Ancient History? What For? Strength And Decadence Of The Classical Tradition

There is currently a debate about the usefulness or uselessness of history for postindustrial or postmodern societies. While some authors argue that history has entered into crisis, others continue to proclaim its vigor and believe in its validity, whether in its more traditional forms, as evidenced by the return of politico-military oriented historiography; or in other forms, more adapted to the world of the image and mass media. In the latter case, highlighting the link between historical knowledge and the notion of heritage, which can bring with it the danger of trivialization and commodification of this old knowledge.

Now, if all this is true in the field of history in general, in the field of ancient Classical history the question arises with an even sharper focus. And this is so, on the one hand, because of the very crisis of the Classical paradigm in the Western world, and on the other hand because the artistic and archaeological wealth of the Greco-Roman civilizations makes them easy prey for the cultural exhibition industry, which still knows how to exploit the component of exoticism that for a long time was associated with the world of Greece and Rome.

It is curious to note that, even among the defenders of historical science (for those who no longer believe in it, the study of the most remote times is evidently no longer of interest), the value of the study of ancient history is increasingly questioned for several reasons. In the first place, because it is a history based fundamentally on the study of literary sources and because of the scarcity of primary sources (inscriptions and papyri cannot be compared in their richness to the documentary sources of the other types of history). It should be noted that, in the opinion of these authors, the abandonment of literary sources is, as Leopold von Ranke wanted it, almost a sine qua non condition for the emergence of history-science. Secondly, those historians who cultivate quantitative methodologies tend to look with benevolence, if not contempt, at historians of the Classical world, because of their evident impossibility of handling this type of sources, almost non-existent in the field of their studies.

And to this we may add the fact that Classical historians have been showing an almost absolute disregard for theoretical and methodological reflection, remaining faithful (especially in England and Germany) to the most traditional ways of doing history, and therefore seem to give an image of outdated professionals.

As if these were not enough, historiographical and ideological debates, such as the one provoked by the publication of Martfn Bernal’s work (1991), with all its replicas, and counter-replicas, in which the clear ethnocentric component, and even the colonial ideology of Classical historians, as analyzed by J.M. Blaut, have come to light, and have put the finger even more on the question of the current validity of this type of historiography

Leaving aside the misunderstanding of different groups of historians towards ancient history, derived from their poor knowledge of it, from their belief in the omnipotence of its supposedly scientific methods, or from their incomprehension of the entire past that is not proximate. What is certain is that we can speak of a certain crisis of Greco-Roman historiography, derived fundamentally from the loss of vigor of the Classical paradigm, a paradigm that is forged in antiquity itself and which it is necessary to examine.

I.

It is evident that the process of idealization of the Greek and Roman past had its beginnings in antiquity itself. This process was centered around two axes: a) the creation of a literate culture considered worthy of imitation; and b) the construction of political models endowed with supposedly supratemporal validity.

To understand the first process, we have to analyze how in the Greek world, fundamentally, there was a passage from a basically oral tradition to the creation of a corpus of texts considered traditional and worthy of study.

It is a well-known fact, starting from the studies of Milman Parry, that Homeric poetry is only explicable if we start from an oral matrix. In the world of oral literature (if it can be called as such) we can say that the pragmatic dimension of language is predominant over the syntactic and semantic component. In this world, it is the context that allows us to understand the meaning of the utterances; and therefore in this world literary creation is the product of a spatial and temporal circumstance, of a context in which the poet and the public enter into communication in the ambit of a situation that allows them to share a series of meanings.

But the Homeric poems were put in writing, perhaps by the invention of the alphabet. From the moment in which this process took place, the texts began to lose their pragmatic dimension and to be transmissible in time, thus creating a literary culture, in which the works that were considered worthy of transmission had to be the object of an interpretation, which in the case of the Homeric poems developed from their first being set down in writing in the Athens of Peisistratos until the Byzantine era.

This process, which Florence Dupont has called the “invention of literature,” was at the time inseparable from the creation of libraries in the Greek world. Whatever the first important library in the Greek world was, whether that of Euripides or that of Aristotle (according to tradition), what is clear is that the library that serves as a reference is the library of Alexandria. In it, the compilation of Greek manuscripts was systematized; and in it also, parallel to this work of compilation, the philological technique was developed by Aristarchus of Samothrace and his disciples who established the editions of the Homeric poems that we now possess, in which we try to distinguish the original from the added.

The birth of philology, in trying to find the original versions of texts and trying to eliminate their contamination with the passage of time, implies an effort to tear the text from its contexts, to eliminate its pragmatic dimensions, thus involuntarily laying the foundations for a process of incomprehension of the text. In fact, by distancing ourselves from the texts in time and losing the context in which they were born, we also lose part of their intelligibility, which makes it necessary to make an effort to interpret them. The effort, in the case of the Homeric poems, or in that of the Jewish Bible in Alexandria in the case of Philotheos, led to the birth of allegorical exegesis. In it, the text hides a message behind the appearance of its literalness. To discover it, a key becomes necessary, which can be euhemeristic (reducing the Homeric myth to a historical event; the naturalistic to a physical phenomenon or to moralizing) to a moral lesson.

In any case, what we are interested in emphasizing is the existence of a distance between the text and the reader, a distance that must be bridged with a hermeneutic effort. In this effort, as H. G. Gadamer has pointed out, two notions are fundamental: a) the notion of corpus and b) the notion of the hermeneutic circle. In the Greek or Jewish case, a culture is defined by the possession of a group of texts considered canonical, which serve to establish its identity. One is Greek because one is situated in a certain literary tradition, symbolized by the Homeric poems that hide the truth of our past and ultimately of our being. These texts, as we say, have to be interpreted; and this is made possible by the existence of a positive prejudice, which is born of our identification with them and leads us to enter into a hermeneutic circle. My identity resides in the texts that encode my past. I am therefore part of them. But to really know myself I have to go deeper into them, which are also something different from what I am.

This interpretative work gave rise to the whole of classical philology, from antiquity to the present day; and, consequently, also to the development of ancient history. Ancient history is within the scope of the hermeneutic circle. But this circle has something of magic about it – we place ourselves in it on the basis of a belief in a certain philological faith; and it is precisely on the basis of this credibility that the vigor or decadence of ancient history derives.

But this process of identification was not only merely literary or religious (in the case of Alexandrian Judaism), but was also, and from this derives its strength, a political process. At the same time that the Library of Alexandria was created, the Greeks colonized the entire Near East. And while Aristarchus was establishing his edition of Homer, the Greek clerics were settling in the Egyptian countryside and fighting in the army of the Ptolemies. In the Hellenistic world the Greeks reinforced their identity against the barbarians, as they had been doing since the Median Wars; and that identity was linked to the idea of their superiority over barbarians, which in turn was derived from the very nature of their political models, as Herodotus tells us in a famous dialogue in which he contrasts the Greek who lives under the law, to the barbarian who lives under the despot.

