Something About Those Ancient Greeks

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country, ancient Greece. We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world).

Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks. And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago. There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect. And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom. This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to them so that they may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society. This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world. The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders. Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind. Thus, to study both these civilizations is to begin to fully understand our own.

Earliest History of Greece

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery helps us to demarcate the various phases of material culture. For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the various islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The Minoans

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C. It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.” But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was because of the labyrinthine nature of the palace’s layout that Evans called the civilization that he discovered, “Minoan,” after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal. It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for it.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B. The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 when Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language. When the rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group. Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos? This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The Mycenaean Age

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops. Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry. He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language. All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land they came to inhabit.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C. And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before. It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by the historians of this era.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

These clues points to one conclusion. The Mycenaeans came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns. And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is a member of the Indo-European group of languages – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece. In the latter years of the third millennium, there were Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead. From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their descendents) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendents, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek.

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since there is a pronounced similarity, for example, between the myths of the various Indo-European peoples. The branch of Indo-Europeans that veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece and set up suzerainty over them. The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued. By 1600 B.C. they had established a thriving culture, attested by the rich finds in the shaft-graves of Mycenae.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans struck southward and conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization. But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for it was soon after they had conquered Crete that the Mycenaeans adopted the art of writing invented by the Minoans, but they had adapt it to their own language, since the alphabet was not really useful for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear alphabet.

The Bronze Age Collapse

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” during which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground. The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword. The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization. Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared. The group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried. It is from the various dialects of these new invaders that the Greek language developed.

The Ancient Dark Age

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization. There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns. The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions. They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

The Archaic Period

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade. The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens. As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of a greater population, colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea. All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C. And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live. Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

C.B. Forde lives, thinks, dreams in a rural setting.


The featured image shows, “Dance in ancient Greece,” by Johan Raphael Smith ca. 19th century.

A Conversation with Mary Lefkowitz

The Postil is most pleased and deeply honored to publish this interview with Mary Lefkowitz, professor emerita of Classical Studies, at Wellesley College. Her husband was the late Classics scholar, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. She is the author of such important works as, The Victory Ode: An Introduction, The Lives of the Greek Poets, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths, among many other works. She has also been a stout-hearted and brilliant opponent of the “Black Athena” fantasy-theory, as laid out in her two books, Black Athena Revisited and Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History. She further described her ordeal in History Lesson. Currently, she has co-edited, The Greek Plays. She is interviewed here by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): The first time I came across your name was in the second half of mid 1980s. I found an article you wrote in the English Conservative magazine, The Salisbury Review, edited back then by Sir Roger Scruton. It was an anti-feminist article – an article written by a female scholar of antiquity. Yet you wrote several books about women in ancient times, in tragedy. One can’t think of Greek tragedy without women. My question is: Where does your interest in ancient women come from? Clearly, given your stance on feminism, it was not just a fashion: A woman writing about women.

Mary Lefkowitz (ML): That article was one of several articles which I wrote about revisionist histories. In the seventies and eighties some feminists were using Greek myths to argue that early in human history there had been peaceful matriarchal societies that were eventually usurped by men, and I tried to show why myth couldn’t be used as historical evidence. I can’t imagine that there ever was a time when women were in continual charge of their societies. Until relatively recently in human history, anatomy was destiny.

ZJ: When you look at your antifeminist articles, your book Not Out of Africa, and watch today’s academic landscape, do you think fighting it, writing against it, changed anything? I can come up with a few names of female scholars in your field (Mary Beard and Edith Hall) who write about the Greeks and the Romans as if feminism and Marxism were an orthodoxy. Beard’s popular history of Rome reminds me of the Marxist interpretations of Roman history which I read in Communist Poland: Roman masses are her hero. Now the same message comes from the most prestigious British universities.

ML: Feminism, Marxism, and Afrocentrism are like religions; believers are not persuaded by arguments based on known, warranted facts. But (as I think I said) I’m not against feminism per se. Rather, what I object to is the use of mythology as history.

ZJ: The position of women in Greece was not the same as in Rome. There is no Greek Livia, Augustus’ wife, who—if we follow Robert Graves’ account —was the real force who shaped Augustus’ politics, and so many others. Given different stature of women in Greece and Rome (Greek women, from what we know, did not yield the same power, even behind the scene), how do you explain the importance of women in Greek tragedy? Did the Greeks see some fundamental difference between men and women which the tragedy explores?

ML: In fifth-century Athens women certainly did not have any political power, but women in Sparta had considerable political influence, and Artemisia of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor commanded her own ship fighting against the Greeks in the battle of Salamis. But in the Hellenistic Era, there were powerful women rulers who had even more power than Livia, e.g. the Macedonian Greek Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Such women were all from royal or aristocratic families.

ZJ: What is striking about Greek tragedies is the importance of female characters. Neither Ismene nor Chrysothemis in Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra seem to have much to contribute to the plot. They serve as a contrast to Antigone and Electra. What I mean by contrast is the personae of Ismene and Chrysosthemis—their femininity. They want to live, have families, children. Antigone and Chrysosthemis, on the other hand, are obsessed with one idea: vengeance. But for it to work, they have to turn off their emotions, forget about their feminine charm, their feminine nature. There must be a reason why both playwrights chose women to be there, why they constructed the pairs of women to act this way. Do you think there is something about women, their psychology, their nature, that Sophocles and Euripides saw and explored? After all, one could use a male character there, but they did not.

ML: I suspect that Greek women, then as now, had plenty to say, even though they weren’t officially in change – that’s apparent even in Homer. Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations.

ZJ: Unlike in a number of other disciplines, there are and were many outstanding female scholars of antiquity: you; Jacqueline de Romily in France; in my native Poland there were several; Lidia Winniczuk, H. Kronska, Maria Dzielska. There is Grace Harriet Macurdy, professor at Vassar College, whose book Hellenistic Queens was published in 1932! One can also invoke the name of the 18th century translator of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Mrs. Carter. And, of course, Edith Hamilton, the author of very popular books on Greece and Rome. You can probably come up with many more names. What attracts women to Greece and Rome? You said, “Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations” Is it just a question of weak versus strong women? Why should we assume that the strength of women lies in their being “as heroic as men”? Why should we measure strength of women by analogy of what is valuable in men? Why not assume, as we did even in the Enlightenment period, that the virtues of women – of which Rousseau in his Emile or La Nouvelle Heloise and Laclos in his Education of Women wrote – are different and they should be measured as such? Would you not agree that to judge women against men – whether they can be like men – is to capitulate to the democratic idea of equality.

ML: How do we measure qualities like courage? How can we measure courage? Or constancy, or determination, or whatever other qualities we can think of? More men have been greater mathematicians and physicists than have women, but is that because men have more testosterone in their systems than women, or because women have not had the same encouragement or opportunity?

I suspect that what attracted women to the study of antiquity is what has attracted men to the study of antiquity: the challenge of learning difficult languages, the excitement of reading great literature. In my own case, learning Latin helped me understand the structure of English grammar. Greek seemed to me to be particularly interesting because the words seemed to be more literal, closer to what the parent language must have been like. I tried to make myself study something more practical, like Chemistry, but couldn’t stop wanting to read Sophocles. So that’s what I did.

ZJ: T. S. Eliot once said, tragedy is impossible in the Christian world, or Biblical world – I cannot remember. But the Old Testament story of Job seems to indicate that he had both in mind. I made it my habit to teach the Book of Job to students to draw a contrast between the Greeks and the Hebrews, and, more precisely, between Job’s attitude and Epictetus or the Stoics. My standard questions after reading the two texts is: “Was Job a Stoic?” If you were to look at Job from Mars, you would not know whether he reconciled himself to his fate because he had faith in God or whether he reconciled himself because he was a Greek Stoic philosopher, a man who accepted life “as it happens.” “Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen,” says Epictetus. Perfect one-line expression of the Greek mind. Was Eliot right? Tragedy in the Biblical tradition—whether the Jewish or Christian versions—seems impossible. No savior, no messiah. The universe is blind and deaf, and thus, human life is tragic!

ML: Eliot was right. You can’t have tragedy in a universe where divinities are supposed to promote human welfare and cooperate with one another. Ancient Greek deities disagree with one another. Hence the Trojan War, the death of Hippolytus, Juno’s wrath against the Trojans in the Aeneid.

ZJ: If you think of what happened to Oedipus, he does what he was bound to, but then when he discovers what he did—killed his father, slept with his mother—he blinds himself. Another proof: Fatum is blind, we must account for our “sins” even if we did not know, which makes me think of Agamemnon and the origin of a fundamental issue in European culture: Justice.

The Trojan war. It starts with the abduction of Helen. The Greeks gather at Aulis. Agamemnon goes hunting; crosses the sanctuary of the Goddess of Nature, Artemis, who demands sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; reluctantly, he does it because the winds will not blow; he goes to Troy, comes back, he gets killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, who, to avenge the death of their daughter, kills him. The filial duty falls on Orestes and Electra, the two children, who kill their mother, and who must be killed. It is a domino effect. Those involved in the killing must suffer too. Why? Because Agamemnon unknowingly crossed the boundaries of the Goddess sanctuary. Ignorance, like in Oedipus’s case, is no excuse in the eyes of the gods. Finally, Apollo intervenes because Orestes and Electra would have to be executed for killing their mother, which they had to do.

