes, Genius of the Ancient World explores the lives and philosophies of Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha.

Hughes made her name on television as a classicist. Her many documentaries have toured ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes veering north towards Romano-Britain and south to Egypt. There has always been a robust feminist agenda to Hughes’s area of study. Her first book Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore looked into the legend of the face that launched a thousand ships. She has made radio programmes about Aphrodite, Sappho, Eve, and even Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her widely praised Divine Women offered an insight into those goddesses so often seen as secondary citizens of the heavens. The series found Hughes crossing boundaries between cultures in East and West, and roaming inquisitively into Asia. She’s at it again in her new series. But in Genius of the Ancient World, the subjects are all male. She talks to theartsdesk about the three philosophers she refers to as her “boys”.

JASPER REES: The three ancient thinkers of your series are united by time – they lived within a century of one another. Without giving away all the secrets of the series, what is it that unites them beyond that?

The past is just pulsing quietly beneath my feet

BETTANY HUGHES: These were all brave, brilliant, wildly charismatic men. I’d argue their genius is that they are all deeply radical – revolutionaries who don’t demand a revolution. They want to change the world but not by destroying it. Perhaps their genius is simply to recognise us for who we are and the world for what it is – they offer up immensely cogent solutions to the testy challenges of the human condition.

The series posits the notion that the central ideas pondered 25 centuries ago are still germane to us now. What was it about these three men, and the social conditions that spawned them, that created their capacity to think, as you describe it, the unthinkable, and project so very far into the future?

All three arent just looking at the meaning of life – but the meaning of our own lives. In many ways they have the first pop at the issues were still struggling with today. They take things back to basics – what are we here for? Whoever we are, whatever gender, class, background, how can we live a good and flourishing life? With the boom in cities and coined money and challenges to the traditional religious order, men and women 25 centuries ago were living in a world that was exciting but also deeply challenging. Lots of their problems would be recognisable today. Democracies don’t always make “good” decisions. A blind pursuit of materialism doesnt seem to make us happy. Cities are exciting, but they can also cut us off from friends and family. And even though we know we should do as were done by, we dont! So these thinkers are both products of their age and stand outside it – speaking urgently to all of us.

Three-part semi-joke of a question, repeating back to you the questions put into the mouths of young people at the start of each programme. So how do I live a good life then? Is wealth a good thing? And how do you create a just society?

Well Id happily follow the advice of my three boys (Ive spent every day of the last year in their company, so they now feel like slightly annoying, always-right, best friends or older brothers).

  1. Love without limit.
  2. Never pursue wealth at the expense of wisdom.
  3. If each and every one of us are as good as we can humanly be then logically the world will be as good as is practically and philosophically possible.

The series sets up an opposition between rationality, as represented by human thought, and superstition, as in obeisance to higher unearthly powers. Why is it that religion has been able to withstand this sudden surge in thinking that might earn a pat on the back from Richard Dawkins?

Really interesting. Critically all these thinkers still talk about the possibility of the divine. They are a-theos in the true sense of the word word – they arent atheists as we’d use the phrase, but they stand back a bit from God/the gods – they don’t deny their existence. They give themselves a bit of critical distance to think deeply about the physical and metaphysical possibilities of the world. What they all do is give belief/soulfulness/religious tradition a zesty twist – they say: “Stop worrying about eternal life or eternal death in the hereafter – focus on being the best person you can be in the here and now... then the rest will logically follow.” I think they’d have told Dawkins to question his own questions!

You explain that Plato gave birth to the word and indeed the job description “philosopher” in order to encapsulate Socrates (pictured right with Hughes). Has the word suffered over the centuries from semantic enfeebling? We talk, for example, of being philosophical about a setback. Does that actually mean anything?

Well, it is possible that Plato coined the term philosopher and perhaps he had Socrates in mind when he did so – maybe I should have put more emphasis on the word “may” in my delivery! But no, I think it is great that philosophy is part of our everyday language. What we should do, though, to ginger it up a bit is to think more rigorously what it means  a philosopher is literally a lover of wisdom. So if we think philosophically we should actively be encouraging ourselves to be wise  it is an empowering and inspiring idea: that each and every one of us has agency. Our minds can change the world. Wisdom is arguably beauty. Socrates said: The only evil is ignorance. So if we all fulfil our potential as philosophers we can all live beautiful lives. Does that sound mawkish? Idealistic?! I wonder if we’re embarrassed to talk in these terms  but what could be better than exploring the potential of our massive brains  and doing so with constant and consistent compassion, care, understanding, empathy for and love of those around us?