The idealization of the Greek political systems began in the Classical Period, both in the Athenian and Spartan cases. Sparta was the object of idealization by Plato, Socrates or the Cynics, who made of it a model state for its cultivation of the virtues of courage, austerity and continence, initiating a long process which, as we shall see, continued in European thought with authors such as J. J. Rousseau and others. The same is true of Athenian democracy, idealized in the “funeral oration” that Thucydides puts in the mouth of Pericles and a model to be imitated, both in the Classical period itself and throughout European history.

In the world of politics, however, more than the idealization of Spartan militarism or Greek democracy, which was only revitalized in Europe after the French Revolution, what had greater importance was the idealization of the Roman constitution and the idea of Rome. As it is known, it is a Greek, Polybius, who, applying the theory of the mixed constitution of Pythagorean origin, maintained that the Roman constitution is the best of the possible constitutions and is destined to last in time, because it unites the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Such a constitution, not subject to change, and the efficacy and power of the legion as a tactical instrument, ensured Rome’s survival over time, thus laying the foundations of Roma aeterna as a political myth.

The eternity of Rome, achieved thanks to two new ideas – enovation and enovation, which made it possible to move the empire by Constantine and to invigorate it periodically, gave rise to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, up to the contemporary age, or to the Second and Third Reichs in Germany.

It was the imperial model that shaped all medieval political theology, starting with Eusebius of Caesarea, conditioning all Western political thought up to Machiavelli or Hobbes, two assiduous readers, moreover, of Titus Livy, in the first case, or of Thucydides in the second.

It was this mixture of cultural tradition with political models, together with the assimilation of Classical culture by Christianity, which kept the Classical tradition alive throughout the Middle Ages, and which laid the foundations, so that with the process of secularization that began with the Renaissance, this tradition would continue to live on.

In the medieval world, the classical tradition, domesticated by Christianity and linked to the development of the idea of empire, had a basically conservative character, since it justified the existing order; it was with the Renaissance, and especially with the Enlightenment, that the Classical world changed its meaning in this respect. The Enlightenment, on the one hand, vindicated the republican ideal, breaking with the imperial idea and with the theologically justified power of the king, and on the other hand, in authors such as F. Schiller or F. Hölderlin, Greece became not only the world of political freedom but also of sexual freedom and freedom of thought, together with the liberation from the notions of guilt and sin, which in Germany weighed especially heavily because of the weight of the Lutheran tradition. This nostalgia for lost love, political and spiritual freedom was expressed in great works of German literature such as Hölderlin’s Hyperion.

But this vein of freedom of the Aufklärung that was politically embodied in the French Revolution could not continue after the defeat of the Revolution; and with the Restoration of the monarchical powers, and the beginning of the 19th century, we see a process in which Classical history, while constituting itself as a science, assumed a conservative character.

II.

The development of Classical studies is inseparable from the study of social history and the history of each culture. So, it is necessary for its understanding to take into account the context of each country, be it Germany, England, France or the USA.

It is not the intention here to carry out a synthesis of Classical history, as this would require a great deal of space, and other authors such as Carmine Ampolo, or Karl Christ have already been doing this. Rather, we will outline which are the images, or metanarratives on which Greek and Roman history has been configured. To this end, we will choose a minimum number of authors; those who created the great overviews of the history of antiquity, starting from a contrast of two focal points: Prussia and England, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

We will start with the figure of Karl Otfried Müller, who with his book Die Dorier, the first volume of what would become a history of the different Greek Stämme, marks the beginning of the scientific historiography of ancient Greece.

Müller possessed an exhaustive knowledge of the sources; but these sources were read by him under a certain hermeneutic key, which is the one we are interested in unraveling. Müller chose Sparta as a place of reference, because he carried out an unconscious process of identification between Sparta and Prussia. The destiny of both was to unify their peoples: Greeks and Germans respectively, to which they were called by their superiority, derived from the cultivation of a set of virtues. Spartans and Prussians were two strong agrarian-based peoples, as was Müller’s Prussia, in which the link to the land and the cultivation of virtues, such as, moderation and military courage, allowed the formation of armies that were called to be the backbone of the new states. Both peoples faced a historical destiny that prevented them from fulfilling their national destiny, when confronted with industrial and mercantile powers of a democratic nature, which prevented their military expansion and the establishment of the aristocratic military regimes of government in which Müller believed.

Müller erroneously contrasted the Doric spirit with the Ionian spirit, making it a supposed key to understanding Greek history and thus distancing himself from historical reality, as E. Will pointed out at the time. If he acted in this way, it was motivated by his political passion. In doing so, however, he did not act in vain, since he created a historiographical meta-narrative that strongly conditioned German historiography, which saw in the aristocratic, military and agrarian values something superior to the English democratic and industrial tradition, believing to find in that vision of Greek history a key to what some have defined as the German Sonderweg, or the special destiny of Germany from the Franco-Prussian War to Nazism.

This conservative tradition about the Greek world was embodied by most German historians and philologists and went hand-in-hand with the process of idealization of Greece in the fields of art, philosophy and culture in general. But it faced in the twentieth century a double process that came to question its credibility. On the one hand, the identification of these antidemocratic values with Nazism caused them to enter into crisis after the Second World War, which consecrated the triumph of democratic capitalist or socialist values. And this, together with the decline of the study of Classical languages, the basis of the elitist education of the Gymnasium (to which five percent of young people between 12 and 18 years of age had access in the 19th century), caused Hellenic studies to lose a good part of their social weight.

But this image coexisted with an opposite one; that cultivated in England by George Grote, a liberal politician, a utilitarian philosopher and a banker, author of the voluminous, History of Greece, which in the mid-nineteenth century laid the foundations of knowledge of the Greek world in England. Grote did not idealize Sparta, but Athens, a bourgeois republic of merchants and artisans, which cultivated democracy as a political form and favored the development of art and culture, together with its economic prosperity.

Athens was the kingdom of political freedom and freedom of thought and also of pleasure for the majority, one of the principles of utilitarianism, in which Grote believed (1876) as a philosopher. Greece became a reference for the development of modern democracies, as it had been since the French Revolution and the predecessor of industrial societies, thanks to the development of its science and technology. But that Greece, incarnated in Athens was also, like England, an imperialist power, mistress of a maritime empire, based not on oppression but on the development of trade and the gentle imposition of a cultural superiority, linked to the development of Classical culture.

It was said in Victorian England that Classical culture, offered at Oxford and Cambridge, was something that, once acquired, allowed us to feel superior to others. And this was due to the small number of students of Classical languages and their high social status, which gave them enough leisure not to engage in a practical activity.

The validity of this model also depended not only on the credibility of democratic values and faith in industrial civilization, but also on the belief in the superiority of Europe over the rest of the world, which was called into question after the process of decolonization that took place after World War II.