The moral is: Vengeance is not mine; to do justice we have to transfer it to the impersonal entity, the State; family members cannot exact justice. Is this so? Is this the point where and when European civilization begins – with the recognition of creating a system where emotions must be turned off? Would you agree with such a characterization?

ML: I wouldn’t put it quite that way. Fate isn’t blind; we are. Hamartia doesn’t mean “sin,” but rather “missing the mark,” “making an error in judgment,” which is what Oedipus did when he thought he could avoid fulfilling the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother by leaving Corinth, and the people he thought were his father and mother, which enabled him to fulfill the oracle by heading for Thebes. Tragedy reminds us of this fundamental human weakness. We always know less than we think we know. Tragedy allows us to turn our emotions on, and to reflect on the limitations of our own knowledge.

ZJ: Let me continue by moving to a special topic: Western Civilization. In AeschylusPersians, the playwright makes the Persian king listen to his advisor, to understand that the Greeks govern themselves in an incomprehensible way: they are governed by the many, not one king. The explanation comes when the Persian defeat is just about to happen. Let me point out, if the Greeks were to lose, there would be no democracy, no republic if the Persians were to invade and conquer Italy, no system of government that we take for granted today.

Western civilization is a complex entity, built over two thousand years but the question is what are its foundations, the ingredients without which it would not exist. When I teach I use an image of what we call in America: a melting pot, but it is a Western Civ. pot: here are my ingredients: The Jewish/Biblical One God, love your neighbor, in the Christian form, love of all others, other nations; Greek ingredient is philosophy, mathematics, architecture, tragedy, and democracy; my Roman ingredient: Roman law, administration, architecture (arches; aqueducts, dome), republican form of government (two chambers). You mix it, you get the basic dish: European civilization from which the Middle Ages and Renaissance sprang. In it you have the foundations of Modern Europe.

Yet, all of this is today under attack: colonialism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy. Why are we so ungrateful to the Greeks and Romans? You spent your life in Ivory Tower. Life of the mind is the most precious thing, and yet, it is the academics who are destroying it.

ML: Academe hasn’t been an ivory tower since the student revolutions of the late 1960s, as the result of which curricula became increasingly politicized. Academics and students wanted to study society’s problems so they could do something about them. They wanted action and had no time for reflection. What they didn’t and still don’t understand is that knowing something about the past and human nature could help them better to understand the present.

ZJ: Several years ago, I came across the name of a Saudi Arab intellectual Ibrahim al-Buleihi, former Saudi Shura Council Member, who in an interview titled “Western Civilization Has Liberated Mankind” said many things that few professors in America would have the courage to say. Here it is:
Buleihi: “My attitude towards Western civilization is an attitude based on obvious facts and great accomplishments; here is a reality full of wonderful and amazing things. [Recognizing] this doesn’t mean that I am blindly fascinated. This is the very opposite of the attitude of those who deny and ignore the bright lights of Western civilization. Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations. If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation. Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it. The accomplishments of Western civilization cover all areas of life: methods of organization, politics, ethics, economics, and human rights. It is our obligation to acknowledge its amazing excellence. Indeed, this is a civilization that deserves admiration… The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this [abundance of Western ideas and visions] while taking refuge in denial and arrogance.”

‘Okaz: “Sir, you can admire this civilization as much as you want, but not at the expense of others, especially our own civilization.”

Buleihi: “My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them; they should stop denying the truth and closing their eyes to the multitude of wonderful achievements. They should be fair towards those nations that achieved prosperity for themselves but did not monopolize it for themselves and instead allowed the whole world to share the results of this progress, so that other nations of the whole world now enjoy these achievements. Furthermore, Western civilization has given to the world knowledge and skills which made it possible for them, the non-Western nations, to compete with it in production and share markets with it. Criticizing one’s own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one’s backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves.”

What is your reaction to al-Buleihi’s statement?

ML: I agree with what he says. The students who chanted “Western Civ has got to go” were only considering the downside of Western Civ, which is pretty much the downside of human nature generally, anger, violence, self-aggrandizement, etc. Plato and Aristotle showed us ways in which all people could lead more constructive lives, but their visions did little to address social issues, like oppression of certain people, such as slaves.

ZJ: There is a tendency today to just go over religious traditions (plural) as if religion was never part of any culture. Why do we operate in this religious vacuum and how does it obfuscate our understanding of both Antiquity and Modernity? You probably know the movie Troy with Brad Pitt. It is, in my opinion, a very well-done movie. However, same thing: no gods! Last year in November, Joseph Epstein wrote a nice piece for the Wall Street Journal about Thucydides. I always enjoy finding something like that. The title of it is “History Made by Men, not Gods.” To ignore gods is to miss the point of the Iliad. Gods are as important as humans. I remember Sir Moses Finley’s several articles about Socrates, whose trial, according to him was motivated to a large extent by the suspicion that he really did not believe in the gods, and the Athenians, remembering well the plagues that visited Athens and devastated population during the war, thought disbelief was a serious problem. What is your view here when it comes to taking religious views seriously? Can one understand culture, Greece and Rome, in particular, by simply saying – myths, gods…

ML: I believe that you cannot understand ancient Greek literature, history or philosophy unless you take account of ancient Greek religion. Although it’s hard for us to understand, Greek theology (I prefer that term to mythology) assumes that the gods exist for their own benefit and for the benefit of human beings, and that they often work at cross purposes from one another. It provides a means of understanding why bad things happen to good people, and the forces of evil are so often successful.

ZJ: Is what I implied in my previous question a matter of changing world-view (un-religious, a-religious, atheist, skeptical, scientific, or whatever else you want to call it or; ignorance, or a-historicity), which makes us create worlds of the past that do not correspond to historical reality and from which we can’t learn.

ML: We could learn from ancient Greek religion that there is only so much we can do to shape the courses of our own lives, much less the lives of our communities or nations.

ZJ: When did the awareness of the Ancient world start dying in the US, in the West? Complaints go back to the 19th century. I have in front of me two wonderful little books by Henry Nettleship, a great scholar of antiquity: The True Aim of Classical Education and The Moral Influence of Literature, and The Moral Influence of Literature: Classical Education in the Past and at Present. Two Popular Addresses. Both books aim at explaining the importance of the classics. The decline of interest can be traced, I think, to the late 1970s. The map of heavens is Greco-Roman, so were all space programs: Geminin Apollo, etc. Then, things changed. No Greeks, no Romans. Columbia, Challenger, etc. and the nail in the coffin was… Jessie Jackson in 1988: “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western culture’s got to go.” So, the Greeks, the Romans, the West are gone. You as a teacher of the Greeks in a prestigious college are well qualified to explain: Should we feel more sorry for the Greeks, or for ourselves?

ML: For ourselves, of course. Western Civilization has many shortcomings. Greek philosophy has not solved all the world’s problems, because it is essentially elitist and relies on the existence of a working underclass. But the critical thinking that it encourages offers the best means of finding equitable solutions for the disparities in our society.

ZJ: This leads me to the question that made you to be probably the most known classicist in America. The controversy in which you were involved. It concerned the book by Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Can you briefly say what the book claims before I ask you about your role in this controversy? You responded to Bernal’s book with your own book: Not Out of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History. Something must have deeply gotten to you that made you write an entire book to debunk a myth. Was it just scholarly integrity or something else? After all, not all scholars of Antiquity bothered to write a sentence. Why did you pick the fight? What do you think motivates people like Bernal to write such books?

ML: I believe that Bernal (an Englishman) resented the prestige associated with studying Greek and Latin in British public schools (=of course, elite British private schools) and may have had an unimaginative Classics teacher at his school, because he believed that learning conjugations and declensions numbed the minds of anyone who studied Classics. My experience with learning Latin was just the opposite: it helped me understand the structure of the English language and encouraged me to think about the etymology of words. Greek was even more exciting because it was even more foreign and harder to put into English. The first Greek text that I bought was the New Testament, which I was able to read on my own because the syntax was easier than that of earlier Greek prose writers. Reading the first sentences Gospel according to John in Greek helped me understand how much had been lost in translation.

ZJ: We’ve come to the point in our conversation when I have to ask you about PC in America, at American universities. It is a destructive force. No one, perhaps with the exception of Allan Bloom in the 1980s, understood how influential and destructive certain trends can be. Serious academic life is close to being gone, and it is not only because of myths about African origins of classical civilization, or relativism, that Bloom was concerned with. No one even uses this term today. Today we look at everything through the lenses of sexism, racism, misogyny, feminism, colonialism (the last term is a bit passé).

ML: Political correctness is an orthodoxy, like that of a monotheistic religion. (Ancient polytheism was much more open: new gods could be added ad lib.). Monotheists look down on polytheism as superstition. Any questioning of orthodoxy is heresy, punishable by exclusion, exile, etc.

ZJ: Do you think we can survive this level of intellectual barbarism which we see around? It is a total disregard for truth, scholarly procedures, life of the mind, and it is not an ordinary American on the street who is supportive of it, but the academics.

ML: We survived the orthodoxy that existed when I was a schoolgirl and an undergraduate (1940s and 1950s) and for a few decades afterward. White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the norm, so Catholics and Jews were treated with caution and some suspicion, African Americans were segregated even in the North; all of these were subject to quotas as students and faculty members at many schools and universities are in this country.