There’s a lovely moment where you ask a Daoist monk to explain “the Way” somewhere halfway up a misty Chinese mountain. Compare and contrast with your interview about Socrates with an English academic in Athens, where I’m guessing you knew all the answers already. Have you had to push against the limits of your academic knowledge to explore the worlds of Confucius and the Buddha?

Definitely  Im actually an ancient historian, so Ive long compared and contrasted these civilisations. But it was a real treat to get my head round some big new ideas. Ive always grappled with what Buddhists mean by “non-self”, for example. And amazing to see when I went out one night to a karaoke bar in downtown Beijing that the  pretty rough  nightclub owner had a copy of ConfuciusAnalects in his bag!

There is a slightly ironic bit in the Socrates programme when you talk about burgeoning trade and new wealth in Athens, and democracy giving ordinary Athenians the potential to determine their own future. It may not feel that way in modern Greece. When you’re filming out in the field, is it sometimes a stretch to get contemporary settings to illustrate ancient events?

Filmmakers sometimes panic with ancient history because TV is so greedy for images and often not a lot is left – or is inaccessible. But I love the fact landscapes change – when I walk through the 21st century, I constantly feel as though Im in two times at once. The past is just pulsing quietly beneath my feet. In fact, the Greek crisis was looming as I stood on the Acropolis looking out over Athens quoting a line attributed to Socrates: What is the point of glittering statues and warships and high city walls if those within them aren't happy? Id say that is a question the Greeks ask themselves day in day out at the moment.

“Confucius say…” It’s a hackneyed joke about Chinese wisdom. What actually does Confucius say? (Pictured above: Bettany Hughes in China)

A lot! The Analects are full of these nuggetty little aphorisms. The most memorable is probably his Golden Rule, the Confucian equivalent of Do as you would be done by  although he says: Don't do to others what we dont wish for yourself. We say Confucius say because for centuries everyone in China  from poor farmers to the most educated  were taught Confucian ideas, so his words were, physically, on everyones lips.

More than the other two subjects of the films, the Buddha’s thinking has been adopted in the West by spiritual freeloaders and tourists who talk of karma and Nirvana without any profound knowledge of the concept. Has the Buddhist brand been tarnished?

Yes, theres a funny Pavlovian response. If you talk about the Buddha some people think that you must be some kind of New Age hippie  or support the massive wealth that comes into some Buddhist monasteries. But hopefully by looking at each of these men as real historical characters  investigating their flaws and challenges, giving them traction  we are opening up peoples eyes to the realities of their lives. By the way, karma exists before the Buddha – what he does is to ethicise it, say it is not all about good action, or empty gestures, it is all about intention, and can be delivered by anyone whatever their caste or sex.

Are there any female philosophers about whom you should be telling us?

Yes! I want that to be my next series. Hypatia from Alexandria is my number one heroine. Lets start the campaign to get that series on air right here right now!

Bit of a curveball to end on: who in your opinion are the geniuses of the modern world?

Genius is an overused phrase. Its pretty exciting being in a room with Stephen Fry or Yuval Harari or Alberto Manguel. But just think about it: all three of my ancient geniuses thought theyd failed  they werent overnight successes  so there is probably someone quietly beavering away, thinking great thoughts, whose time will come in perhaps decades or centuries. Secret geniuses. And the message of this series is that each and every one of us has the capacity to be philosophers, fully-thinking humans. So it could be any of you.

  • Genius of the Ancient World begins on Wednesday 5 August at 9pm on BBC Four


If we all fulfil our potential as philosophers we can all live beautiful lives. Does that sound mawkish?

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Do you have any thought on the modern idea that ancient civilization may have been visited by extraterrestrial visitors?

Bettany Huges, You claim to be a Historian, but yet you portray Hannibal as a white man with a patch over his right eye, in the TV series 8 Days That Made Rome, on the Smithsonian channel, during Black History month! I think you need a lesson in Black History, you mislead the audience who is & will be watching this tv series, I find it very offensive, I will be posting this on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram to let any & everybody know, your show is untruthful, in Season1Episode1, you need to correct this by putting a snip it, by this episode, either before or after this episode is shown again!

I would like Bettany Hughes thoughts of the hidden city beneath the Gizza plateau. It is not a secret anymore the world knows.

Why Bettany do you think it is necessary to constantly flash your cleavage? I see it as completely OTT to make a point of doing it and it has to be deliberate. You are supposed to be a feminist but you undermine us when you cannot present yourself as an intelligent woman ie person, without adding in the sex angle. I see you had to cover up with a scarf during some of your documentary in China!

I personally find the sight of Bettany’s magnificent décolletage a major factor in why I watch her programmes, and thereby learn more about the past. So keep it up Bettany.

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