Comment Of The Day: “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law”

Last week, Ethics Alarms confidently presented the ethics verdict that it was high time—more than high time, in fact—for the British Museum to finally return the so-called “Elgin Marbles” to Greece. As the priceless art was literally ripped off the Parthenon, I didn’t think the question justified an ethics quiz. I still am unconvinced by the arguments that the Brits should hold on to their ill-gotten gains, but I am the grandson of a Spartan, after all. There were several excellent comments asserting ethical grounds for the British position; this one was outstanding.

Here is P.M.Lawrence’s epic tutorial, rebuttal, and Comment of the Day on the post, “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law”:


“In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat, shipped to England treasures of Greek antiquity that he had strip-mined from Greece, including the carved frieze panels that had decorated the Parthenon. Supposedly this was done with the permission of Turkey, which was then ruling Greece, which is like your home invaders giving neighbors permission to take the art off your walls…”

There is a little more to it than that:-

– On the legal maxim of “nemo dat quod non habet”, of course the Turks couldn’t convey title. But they didn’t, they offered a quitclaim, as it were; they removed themselves from obstructing.

– As regards any original owners, there simply weren’t any left. The last remaining ones were ended by rounds of persecution of pagans, centuries earlier.

– As far as any generic claims of common heritage of western civilisation go, and those claims only go for want of better (there being no direct heirs), what better place to put the items than in a museum furthering that common heritage? Are the British somehow less heirs of that than are the Graeculi? Particularly considering how much safer the items were in that museum(those not taken have suffered horribly from war, corrosion, and what not). And, of course, the very word “museum” proclaims that furthering that common heritage.

Now, none of that conveys title to the British Museum, but adverse possession in the years since does – adverse, in that no better claimant came forward. Just as today’s Greeks feel an understandable connection to these items, as they do to the Lions of St. Mark’s, so too do today’s British – and as today’s Venetians do to the Lions of St. Mark’s. They are as intertwined with the histories of each place as of the other.

The Solomonic solution would be to sand blast the items to the condition of those not taken if any effort to transfer them were ever made. But I expect the Sir Humphreys will loudly assert ownership while underhandedly arranging a loan in name only with no means of foreclosing, just as they have with foundational documents that ought to have remained in British archives. That would satisfy none but the Sir Humphreys.

“Well, Greece has been asking for the Elgin Marbles back for over two centuries now …”

No. Greeks have. But two centuries ago Greece was, as Metternich accurately but misdirectingly said of Italy (and Churchill did of India), “not a country but a geographical expression, like the equator”. The misdirection consisted in distracting away from the idea that aimed to give rise to the reality; but to this day the “megalo idea” of Greece has not been realised. The closest it has come was perhaps a century ago, not two centuries ago. Even a rump nation of Greece did not come about until the 1830s.

In other words, they have no good argument…

You forget: they have as good an argument as any, and better than some from the tutelary role accreted over years, given that nobody has a good argument on any other grounds.

… In return for the frieze, Greek museums would supply the British Museum with a rotating selection of other artifacts, some of which have never been seen outside of Greece. Sold! That’s a generous deal with a thief, and the offer should be accepted immediately…

What “thief”? You are asserting the point at issue. You also forget: there has been a growing British link with these items, as Venice has had with the Lions of St. Mark’s. It would be like offering to give a rotation of other babies to a family that had been given the wrong baby by a maternity hospital and only found out after nurturing the baby for years – and giving the first baby to a family that had not even given birth to it, but was only collaterally related! (This also refutes OB; a good fake is good enough? Then let those have that who will.)

“… However, the British Museum wants to return just a small portion of the frieze, and only as as a short-term loan. Then, once Greece returned those artifacts, others would be sent to Athens to replace them. The museum generously suggests that number of artifacts sent to Greece would increase over time “to reflect growing trust between the two sides.”

Well, that’s the Sir Humphrey method. The end of that road is nobody happy but the Sir Humphreys. They were planning something like that for the Falkland Islands, only the Argentinian invasion thwarted that sell out.

The Brits have a lot of gall making that argument. “Growing trust”? Greece has no reason to trust the British Museum, and the museum has no just cause not to trust the country who stolen property it benefited from all these years.

You are misreading it, and in precisely the ways that mean it will make nobody happy.

When the Sir Humphrey say “growing trust”, they mean like kiting cheques. They can increase the quantum slowly and steadily, then slow and stop the music once things have moved imperceptibly. As for “the museum has no just cause not to trust the country who [typo?] stolen property it benefited from all these years”, of course it has. Leaving aside that same begging the question, the very fact that Greece sincerely believes it owns the items means that it is all too possible that Greece will preempt that sell out process, intended to shift the weight by degrees; that is precisely what happened to the sell out of the Falkland Islands, because Argentina sincerely believed the same. And that sincerity – which the Sir Humphreys do not appreciate – is why that process would not satisfy Britain or Greece: the former from losing the items, and the latter from having to pretend they were British, an unpalatable hypocrisy that the Sir Humphreys never comprehend as an obstacle.