ZJ: I started my university education there, in Poland, not in Stalinist times, to be sure, but never experienced what my students are experiencing in America today. Some of them see that something is not right, but are too afraid to say anything. Only last week, a female student came up to me and said, “Dr. Janowski, do you realize you are the minority of one here; in other classes students who disagree with professors are berated; other students attacked me.” My student’s feelings are now common. Many of them are afraid. Do you see a way out of it?

ML: The way around it is to do what you are doing, to encourage students to think independently and to question orthodoxies.

ZJ: What role can and should Classical education play in rebuilding sanity? Is there a way of explaining the importance of classical education to the general public, to give support to what appears obvious to me and you.

ML: Learning about foreign and ancient cultures requires us to think, to use our imaginations, and to get out of ourselves into very different worlds. Ancient Greece and Rome are particularly worth studying because their writing and thinking and art have had such a profound influence on Western culture. But I am not suggesting that we should regard those cultures uncritically; quite the contrary. And we should acknowledge their debts to other ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, India, and the different civilizations in Asia Minor.

ZJ: Let me finish this conversation with something I tell students. I make them take a map of British Empire—the massive Empire. I say, look at it and ask yourself how one little country could colonize such vast areas. They must have had skilled people to do it. What do you think they studied? There was no department of Administration, Foreign Affairs, Public Relations, etc. They, as the Brits say, “read” Classics and History. Both give you intellectual skills to understand many things that no specialized, narrow discipline will never give you. Even today, plenty of people in the City of London, graduate from Oxbridge and make big money without a degree in business. What do you think?

ML: I agree with you. Studying ancient Greek and Roman literature is a great way to prepare for any number of careers, first because the process makes you get away from yourself and the times you live in, and reimagine other, different societies and ways of thinking, and then because the subject matter allows you to understand something about the beginnings of European civilization, and its good and bad characteristics.

ZJ: Thank you, Professor Lefkovitz.

The image shows, “Ulysses and the Sirens,” by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1891.

Why Study The Classics?

The Greek and Latin classics have managed to survive up to the present day because they make it possible to grasp some fundamental truths about the nature of human existence. Ancient writers understood that these truths could most effectively be conveyed through stories. In ancient narratives of the myths, mortals come to realize the full extent of their own ignorance. To take just one example: in his drama Antigone Sophocles shows how people remain confident, that they know what they are doing until (as he puts it) they burn their feet in the fire. That “famous saying” to Antigone, who brought about her own death by burying her brother against her uncle Creon’s orders. That saying soon applies also to Creon, whose son kills himself because Antigone is dead. It also applies to everyone who watches or reads the play, because it is human nature to rely on incomplete knowledge when we make major decisions, especially in political situations that later prove to be complex and dangerous.

Even today everyone knows about the disastrous decision made by the Trojans, to bring in the wooden horse left outside their city wall as a “gift” from their enemies, the Greeks. Why did the Trojans make the choice that brought their own destruction, when they could have so easily saved themselves? All they had to do was leave the horse where they found it, outside the city walls – or better still, set it on fire. But instead they decided to bring the horse in, drag it up to their city’s acropolis, and then sit down around it.

They did so (as the Roman poet Virgil tells the story) because almost everyone (including their king Priam) was prepared to believe an attractive story told to them by Sinon, a young man captured by Trojan shepherds. He said that they had left the large wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Minerva (the Greek Athena), and that they had made the horse so large in order to prevent the Trojans from dragging it into their city, and thus to keep the goddess from supporting the Trojans if, in the future, they sought to invade and conquer Greece.

Anyone who had doubts about that story was soon persuaded of its truth by another event. The priest Laocoon (who had advised them not to take any gifts from the Greeks) had been near the seashore, sacrificing a bull to the god Neptune, when suddenly two huge serpents came out of the water, ate both his sons, and crushed him to death. The serpents then went to the temple of Minerva and took shelter around the feet and behind the shield of her statue. Hearing this, the Trojans immediately assumed that Minerva had punished Laocoön.

They opened the gates of their city and tore down part of their walls so they could bring the horse to the goddess’s temple, hoping to win her favor. That night, there were celebrations. After the Trojans had gone to sleep, the Greeks (who had been just out of sight in their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos) sailed back to Troy. Sinon then opened the door of the horse and let out the Greek soldiers hiding inside, as the Greek army rushed in through the city’s open gates.

Virgil makes it clear that the disaster might have been prevented by asking questions and finding the answers, all of which were readily available. Why accept Sinon’s explanation for the size of the wooden horse? Why didn’t the Trojans bore a hole into the side of the horse to see if anything was inside—Laocoön had already shown them that it was hollow.

Why didn’t the Trojans also make sure that the Greeks really had gone away and were not lying in wait? The Trojans also might have asked themselves if there was another reason why the serpents attacked Laocoön and his sons. Did Minerva and the other gods want to get Laocoön out of the way so that he couldn’t stop the Trojans from bringing the horse into the city? Instead of asking any of these questions, the Trojans were eager to believe that the Greeks had given up the war and gone home.

As Virgil relates it, the tale of the Trojan horse is par excellence about the state of mind that leads to self-delusion. It isn’t just that the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s sensible advice to look inside the horse before they dragged it into the city. Why didn’t they didn’t interrogate Sinon to make sure that his story was true. Why were they prepared to trust their king Priam’s judgment, when they all had every reason not to? They knew that Priam had been warned that a male child born on a certain day would cause Troy to be destroyed, and his wife, Hecuba, had herself dreamed that she was about to give birth to a firebrand. The Trojans would never have become involved in a war with the Greeks if Paris had not been allowed to live.

Paris’s judgment was no better than his parents’: a selfish decision that he had made was the direct cause of the Trojan War. When as a young man Paris was shepherding his flocks on Mount Ida, the god Mercury (Hermes) asked him to pick which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. Each of the goddesses – Minerva, Juno, and Venus – offered Paris a gift. Minerva offered him wisdom and victory in battle, and Juno (Hera) offered him rule over all of Asia. But Venus (Aphrodite) offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus). Paris was bound to get into trouble whichever of the three goddesses he chose because he would anger the two goddesses whose gifts he had declined.

In such circumstances, the most sensible course would have been for Paris to refuse to make the decision – or at least to pick the most powerful goddess, the one who could best protect him against the other two. That goddess was Minerva. Instead Paris chose Venus, the weakest of the three goddesses, who gave him Helen as his reward, even though Helen was already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, who then came to Troy with his brother Agamemnon and an army to bring her back. So it was not coincidental that after all those years of fighting, the Greeks won the Trojan war by deception rather than by sheer force.

It seems that people will ignore well-informed and well-intentioned advice if it goes against their own desires. When a person holds two conflicting beliefs or ideas, people tend to pick the belief or idea that pleases them more, even when it does not comport with reality. Priam and the Trojans wanted to believe that the Greeks had given up their siege and gone home. They liked the idea of bringing the horse into the city because that was precisely what the Greeks supposedly did not want them to do.

The American historian Barbara Tuchman chose to use the story of the Trojan horse as the first chapter of The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam (1984). In that book she explores the failures of leadership over the centuries. But leaders cannot succeed without cooperation from their citizens. In Tiepolo’s painting “The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy” shows the Trojans struggling to push and drag the horse into their city. The people of Troy shared the blame for the disaster because in their ignorance they wanted to believe that what their leaders had told them was true. History would have looked more favorably on the Trojans if they had tried to circumvent their leaders’ commands, and if by causing delays they had managed to save themselves and their country.

Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.

The image shows, “The Consul Louis Fauvel at his Easel in Athens,” by Louis Dupré, painted in 1819.

Renewing Plato. Part One: The Flaws of Aristotelian Hylomorphism

Plato was manifestly an oracle (similar to Pythagoras), whose thesis of the subdivision of reality into a virtual realm (inaccessible to the senses) and a concrete realm of the senses ultimately came to elucidate his privileged experience of the superiority of supra-sensible reality; Aristotle, on the other hand, resembled much more what can only be described as being sensory. In what follows, I would like to defend a renovated version of the Platonic perspective, against the Aristotelian negation of the existence of virtual entities that Plato called “Ideas,” but which the master of Aristotle rightly identified as the model of concrete entities.

Therefore, I will argue as follows:

1) Any concrete entity partakes of an ideational model (which may be termed, “archetype,” but which, contrary to the traditional understanding of archetypes, must be deemed as the singular model of a given entity, and the model of the unique and shared traits of a given singular entity)—which configures, or determines, the layout and the composition of the aforesaid entity, and that the “matter” constituting concrete beings takes charge of its own information, except in the case of those concrete beings that are artificial.

2) Here, the ideal, or virtual realm is hierarchized: it is constituted by elementary archetypes, as well as archetypes implied by the elementary ones. Plus, the starting rules of the cosmos (as such, the laws present at the time of the Big-Bang) and the implications of such rules, the latter being incessantly iterated and complexified over the course of cosmic history.

Besides the ideal field is imbued with a possibly conscious impulse, whose object is the incarnation of the ideal realm into matter. This impulse engenders the temporal start of the material field, and therefore of the universe. Yet the ideal realm materializes itself, all the while remaining beyond matter.

3) Time occasions a process of communication between matter at the instant (T) and the actualizable properties of matter at the instant (T-1), which yields so many implications that it is possible to extract from elementary archetypes and from starting rules. Matter, within the framework of this extraction of the implications in collaboration with time, repeats in a fractal mode the starting rules of the cosmos. These consist of a handful of pairs of opposites (namely: attraction and repulsion, integration and differentiation, fission and fusion) branching (via the iteration which causes the extraction of their implications) into the laws of the cosmos.

