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Timeless Aristophanes

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The Athenian playwright Aristophanes (ca. 446 – 386) directed his cutting wit at various customs and values of Athenians. Preferring the more aristocratic elements of Athenian politics and society, he takes particular joy in mocking the more democratic facets of Athenian life and politics. As such, he relentlessly scorns the Athenian Assembly. With the twist of comedy that renders him timeless, he suggests that Athens’ enemies should pay for the Assembly.

The democratic shenanigans of pandering to the people is as old as written history itself. Aristophanes reminds us that the most democratic elements of our government are not always the most useful or effective.

But we don’t need this reminder lately. The approval rating of the United States Congress is at an all-time low of 14%. The 86% of Americans who are not drooling morons (who are these mouth- breathing 14% and how do they even make it through the day without jabbing forks in their eyes?) are aware that our Congress is in complete and utter disarray.

Unlike Aristophanes, I am not of the opinion that the more elite political players can perform any better (despite my best wishes). But in my frustration with Congress, I do take some solace in the well-crafted humor of Athens’ greatest dramatist.

Historical Imagination: Siege of Attica & Death of Pericles

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

On occasion I am asked why I chose to study and teach history. It’s a fair question to which I enjoy responding. Naturally, I have an arsenal of potential responses. But my most authentic response is that I indulge in exercising my imagination.

All  historical eras inspire my imagination; but my recent foray into ancient Greece has kicked my imagination into a higher gear. Though the historical record of modern times is far from complete, the record of ancient Greece is agonizingly incomplete. Curious minds are forced to reconstruct, assume the higher naiveté, and imagine.

Take for instance the siege of Attica in during the Peloponnesian War. Notwithstanding efforts to maintain the 30 Years Peace, King Archidamus led the Spartan charge into Attica. What ensued was almost beyond imagination.

Pericles’ strategy, novel for its time, was to fight a defensive battle for Attica. He knew that Athens was no match for the Spartan military on land. So he, with the consent of the Assembly, ordered all Atticans behind the long walls of Athens. He believed that, “if the Athenians would remain quiet, take care of their [naval] fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail.” (Thucydides 2.65.7) As a Monday morning quarterback (2400 years removed) I will criticize the Periclean strategy in another post.

But first, imagine the Attican farmer taking his last glance at his land before trekking to the walled city. He knew full well that the Spartans would lay his land to waste. His animals would be slaughtered. His vines, which take decades to grow to fruition, would be uprooted. His dwelling and all of the memories that it holds will be razed.

Imagine the thousands of Attican farmers moving en masse into Athens. They set up home anywhere they could. Some slept in temples devoted to lesser Gods. Some slept among strangers. Some slept under the stars. None were under the impression that the siege would be over soon.

Imagine a plague comes and takes the lives of 1/3 to 1/2 of the Athenians behind the walls. Panic sweeps the streets. Demoralized one day and dead the next. Survivors could not even offer a proper burial to the fallen, thereby undermining the single most solemn rite in the Greek religious tradition. Imagine laying your spouse or your child into a mass grave.

Imagine being Pericles, the architect of this suicidal strategy. His only two sons died of this plague.

Pericles’ citizens turned against him. They met in the Assembly and tried to blame him for this nightmare. But his people could not claim ignorance or innocence–they supported his strategy. He told them that any blame belongs to all citizens, that they made decisions together, that they were fighting for their freedom together, that no one should be ashamed, and that the future remains glorious (Thucydides 2.64.6). But to no avail. Pericles was charged and heavily fined on a trumped up charge of embezzlement. Evidently, he still had the respect of the people for he was elected general once again in 429.

Months later Pericles was afflicted with the plague. He lay dying in bed. He mourned his fear that “no one of the Athenians now alive has put on mourning because of me.” (Plutarch 38.4) The greatest man of his era died without male heirs and convinced that he was isolated and despised. Imagine being one the greatest statesmen of all time, the father of the Golden Age of the Classical era, and dying in a pool of guilt, regret, and despair.