… the British Museum’s says that it cannot offer more, even if it wanted to, because under British law, the museum cannot remove items from its collection unless they are “unfit to be retained,” Well, they aren’t fit: they are stolen goods…

This is the same abuse of language that perhaps inadvertently misread the term “competent” in the Amistad matter. U.S. courts weren’t competent, not in the sense that they were not clever or skilled enough, but in the sense that they did not have the right remit etc. Even if it were absolutely proven that the items were stolen – and from those demanding them, to boot – the term “fit” relates to suitability for storage, exhibition, restoration, etc. under museum facilities. It in no way, shape or form relates to any Thunbergian “how dare you!” from the aggrieved – even if stemming from a justifiable grievance. So that is nugatory.

I think the British Museum knows it is in the wrong. The Golden Rule must be making a lot of noise in the heads of the negotiators.

Well, no, thus:-

– My very existence as an arguer should show you that there is an opposing case.

– No Sir Humphrey ever registered an ethical alarm. The negotiators are sinuously looking for a way to slip over a sell out. No doubt that holds of the Greek ones as well as the British, but I myself have only smelled the spoor of the latter (I have a family connection to the Falkland Islands).

The Parthenon is the very symbol of ancient Greece. It’s time, past time, long past time, for the Elgin Marbles to come home.

Then let ancient Greece come forth to claim its own, yea, even those that hated Athens, that sweated tribute for the Delian League or were never Greek save as slaves but dug silver out at Laurion for her. Let Malos have them as reparations from Athens, if any Maliot yet lives. And as for “home”, what home is this, that offers naught but burned brimstone to surround this frieze?

P.S. England did not take them; Elgin was a Scot.

9 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law”

  1. P.M.’s an Aussie. Aussies are more British than home-grown Brits themselves. This is the Imperial British argument, their side of the story. I’m sure he can be equally eloquent on why all of Ireland should be returned to the U.K, its rightful owner.

    • I am sorry for my absence; I have had some distractions, including attending a funeral. I have also had some email problems, so getting a subscription alert for this comment will be a good test (I have not received alerts for some recent posts here).

      P.M.’s an Aussie. Aussies are more British than home-grown Brits themselves…

      Wrong, both times. I am in fact a deracinated Celt, of three generations of globe trotting Scots and Irish, who just happen to be in Australia (which you should know, as I have brought this out before). And Australians haven’t been like that since before Gough Whitlam’s day, even if we generalise.

      … This is the Imperial British argument, their side of the story…

      You are clearly someone who assesses things according to whether you think there might be an ulterior motive. You are discounting the possibility that some simply follow where the facts and reasoning take them, and that they might even have quite different temptations pressing on them (see below). Even if I were all you suspect, why should I distort the truth when it actually helps what you suspect are my ulterior motives? You should not deflect to my psychology, but rather you should address what is presented.

      … I’m sure he can be equally eloquent on why all of Ireland should be returned to the U.K, its rightful owner.

      As I have also pointed out before, my mother’s family were very much Irish politicals. My great-grandfather marched and drilled at St. Stephen’s, my great-uncle Leopold was an Irish diplomat, and my grandfather refused to use his English language skills to work for British employers in France but instead worked for American Express. (Oh, and the only reservations that I have about Irish unity relate to the practical and principled difficulties it presents; I do not wish what might happen to the Ulster Scots, or what they might take down with them.)

      I’ll also take this opportunity to bring out some tangential matters:-

      – Classical Athens actually built all those things on the back of fraud in the first place. Pericles diverted funds to it from the treasury of the Delian League, making sure that all free Athenians shared in the public works programme, using the specious excuse that appeasing the gods was part of the war effort against the Persians.

      – Classical Athens itself used “the might makes right” argument, in the form of “the strong do as they will, the weak do as they must”, when proposing ethnic cleansing of other Greeks who wouldn’t join Athens as allies. That doesn’t make it true, but it does mean they are ethically estopped from arguing against it. And if anyone suggests that today’s Greeks are different, well, that was precisely what I pointed out – they are not, in fact, those with involvement of their own.

      – You should have a look at the skulduggery of the U.S. government over the Smithson bequest that set up the Smithsonian Museum. That’s how the Sir Humphreys typically operate.

  2. For me the question is, are the ones who lost their marbles (couldn’t resist) the same as the ones who want them back? My Greek history is sketchy; when the Turks were booted from Greece, was the civil and social structure restored to what existed before Turkish rule?

    Let’s say the USA was conquered by a foreign enemy, and we lost the statue from the Lincoln Memorial. If we threw the invaders out and restored our instutions within 50 years or so, I could see us demanding the statue back from wherever it went. But if the invaders left 100 years later, with no-one living remembering the old USA (and the new government and culture is something different), the case for getting it back would be weaker.

  3. Well done, P.M. Perhaps it’s just confirmation bias on my part, but I’m not too inclined to trust the Greeks with more culturally important artifacts than they already have. Egypt is another such place. Having been to the Acropolis a number of times over the past few decades, we’ve noticed very little being done to preserve/restore the Parthenon, with just a bit of more recent activity. Apparently, they “have a plan” now, but we’ll see. (Great food, though).

    It’s very subjective, of course, depending on how inclined we are to looking at some important things as belonging to western/world culture, and to be preserved and made accessible in the most reasonably best possible way. A sort of cultural imminent domain, along with your adverse possession? This is tricky, and can easily trample on other valid rights and considerations…Do you return a child to a formerly unsuitable home that might be OK now? (Yeah, a bunch of crappy metaphors; it’s what I do.)

    Anyway, Good job!

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