4) The primordial unity from which the cosmos proceeds consists in the impulse on the part of the ideational field to selectively accomplish its own content into innovative matter, and the bliss for man (especially the Faustian man) lies in the knowledge of the material unfolding of the Spirit (by which I mean the ideational field taken from the angle of its unified multiplicity), and in the extension of the creative gesture of the cosmos—via science, technique, and art.

5) The atemporal movement consisting for the Spirit of actualizing (while sorting) the implications that it carries within it projects—on the walls of the metaphorical cavern of the material and temporal field—a shadow which consists in the begetting (at the level of matter and on the part of matter) of increasing levels of order and complexity. A generation nonetheless not assigned to a predetermined final state of cosmic evolution—and not kept away from randomness and from error.

The course and the laws of the cosmos that are the incarnation of the Spirit mobilize clairvoyance (i.e., the intuition of the supra-sensible field), just as well as conjecture (and induction) from the sensible datum.

Hylomorphism And The Emergence Process

As for Aristotle’s substitution of the archetypes, from which proceed the concrete entities, with the notion that a concrete entity owes its determination to the “form” which is inherent to it, I will naturally begin by questioning the Aristotelian perspective for the benefit of the rehabilitation of archetypes.

The Aristotelian hylomorphic theory claims that any entity is a compound of two distinct realities—namely, form, which is to be taken in the precise sense of an active reality conferring onto matter a certain arrangement, and as such, determining the concerned entity. And matter, which is to be taken in the precise sense of a passive and indeterminate reality composing the entity, and giving it a concrete and tangible character, and carrying within it the potentiality of a given change at the level of form—a change which is spontaneously actualized in the case of natural beings. Such theory does not fail to pose a certain number of problems.

To begin with, it is hardly plausible that the arrangement of a certain (concrete) entity and its composition are only associated realities within the entity, instead of the information (in other words, the arrangement, the organization) of the entity being a property of that which composes the entity. In that second scenario, which is much more likely, “form” must no longer be taken in the sense of an active reality. Rather, it must be seen as a passive emanation of the tenor of “matter,” the matter composing the concrete entities and—at least in the case of those of concrete beings which are properly natural and which are therefore opposed to those artificial—taking charge of its own shaping.

Besides, it is manifestly false that the determination (of the identity) of a concrete entity relates exclusively to the arrangement of the entity, rather than to the combination of its arrangement and of its composition. The identity of a tree—apart from its foliage and the composition of its leaves—resides jointly in the (essential or contingent) qualities of the wood which composes it and in the (constitutive or accidental) features of the arrangement of its trunk and of its branches. The archetype which Pythagoras and Plato deal with (and which we cannot do without) must be reassessed accordingly.

Our way of envisioning the relationship of form to matter, and the nature of those two realities (and thus, the adequate definition of the concepts which cover them), owes its greatest plausibility most notably to the compatibility of our approach with the emergence process. The latter can be defined as the fact for a qualitatively new concrete entity—the novelty in question relating to the composition of the entity or its arrangement—to arise from one or more pre-existing entities (to which the new entity cannot however be reduced). Yet the only changes compatible with the Aristotelian approach to form as an active and informative element, which coexists with matter envisaged as passive and informed (but which is not a driving element of formal change), are those which do not consist in introducing a component or an arrangement of a new type on the world stage.

Hence the emergence exceeds the Aristotelian hylomorphic framework. The only intelligible changes in the hylomorphic framework are those which do not contravene the Aristotelian conception of the world as eternal and equal to itself, whether the object of changes is place, quality, quantity, or generation. For its part, the conception of the matter of concrete beings as active and self-informed also takes into account this kind of change that is emergence. Here it is elucidated as a process in which self-organized matter sets up an organization of a new type, and in which the emerging organization possibly merges with a component of a new type.

Hylomorphism And The Distinction Between Natural Beings And Artificial Beings

Further, my approach allows for a greater likelihood (and greater clarity) of examining the dichotomy between those of concrete beings which are “natural” and those which are “artificial”: distinction confusedly treated in Aristotelian hylomorphism (which affirms the spontaneous character of the occurrence of the various kinds of change in the case of natural beings, but claims, otherwise, that any change is due to an exterior motor), here clarified in these terms.

Namely that natural beings are those of concrete beings whose information is spontaneously set up by the tenor of what composes them, while artificial beings are those which owe their information to the exercise of an exterior action on the tenor of what composes them, regardless of whether the other kinds of change to affect them are spontaneous or not.

While water presents itself as a natural entity, whose information is spontaneously taken over (by the molecules composing it, which assemble two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), and whose self-organization (in other words, self-information) is confused with the emergence of a certain sort of “matter” (which will enter in the composition, for example, of a floe), a snowman is an artificial being whose information is the result of the action of a human being having fun with snow.

The self-information constitutive of those of (concrete) beings which are natural will take specific modalities according to the types of the natural beings: from the particulate self-organization (of the quarks which enter in the composition) of hadrons to that of the cells which compose advanced (therefore multicellular) eukaryotes, and to that of the individual members of animal or human societies, these are genuinely incremental levels of emergence that hatch (as concerns the types of self-information, and in upstream, the types of natural being). The nutritive, generative, sensitive, motor, or cogitative functions which living beings endorse and which Aristotle classifies being only modalities of the self-information of living beings.

Just as the existence of the realm of concrete entities is corroborated by sensible experience; likewise, the existence of the realm of virtual entities—the mathematical laws which govern the concrete order, as well as the archetypes which Plato calls “Ideas” and that notably include numbers—is corroborated by the supra-sensible experience.

The Idea that Plato deals with (and whose definition which I will retain as adequate is that of the Idea as the supra-sensible model of concrete entities) has this particularity, compared to the form (in the Aristotelian sense), allegedly present in concrete entities, that it can utterly be conceived of as jointly determining the arrangement and the composition of a given concrete entity. The Idea is certainly virtual (rather than concrete); it nevertheless remains likely to contain just as much the essential or accidental, necessary or contingent properties at the level of organization (“form” taken in the vague sense of the arrangement of a given concrete entity) as those at the level of the composition (“matter” taken in the vague sense of what a given concrete entity is made of). In this regard it would be worthwhile to distinguish between “matter” (understood as what enters in the composition of a given entity) and “materiality” (understood as a certain mode of existence which consists for a given entity in being concrete, tangible, firm).

Assuredly such an approach to Idea is not that of Plato. The latter does not only consider Ideas as the models only of general qualities (for example, the general qualities of blond, blue-eyed people… rather than the sum of the singular and common qualities of the blond, blue-eyed Donald Trump), which amounts to restricting the qualities configured in the Idea of a certain singular entity to the field of the general (in other words, shared, common) qualities of the entity, general qualities which are also necessary qualities (but which do not summarize the whole of necessary qualities). Besides he represents to himself Idea as the supra-sensible model of the sole organization of concrete entities (and not that jointly of their arrangement and of their composition). Yet the identity of a given concrete entity including both the qualities relating to its composition and those relating to its arrangement, the supra-sensible model of the identity must manifestly determine both what is characteristic of the arrangement and what belongs to the composition.

As archetypes deal as much with arrangement as with composition, the (singular) archetype of a given concrete entity will determine whether its arrangement is spontaneously set up by what enters in the composition of the entity—in other words, whether the entity in question is natural rather than artificial. In the case where the entity is effectively natural, the organization is jointly determined by the archetype and implemented by what enters in its composition… so that a distinction must be made between organization as predetermined in the archetype and organization as materialized. In other words, the materialized “form,” that set up by matter (understood as what composes a concrete being), must be distinguished from its supra-sensible and virtual model: the form which is determined in the archetype of a given concrete entity, but which does not summarize the archetype. Given the latter includes as much the properties relating to the composition of the concerned concrete entity as those relating to its arrangement.

A New Approach To “Form” And “Matter”

Ultimately we can redefine in these terms the form and the matter which were the subject of Aristotle’s meditations. In the weak sense, matter is what composes a given entity (whether the entity is virtual or concrete, tangible, firm), while in the strong sense, matter is what composes a properly concretized (in other words, firm) entity, which we commonly call a “material” entity—a qualifier that we will make ours.

As for form, it is the arrangement (in other words, the organization) of a given entity… arrangement that (in the case of material entities) matter (taken in the strong sense) either gives itself actively or passively receives: that distinction at the level of the arrangement founding the dichotomy between those of material entities which are natural and those which are artificial.

When we will use the term “matter” without specifying the sense in which we understand it, we will take it in the strong sense mentioned above: matter understood as what composes a properly concrete entity… with a spontaneous arrangement of matter in the case of natural entities. While we reject the Aristotelian definition of matter (as a passive and concrete reality that composes any entity), we believe that the Aristotelian approach to form remains valid as concerns the arrangement of archetypes.

Aristotelian hylomorphism not only conceives of any entity as a compound of “form” and “matter,” but defines the second as that which passively composes and concretizes a given entity, and the first as that which actively informs the composition of the entity. It is obviously intended to be an alternative to the theory of Ideas. Nevertheless the assertion that any properly material entity is a compound of form in the Aristotelian sense and of matter in the sense of what passively composes a material entity is hardly incompatible with the Platonic notion that any material (that is to say, materialized, tangible) entity aligns with a virtual archetype.

