Poison and Politics

From ‘cantarella’ to polonium, governments have used toxins to terrorize and kill their enemies

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Among the pallbearers at Senator John McCain’s funeral in Washington last weekend was the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza is a survivor of two poisoning attempts, in 2015 and 2017, which he believes were intended as retaliation for his activism against the Putin regime.

Indeed, Russia is known or suspected to be responsible for several notorious recent poisoning cases, including the attempted murder this past March of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Britain, and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok. They survived the attack, but several months later a British woman died of Novichok exposure a few miles from where the Skirpals lived.

Poison has long been a favorite tool of brutal statecraft: It both terrorizes and kills, and it can be administered without detection. The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian political treatise that out-Machiavels Machiavelli, contains hundreds of recipes for toxins, as well as advice on when and how to use them to eliminate an enemy.

Most royal and imperial courts of the classical world were also awash with poison. Though it is impossible to prove so many centuries later, the long list of putative victims includes Alexander the Great (poisoned wine), Emperor Augustus (poisoned figs) and Emperor Claudius (poisoned mushrooms), as well as dozens of royal heirs, relatives, rivals and politicians. King Mithridates of Pontus, an ancient Hellenistic empire, was so paranoid—having survived a poison attempt by his own mother—that he took daily microdoses of every known toxin in order to build up his immunity.

Poisoning reached its next peak during the Italian Renaissance. Every ruling family, from the Medicis to the Viscontis, either fell victim to poison or employed it as a political weapon. The Borgias were even reputed to have their own secret recipe, a variation of arsenic called “cantarella.” Although a large number of their rivals conveniently dropped dead, the Borgias were small fry compared with the republic of Venice. The records of the Venetian Council of Ten reveal that a secret poison program went on for decades. Remarkably, two victims are known to have survived their assassination attempts: Count Francesco Sforza in 1450 and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1477.

In the 20th century, the first country known to have established a targeted poisoning program was Russia under the Bolsheviks. According to Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian agent, Lenin ordered the creation of a poison laboratory called the “Special Room” in 1921. By the Cold War, the one-room lab had evolved into an international factory system staffed by hundreds, possibly thousands of scientists. Their specialty was untraceable poisons delivered by ingenious weapons—such as a cigarette packet made in 1954 that could fire bullets filled with potassium cyanide.

In 1978, the prizewinning Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, then working for the BBC in London, was killed by an umbrella tip that shot a pellet containing the poison ricin into his leg. After the international outcry, the Soviet Union toned down its poisoning efforts but didn’t end them. And Putin’s Russia has continued to use similar techniques. In 2006, according to an official British inquiry, Russian secret agents murdered the ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko by slipping polonium into his drink during a meeting at a London hotel. It was the beginning of a new wave of poisonings whose end is not yet in sight.

The Struggle Before #MeToo

Today’s women are not the first to take a public stand against sexual assault and harassment

Rosa Parks in 1955 PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Since it began making headlines last year, the #MeToo movement has expanded into a global rallying cry. The campaign has many facets, but its core message is clear: Women who are victims of sexual harassment and assault still face too many obstacles in their quest for justice.

How much harder it was for women in earlier eras is illustrated perfectly by Emperor Constantine’s 326 edict on rape and abduction. While condemning both, the law assumed that all rape victims deserved punishment for their failure to resist more forcefully. The best outcome for the victim was disinheritance from her parents’ estate; the worst, death by burning.

In the Middle Ages, a rape victim was more likely to be blamed than believed, unless she suffered death or dismemberment in the attack. That makes the case of the Englishwoman Isabella Plomet all the more remarkable. In 1292, Plomet went to her doctor Ralph de Worgan to be treated for a leg problem. He made her drink a sleeping drug and then proceeded to rape her while she was unconscious.

It’s likely that Worgan, a respected pillar of local society, had relied for years on the silence of his victims. But Plomet’s eloquence in court undid him: He was found guilty and fined. The case was a landmark in medieval law, broadening the definition of rape to include nonconsent through intoxication.

But prejudice against the victims of sexual assault was slow to change. In Catholic Europe, notions of family honor and female reputation usually meant that victims had to marry their rapists or be classed as ruined. This was the origin of the most famous case of the 17th century. In 1611, Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio brought a suit in a Roman court against her art teacher, Agostino Tassi, for rape.