If we move from the Greek world to the Roman world in Germany itself, we encounter the figure of Theodor Mommsen, author of The History of Rome, which won him the Nobel Prize for literature. Mommsen was not an ultra-conservative politician like Müller, nor a fervent Prussian patriot like Johann Droysen, the creator of the idea of Hellenism, who thought that Alexander’s destiny should have consisted in fusing the East with Greek culture, thus creating a new culture, the basis of Roman culture, and therefore of European culture. Like Droysen, Mommsen was also a liberal.

Mommsen read the history of the Roman Republic from a contemporary point of view. For him, the confrontation between patricians and plebeians was a confrontation between political parties: one conservative and the other pro-Greece, fighting for access to political power, and consequently to the distribution of public goods that the possession of this political power brought with it in republican Rome. These parties had their own organization and ideology, like contemporary political parties; and the development of their struggles ended with the figure of Julius Caesar and the foundation of the Empire. Mommsen abandoned the History of Rome when he reached the Caesars, perhaps because he could not apply that political logic to the development of imperial history, focusing more on other works, such as the systematization of the systematization of Roman public law or criminal law.

Roman history in Mommsen, or in his great predecessor Edward Gibbon, was associated with the ideas of the Enlightenment. But in it, by a curious paradox, the problem of the decadence, or the end of the Roman Empire, which symbolized the end of a culture also worthy of imitation, became a central theme. Gibbon attributed it, as is well known, to the triumph of religion and barbarism, two antitheses of the enlightened ideal, now curiously associated. The Roman Empire, at the time of the Antonines, was associated with the best and happiest period in the history of mankind, and permitted an understanding of the cause of its end and perhaps could allow for the discovery of the key to the history of Europe. Gibbon developed a progressive historiographical vision, since he was an enlightened man; but after Mommsen, at the arrival of the 20th century, other historians changed the sense of the meta-narratives of Roman history, since Rome no longer incarnated the values of the Enlightenment, as in Gibbon, or the triumph of liberalism, as in Mommsen, but the bourgeois or aristocratic values.

The aristocratic and anti-democratic values were brought to light by prosopographers like Munzer or Gelzer, who overthrew Mommsen’s vision of Roman political parties, showing how on both sides, patricians and plebeians, it was the aristocrats who controlled the political game.

This was so, but its discovery was not innocent, since such theories, as Luciano Canfora has pointed, out went hand-in-hand with the critique of democratic systems by Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, developed at the time of the incubation of fascism. Both emphasized the apparent rather than real character of democratic regimes, since in politics it is always the elites who, whatever the system, control power.

A particularly important case is that of Michael Rostovtzeff. This Russian historian, author of the groundbreaking Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, a work of the first magnitude for its use of epigraphic, archaeological and literary sources, interpreted the history of the empire as that of the rise and fall of a social class, the bourgeoisie, builder and creator of the city.

Rostovtzeff defined the Empire as a federation of free cities. These cities were based on the development of trade, industry and “scientific” agriculture and were linked to the life and death of the bourgeois social class. This class entered into decline because of fiscal pressure, which stifled its economic activity and favored the development of the army and the state, increasingly controlled by the peasant masses. The decline of the Roman Empire would thus be a revenge of the countryside against the city. With it, and the death of the city, art and Classical culture disappeared in all its aspects, all of which were creations of the bourgeoisie and the urban world.

Marinus Wes has brought out the concordances between Rostovtzeff’s life and his vision of the history of Rome. Our historian, was a Classicist, and therefore a member of a double minority in tsarist Russia – urban and Western and Classical culture – who identified himself with the inhabitants of the cities in a predominantly rural world, as tsarist Russia was at that time, a world in which a revolution of the lower classes collapsed a political system that had allowed the flourishing of cultured minorities. The fall of the Roman Empire was thus a transcript of the Russian Revolution; and those peasants who controlled the army and the state were a transcript of the Revolt of the Masses analyzed at the same historical moment by Ortega y Gasset (1929), or in The Decline of the West, foreshadowed a few years earlier by 0. Spengler (1923), who also felt himself a prophet of a similar decadence to that of the Empire.

The decadence of Rome thus became a goal of the transformations of the contemporary world and the advent of mass society, rejected by Spengler, Ortega and Rostovtzeff. In this way, the history of Rome became one more instrument of conservative thought, in which there continued to be an identification with the Classical world and its culture, understood as the patrimony of the minorities and as a rejection of the more radical forms of democratic government, embodied not only in the amorphous masses, but in political movements such as socialism.

Leaving aside these conservative visions, which compromised the survival of Classical culture by associating it with their political approaches, we must now look at those visions of Classical history that saw in it perhaps the possibility of thinking about some forms of liberation, as had occurred in the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

III.

Until now, we have been seeing a process in which Classical antiquity functioned as a paradigm, as a model to imitate, whether from a cultural or political point of view. With the last third of the 19th century, we saw the beginning of a process that had precisely the opposite effect. It was an operation of unveiling, as if an attempt were being made to remove the mask of the Greeks and Romans and to discover behind it a hidden truth that no one had wanted to reveal until then.

The discovery of this truth also meant that the ancient world lost its paradigmatic character on the one hand, but on the other hand, precisely by losing this exemplary character, this world became closer to us. By approaching us it also became more intelligible; but not in an immediate way and through a process of assimilation, as had been the case until then, but through a complex operation, by means of which the proximate becomes comprehensible through its encounter with the alien, which, in turn, is revealed to us as something that could also have some affinity with us.

The first author to participate in this unveiling operation was Karl Marx. Marx was neither a philologist nor a historian of Classical antiquity, which does not mean that he was not attracted by it. On the one hand, like all Gymnasium students, he had a good command of Classical languages, and to Greek thought, in particular to the atomists (Leucippus and Democritus) he dedicated his doctoral thesis, perhaps sensing in them the roots of a materialism that was becoming indispensable, in a Germany dominated by Hegelian idealism.

Marx therefore had a double attitude towards Classical culture. On the one hand, like every educated German of the mid-nineteenth century, he was an admirer of it, and continued to consider Greek art as art without compare, or else admired the results of Greek science and philosophy. But, on the other hand, he discovered a hidden truth that was the key to the whole of Greek and Roman history.

It is well known that in the funeral oration that Friedrich Engels gave at Marx’s tomb, he stated that just as Isaac Newton had discovered the fundamental law that governed the functioning of the physical world and Charles Darwin had done the same with the world of life, likewise Marx was the discoverer of the fundamental law that regulated the course of history, and that law was the “law of value.”

According to this law, in all human societies, we must look for how the process of extraction of the surplus value that the working class produces, and from which the ruling class benefits, is articulated. In the ancient world this process took place either under the form of appropriation of surplus value by the state, more or less sacral, in the Asian Mode of Production, corresponding to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Or when we refer to the Greco-Roman world, the key to its history was given to us through the exploitation of servile labor in its different modalities.

Classical civilization was made possible by the labor of slaves and their exclusion, like that of the Metics, from the system of citizenship rights. The political and economic systems of antiquity can in no way, therefore, be worthy of imitation, but must be judged under an eminently negative gaze, since they contradict our ethical and political principles as they have been formulated since the French Revolution, and whose validity, at least at an abstract level, a large part of European society never grew tired of proclaiming.