Better the virtual archetypes which Plato deals with are certainly deprived of a material existence, matter in the sense of what passively composes a given entity does not fail them: they are, so to speak, cut in the wood of virtual. While the arrangement of the archetypes (which merges with the content of the Ideas) actively informs the virtual reality of which the archetypes are made. As such, the form taken in the Aristotelian sense of an active reality which coexists with the passive composition of a given entity (and which arranges the entity) corresponds no less well to the virtual entities that are the archetypes… for want of applying to concrete entities the secrets of which Aristotelian hylomorphism yet believed to unlock.

Form as understood by Aristotle all the better lends itself to describing the arrangement of an archetype (rather than that of a material entity) as, while denying the existence of virtual entities, the Stagirite does not conceive of form as a material reality (but as a reality coexisting with matter within a given material entity). If form as defined by Aristotle does not have a properly material existence, it is difficult to see how it could not be an arrangement whose mode of existence is virtual… therefore an arrangement which relates to a virtual entity.

Towards a New Version Of Platonism

By the way Idea can even be conceived of in Aristotelian terms of efficient cause and final cause, the efficient cause being Idea itself (which is sufficient in itself to exist, and that exists outside of time and world) and the final cause being the material entity that Idea is intended to determine (at the level of its composition and of its arrangement).

As archetype jointly includes the qualities associated with composition and those associated with arrangement, the emergence of matter from nothingness (which supposedly preceded the beginning of the cosmos) loses its mysterious character. The engendering of matter—of which vacuum, baryons, leptons, photons, dark matter, water, or bronze are all specific varieties—is the work of the Spirit, by which I hear the virtual bundle of archetypes (including numbers and figures), as well as of the laws of the cosmos.

More precisely, the renovated Platonic perspective to which I subscribe is that a swarm of atemporal and virtual axioms (namely, attraction and repulsion, integration and differentiation, fission and fusion), as well as of elementary archetypes (including the archetype of the quark or that of the void), presides over the creation of the universe. And that matter—in partnership with time which, at the instant (T), allows it to make a selection among those of properties at the level of the arrangement or of the composition of matter which, at the instant (T-1), are actualizable—accomplishes (while sorting them out) the virtual implications which flow from the axioms (by which I designate, so, the starting rules of the cosmos) and from the archetypes.

Matter certainly takes charge of its own information (in other words, it gives itself its own arrangement, its own formal determination, which is a function of the tenor of matter); nevertheless it acts under the impulse of a virtual swarm of archetypes and of axioms which—over the course of time and through time and matter—sees its own implications extracted (and selected) in the cosmos. The information of a given matter leading up from time to time to an incremental mode of matter—like the mode of matter that is methane gas and which emerges from the arrangement (within its molecules) of a carbon atom and of four hydrogen atoms.

In that framework, the supra-sensible knowledge, the intuition of the virtual entities that are axioms (that matter declines at each level of emergence succeeding the original emergence of the universe) and the (elementary or implied) archetypes, is utterly conceivable. It is worthwhile to distinguish between the arrangement relating to archetypes (which merges with their content) and the arrangement which resides in the archetypes… the one which they express and which they determine. We will speak of “archetypal form” to designate the latter, and of the “arrangement of archetypes” to designate the former.

What ideology is to men who work to organize society on the model of an ideology, the archetypal form (by which I mean, so, the form that the archetype determines, and that it carries within it) is to matter which informs itself on the formal model of the archetype. Just as matter (at least in the case of natural entities) gives itself its own form, and just as the tenor of form will depend on the tenor of matter, the members of a certain human biocultural group—when they spontaneously organize their society—will give themselves an organization which will be a function of the tenor of their biology.

Besides the momentum of the archetypes of giving themselves a material translation—a translation jointly at the level of the tenor of matter and at the level of the organization of matter—communicates itself to matter which will strive to achieve the archetypal forms… just as the impulse of ideologies (in other words, memes) to organize matter communicates itself to humans who will endeavor to conform the organization of their societies to the formal models of ideologies.

Ultimately the process which consists for the archetype in realizing itself jointly into the tenor of matter and into the organization of matter finds itself to be incidentally mimicked by the process which consists for the meme—the equivalent of the duplicator of biological information in the field of acquired cultural behavior—in realizing itself into the organization of matter. It is not impossible that this similarity can also be observed in the relationship that the genetic program sustains with the arrangement of the individual organism.

Grégoire Canlorbe is an independent scholar based in Paris. He has conducted many academic interviews with social scientists, physicists, and cultural figures. He has also authored a number of metapolitical and philosophical articles. He ha also worked on a forthcoming conversation book with the philosopher, Howard Bloom. See his website is gregoirecanlorbe.com.

The image shows, “I Lock the Door Upon Myself,” by Fernand Khnopff, painted in 1891.

Cynicism, Dog Gone It!

“Philosophy can only hypocritically live out what it says, it takes cheek to say what is lived.” (Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason)

Cynicism is not the same as cynicism. Cynicism with a capital ‘C’ refers to the truth-affirming provocations of the Ancient Cynics and the specific mode of being of which they are an early representation; while cynicism with a small ‘c’ is, in its ‘postmodern’ form, ideological apathy towards truth and its ramifications for politics and culture. Some prefer to write Cynicism as Kynicism to further emphasize the difference. For now, I shall stay with writing a capital ‘C’ to refer to the concept in question.

What I am about to list as central to Cynicism is the product of a creative interpretation of doxographic and other material that I consider potentially useful for critical theoretical reflections on law, politics and society. Other writers will include different propositions and will have different emphases.

With that in mind, I will briefly cover Cynic elements in respect of style, theory, politics, and self-identity, which I translate to the following headings: parrhesia and embodied truth, antiphilosophy, antinomianism, and cosmopolitical subjectivity.

The most celebrated relation of the Cynics to truth is parrhesia. As Foucault succinctly put it, when a speaker engages in parrhesia, he ‘uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.’

The early reference point is Diogenes the Cynic (circa 3rd–4th BCE). Diogenes fully embraced the appellation Cynic (Kyon=Dog, whence also kynicism), introducing himself as such to Alexander the Great. When Alexander asked what he had done to deserve such a name, he replied, ‘I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.’

He saw himself as the kind of dog that all like to praise, but with whom no one dared go hunting.

He poured scorn on his contemporaries: he called the school of Euclides bilious, Plato’s lectures a waste of time, and the demagogues the mob’s lacqueys.

When he saw someone being led away by temple officials for stealing a bowl, he quipped: ‘The great thieves are leading away the little thief.’

On hearing Plato’s definition of Man as a featherless biped, Diogenes presented a plucked fowl with the words ‘Here is Plato’s man.’

And when Alexander wished to honour him by granting any favour, Diogenes asked him to ‘[s]tand out of my light.’

Not surprisingly, he considered parrhesia ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’.

While parrhesia is not exclusive to Cynicism, it is worth noting that Cynic style is typified by the use of wit and humour. So again, for example, on his habit of continually masturbating in public, Diogenes quipped ‘I only wish I could be rid of hunger by rubbing my belly.’

Branham argues that the form of this humour acts as a ‘rhetorical syllogism,’ which invites the audience to discern the joke’s tacit premises and to infer a subversive truth from it, namely, that 1) natural desires are best satisfied in the easiest and cheapest way possible (euteleia); 2) one natural desire is the same as any other; 3) therefore cultural norms violate the ‘natural right’ to masturbate there and then in public.

Humour has the capacity to engage both intellect and an immediate, ticklish sensuousness. It has a material quality in drawing upon a rhetorical force beyond pure reason and also in the way it elicits an affect — a knowing smile, a cringe, a burst of laughter.

This brings us to another of the Cynic’s relations to truth, that of ‘bearing witness to the truth by and in one’s body, dress, mode of comportment, way of acting, reacting, and conducting oneself.’ This has traditionally included askesis where the worth of a frugal life — a dog’s life — is demonstrated by the strength and flourishing of the body. This is arguably different from the reactionary denial of the ascetic in popular consciousness.

In sum, Cynic truth is expressed, on the one hand, through witty, humorous, polemical and subversive rhetoric; and on the other hand through the Cynic’s authentic life, one lived in accordance with and as a didactic demonstration of truth. Cynic rhetoric reaches out to the mind and bodily senses while making of his own body a rhetorical device.

With the Cynic emphasis on wit and performance instead of abstract theory, laughter rather than convention, free-spiritedness and risky provocations instead of the disciplinary structures of paradigmatic thought, there is a tendency to view Cynicism as a form of anti-intellectualism, despite a clear — albeit critical — interest in the intellectual pursuits of Platonic metaphysics. Indeed, the Cynic enthusiasm for truth would, it seems, align them with the immense tradition of western philosophy, even if, as Hegel claimed, they had no traditional philosophy worthy of note. But if not philosophy, then what? I suggest we think Cynicism as an early form of antiphilosophy.

If one way to frame philosophy is in terms of its critical concern for truth and its articulation in theory, antiphilosophy, writes Badiou, deposes the category of truth, unravels the ‘pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself as theory,’ looks behind the fallacious mask of discursive appearances, and appeals against the philosophical act towards a radically new ‘supraphilosophical’ act.

Antiphilosophy is less a critique of truth than a therapeutics of truth. It is the cure for the self-satisfied belief of western philosophy in its ability to capture the meta-position of metaphysics, in being able to express universal truth without gaps, lacks, distances, contingencies, insufficiencies and/or a relation to particularities.