Although Tassi had a previous criminal record, as a “dishonored” woman it was Gentileschi who had to submit to torture to prove that she was telling the truth. She endured an eight-month trial to see Tassi convicted and temporarily banished from Rome. “Cleared” by her legal victory, Gentileschi refused to let the attack define her or determine the rest of her life. She is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Baroque era.

One class of victims who had no voice and no legal recourse were free and enslaved black women in pre-Civil War America. Their stories make grim reading. In 1855, Celia, an 18-year-old slave in Missouri, killed her master when he attempted to rape her. At her trial she insisted—through her lawyers, since she was barred from testifying—that the right to self-defense extended to all women. The court disagreed, and Celia was executed—but not before making a successful prison break and almost escaping.

Change was still far off in 1931, when the 18-year-old Rosa Parks, working as a housekeeper, was pounced on by her white employer. As she later recalled, “He offered me a drink of whiskey, which I promptly and vehemently refused. He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist.” She managed to fight him off, and in a larger sense Parks never stopped fighting. She became a criminal investigator for the NAACP, helping black victims of white sexual assault to press charges.

Rosa Parks is often referred to as the “first lady of civil rights,” in recognition of her famous protest on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. She should also be remembered as one of the unsung heroines in the long prehistory of #MeToo.

When Royal Love Affairs Go Wrong

From Cleopatra to Edward VIII, monarchs have followed their hearts—with disastrous results.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Ay me!” laments Lysander in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “For aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history, / The course of true love never did run smooth.” What audience would disagree? Thwarted lovers are indeed the stuff of history and art—especially when the lovers are kings and queens.

But there were good reasons why the monarchs of old were not allowed to follow their hearts. Realpolitik and royal passion do not mix, as Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), the anniversary of whose death falls on Aug. 12, found to her cost. Her theatrical seduction of and subsequent affair with Julius Caesar insulated Egypt from Roman imperial designs. But in 41 B.C., she let her heart rule her head and fell in love with Mark Antony, who was fighting Caesar’s adopted son Octavian for control of Rome.

Cleopatra’s demand that Antony divorce his wife Octavia—sister of Octavian—and marry her instead was a catastrophic misstep. It made Egypt the target of Octavian’s fury, and forced Cleopatra into fighting Rome on Antony’s behalf. The couple’s defeat at the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. didn’t only end in personal tragedy: the 300-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty was destroyed, and Egypt was reduced to a Roman province.

In Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra,” Antony laments, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It is a reminder that, as Egypt’s queen, Cleopatra was the living embodiment of her country; their fates were intertwined. That is why royal marriages have usually been inseparable from international diplomacy.

In 1339, when Prince Pedro of Portugal fell in love with his wife’s Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inés de Castro, the problem wasn’t the affair per se but the opportunity it gave to neighboring Castile to meddle in Portuguese politics. In 1355, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, took the surest way of separating the couple—who by now had four children together—by having Inés murdered. Pedro responded by launching a bloody civil war against his father that left northern Portugal in ruins. The dozens of romantic operas and plays inspired by the tragic love story neglect to mention its political repercussions; for decades afterward, the Portuguese throne was weak and the country divided.

Perhaps no monarchy in history bears more scars from Cupid’s arrow than the British. From Edward II (1284-1327), whose poor choice of male lovers unleashed murder and mayhem on the country—he himself was allegedly killed with a red hot poker—to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who bullied and butchered his way through six wives and destroyed England’s Catholic way of life in the process, British rulers have been remarkable for their willingness to place personal happiness above public responsibility.

Edward VIII (1894 -1972) was a chip off the block, in the worst way. The moral climate of the 1930s couldn’t accept the King of England marrying a twice-divorced American. Declaring he would have Wallis Simpson or no one, Edward plunged the country into crisis by abdicating in 1936. With European monarchies falling on every side, Britain’s suddenly looked extremely vulnerable. The current Queen’s father, King George VI, quite literally saved it from collapse.

According to a popular saying, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That goes double when the lovers wear royal crowns.

No more midlife crisis – I’m riding the U-curve of happiness

Evidence shows people become happier in their fifties, but achieving that takes some soul-searching

I used not to believe in the “midlife crisis”. I am ashamed to say that I thought it was a convenient excuse for self-indulgent behaviour — such as splurging on a Lamborghini or getting buttock implants. So I wasn’t even aware that I was having one until earlier this year, when my family complained that I had become miserable to be around. I didn’t shout or take to my bed, but five minutes in my company was a real downer. The closer I got to my 50th birthday, the more I radiated dissatisfaction.