But the question does not end here since, discovering in parallel the concept of ideology Marx, and some of his followers in the twentieth century, like Benjamin Farrington brought to light how the Greek philosophy, thus far the philosophy without compare, was also a product of class interests, which were not limited to justify only slavery or political domination of the Greeks over the barbarians, but also impeded the very development of Greek science itself, by preventing it, in Farrington’s formulation, from reaching the threshold of the Industrial Revolution.

Farrington’s theory is based on a clear idealization of Greek science, incapable, by its own internal structure, of developing machinism. By overvaluing that science and making it similar to modern physics Farrington continued with a logic that Marx himself had not completely abandoned – the logic of the idealization of the Classical world, although now that logic was limited to the scope of his theoretical constructions in the world of physics and chemistry.

The revelatory potential of Marxism was thus limited by the presence in it of this idealizing component, and by the very idea of history considered as a science. The idea that we are in possession of a method that allows us to understand the key to history can be a dangerous idea. In the first place, because history is not like a riddle whose resolution brings us great relief and puts an end to the problem. And secondly because if we claim to be in possession of the secret that makes us understand the development of history and society, and we try to apply it to the political level, which is typical if, following the Platonic tradition, we think that the one who knows the most should rule, we will then have to develop a totalitarian system, in which those who are in possession of power are also in possession of the truth in general and of the truth about history, with which the liberating potential of Marx’s theory is reduced to nothing.

In any case, Marx’s contribution is there. Thanks to it, when we look at the Classical world, we can no longer have that old sense of complacency which, as we have seen, had been developing since antiquity itself. In the Classical world there was also a hidden truth, a truth whose discovery we find unpleasant and which, through the discovery of power in its pure state and of economic exploitation without further ado, has come to place the Greeks and the Romans on the same level as the prosaic contemporary world in which Marx and we ourselves have had to live.

In a different framing, but sharing the same logic as Marx, we have to place the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche. Contrary to Marx, Nietzsche was a professional in Classical studies. Professor of Greek at the University of Basel, he was a great connoisseur of the Hellenic world, although many later philologists and historians have refused to assume his legacy, precisely because he questioned the value of Classical antiquity elevated to the level of a paradigm worthy of imitation.

References to the Greek world never ceased to be present throughout Nietzsche’s work; but the most systematic ones are found in his writings of the Basel period and in the work that made him known and which served as a stone of scandal and as the milestone that marked his abandonment of Classical philology. We refer, obviously, to Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy).

Nietzsche participated in the same operation of unmasking as Karl Marx. But just as Marx found the secret key to the Greek world outside, in society, in the social relations of production. Nietzsche found it inside, in the soul of the Greeks themselves.

Nietzsche made two fundamental discoveries. First, that the so-called Greek spirit, centered on the idea of proportion of measure and rationality, is but one of the two facets of the same spirit. The Hellenic culture cannot be reduced to a single guiding principle; but that within it nestles a profound contradiction between two elements: the Apollonian, which corresponds to the image that Europe wanted to assume of the Greek world, and the Dionysian, which embodies the powers of passion, irrationality, life, and the surpassing of all limits. It was from Socrates onwards, when the Dionysiac was reduced to second place, and the Apollonian spirit came to predominate, a spirit that reached its most perfect formulation in Plato and that, with the assimilation of his philosophy by the Fathers of the Church, was assumed by Christianity, that kind of Platonism for the people, as Nietzsche himself says.

But this irrational component did not remain in Nietzsche in a mere vindication of passion or the nocturnal and dark aspects of life. Rather, the philosopher showed how Greek culture would have been impossible without the work of slaves and how it was the product of a dominant minority, whether we like it or not. And depending on how we interpret this, we will have the key to the conservative or progressive readings of Nietzsche. The Classical ideal is therefore neither democratizable nor extensible outside the Greek world. The values of the Greeks are not the values of liberal democracies nor those of industrial civilization. The Greek world is radically alien and unattainable to us; but it is not unattainable because of its perfection, but because it implies a radically different configuration of life.

This world has also undergone a process of falsification which has tended to make it reasonable and measured, thus allowing it to be assimilated to the Christian ideals of submission and continence. Our approach to it should, if we wish to affirm the values of life, lead us away from the Apollonian, and ultimately Christian, ideal, and lead us to delve into the Dionysian. The Dionysian presupposes the world of life, of becoming, of the liberation of the passions and of the bonds through which social structures are kept in operation. Access to the Dionysian is the key to any process of emancipation, since our chains are not only on the outside, where Marx had placed them, but also inside ourselves, in our ways of feeling and thinking.

However, as in the case of Marx, Nietzsche was not faithful to his message in the end, since, as Martin Heidegger pointed out at the time, in developing the theory of the eternal return, Nietzsche returned to restore metaphysics, from which he had wanted to flee. In effect, the Dionysian supposes that the ground beneath our feet collapses, that we lose the points of reference that until now have made us sure of ourselves, that we become disoriented. If we do not want to follow to the end this path that might lead us to the madness in which Nietzsche himself spent his last ten years, we would have to combine this process with something that would allow us to return to the outside, to the world. Or, what is the same, to raise that process not as a psychological process, but as a social and historical process, channeling individual liberation in the framework of collective liberation processes that the solitary of Sils-Maria, the follower of Zarathustra, that anchorite preacher who lived accompanied by his animals could not or would not conceive.

A third author who also contributed in a decisive way to the process of dissolution of the Classical archetype was Sigmund Freud. Freud himself said that Western man had to suffer three great wounds to his narcissism. The first was inflicted by Copernicus when he discovered that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, but just another planet among thousands or millions that should not have any privileged destiny. The author of the second wound was Charles Darwin, when he taught us that we are nothing more than another link in the chain of life, a product of a process of selection and adaptation, which can also be destined to have an end and which shares with other living beings most of its characteristics, thus losing the privilege that God had given to Adam and Eve in Paradise, when He gave them the earth, the plants and the animals to establish His dominion over them.

The author of the third wound was Freud himself, who came to tell us that our rationality is only the tip of an iceberg in which the unconscious psychic processes occupy those three quarters that are submerged. Human beings are not defined by our reason, but by our passions, by our libido, which is what configures us individually and collectively, and which manifests itself in its raw state through suicide, mental illness or through collective creations such as myths and rites.

Freud, as a good Viennese bourgeois, also possessed a great Classical culture, and it is curious that it was Oedipus, precisely from the Sophoclean Oedipus Rex, the figure that would serve Freud as a metaphor for the key mechanism that allows us to understand our psychic life: the Oedipus Complex.

Obviously, Freud was neither a historian nor a philologist. But psychoanalysis, as he himself pointed out, has multiple purposes. In addition to being a therapeutic technique, whose usefulness can be accepted or not, psychoanalysis is also a theory of culture, and therefore an anthropology. After Freud, we can no longer have the same image of human beings as before; and this will have obvious consequences in the field of historiography and the study of Classical culture.