Our (Misguided?) Athenian Identification

Monday, August 15th, 2011

I am curious about how modern Westerners have a tendency, perhaps a preference, to identify our world with Athenian politics and culture despite our Spartan values.

We deem Spartans to be crude, brutal, puritanical, authoritarian, and blindly ignorant. In our age of materialism we deplore “spartan” lifestyles. Even worse, Spartans are disciplined militarists whose lives, in one way or another, revolve around war.

[interlude: this online thesaurus offers scores of synonyms for the word “spartan”. Are we spartan?]

We prefer to see ourselves as Athenians. We are refined, compassionate, open-minded, democratic, worldly, and wise. We find militarism repugnant and prefer enlightened diplomacy to war.

Of course, were we to sketch a Venn Diagram of Sparta and Athens we might find that the intersecting portion is larger than the two disjointed portions combined. For instance, Athens had certain non-democratic tendencies (most infamously, citizenship and voting restrictions) and Sparta was not as authoritarian as some might believe (The Spartan Assembly, or Ecclesia, seems to be no less democratic than the Athenian Ecclesia). Moreover, Athenians were no less averse to war than Spartans (Athens did not cultivate and maintain an Empire with fluffy bunnies and knock knock jokes while Sparta had no Empire to boast of, only two small colonies).

In short, I’m confounded by the fact that we are perfectly willing to trace western civilization back to the ancient Greeks but that we’ve done so by overemphasizing our cultural congruities with Athens while downplaying our Spartan heritage. Athens and Spartans have much in common and we, like it or not, have much in common with them both.

Two Constructs of Paradise

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Though Greek civilization is purported to be the basis of Western thought and culture, I am nevertheless struck by a great many cultural differences between the Greeks and us moderns. I suppose that I’ll write much more about this as I proceed with this blog. But today I am considering differing constructions of the Good Life.

The Bible begins with God. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” God is very much at the center of the Bible. He is flawless, blameless, and very much in control. He is without competition. He should not even be questioned. Though clearly a cherished creation of God (sans all the smiting), man is powerless and often foolish beyond reproach.

The works of Homer begin with man. Man is at the center of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both Men and Gods are flawed and foolish. Neither are omnipotent. Both must compete. Both are remarkably fallible.

Greek theology is essentially secular and humanistic whereas Christian theology is preoccupied with the Divine. Of course, there are secular humanist facets of the Judeo-Christian model and Divine aspects of Greek theology; I am posing a hypothesis of mutual exclusivity. But, so far as I can discern, and I proclaim no expertise here, this comparative analysis is valid.

This is not to say that one theological model is superior to the other. This is only to say that these are two very different theological paradigms, with significant implications.

But even more striking is the construct of Paradise in Greek and Judeo-Christian theologies. Paradise in the Bible consists of one man (Adam), who is later joined by one woman. This, friends, is as good as it gets. What is their punishment for betraying God’s will? They are cast into society. The ultimate punishment for man is that he is forced to live alongside other men in a community. This has been a pervasive theme in Western literature and philosophy for millennia. Rousseau argues that man is perfect by nature–that is, until society corrupts him absolutely. Jefferson was lauded for his preference for Monticello to Philadelphia. Emerson and Thoreau implore us to pursue self reliant individualism. Sartre’s hell is to be in the company of others for eternity. Helen and Scott Nearing stirred our souls when they abandoned civilization to homestead.

The ancient Greeks would find the Judeo-Christian Paradise to be absolute Hell. Greeks are, so far as I can discern, unabashedly pro-social.

You know those timeless closing film scenes where  a man, perhaps accompanied by his wife/girlfriend, drives off into the distance? Maybe he is finally fleeing an adverse circumstance. Maybe he just conquered something or someone and is driving away in triumph. If it helps, think of almost any Springsteen song (Thunder Road?). You know what I’m getting at, right? Just “getting away from it all”. I imagine an ancient Greek watching such a scene an thinking that this guy is nuts.  Why would someone just pick up and take off? How could you “leave it all behind”? They would tell Huck Finn to turn the boat around and go home where he belongs–that only a fool would reject society.