Can you be simultaneously contented and discontented? The answer is yes. Surveys of “national wellbeing” in several countries, including the UK, by the Office for National Statistics have revealed a fascinating U-curve in relation to happiness and age. In Britain, feelings of stress and anxiety appear to peak at 49 and subsequently fade as the years increase. Interestingly, a 2012 study showed that chimpanzees and orang-utans exhibited a similar U-curve of happiness as they reach middle age.

On a rational level, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed with my life. The troika of family, work and friends made me very happy. And yet something was eating away at my peace of mind. I regarded myself as a failure — not in terms of work but as a human being. Learning that I wasn’t alone in my daily acid bath of gloom didn’t change anything.

One of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most memorable lines is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” It’s so often quoted that it’s achieved the status of a truism. It’s often taken to be an ironic commentary on how Americans, particularly men, are so frightened of failure that they cling to the fiction that life is a perpetual first act. As I thought about the line in relation to my own life, Fitzgerald’s meaning seemed clear. First acts are about actions and opportunities. There is hope, possibility and redemption. Second acts are about reactions and consequences.

Old habits die hard, however. I couldn’t help conducting a little research into Fitzgerald’s life. What was the author of The Great Gatsby really thinking when he wrote the line? Would it even matter?

The answer turned out to be complicated. As far as the quotation goes, Fitzgerald actually wrote the reverse. The line appears in a 1935 essay entitled My Lost City, about his relationship with New York: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

It reappeared in the notes for his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, which was half finished when he died in 1940, aged 44. Whatever he had planned for his characters, the book was certainly meant to have been Fitzgerald’s literary comeback — his second act — after a decade of drunken missteps, declining book sales and failed film projects.

Fitzgerald may not have subscribed to the “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” school of thought, but he wasn’t blind to reality. Of course he believed in second acts. The world is full of middle-aged people who successfully reinvented themselves a second or even third time. The mercurial rise of Emperor Claudius (10BC to AD54) is one of the earliest historical examples of the true “second act”.

According to Suetonius, Claudius’s physical infirmities had made him the butt of scorn among his powerful family. But his lowly status saved him after the assassination of his nephew, Caligula. The plotters found the 56-year-old Claudius cowering behind a curtain. On the spur of the moment, instead of killing him, as they did Caligula’s wife and daughter, the plotters decided the stumbling and stuttering scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty could be turned into a puppet emperor. It was a grave miscalculation. Claudius seized on his changed circumstances. The bumbling persona was dropped and, although flawed, he became a forceful and innovative ruler.

Mostly, however, it isn’t a single event that shapes life after 50 but the willingness to stay the course long after the world has turned away. It’s extraordinary how the granting of extra time can turn tragedy into triumph. In his heyday, General Mikhail Kutuzov was hailed as Russia’s greatest military leader. But by 1800 the 55-year-old was prematurely aged. Stiff-limbed, bloated and blind in one eye, Kutuzov looked more suited to play the role of the buffoon than the great general. He was Alexander I’s last choice to lead the Russian forces at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, but was the first to be blamed for the army’s defeat.

Kutuzov was relegated to the sidelines after Austerlitz. He remained under official disfavour until Napoleon’s army was halfway to Moscow in 1812. Only then, with the army and the aristocracy begging for his recall, did the tsar agree to his reappointment. Thus, in Russia’s hour of need it ended up being Kutuzov, the disgraced general, who saved the country.

Winston Churchill had a similar apotheosis in the Second World War. For most of the 1930s he was considered a political has-been by friends and foes alike. His elevation to prime minister in 1940 at the age of 65 changed all that, of course. But had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances created by the war, Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939 would have been the epitaph rather than the prelude to the greatest chapter in his life.

It isn’t just generals and politicians who can benefit from second acts. For writers and artists, particularly women, middle age can be extremely liberating. The Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at 59 after a lifetime of teaching while supporting her children and alcoholic husband. Thereafter she wrote at a furious pace, producing nine novels and three biographies before she died at 83.