We can focus the impact of Freud’s work, in addition, for example, in the study of the interpretation of dreams, about which antiquity still offers us Artemidorus’s work, in the areas of the study of myth and rite and in the terrain of a force, whose importance Freud greatly emphasized, as in the case of sexuality.

Freud, in Totem and Taboo, established a classic parallelism between infantile thinking, the signs and symptoms of neurosis and primitive thought. Today he is criticized for his vision of the primitive, the result not of his invention but of the image anthropology of the early twentieth century gave him. But, in spite of this, his interpretations are of great interest because, in the case of rites and myths, Freud discovered that both possess a logic, but a hidden logic that must be unveiled.

As in the cases of Marx and Nietzsche, we find again the contrast between appearance and essence, with the idea that truth always remains hidden and must be unveiled. In Freud’s case, this unveiling allows us to discover the logic of the irrational, the meaning of nonmeaning, thanks to the method of interpretation of signs based on the principles of condensation and displacement that constantly disfigure the message that the unconscious wants to transmit; although, in the end, this message, thanks to interpretative work, can also be deciphered.

The logic of rite and myth reveals that the former is nothing more than a set of meaningless gestures, and that the latter is not an exemplary story worthy of being remodeled artistically or literarily in a process of endless reinterpretation. Ritual and myth are a manifestation of the desire of the psychic energy that Freud metonymically designated with the name of sexuality.

This energy flows through the same channels in every culture, and therefore Classical rite or myth loses its exclusivity. A Greek rite of initiation need not be different from an African rite of initiation. Comparativism, which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries developed in the study of religion, finds in Freud a secure basis, inasmuch as he believes, like Marx, in discovering the fundamental law; the key that regulates the functioning, in this case, of psychic life, and consequently of society.

But there is another field in which Freud’s contribution was particularly important in the process of dethroning the Classical image. It is the field of sexuality. It used to be said in Victorian times that Greece had committed two great sins – that of slavery and homosexuality. The secret of slavery had been uncovered by Marx. The study of homosexuality would still have to wait a long time.

The problem of Hellenistic homosexuality was perhaps even more serious because it was in fact an institutionalization of pederasty, which was very difficult to make sense of. Some authors, such as, Eric Bethe, had tried to do so by framing it in the world of warrior initiations and trying to erase the images of effeminacy and sexual inversion that the nineteenth century associated with the image of the homosexual.

The path initiated by Bethe was continued in the 20th century by another series of authors, such as Dover, who emphasized its educational and initiatory character, in order to continue to find meaning for it. More recently, however, there has been a change in the approach to this problem, when authors, such as, Eva Cantarella, go on to introduce new concepts such as bisexuality, which breaks the framework of warrior initiations and brings to light the fact that sexual relations with persons of the same sex need not necessarily be a problem to be explained, but may be more or less consubstantial to human nature.

In this sense, the history of sexuality could bring with it a danger: the idealization for the umpteenth time of the Classical world, now considered as a place where sexuality could have developed freely, as it did in authors such as Schiller or Hölderlin. Michel Foucault has warned us against this temptation and has shown how sexuality is not a natural substratum that is always the victim of social repression, and whose liberation, until it reaches its pure state, should be our objective. On the contrary, sexuality is a social construction based on an unquestionable biological basis. A construction that is one of the keys to our identity. The history of sexuality is inseparable from the history of the ego, which is why Foucault used authors such as Plato or Seneca as a fundamental source.

The sexuality-identity correlation is of great importance, since it is evident, from Hegel onwards, that there cannot be an “I” without a “You” and a “We.” Or, in other words, that the individual and society are not two antithetical terms, but complementary. Thus, the aspiration to unite the interior (subjectivity) with the exterior (objectivity), which Nietzsche and Marx had not even achieved, each in his own way, can be possible from now on with authors like Foucault and with the development of the historiography of the genera, a field closely related to the history of identity and sexuality.

The historiography of gender has known a great development in the Anglo-Saxon countries, since the sixties of the twentieth century, and there are already classic works, such as, those of Sarah Pomeroy. We will not try now, as in any of the previous cases, to list them, not even briefly. Our purpose will be simply to indicate that the introduction of genera as a historiographical theme will also change the images of Classical culture understood as a paradigm.

It is evident that the woman as a genera is practically absent in the literary culture and political life of Classical antiquity. Leaving aside more or less exceptional figures in the literary field such as Sappho or some women who achieved political relevance, such as some Hellenistic queens or Roman empresses, it seems clear that the values on which Greek and Roman culture were built were mostly masculine, just as men were the main active subjects of political and social life.

Women in antiquity, like European women, were relegated by virtue of the so-called “sexual contract” to the domestic and private sphere, which resulted in them becoming passive subjects of historical events rather than protagonists; and consequently, they were practically absent from the works of Classical historians and from the development of European historiography until relatively recent times.

The history of the genera also represents another challenge to the images of the Classical tradition, since it possesses the same logic as that of the proposals of Marx, Nietzsche or Freud. Here, too, a hidden truth seems to be brought to light, thus revealing in a certain way the key to Classical history. It will no longer be a dominated social class, or a submerged continent (such as the Dionysphalic or the unconscious) that will now be brought to light; but the idea that more or less half of the human race had also been excluded from the discourse of history; that it could not find its meaning, in this case as in so many others, except from a negation of one of the basic components of social reality.

The development of the history of the genera is incomprehensible without the development of the feminist movement, just as Marxism is inseparable from certain political or trade union struggles. For this reason, the transformation of historiographical models was not only an intellectual process, but also a political and social process that would come into conflict with the socially and politically conservative ideology of most of the Classical philologists and historians of antiquity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The figure of a woman may serve as an emblem of this process of social, political and intellectual transformations: Jane Ellen Harrison, professor of archaeology at the University of Cambridge and one of the first women who not only acceded to an academic position in England, but also made an important contribution to Classical studies, through works, such as, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, оr Themis. A Study on Social Origins of Greek Religion.

The life, the work and the social and political world in which Harrison lived form a unity that has been highlighted by her three biographers. Leaving aside her personal and family problems, analyzed by S. Peacock, it is clear that her access to Classical studies, or her conquest of a teaching position, were not easy, since Victorian values and academic and political prejudices were opposed to it. However, Harrison, once she achieved her goals, did not limit herself to reproducing the dominant discourse on the Greek world in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; on the contrary, she tried to renew its image through the study of archaeology and religion.

To try to do so, she set aside the image of mythology and Classical religion understood as aesthetic phenomena and applied different theoretical models borrowed from anthropology, sociology, or even psychoanalysis to try to understand Greek mythology and religion, first developing a theory, which would become famous, about the relationship between rite and myth, emphasizing the chronological and ontological priority of rite over myth. This priority allowed her to socially connect Greek religion and myth through a procedure that led her to seek the keys to the understanding of classical religions beyond the Greco-Roman world, broadening her horizon to all those peoples who in her time were being passive subjects of the process of colonization of the world; the so-called “primitive peoples.”