Badiou claims that for antiphilosophers like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and perhaps Lacan, what is important is the ‘distance without measure’ (for example, between individual and subject, god and man, infinite and finite), which cannot be proved within a conceptual framework. For Nietzsche, in particular, his testimony and self-evidence is expressed not only in what he says about philosophy but also — in his Dionysian abolishing of the world as truth — what he does to it.

It is not surprising to learn that Nietzsche also writes that: ‘the higher man must prick up his ears at every Cynicism — whether coarse or refined — and congratulate himself whenever a buffoon without shame or scientific satyr speaks out in his presence.’ Eschewing grand theory and the pretensions of metaphysics, Cynic antiphilosophy combines rhetoric with humour, logic with wit, speech with performance, and truth with embodiment.

Zeno, an initial follower of Diogenes, is credited by Kropotkin as being the ‘best exponent of anarchist philosophy in Ancient Greece.’ In Kropotkin’s words, Zeno ‘repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual.’

While one should be wary of claiming Cynicism as one’s own, there is no doubt that Cynicism, in its parrhesiastic embodiment of truth, tends towards subversiveness. We can perhaps view this subversiveness more generally as analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology, where the perpetual movement of the Cynic nomad (the universe as home, see cosmopolitical subjectivity below) collides inevitably with the state apparatus. Cynicism speaks truth to power and lives truth against convention.

For Diogenes, law and the city were considered civilized, where ‘civilized’ was most likely intended as a pejorative term. His view of social norms and civilized law amounts to an early radical antinomianism that preempts certain modern strains of critical legal theory; not only in terms of the idea of contingency, but also in terms of grounding antinomianism in something ‘other.’

However, while the ‘other’ for critical legal theorists is commonly understood in poststructuralist terms as an unknowable beyond, the Cynic other was simply nature and the authority that nature lends as a protoypical form of natural right.

This suggests there may be a constant thread in the intellectual history of subversion, one that resists always in the name of something other, some foundational or even post-foundational other, an other — whether justice, god, nature, etc. — whose complexities and paradoxes the Cynics, in their aversion to grand theory, never tied themselves up in.

On being asked where he came from, Diogenes is said to have replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs].’ Today, theories of world citizenship or cosmopolitanism are based on an idea of human unity from which moral and political commitments are drawn, typically involving the development of stronger global institutions, governance, human rights, and the rule of law.

Despite its metaphysical determination, human unity acts as powerful trope to critique parochialism and state sovereignty. Yet it is precisely because of its metaphysical determination, that its deployment in thinking ‘human’ subjectivity can also be problematic.

Given the Cynic tendency towards anti-philosophy and antinomianism, Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism was not a question of human unity and he certainly did not mean the institutional structure of the city made global.

If anything, his cosmopolitanism can be minimally understood as a ‘commonwealth … as wide as the universe’ conceived in dialectical opposition to the bounded city. It was therefore, again minimally, a way to subvert normal citizenship and the laws and mores of contingent social spaces in the name of an ‘other’ cosmopolitical subjectivity.

This is not to say that when we infer the detail of what such a commonwealth might look like (property, wives, and sons held in common, as Diogenes and his epigones are reputed to have said), that this would be without its own problems.

Throughout history, the insolence and shamelessness of Cynicism has tended to be ignored or derided by the mainstream. Yet those same qualities, stemming as they do from a profound sense of alterity and courage to speak out, has also spawned modern admirers, from Kropotkin to Nietzsche to Foucault.

This in itself indicates that, for those interested in radical critique — whether of law, politics, society, or culture more generally — Cynicism has something to offer. But before specifying what, it would be appropriate to mention its major sticking point or aporia.

Recall that the strength of the Cynic bite is drawn from a reliance on the authority of nature. To hold this line, the Cynic must make a decision on the nature of nature (what is the normative content of nature?) without which no lesson can be drawn. However, such decisions are always subject to the limits of the discourses within which they are articulated. Of necessity, the Cynic’s view of nature is, like anyone else’s, a partial or incomplete view.

This is a problem that plagues not just Cynicism, but natural law thinking in general. What Diogenes considers ‘natural,’ others, especially of a different time and place, do not. I have already hinted at the potential for differences of opinion on the content of a ‘universal commonwealth’ predicated upon our ‘cosmic nature.’

But to give a different example: on seeing a young man behaving in a way he considered effeminate, Diogenes is said to have rebuked him: ‘Are you not ashamed … that your own intention about yourself should be worse than nature’s: for nature made you a man, but you are forcing yourself to play the woman.’ We can only speculate what a modern Diogenes would have said when made aware of sex and gender distinctions.

Having duly recognized this significant limitation, what can Cynicism offer us today? I think it is important, firstly, not to monumentalize the Cynics, that is, to dogmatically assert their credentials as the original subversives. It is also important, given the stated problematics, not to simply imitate them, but to draw upon and reinterpret for our time the rich resource of possibility that they represent.

Foucault, in particular, already started to do this in his analysis of their parrhesia. But this is just the beginning. For the critical scholar, Cynicism can provoke myriad questions: Given the limits in thinking a norm-bearing nature, what are the possibilities of thinking a natural law whose particularized content has been evacuated – a kind of denaturalized natural law?

How could this link to a concept of truth or anti-philosophy or would it be more appropriate to think in terms of a philosophical non-philosophy (see e.g. François Laruelle)? What are the possibilities, limits, effects, and risks of using humour to go beyond critical satire and to directly intervene into political consciousness? Is there any value in pursuing Cynical askesis or some updated version of it today? How can we further think a Cynic cosmopolitanism that emphasizes dialectical opposition? And so on…

Gilbert Leung, LLB, LLM, DEA, PhD, is the Director of Counterpress, and Editor of Critical Legal Thinking.

The photo shows, “Diogenes” by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1882.

Doric And Ionic Orders In Greek Architecture

The beginnings of the Greek Doric and Ionic orders lies rooted in temple architecture. Early designs were simple and practical, where a shrine was constructed to house the image of a deity.

Under a low-pitched gable roof, the interior was a windowless rectangular room called the “cella,” which sheltered the cult statue of the deity. The “portal,” or doorway to the cella was on one of the short ends, which extended outward in a “portico,” or porch, faced with columns to form the “façade,” or front. Sometimes columns were erected around the building in a series known as a “colonnade.”

The construction was simple: a platform of three steps, the top one known as the “stylobate,” from which rose the rose the upright “posts” that supported the “lintels,” or horizontal beams.

When these columns and lintels were made of marble, the weight and size of the superstructure could be increased and the “intercolumniation,” or span between the supporting posts, widened.

The history of Greek temple architecture was largely the refining of this “post-and-lintel” method of construction, which permitted the architects a steadily increasing freedom of expression as time went on.

And it is in this method that we find the beginnings of the Doric and the Ionic orders, as well as their refinements. Let us now examine both these styles, and their evolution.

The Doric order is the oldest classical style of temple architecture, characterized by simple, sturdy columns that rise without a base to an unornamented, cushion like capital. The “capital” or crown of the Doric column is in three parts: the necking, the echinus, and the abacus.

The purpose of any capital is to smooth the passage between the vertical shaft of the column and the horizontal portion of the building above. The “necking” is the first break in the upward lines of the shafts, though the fluting continues up to the outward flare of the round, cushion like echinus.

This, in turn, leads to the abacus, a block of stone that squares the circle, so to speak, and makes the progression between the round lower and rectangular upper members.

Above the columns and below the roof is the “entablature.” Directly above the abacus is the architrave, a series of plain rectangular blocks. These stretch from the center of one column to that of its neighbor to constitute the lintels of the construction. They also support the upper parts of the entablature, namely, frieze, cornices, and pediment. At this point, sculpture is called into play for decorative purposes, beginning with a carved band known as a “frieze.”

In the Doric order, the frieze is made up of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The rectangular triglyphs are so named because of their grooves (“glyphs”), two in the center and a half groove on either side.

They are the weight-bearing sections, and as a rule, one is placed above each column and another in the space between. The sameness of the triglyphs contrasts with the differently carved relief panels of the metopes. This alternation creates a visual rhythm, which illustrates the classical principle of harmonizing the opposites of unity and variety.

The frieze is protected by the overhanging “cornice” (and enhanced by its shadow), and the “raking cornice” rises gable like from the side angles to the apex in the center. The triangular space enclosed by the cornices is called the “pediment,” which is recessed or set back to create a shelf on which freestanding sculpture can be placed to climax the decorative scheme.

As well, a “peristyle” or colonnade, of freestanding columns completely surrounded the temple (as in the Parthenon). The columns were placed far enough from the cella walls to permit an “ambulatory,” or passageway. The number of columns used on the porch of a Greek temple was determined by the size of the building rather than by any rigid rule. The usual number was six, although some temples had as few as two, others as many as ten or twelve.

The outer surface of the Doric column has twenty grooves, or “flutes,” that form concave vertical channels from the bottom to the top of the shaft. Fluting serves several purposes, the first being to correct an optical illusion.

When seen in bright sunlight, a series of ungrooved round columns appears flattened. In addition to maintaining the round appearance, the fluting makes a constant play of light and shadow and makes a number of graceful curves to please the eye.

Also, the increased number of vertical lines quickens the visual rhythm, and the eye is led upward toward the sculpture of the entablature.