I could stop right now and end with a celebratory quote from Morituri Salutamus by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “For age is opportunity no less/ than youth itself, though in another dress, / And as the evening twilight fades away / The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

However, that isn’t — and wasn’t — what was troubling me in the first place. I don’t think the existential anxieties of middle age are caused or cured by our careers. Sure, I could distract myself with happy thoughts about a second act where I become someone who can write a book a year rather than one a decade. But that would still leave the problem of the flesh-and-blood person I had become in reality. What to think of her? It finally dawned on me that this had been my fear all along: it doesn’t matter which act I am in; I am still me.

My funk lifted once the big day rolled around. I suspect that joining a gym and going on a regular basis had a great deal to do with it. But I had also learnt something valuable during these past few months. Worrying about who you thought you would be or what you might have been fills a void but leaves little space for anything else. It’s coming to terms with who you are right now that really matters.

 

In Awe of the Grand Canyon

Since the 16th century, travelers have recorded the overwhelming impact of a natural wonder.

ILLUSTRATION BY THOMAS FUCHS

Strange as it may sound, it was watching Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in the tragic final scene of “Thelma and Louise” (1991) that convinced me I had to go to the Grand Canyon one day and experience its life-changing beauty. Nearly three decades have passed, but I’m finally here. Instead of a stylish 1966 Ford Thunderbird, however, I’m driving a mammoth RV, with my family in tow.

The overwhelming presence of the Grand Canyon is just as I dreamed. Yet I’m acutely aware of how one-sided the relationship is. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg wrote in “Many Hats” in 1928: “For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon—each one makes his own Canyon before he comes.”

The first Europeans to encounter the Canyon were Spanish conquistadors searching for the legendary Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. In 1540, Hopi guides took a small scouting party led by García López de Cárdenas to the South Rim (60 miles north of present-day Williams, Ariz.). In Cárdenas’s mind, the Canyon was a route to riches. After trying for three days to find a path to reach the river below, he cut his losses in disgust and left. Cárdenas saw no point to the Grand Canyon if it failed to yield any treasure.

Three centuries later, in 1858, the first Euro-American to follow in Cárdenas’s footsteps, Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, had a similar reaction. In his official report, Ives waxed lyrical about the magnificent scenery but concluded, “The region is, of course, altogether valueless….Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”

Americans only properly “discovered” the Grand Canyon through the works of artists such as Thomas Moran. A devotee of the Hudson River School of painters, Moran found his spiritual and artistic home in the untamed landscapes of the West. His romantic pictures awakened the public to the natural wonder in their midst. Eager to see the real thing, the trickle of visitors turned into a stream by the late 1880s.

The effusive reactions to the Canyon recorded by tourists who made the arduous trek from Flagstaff, Ariz. (a railway to Grand Canyon Village was only built in 1901) have become a familiar refrain: “Not for human needs was it fashioned, but for the abode of gods…. To the end it effaced me,” wrote Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine, in 1899.

But there was one class of people who were apparently insensible to the Canyon: copper miners. Watching their thoughtless destruction of the landscape, Monroe wondered, “Do they cease to feel it?” President Theodore Roosevelt feared so, and in 1908 he made an executive decision to protect 800,000 acres from exploitation by creating the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Roosevelt’s farsightedness may have put a crimp in the profits of mining companies, but it paid dividends in other ways. By the 1950s, the Canyon had become a must-see destination, attracting visitors from all over the world. Among them were the tragic Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar,” and her husband, Ted Hughes, the future British Poet Laureate. Thirty years later, the visit to the Canyon still haunted Hughes: “I never went back and you are dead. / But at odd moments it comes, / As if for the first time.” He is not alone, I suspect, in never fully leaving the Canyon behind.

At Age 50, a Time of Second Acts

Amanda Foreman finds comfort in countless examples of the power of reinvention after five decades.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY RODRIGUEZ

I turned 50 this week, and like many people I experienced a full-blown midlife crisis in the lead-up to the Big Day. The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation, “There are no second acts in American lives,” dominated my thoughts. I wondered now that my first act was over—would my life no longer be about opportunities and instead consist largely of consequences?
Fitzgerald, who left the line among his notes for “The Last Tycoon,” had ample reason for pessimism. He had hoped the novel would lead to his own second act after failing to make it in Hollywood, but he died at 44, broken and disappointed, leaving the book unfinished. Yet the truth about his grim line is more complicated. Several years earlier, Fitzgerald had used it to make an almost opposite point, in the essay “My Lost City”: “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”
The one comfort we should take from countless examples in history is the power of reinvention. The Victorian poet William Ernest Henley was right when he wrote, “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”
The point is to seize the moment. The disabled Roman Emperor Claudius, (10 B.C.-A.D. 54) spent most his life being victimized by his awful family. Claudius was 50 when his nephew, Caligula, met his end at the hands of some of his own household security, the Praetorian Guards. The historian Suetonius writes that a soldier discovered Claudius, who had tried to hide, trembling in the palace. The guards decided to make Claudius their puppet emperor. It was a grave miscalculation. Claudius grabbed his chance, shed his bumbling persona and became a forceful and innovative ruler of Rome.