Comparing the Greeks with the “savages” may be more or less routine today, especially if we want to understand the most primitive stages of Greek history, but at the end of the 19th century it was a real heresy. It meant questioning the superiority of the ruling classes of the British Empire over its rulers and bracketing the superiority of Europe over the rest of the world.

Harrison’s reference to the primitive world was not only an attempt to contextualize some stories or mythological characters that were difficult to understand from the moment when the myth was no longer believed in, in Classical antiquity itself, and place them in social and historical contexts that could be similar, but also somehow more. If Harrison acted in this way, she was driven by an epistemological motive – it was a matter of explaining the similar by the similar.

But behind her epistemology, there was also an ideology and a moral proposal. The discovery of the irrational, the passionate and the primitive in Greece, already undertaken earlier by Nietzsche and Freud, is not only the discovery of a new world in the past, but also in the present. The liberation of Classical religion and mythology from the Classicist canon is the same process as the personal and social liberation of Harrison, who was forced into spinsterhood and solitude by academic and social conventions and who could not fully develop a full personal and social world because of her situation. For her, to liberate myth and to liberate Greece was the same as liberating herself and liberating the bourgeois society of late 19th century England.

The work of Harrison, together with that of Gilbert Murray and F. McDonald Cornford came to be known as the “Cambridge School” or “School of Myth and Ritual.” If I take it as a benchmark, it is because it contributed to change the image of the Classical world by making Greece and Rome lose their superiority over other historical cultures that may have been more or less similar to them, and by forcing Classical studies and ancient history to take into consideration the concepts and results of a social science whose development, which in the 19th century was parallel to history, was sometimes not very closely interrelated with these studies – namely, anthropology.

The rapprochement between ancient history and anthropology, carried out by different scholars in England, оr in France, by J. P. Vernant, M. Détienne and P. Vidal-Naquet, entails a risk of loss of identity of Classical studies for two reasons. Firstly, because it could dissolve them in the framework of a science of society in general and thus make them lose their supposedly proper categories (if they ever had them); and, secondly, because it establishes an equality before history between Eastern and Western peoples, primitive and civilized. This means putting aside the ethnocentric image on which these studies were built, as Martin Bernai has pointed out, and consequently making them to lose the privileged role they have been playing for centuries in the process of defining European identity. A role from which the cultivators of these studies benefited socially, through the social prestige that their cultivation carried with it.

After the decolonization of the world, a consequence of the Second World War, the boundaries between primitive and civilized, East and West, underwent a process of adjustment, which would partially lead to put all peoples on an equal footing. Perhaps because, as Ranke said, referring to Europe, all peoples are in history equally close before God.

At the present time, the Western world, on the contrary, seems to want to reaffirm its identity again vis-à-vis the East and the Third World, not unrelated to the attempt of some Classicists, such as Edward Luttwak or Victor David Hanson, to draw from ancient history lessons for contemporary politics, especially in the sense of reaffirming, as in Classical antiquity itself, the domination of minorities over the masses and of “superior” cultures over “inferior” ones. Naturally this would bring with it a retreat towards more historiographically conservative positions, returning to the social and political paradigm of Classicism and the abandonment of Marxist, gender or anthropological proposals. However, this will not be the case today in a clear-cut way, since ancient history and Classical studies are concretely structured as follows.

IV.

When writing about the history of historiography, it is common to allude to two types of circumstances that contribute greatly to explaining the genesis of the ideas of the great historians. First, their biographical circumstances are analyzed. Second, their political ideas, which on many occasions make up the essence of the thinking of the great historians, as Arnaldo Momigliano has masterfully taught us to see in his Contributi.

In spite of Momigliano’s undoubted prestige, many academic historians are reluctant about this type of studies, since they consider that the historian as such is a scientist and his political ideas should not condition his work, his personal circumstances being something that should be reduced to the personal or family sphere. If we want to understand the typology of Classical historians and philologists at the present time we must, we believe, follow Momigliano’s advice and also be guided by the recommendations of a philologist of antiquity, Friedrich Nietzsche, who in his The Untimely Meditations, carried out a masterly and still valid analysis of the figure of the Classical philologist and the contemporary European historian.

Nietzsche distinguished three types of historiography and historians, valid in 1873 and still today. Namely, the antiquarian historian, the monumental historian, and the critical historian. The antiquarian historian was and is defined as a professional historian. He is driven by his love for the past and his research is guided by the accuracy, thoroughness in the collection, preservation and reading of documents. This type of historian is very similar to the ancient collectors, studied by Krzystof Pomian. In the case of Classical studies, our historian is usually a philologist, a lover of texts, a faithful connoisseur and interpreter of Classical languages, who believes he has mastered the whole universe of the Altertumwissenchaften, the “Sciences of Antiquity,” so pompously called by the Germans. He, like Wilamowitz, masters everything from the most insignificant Greek language to the most sublime metaphysical ideas of Plato.

Similarly, if he is an archaeologist, numismatist or epigrapher, he carefully collects objects, coins or inscriptions, which he offers us in exhaustive catalogs. If he is not only an epigrapher but also a prosopographer, he will know the cursus honorum, senatorial or equestrian of the main personages of the Roman Empire, being aware of their careers and vicissitudes of life. In the same way, if he is an archaeologist, he will master the topography of ancient Rome, and of hundreds of other places.

All these scholars define themselves as “scientists.” They master a method that allows them to read, translate and interpret texts and documents from the past. And they do so objectively, dispassionately and faithfully. If we ask them about their ideology, they will tell us that, as scientists, they lack it. And even if they did have one, it would never interfere with their research. Their probity would not allow it in any way. They do not aspire to direct consciences. Their ideal of life is that of a secluded, almost monastic life, in which they like to relate to their colleagues, who are the ones who truly understand them and with whom they share their love of the past and of dead languages, languages whose cultivation is perhaps one of the few things that can allow us to become fully human.

Epistemologically they will define themselves as empiricists. They hate philosophy and speculation, because they are always attached to the positive, to the data, whose knowledge is the only thing that justifies the historian’s job. Politically they can be more or less conservative, but always discreet. Their natural place will always be the second piano. Their kingdom is apparently not of this world, although it really is. They will always be in favor of the established order. For them, as for Hegel, although always in a much more prosaic way, everything rational is real and everything real is rational. If something exists, it will exist for a reason; and that is precisely what we must learn from history; that the past and the present will always be justified. They are justified by their factual character. And if history teaches us anything, it is that a fact is a fact and that we must accept it as such. History is the realm of the contingent, but also of the necessary. That is what we have to learn from it as a science, that things are so, that the best we can do is to study them and consequently accept them.