The Doric order can be seen in the Parthenon, which was built entirely of Pentelic marble. When freshly quarried, this fine-grained stone was cream colored, but as it has weathered through the centuries, its minute veins of iron have oxidized, so that today the color varies from light beige to darker golden tones, depending on the light.

For sheer technical skill of its Doric construction, the Parthenon is astonishing. No mortar was used anywhere; the stones were cut so exactly that when fitted together; they form a single smooth surface.

The columns, which appear to be monoliths of marble, are in fact constructed of sections called “drums,” so tightly fitted by square plugs in the center that the joinings are scarcely visible. The harmonious proportions of the Parthenon have long been attributed to some subtle system of mathematical ratios.

But despite close study and analysis, no geometrical system has so far been found that fits all the evidence. However, there is a recurrence in several instances of the proportion 9:4.

This proportion has been noticed in the length of the building (228 feet) relative to its width (104 feet), when measured on the stylobate, or top step.

The next evolved stage of the Greek column, the Ionic, developed in Asia Minor and is distinguished by slender, fluted columns and capitals decorated with volutes or scrolls. Thus, the Ionic order is more slender and has its greatest diameter at the bottom, in marked contrast with the Doric style.

The Ionic shaft rests on a molded base instead of directly on the stylobate, and they have twenty instead of twenty-four flutings. Most striking, however, is the Ionic capital, with its “volutes,” or scroll-like ornaments.

The fine columns rested on molded bases carved with a delicate design. The necking had a band decorated with a pattern, and above it was a smaller band with another decorative motif, followed by the volutes and then a thin abacus carved with various designs.

The columns supported an architrave divided horizontally into three bands, each receding slightly inward. The architrave thus consists of a continuous carved frieze rather than the alternating Doric triglyphs and metopes. Above rose a shallow pediment without sculpture. The Ionic order is perfectly demonstrated by the Erechtheum.

The plan of the Erechtheum is as complex as the Parthenon is simple. The rectangular interior (about 31½ feet wide and 61¼ feet long) had for rooms for the various shrines on two different levels.

One was 10¾ feet higher than the other. Projecting outward from three of the sides were porticoes, each of different size and design. The east porch has a row of six Ionic columns almost 22 feet high.

The north porch has a similar number but with four in front and two on the sides; while the smaller porch on the south is famous for its six “caryatids,” the sculptured maidens who replace the usual columns.

Thus, at their Acropolis, the Athenians brought to the highest point of development two distinct Greek building traditions: the Doric (with the Parthenon) and the Ionic (with the Erechtheum as well as the Temple of Athena Nike).

By displaying the two architectural orders, the Athenians made a symbolic reference to their city as the place where the Dorian people (of the western Greek mainland), and the Ionian people (of the east coast of Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea) had for centuries lived together in peace and harmony.

 

The photo shows,  “The Temple of Athena Nike. View from the North-East,” by Werner Carl-Friedrich, painted in 1877.

Plato And Virtue: A Brief Analysis

In the Meno, Plato explores the process through which virtue can not only be defined but also acquired.

The problem of understanding the acquisition of virtue stems from a crucial question that arises early in the work: Why do worthy people in one generation cannot pass on the values they have acquired on to their children?

This larger question leads to the further, more detailed, questions. Can virtue be taught if we do not know already what it is? And if virtue can be taught, then awareness of this knowledge can change one’s life, in one or several ways.

If virtue is already embedded in the human soul (assuming that virtue partakes of the larger good, or the beautiful), then learning must be merely recollection. Thus, there is a link between knowledge and true belief.

This leads us to the awareness that all learning is a remembering. Socrates demonstrates this by teaching the slave boy geometry by asking questions.

However, Socrates did not teach the slave boy anything – he was merely helping the slave boy remember what the slave boy already knew; Socrates is merely reminding the slave boy through his questions; he is helping him remember.

Thus, the slave boy seeks the beautiful for a reason – because he has an idea and seeks a way to give birth to this thought. Therefore, he is drawn to the beautiful. However, he is merely giving birth to something that he always and already possessed.

Nevertheless, this attempt at explaining virtue ultimately fails leading us to “Meno’s paradox,” wherein Plato expounds his theory of recollection. The paradox hinges on the problem of acquiring knowledge, and clearly understanding the knowledge thus arrived at.

Meno’s paradox states that either we know what we are searching for, or we do not. If we know what we are searching for, then the search is pointless, since it would be difficult to search for something that we already know.

And if we do not know what we are searching for, the search is impossible, because how can we search for something that we will never know? Therefore, to search for knowledge is either pointless or impossible.

In effect, when we search for knowledge, we are engaging in a process that is all or nothing. A question akin to this process is whether we can know something partially, and then we search to expand our knowledge.

But this again implies that if we have partial knowledge, we still have acquired knowledge about that something. Consequently, both empirical and non-empirical inquiry disintegrates.

It is at this stage that Plato expounds his Theory of Recollection, wherein he argues that we have knowledge prior to birth, and that the soul knows everything, but forgets it.

Therefore, the acquisition of knowledge is merely a recollection of all that we have forgotten. The slave-boy is test case for this theory. First of all, the slave boy gives two misguided answers. Then, Socrates guides the slave boy to true belief. Lastly, Socrates suggests that this true belief can be made into true knowledge.

Virtue, then, is knowledge, and this it can be acquired through education and training – although it is crucial to realize that this acquisition is an act of remembrance by the soul. And one soul may by nature have a greater aptitude than another for acquiring virtue.

Thus, we see that virtue is an innate quality that can be made to emerge under the proper guidance and education.

 

The photo shows, “The Pet Lamb,” by Eastman Johnson, painted in 1873.

The Beginnings Of Philosophy

It was in the town of Miletus, on the shores of the Aegean Sea, that an Ionian Greek named Thales (ca. 640-546 BC) first recorded his thoughts about the origin and nature of the universe. In so doing he became the first western philosopher.

No one really knows why philosophy began in ancient Greece, but it is interesting to note that it began not on mainland Greece but on the edges of the Greek world, where there was no doubt much mingling of different cultures and ideas.

What makes Thales unique is the fact that he sought to understand the world as a whole. He wanted to find a single basic substance or element from which everything is made.

Thales speculated that this single substance was water, and he said that everything (including the gods) was made from it. This way of thinking certainly has modern parallels since early in the twentieth century, scientists believed that everything originated from hydrogen, which when combined with oxygen forms water.

Thales no doubt noticed that although water normally exists in a liquid state, it can also exist as a solid and as a gas. This may have given him the idea that its liquid form is the basic ingredient from which everything else is made. He also thought that the earth itself floated in water.

Another thinker, also from Miletus, who lived during the same time as Thales, was Anaximander (ca. 611-547 BC), and he thought that the primary substance is a boundless, indefinite “Something,” taking as many different forms as the things we see. He believed that the earth was a cylinder, with a flat top and bottom, upon which people lived. This is the earliest theory that we possess which states that there is no true up and down.

Another thinker from Miletus, Anaximenes (ca. 590-525 BC) also wanted to know the basic element from which everything else is made. He said that this basic ingredient was air, which takes solid or liquid form when condensed, and gaseous form when rarified.

About the time of Anaximenes, just north of Miletus, in the city of Ephesus, another thinker named Heraclitus (ca. 540-470 BC) was saying that at the heart of all things there burns an eternal, all-consuming fire. He said that it was from this fire that everything else was created and it was to this fire that everything eventually returned. Heraclitus sometimes identified fire with “Logos,” or Universal Reason, as the law of change.

However, it was the speed of movement of physical fire that gave Heraclitus the bridge that he needed to the second part of his philosophy, which was that everything is in a state of perpetual flux. In his famous quotation, he stated that a person could not step into the same river twice, since it is not the same water both times.

The third part of Heraclitus’s philosophy was his belief that the change which is at the heart of things is always expressing itself in a struggle between opposites which, when they do come together, produce types of unity, and then dissolve again. This is very much like Hegel’s (1770-1831) much later theory of thesis + antithesis = synthesis.

The early theories of the universe are in a sense scientific as well as philosophic because they are hypotheses about the natural world. But these early thinkers had little or no conception of inductive methods of experiment and verification as they are used today.

Their search for a single substance probably sprang from a desire to find an underlying unity in life itself, which is one of the deepest desires of the human spirit. Moreover, the concepts in terms of which they thought were not the same as ours, of course.

Part of what makes the thought of any early epoch so very hard to understand is the subtle change that occurs in the meanings of concepts throughout the centuries.

However, these early Milesians and Ephesians prepared the ground upon which later great philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato would securely plant their own ideas, which would then germinate and grow into the vast tree that philosophy is today.

 

The photo shows, “On The Terrace,” by Iakovos Rizos, painted in 1897.

The Early History Of The Cross

As often happens in matters of scholarly opinion, what is accepted as “true” turns out not to be so upon deeper analysis or newer evidence.

Thus, for the longest while, it was customary to read in books dealing with early Christian history that the use of the cross only gained currency after endorsement by Constantine.

This view was fully expounded by Graydon Snyder in his now “classic” work, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Christian Life Before Constantine.

Many may not know or remember, but poor Professor Graydon was an early casualty in the now-normal “social justice wars.” He was an ordained minister, and had the misfortune of reading a Talmudic account of a man falling from a tree on a woman and “knowing” her by accident.

The Talmud said that this could not be rape. But a female student in the lecture thought otherwise and declared the reading of this passage as the justification of the sexual brutalization of women and forthwith lodged a complaint.