In Russia many centuries later, the general Mikhail Kutuzov was in his 60s when his moment came. In 1805, Czar Alexander I had unfairly blamed Kutuzov for the army’s defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz and relegated him to desk duties. Russian society cruelly treated the general, who looked far from heroic—a character in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” notes the corpulent Kutuzov’s war scars, especially his “bleached eyeball.” But when the country needed a savior in 1812, Kutuzov, the “has-been,” drove Napoleon and his Grande Armée out of Russia.

Winston Churchill had a similar apotheosis in World War II when he was in his 60s. Until then, his political career had been a catalog of failures, the most famous being the Gallipoli Campaign of 1916 that left Britain and its allies with more than 100,000 casualties.

As for writers and artists, they often find middle age extremely liberating. They cease being afraid to take risks in life. Another Fitzgerald—the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope—lived on the brink of homelessness, struggling as a tutor and teacher (she later recalled “the stuffy and inky boredom of the classroom”) until she published her first book at 58.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, may be the greatest example of self-reinvention. After many decades of farm life, around age 75 she began a new career, becoming one of America’s best known folk painters.

Perhaps I’ll be inspired to master Greek when I am 80, as some say the Roman statesman Cato the Elder did. But what I’ve learned, while coming to terms with turning 50, is that time spent worrying about “what you might have been” is better passed with friends and family—celebrating the here and now.

When We Rally ‘Round the Flag: A History

Flag Day passes every year almost unnoticed. That’s a shame—it celebrates a symbol with ties to religious and totemic objects that have moved people for millennia

The Supreme Court declared in 1989 that desecrating the American flag is a protected form of free speech. That ended the legal debate but not the national one over how we should treat the flag. If anything, two years of controversies over athletes kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which led last month to a National Football League ban on the practice, show that feelings are running higher than ever.

Yet, Flag Day—which honors the adoption of the Stars and Stripes by Congress on June 14, 1777—is passing by almost unnoticed this year, as it does almost every year. One reason is that Memorial Day and Independence Day—holidays of federally sanctioned free time, parades and spectacle—flank and overshadow it. That’s a shame, because we could use a day devoted to reflecting on our flag, a precious national symbol whose potency can be traced to the religious and totemic objects that have moved people for millennia.

The first flags were not pieces of cloth but metal or wooden standards affixed to poles. The Shahdad Standard, thought to be the oldest flag, hails from Persia and dates from around 2400 B.C. Because ancient societies considered standards to be conduits for the power and protection of the gods, an army always went into battle accompanied by priests bearing the kingdom’s religious emblems. Isaiah Chapter 49 includes the lines: “Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people.”

Ancient Rome added a practical use for standards—waving, dipping and otherwise manipulating them to show warring troops what to do next. But the symbols retained their aura as national totems, emblazoned with the letters SPQR, an abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus, or Senate and People of Rome. It was a catastrophe for a legion to lose its standard in battle. In Germania in A.D. 9, a Roman army was ambushed while marching through Teutoburg Forest and lost three standards. The celebrated general Germanicus eventually recovered two of them after a massive and bloody campaign.

In succeeding centuries, the flag as we know it today began to take shape. Europeans and Arabs learned silk production, pioneered by China, which made it possible to create banners light enough to flutter in the wind. As in ancient days, they were most often designed with heraldic or religious motifs.

In the U.S., the design of the flag harked back to the Roman custom of an explicitly national symbol, but the Star-Spangled Banner was slow to attain its unique status, despite the popularity of Francis Scott Key’s 1814 anthem. It took the Civil War, with its dueling flags, to make the American flag an emblem of national consciousness. As the U.S. Navy moved to capture New Orleans from the Confederacy in 1862, Marines went ashore and raised the Stars and Stripes at the city’s mint. William Mumford, a local resident loyal to the Confederacy, tore the flag down and wore shreds of it in his buttonhole. U.S. General Benjamin Butler had Mumford arrested and executed.