The second type of historian is the monumental historian. In 1873-1876, this meant the nationalist historian; and today, it again means the nationalist historian; or, a few years ago, it meant the politically committed Marxist historian. This type of historian, on the contrary, does not aspire to isolate himself from the world, but to live in it. But not to live in it in any way, but to govern it. He is a historian who defines himself as an ideologist of the nation and as a discoverer of its essence. As a result, he aspires to social recognition of his merits and to be given a role in the direction of the nation or society. And if he knows the hidden things that make up the apparent reality, it is logical that he be the one who governs us. Plato said that if we want a pair of shoes we will go to a shoemaker; if we want to make a sea voyage, we will look for a good sea-captain; while if we are looking for who governs a city we resort to the vote, to the opinion, being wrong consequently.

For Plato, the one who should govern is the philosopher-king, since he is the one who knows the true nature of political things. In the contemporary world, from the birth of the nation-state in the 19th century, the one who claims for himself this role is the national historian who aspires not only to know the past and expose it in his books, but also to mobilize his compatriots by instilling in them enthusiasm for knowledge, and defense, if necessary, of their homeland.

This same mobilizing role was later assumed by the Marxist historian, also a connoisseur of the essence, of the hidden laws that regulate the march of societies and of history. It is this scientific knowledge, free of ideology that, from his commitment to the workers’ party, which allows the historian to place himself in the only valid observatory for the contemplation of historical reality, thus being consequently qualified to govern a country directly, when he is a political intellectual, like Lenin, or at least to guide the rulers. Although, in most of the cases, the numerous politicians simply imagined themselves as thinkers, with intellectual results that oscillated between the mediocre and the ridiculous. Just think of Ceaucescu.

The last type of historian is the critical historian, who, according to Nietzsche, does not place his life at the service of history, but places history at the service of life. For this historian, not everything is worthy of remembrance; after all, as Heidegger would later say, what is proper to the past is oblivion. We must free ourselves from the past, when the past is a weight that weighs upon us, when this weight consecrates everything that exists; and we must place the past at the service of life.

This type of historian is above all a more or less isolated intellectual. But if he becomes a solitary intellectual, it is not because that is his vocation or his preference, but he is forced by circumstances. His participation in this process of liberation must be both individual and collective. The historian writes оr speaks for someone; and that someone is his contemporaries, with whom he shares the world.

If we follow the terminology of Alfred Schutz, we could say that every historian lives, first of all, in an Umwelt environment, but is not isolated in it, but lives in it with his contemporaries, with his Mitwelt. In turn, this world derives from a previous world, Vorwelt, and will continue in a successive one, Folgerwelt. The historian must try to understand all these interrelated worlds, which should not necessarily mean that he must also justify them or be the main protagonist of their transformation.

If what he wants is simply to understand them, he may end up justifying them, just like the antiquarian historian. If he tries to change them too quickly, it could be that, reversing the sense of the Marxian thesis on Feurerbach, that his desire to change the world leads him to forget that he first had to study it. The fundamental thing in him must be to think that it is not possible to change the world, the outside, if one continues to think in the same way as the Vorwelt. The work of the historian is above all an intellectual work. His mission, like that of other intellectuals, is to try to think the world according to new concepts. However, this intellectual work will not be pure intellectual work. For, if we can learn anything from the history of historiography, it is that it has either kept pace with, or slightly lagged behind (sometimes by a lot) the transformations of social reality.

History is not an eternal science but a historical product. It is probably not even a science but something very close to the common sense of each culture, if it is only a form of storytelling. What is certain is that it is itself a historical product, and that, as such, it is in continuous transformation. Heidegger said that what defines temporality is precisely the future. The past as such no longer exists. The present can be reduced to the insignificance of the instant. Thus, if we can say that time exists, it is because there is still a future. Human life, as Ortega y Gasset said, is like a bow, which must always be taut. The moment it ceases to be taut life will come to an end.

For this reason, the work of the critical historian must consist, in 1872 and today, in helping to liberate individual and collective life by seeking and disseminating new ways of thinking about it, and thus contributing to its transformational process. This work will ensure that the study of history does not find its meaning in reference to the past, but paradoxically in reference to the future. Antiquity, that part of history which, precisely because of its own chronological scope, might seem more inaccurate, has, like no other stage of history, no meaning in itself. The sense it had is that of its protagonists, who are no longer alive. If we want to give it meaning, we can only act in two ways: either by glorifying it and thus consecrating the present, which will be conceived as its correlate, or by writing ancient history with an eye to the future, a future that will soon also be the past.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “The Girl or the Vase,” by Henryk Siemiradzki; painted in 1887.

Antiquity Under The Guise Of Melancholy

In one of the problems in the Aristotelian corpus (The Book of Problems, XXX, 1), which deals with those related to thought, intelligence and wisdom, its author asks: “why were all men who have excelled in philosophy, politics or poetry or the arts melancholic” (XXX, 1, 10-14), as were many heroes of mythology, such as, Heracles, and “in recent times so have been Empedocles, Plato, Socrates and many other notable men” (XXX, 1, 26-30).

The answer is that there is a direct relationship between melancholy and what we call creativity, as Maria Grazia Ciani has shown. The melancholy of the Aristotelian problem actually encompasses all forms of mental disorder. Aristotle relates it to the loss of control of the passions and assimilates it to drunkenness, and links it to sexual desire and to sleep disturbances in such a way as to give the impression that the common origin of all desires and passions, which later in St. Augustine and later in Sigmund Freud, will receive the name of libido, is the engine that contains the energy which allows for different types of artistic and intellectual creation. Thus, in this brief text we have the origin of the romantic idea of association of genius with madness, analyzed in recent times by the philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers. Before Aristotle, one of these melancholics, Plato, in his dialogue, The Phaedrus, (244 A) had already stated that “our greatest goods are born thanks to madness” (mania), and there being four kinds of it: the prophetic, whose patron is Apollo, the telestitic or ritual, whose patron is Dionysus, the poetic, whose patrons are the Muses, and the erotic, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.

Platonic mania is directly related to poetic inspiration, conceived as vision or trance; and therefore, it is also understood as a source of creativity. What happens with Platonic mania and melancholia is that they become metonymies, confusing the part with the whole, because in Hellenic tradition and medicine, mental illness, when conceived under an organic model, a model that coexists with the religious, in which the disease is understood as possession, and the philosophical, in which it is related to the passions and thought, is structured in a more complex morphology.

The Greeks in fact divided the alterations of the passions and thought, madness, into two large groups: delirium with fever, which corresponds to the inflammation of the brain, and delirium without fever, which would be our mental illness. This is structured in two great poles: mania, or agitated madness, with delusions and hallucinations, and sometimes accompanied by violence, and melancholia or sad and apathetic madness, reaching immobility and resemblance to death in catatonia. Next to these two great groups we have senile dementia, epilepsy, and the disease proper of women, hysteria.