Greeks venerated community. They worshiped the demos, the People. They nurtured political life. They cherished kratis, to rule.

Man’s Paradise is among his fellow men taking part in the community. First and foremost, Greeks wanted to participate in the community and in the politics of their polis. Anyone who thought otherwise, according to Aristotle, was “useless”.

Tough Decisions on the Pynx

Friday, August 12th, 2011

In the course of blogging about Greece I suspect that I will offer several reflections on the nature of Greek democracy. This afternoon I’d like to offer an insight concerning one particular facet of Greek democracy.

Much has been said about the direct nature of the democratic polis, and not without reason. Contemporary Power to the People types, from both left and right, often idealize direct democracy. Most of us probably have mixed feelings about direct and representative democracies alike. History seems to be on the side of political systems that demonstrate some balance between these two models.

The U.S. Continental Congress was clearly of the opinion that matters of war and peace ought to be decided by the more directly democratic element of the political system. The power to declare war is the prerogative of the Congress, who are directly elected by the people (why they have traditionally shirked that responsibility is another issue). The President, who is elected by an electoral college, and the Justices, who are appointed, have no legal right to declare war.

The philosophy here is that the people will have to pay for the war and the people will have to die for the war, so the people, through their tribunes in the Congress, should be able to decide on matters of war and peace.

But, as we know, Congresspeople do not go to war. And they are not always tribunes of the people.

Contrast this to Athens.

Imagine if you will…it’s 431 BCE and the tensions between Athens are Sparta are unbearable. Sparta has already declared war, though war is still not inevitable. Citizens of Athens meet in the Assembly on the Pynx to discuss whether to issue a retaliatory declaration of war or to further pursue diplomatic maneuvers. These very citizens–not a separate military or mercenaries–should they vote for war, will be going to war the next day.

These Assembly members look out over the Pynx. They have a clear view of the Attican countryside. They know full well that if they vote for war then Attica will be utterly destroyed, perhaps forever (the Athenian military strategy was, for good reason, to sacrifice their farms and to seek refuge behind the walls of Athens while the Athenian navy engaged the Peloponesean League on the seas and the coasts). In their minds’ eye, they could see the Spartan army ravaging their fields and their wives.

The Spartan King Archidamus, who was doveish, even warned his polis that “we shall pass this war onto our children.” The Athenian Assemblymen knew full well that war meant complete and total destruction of their land in a total war with no end in sight.

They voted for war.

Perhaps in another blog entry I will try to explain, or perhaps even justify, this decision.

But for now I urge you to consider the fact that at least the citizens had the legal right to choose for themselves.

Random Notes on Greek Manners

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Durant’s, in chapter 13 of The Life of Greece, drops the following tidbits of interest:

  • Many Greek women were ashamed of their stumpy legs. They took affixing large cork soles to their shoes.
  • Most Greek men did not cut their hair at all. This changed with the Battle of Marathon. I don’t know why.
  • Almost all Greek men wore beards. This changed  in the 4th century when Alexander the Great cut his off–he argued that the beard could be used against him in combat.
  • No Greek men wore mustaches. Even Greek hipsters, such as they were, abstained from the stache.
  • The barbershop was often called the “wineless symposia” on account of all the gossips and gadflys that hung out there. Women would also attend the barbershop, where they would shave using depilatories made from arsenic and lime(!). King Archelaus of Macedon was asked by the barber how he wanted his hair cut. He responded, “in silence.”
  • Most bathed with olive oil and a crescent shaped strigil made of metal.
  • Most Athenian men wore at least one ring; Aristotle wore several. Aristotle = pimp.