After the war, the Stars and Stripes became a symbol of reconciliation. In 1867 Southerners welcomed Wisconsin war veteran Gilbert Bates as he carried the flag 1,400 miles across the South to show that the nation was healing.

As the country developed economically, a new peril lay in store for the Stars and Stripes: commercialization. The psychological and religious forces that had once made flags sacred began to fade, and the national banner was recruited for the new industry of mass advertising. Companies of the late 19th century used it to sell everything from beer to skin cream, leading to national debates over what the flag stood for and how it should be treated.

President Woodrow Wilson instituted Flag Day in 1916 in an effort to concentrate the minds of citizens on the values embodied in our most familiar national symbol. That’s as worthy a goal today as it was a century ago.

The Gym, for Millennia of Bodies and Souls

Today’s gyms, which depend on our vanity and body envy, are a far cry from what the Greeks envisioned

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Going to the gym takes on a special urgency at this time of year, as we prepare to put our bodies on display at the pool and beach. Though the desire to live a virtuous life of fitness no doubt plays its part, vanity and body envy are, I suspect, the main motivation for our seasonal exertions.

The ancient Greeks, who invented gyms (the Greek gymnasion means “school for naked exercise”), were also body-conscious, but they saw a deeper point to the sweat. No mere muscle shops, Greek gymnasia were state-sponsored institutions aimed at training young men to embody, literally, the highest ideals of Greek virtue. In Plato’s “The Republic,” Socrates says that the two branches of physical and academic education “seem to have been given by some god to men…to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other, by tuning each to the right pitch.”

Physical competition, culminating in the Olympics, was a form of patriotic activity, and young men went to the gym to socialize, bathe and learn to think. Aristotle founded his school of philosophy in the Lyceum, in a gymnasium that included physical training.

The Greek concept fell out of favor in the West with the rise of Christianity. The abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who advised five popes, wrote, “The spirit flourishes more strongly…in an infirm and weak body,” neatly summing up the medieval ambivalence toward physicality.

Many centuries later, an eccentric German educator named Friedrich Jahn (1778-1852) played a key role in the gym’s revival. Convinced that Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon was due to his compatriots’ descent into physical and moral weakness, Jahn decided that a Greek-style gym would “preserve young people from laxity and…prepare them to fight for the fatherland.” In 1811, he opened a gym in Berlin for military-style physical training (not to be confused with the older German usage of the term gymnasium for the most advanced level of secondary schools).

By the mid-19th century, Europe’s upper-middle classes had sufficient wealth and leisure time to devote themselves to exercise for exercise’s sake. Hippolyte Triat opened two of the first truly commercial gyms in Brussels and Paris in the late 1840s. A retired circus strongman, he capitalized on his physique to sell his “look.”

But broader spiritual ideas still influenced the spread of physical fitness. The 19th-century movement Muscular Christianity sought to transform the working classes into healthy, patriotic Christians. One offshoot, the Young Men’s Christian Association, became famous for its low-cost gyms.

By the mid-20th century, Americans were using their gyms for two different sets of purposes. Those devoted to “manliness” worked out at places like Gold’s Gym and aimed to wow others with their physiques. The other group, “health and fitness” advocates, expanded sharply after Jack LaLanne, who founded his first gym in 1936, turned a healthy lifestyle into a salable commodity. A few decades later, Jazzercise, aerobics, disco and spandex made the gym a liberating, fashionable and sexy place.

More than 57 million Americans belong to a health club today, but until local libraries start adding spinning classes and CrossFit, the gym will remain a shadow of the original Greek ideal. We prize our sound bodies, but we aren’t nearly as devoted to developing sound mind and character.

With Big Prizes Often Comes Controversy

It’s not just the Nobel: Award-giving missteps have a long history

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This spring, controversies have engulfed three big prizes.

The Swedish Academy isn’t awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature this year while it deals with the fallout from a scandal over allegations of sexual assault and financial impropriety.

In the U.S., the author Junot Díaz has stepped down as Pulitzer Prize chairman while the board investigates allegations of sexual misconduct. In a statement through his literary agent earlier this month, Mr. Díaz did not address individual accusations but said in part, “I take responsibility for my past.” Finally, the organizers of the Echo, Germany’s version of the Grammys, said they would no longer bestow the awards after one of this year’s prizes went to rappers who used anti-Semitic words and images in their lyrics and videos.