The university, ever eager to forestall offence no matter who gets destroyed in the process, slapped the then-63-year-old professor with a formal reprimand and distributed a memo campus-wide which stated that Graydon had “engaged in verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that had the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive” space in his classes.

This was not the end of – the university then assigned a monitor that sat in each of Graydon’s classes and lectures, taking notes of anything that might be considered offensive. Graydon soon retired.

Let the date of this incident come as a valuable lesson to all – the demise of the university system happened long ago. This annihilation of a good man’s character occurred back in 1994…twenty-four years ago.

The 1990s were the halcyon days of such random acts of social justice, when universities eagerly dragged the Trojan horse of postmodernism into the Academy, worshipped it with much fawning, drank the heady wine of relativism and feel into the deep sleep of nihilism – from which they never awoke, for the barbarians descended from the belly of the wooden beast and conquered the hapless “intellectuals.”

And, now only various forms of self-indulgent destruction are offered by universities, where once a proud tradition of civilization held sway. Such is the fate of all Troys, if given into the hands of fools.

But let us return to the matter at hand.

In his book, Graydon categorically decided that no evidence existed for the cross as a Christian emblem before Constantine. This led to the false assumption that Constantine “invented” the cross as a religious sign, because he chose to use it during the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

Given the popularity of Graydon’s book, this view became the “Gospel truth,” and is still widely repeated without question by historians of early Christianity.

Embedded in Graydon’s argument was a curious turn to psychology…since the cross was a method of execution of criminals, it was, thus, an emblem of shame, and could never have been elevated to a sign of the faith before Constantine’s imperial sponsorship of Christianity.

Popularizers then went to work, imagining Christians in the Roman world desperate to hide their faith, even descending down into catacombs to carry out their worship. And that they invented arcane signs to recognize each other, which only fellow-Christians would know (like the “Jesus-Fish” now often found on car-bumpers).

It all sounds plausible, but is simply not true.

Rather, the primary sign of the faith from its earliest beginnings was not the fish or the anchor or the wheel, or even the Sator-Square – but the cross itself. Graydon’s view is nothing other than an exercise in myth-making, which is finally destroyed by a new book that takes a fresh look at the entire “cross-debate” and offers facts rather than myths.

This book is The Cross Before Constantine. The Early Life of a Christian Symbol by Bruce W. Longenecker, which offers incontrovertible evidence that, from earliest times, the cross bore not only symbolic value but also theological significance.

The evidence Longenecker marshals to bolster this conclusion is impressive indeed, for it engages not only extensive material remains, but also solid literary testimony.

Such an approach also fully justifies the unique character given the cross in Scripture, such as, St. Paul’s famous exposition of the double conundrum of the cross – as a mark of utter shame and the very token of final triumph: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).

Such singularity of the cross links back to Jesus himself, with his well-known exhortation – “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

In, effect, then, Longenecker proceeds to uncover not simply the “life,” but the double-life, of the cross – as an instrument of painful execution, and as a symbol of life eternal.

He begins by examining the recent discoveries of various Jewish ossuaries that are engraved with crosses, either erect (+) or recumbent (x) – and these engravings are neither masons’ marks nor decorations.

Thus, the cross had significance in Jewish religious life during the Roman era. And this significance is grounded in Ezekiel 9: 4-6, where the cross is also the “mark” of God, which sets apart the faithful from the rest condemned to death, and is thus the emblem of life, a particular gift of divine grace.

Among the examples Longenecker shows are the Nicanor, Yehudah, Shalamsion, and the Jehosah ossuaries.

Thus, the “prehistory” of the cross is deeply rooted in the very “prehistory” of Christianity itself, namely, Judaic religiosity.

And because the early Jesus movement branched out of the faith of the Jews, Longenecker uncovers the earliest record of the cross’s double-life, both as a mark of God for mankind’s salvation, and as the process of execution that God, in Jesus, bears himself to bring eternal life to mankind.

Thus, the cross has importance far older than Constantine.

Next, Longenecker lays out an elaborate inventory of material and literary evidence.

He discusses the Alexamenos Inscription, the inscriptions in the Baths of Neptune in Ostia, the inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome, rings showing the cross, the famous Crucifixion Gem amulet in the British museum, the various inscriptions in Asia Minor, the graphic use of the cross in the gnostic Books of Jeu, the staurogram in Manuscript P66, and even the rather mysterious cross in a Pompeii bakery (Longenecker has devoted an entire book to the crosses in Pompeii, which is reviewed elsewhere in this magazine).

The literary testimony is even more extensive, and Longenecker deftly moves through it all to strengthen his case.

Thus, he makes use of the earliest witnesses from the first half the of the first century, namely, the Acts of Thomas; the Works of Hippolytus; Cyprian’s Testimonies and To Demetrianus; Tertullian’s De corona, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Against Marcion; and Letters; Lactantius’s Divine Institutes; Clement of Alexandria’s Miscellanies; Minucius Felix’s Octavius (the first Christian work in Latin, little known outside scholarly discussion).

Moving on to the second century, Longenecker musters the Acts of Peter; the Acts of Paul and Thecla; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Dialogue with Trypho; the Odes of Solomon; the commentaries of Ignatius of Antioch’s on Ephesians, the Smyrneans, the Trallians; and the famous Fifth Ezra; the Epistle of Barnabas; the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul; and the Johannine Apocalypse (Revelation).

The conclusions that Longenecker draws from this extensive evidence is as follows:

  • The cross is found in various locations, always in Christian contexts – from Gaza and Jerusalem, out to Rome, Spain, North Africa, Egypt and East into Asia Minor and Syria.
  • Time-wise, the cross can be located as a Christian symbol from the first century down to the early parts of the third century AD. In other words, it is clearly used by Christians as an emblem of faith before Constantine.
  • Over the centuries, the shape of the cross evolved from the Jewish erect cross (like a +plus sign) to the more familiar body cross.
  • Longenecker also points out that the crosses found on rings may well have had an apotropaic function – to protect the wearer from demons and evil spirits (an attitude revived by Bram Stoker in Dracula’s aversion to the cross).

With his impressive and sedulous book, Longenecker has finally put out to pasture all the old myths about the cross, perpetrated by Graydon and his followers.

In other words, the cross was a well-established Judeo-Christian religious emblem long before Constantine took it up as his “coat-of-arms.”

For Christians, from the very beginnings of their faith, the cross had a double-meaning: it was the “mark” of God which set apart the believer from the non-believer, with all the significance of life and grace which this election signified. And, secondly, by extension, the cross became the “mark” that Jesus, the God incarnate, himself bore to embody an eternal life bought through horrific sacrifice.

The paradox becomes the solution – the “mark” of God becomes the instrument of torture, and then returns as a greater sign of life.

It is this paradox that St Paul explains: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Torture brings about glory, death leads to life eternal.

The cross is, in effect, the summation of the entire Christian proclamation – because of Jesus, death, though horrid, is not the end.

Longenecker persuasively demonstrates this historico-theological process in the great gyre of history.

 

 

The photo shows, “Christ on the Cross,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1870.

Of Heroes and Heroism

Heroes in ancient Greek epic literature, namely Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, are figures that are not only legendary but also like gods. In effect, they are god-men, whose characteristics are best defined within the ideals of the heroic, Homeric society that values these men not only for their high births, but also for their strength, courage, resourcefulness and relentless pursuit of glory. We see these qualities best in Achilles, whose exploits Homer richly and grandly describes.

The fact that his mother is the sea nymph Thetis and his father, Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons, attests to the high birth of Achilles. As well, it also tells us that he is half immortal and half human.

This combination of the divine and the mortal is perfectly reflected in Achilles’ own body, in fact. His entire body is impervious to harm from any weapon – except for his right heel, which is his only vulnerable spot. Thus, he is very nearly entirely a god; but mortality also marks him.

Through most of The Iliad, we read about the exploits of Achilles, and how the Greeks are invincible because of his actions alone. He appears to the Trojans like a great, angry god, whose strength and courage none can rebuff.

In fact, his wrath is a manifestation of his courage and his strength, since he does stand up for what is rightfully his. Even the mighty Hector is incomparable to him – something we learn by the end of The Iliad, wherein Achilles slays Hector in single combat.

Further, we learn that he is resourceful, in that his mother hid him from the society of men, among girls, and even dressed him like a girl. But his heroic qualities were immediately discernible, and Achilles became the best of Greek warriors fighting on the plains of Troy.

The last quality of the Homeric hero is the relentless pursuit of glory. In fact, Achilles does not shy away from it, since he was offered a choice by the gods. He could either live to a ripe old age, and be entirely unknown and never win fame; or he could have a short life and win immortal fame.

Achilles chooses the latter. Although we do not learn in The Iliad about the death of Achilles from Paris’s arrow in his heel, The Odyssey does mention it. Achilles fights not for the good of others, for his own aims.

This “selfishness” is a perfectly acceptable Homeric trait, because heroes must act to a specific standard, which demands that they prove their high birth and god-like stature through valiant deeds.

All of Achilles actions have, therefore, one purpose: the acquisition of glory – for it is glory alone that guarantees immortality to the Homeric hero, who dies knowing that his deeds will not be forgotten and his name will last among the living.

 

In all this we find something conveniently forgotten in our age – the virtues of manliness, namely, courage, steadfastness, strength of mind, and daring.

These virtues may be recouped in the Greek classics, and in their recovery lies the next renaissance for the western male.