Aristippus on the Value of Education

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

When Aristippus was asked in what way the educated are superior to the uneducated he answered, “as broken horses are to the unbroken.” At least, he adds, “if the pupil derives no other good, he will not, when he attends the theater, be one stone upon another.”

Kagan’s Higher Naiveté

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

In preparing to teach a course on ancient Greece and Rome, I was fortunate to have come across a series of  lectures given by Donald Kagan. Kagan is Yale’s premiere classicist and among the world’s foremost scholars on ancient Greece. I watched every one of the 24 lectures that Kagan offered his undergraduates and I can only hope that they were as riveted as I was.

Kagan shifted my paradigm on studying classical civilizations. You see, as one who has devoted much of his life to understanding modern times, I have relied on a very rich (and increasingly accessible) historical record. When I began studying Greece I was a bit overwhelmed by the wildly contradicting accounts of even the most basic facts. Though I am still overwhelmed, I take much solace in Kagan’s position, as delineated below:

“There is this critical school that says, ‘I won’t believe anything unless it is proven to me.’ At the other extreme, there’s me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek unless I can’t.

Now, things that prevent me from believing what I read are that they are internally contradictory, or what they say is impossible, or different ones contradict each other and they can’t both be right. So, in those cases I abandon the ancient evidence. Otherwise, you’ve got to convince me that they’re not true.

Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté.

The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté.

So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, ‘Can there be something believable at the root of this?'”

Origin of the [Athenian] Species!

Monday, August 8th, 2011

A great many myths reflected and shaped classical Athens’s self perception. Athenians claimed to be indigenous to the land, as opposed to being descendents of invaders. Their claim to pure, unadulterated indigenous heritage is supported by the twisted tale of Erichthonius, the first King of Athens.

Erichthonius (name translation: “troubles born from the earth”) was born of Earth when Athena, after narrowly avoiding a rape attempt by a handicapped God of technology/craftsmen/metallurgy named Hephaestus, cleaned his ejaculate from her thigh and dropped the semen soaked rag onto the ground.

Now Athena was a virgin and did not want to seem impure. So she decided to raise Erichthonius secretly. To this end, she put him in a box and gave him to the three daughters of King Crecops, telling them never to open the box. Two of the daughters opened the box to find either a) a half child-half-serpent or b) a snake wrapped around a baby. Either way, they were so freaked out that they jumped off the Acropolis and died.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the mythic origin of Athens. Yeesh.

On Ostracism

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

I’d heard of the Athenian phenomenon of ostracism in high school. I was taught that it was an indication that Athenians were not so civilized after all but, indeed, rather cruel. Turns out, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Every year Athenians voted on whether or not to ostracize a citizen of the polis. Most years there was no ostracism. There can be only one ostracism per year and only one person can be ostracized at a time. So, in effect, the people had a democratic tool to expel the one person that they deemed most dangerous to the polis.

They would cast their ballot on an ostraka, which is a piece of broken pottery.  If  more than 6,000 Athenians voted, then the votes would be tallied (so, roughly speaking, 1 in 3 citizens would have to vote to stage the ostracism). If the person in question receives a simple majority than he will be expelled from Athens for 10 years.

Unlike the potential outcome of a judicial procedure, the ostracized is not found guilty. He is not deemed criminal, his family is not harmed or disgraced, and his land is not taken.

It seems that there are three main justifications for ostracism. The first is if the person in question is treasonous. A second justification is if the person is deemed to be a genuine threat to the system. If Athens is governed by democratic reformers then hardcore aristocrats might be deemed dangerous and vice versa. Lastly, one could be ostracized if he is promoting factionalism among the politae.

Donald Kagan argues that ostracism was a civil democratic device used to reduce treason and minimize discontent. He suggests that such a “safety valve” promoted unity and minimized the threat of civil war.

On one hand, I’m not sure how civil, let alone humane, this is. On the other hand would it not, for instance, be nice to send Sarah Palin packing for a decade?

 

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