Prize-giving controversies—some more serious than others—go back millennia. I know something about prizes, having served as chairwoman of the literary Man Booker Prize jury.

The ancient Greeks gave us the concept of the arts prize. To avoid jury corruption in their drama competitions, during the Festival of Dionysus, the Athenians devised a complicated system of votes and lotteries that is still not entirely understood today. Looking back now, the quality of the judging seems questionable. Euripides, the greatest tragedian of classical Greece, habitually challenged his society’s assumptions in tragedies like “Medea,” which sympathetically portrayed female desperation in a society where men ruled absolutely. In a three-way competition, “Medea,” which still holds the stage today, placed last.

Controversy surrounding a competition can be a revitalizing force—especially when the powers that be support the dissidents. By the 1860s, France’s Academy of Fine Arts, the defender of official taste, was growing increasingly out of touch with contemporary art. In 1863, the jury of the prestigious annual Salon exhibition, which the academy controlled, rejected artists such as Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and Édouard Manet.

The furor caused Emperor Napoleon III to order a special exhibition called the Salon “of Rejects” to “let the public judge” who was right. The public was divided, but the artists felt emboldened, and many scholars regard 1863 as the birthdate of modern painting. The Academy ultimately relinquished its control of the Salon in 1881. Its time was over.

At other times, controversies over prizes are more flash than substance. As antigovernment student protests swept Paris and many other places in 1968, a group of filmmakers tried to show solidarity with the protesters by shutting down the venerable Cannes Film Festival. At one point, directors hung from a curtain to prevent a film from starting. The festival was canceled but returned in 1969 without the revolutionary changes some critics were hoping for.

In contrast, a recent dispute at the festival over its refusal to allow in its competition Netflix films that bypass French theaters for streaming was relatively quiet but reflects the serious power struggle between streaming services and theatrical movie distributors.

As the summer approaches and the beleaguered festivals around the world take a breather, here’s some advice from a survivor of the prize process: Use this time to reflect and revive.

Serendipity of Science is Often Born of Years of Labor

Over the centuries, lucky discoveries depend on training and discernment

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

One recent example comes from an international scientific team studying the bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which makes an enzyme that breaks down the most commonly used form of plastic, thus allowing the bacterium to eat it. As reported last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the course of their research the scientists accidentally created an enzyme even better at dissolving the plastic. It’s still early days, but we may have moved a step closer to solving the man-made scourge of plastics pollution.

The development illustrates a truth about seemingly serendipitous discoveries: The “serendipity” part is usually the result of years of experimentation—and failure. A new book by two business professors at Wharton and a biology professor, “Managing Discovery in the Life Sciences,” argues that governments and pharmaceutical companies should adopt more flexible funding requirements—otherwise innovation and creativity could end up stifled by the drive for quick, concrete results. As one of the authors, Philip Rea, argues, serendipity means “getting answers to questions that were never posed.”

So much depends on who has observed the accident, too. As Joseph Henry, the first head of the Smithsonian Institution, said, “The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

One famously lucky meeting of perception and conception happened in 1666, when Isaac Newton observed an apple fall from the tree. (The details remain hazy, but there’s no evidence that the fruit actually hit him, as legend has it.) Newton had seen apples fall before, of course, but this time the sight inspired him to ask questions about gravity’s relationship to the rules of motion that he was contemplating. Still, it took Newton another 20 years of work before he published his Law of Universal Gravitation.

Bad weather was the catalyst for another revelation, leading to physicist Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in 1896. Unable to continue his photographic X-ray experiments on the effect of sunlight on uranium salt, Becquerel put the plates in a drawer. They developed, incredibly, without light. Realizing that he had been pursing the wrong question, Becquerel started again, this time focusing on uranium itself as a radiation emitter.

As for inventions, accident and inadvertence played a role in the development of Post-it Notes and microwave heating. During the 1990s, Viagra failed miserably in trials as a treatment for angina, but alert researchers at Pfizer realized that one of the side effects could have global appeal.

The most famous accidental medical discovery is antibiotics. The biologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 after he went on vacation, leaving a petri dish of bacteria out in the laboratory. On his return, the dish had developed mold, with a clean area around it. Fleming realized that something in the mold must have killed off the bacteria.

That ability to ask the right questions can be more important than knowing the right answers. Funders of science should take note.