Plato and Aristotle reduce all forms of madness to one, because what interests them is analyzing how the imbalance of the passions allows intellectual creation. The melancholic desires to live in solitude, like Heraclitus, the philosopher who wept, as opposed to Democritus, the philosopher laughed, in the Hellenic tradition. This solitude is the condition of his superiority, because it allows him to observe things and people objectively, thanks to the distance and detachment from passions. It is supposed that Heraclitus, like the Nietzschean Zarathustra, went to live in the mountains, became a vegetarian and, after returning to his hometown, died of dropsy, because of the water that accumulated in his body because of his diet. Euripides, the misanthrope of tradition, the first possessor of a library, is supposed to have lived in a cave; and Aristotle himself, who was called “the reader” in the Academy, made writing to be read, not recited or dialogued, the key to his philosophy. The first Christians practiced anachoresis as a way of life and a way of seeking knowledge; and with them was born silent reading, mentioned for the first time in history by St. Augustine in his Confessions, when he recounts his surprise at seeing Ambrose reading silently in Milan.

Solitude and melancholy were considered the indispensable condition for observation; and the artist, the philosopher or the historian thus became neutral observers of the passions and catastrophes of others, as described by Pseudo-Longinus in his treatise, On the Sublime, in which the scene of the spectacle of the shipwreck, seen from the cliff, as the source of the aesthetic feeling of sublime beauty, understood as that which overrides the passions and elevates thought, as opposed to the pleasurable feeling of the beautiful, became a key element in Western thought.

The paradigm of the melancholic spectator, observer of the past, or of the present, was fundamental in Europe from the Renaissance onwards. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a brilliant revival of melancholy. Robert Burton, an Oxonian clergyman, was the author in 1628 of a masterpiece (The Anatomy of Melancholy), that drew upon an exhaustive study of biblical and classical sources on this feeling.

For Burton, who was a neo-Stoic, all disorders of the soul are due to the uncontrolled passions of all kinds; and all of them are nothing more than different forms of melancholy in his monumental and erudite treatise. His study is so complete that all aspects of human life of the present and the past are reflected in it, for what is history but the study of the joys and sorrows, the ambitions, hatreds, loves, thoughts and feelings of human beings? The work of the anatomist of melancholy is to try to describe from a distance the story of all these passions, seen from the dispassion that provides academic isolation and the disenchantment of all passions, typical of the philosopher and historian, which would lead Burton himself to also fall into melancholy.

Burton’s book is situated on a very expansive context. Already in 1586, in England itself, Timothie Bright had devoted another book to the subject. And in France the same had been done by André du Laurens in 1594 and Jourdan Guibelet in 1603.

Melancholy came to know a bright future, in the literature of romanticism; and some sociologists, such as, Wolf Lepenies tried to associate it with the ways of thinking and feeling of the emerging and frustrated German bourgeoisie. For example, those whose role was essential in the birth and consolidation of classical studies, focused on the evocation of a vanished past. However, long before that, melancholy was directly associated with visions of the past.

The Greek author of the Qoheleth, better known as, Ecclesiastes, a treatise attributed to the wisest king, Solomon, developed a whole theory of history, which tried to make sense of the time he lived in, the Hellenistic era, characterized by its endless succession of wars, which would affect the Jewish people very directly.

According to the Qoheleth, history cannot recover the past, definitively lost and impossible to reconstruct:

“Vanity of vanities! Everything is vanity. What profit does anyone gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away and another generation succeeds it, but the earth stands firm forever. The sun rises and the sun sets; then it returns to the place where it rises.
The wind blows southward and then veers to the north, constantly turning as it repeats its course. All the rivers go to the sea, and yet the sea never overflows, for the rivers continue to return to their place of origin. All things are wearisome and very difficult to express. The eyes are not satisfied with seeing and the ears do not have their fill of hearing. What has been will be so again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever is perceived to be new has already existed in the ages before us. Those people who died in ages past are no longer remembered, and the people yet to be born will not be remembered by those who come after them. I have seen everything that has been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after the wind”
(Ecclesiastes 1).

The impossibility of recovering the past through the evocation of it that historians can do was a substantial part of European thought, which contemplated it until the Renaissance under the rubric of melancholy. Here is just one example from Jorge Manrique, when he says:

Let us leave the Trojans,
For we have not seen their evils
Nor their glories;
Let us leave the Romans,
Though we have heard and read
Of their victories.
Let us not care to know
What of the century past,
And how it went.
Let us come to yesterday,
Which is as well forgotten
as all of that (Coplas, XV).

These verses are especially pertinent because they deal with the classical tradition, never lost in the Middle Ages and again in force from the “Renaissance” of the twelfth century. Greek and Roman history, together with biblical history, is fully alive in Jorge Manrique, as well as in late medieval Spanish literature, as María Rosa Lida de Malkiel pointed out.

If we read one of the first incunabula, the Weltkronik by Hartmann Schedel, published in 1493, which is interesting not only for its text but also its hundreds of illustrations, we can observe how this history of the world that begins with the biblical creation intermingles, following the historiographic tradition of St. Augustine and Orosius, the Jewish, Greek and Roman histories. All its characters are equally present in the text and the engravings, as are the oriental cities and those of the classical world in the miniatures. From all of them, from their lives and sayings, a moral lesson can be drawn, in the style of Valerius Maximus. Here the loop of melancholy has been broken, for the past becomes present, but at the cost of anachronism and imitation of it, as will happen in the European Renaissance, incomprehensible without the birth of the printed book, which will later be key to understanding the role of classical studies.

The printing press was an essential agent of change to make the Renaissance possible, and also the Reformation and the scientific revolution; for without it, the codification and general transmission of knowledge would have been impossible. In the case of Spain, for example, it was precisely the scarcity of printing presses and publishers which, together with the Counter-Reformation, largely explains the weakness of Spanish humanism, as Luis Gil Fernandez has shown in a very detailed study.

The birth of history and philology as sciences is inseparable from the overcoming of anachronism, which fully identifies the past and the present; and from the establishment of what is called estrangement, or the distancing of the present and the past. This process of estrangement makes it possible to create the necessary distance for the development of an objective method, as Anthony Kemp and David Lowenthal have pointed out. However, this distancing must be accompanied by an interest that promotes the study of a distant past and brings with it the birth of a certain process of assimilation.

The scientific study of all aspects of classical culture was institutionalized in Germany, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The importance of German scholarship was such that we can say that, just as classical Greece and Rome were the ideal homeland of many Germans, Germany itself is in a sense the common homeland of all scholars of antiquity.

In order to understand this process, two kinds of factors must be taken into account. External factors, referring to Germany’s own political and social situation and the development of its new university system; and internal factors, which allowed the institutionalization of all this systematic body of knowledge, Wissenschaften, without which it is impossible to access the ancient world.

Germany at the end of the 18th century was a conglomerate of small kingdoms, with the exception of Prussia, and dozens of free cities, known today as “Home Towns,” which the Germans called Heimat. Their population was more than 80% rural, and political domination corresponded to the nobility and the different churches. An average German town had between 3,000 and 5,000 inhabitants, was under the power of a local nobleman or ecclesiastical authority and its municipal life was controlled by guilds and corporations and was clearly restricted, which did not prevent the development of an important culture and a certain publishing industry. Germany’s economic and industrial development was very limited and its industrialization took place late in the 19th century. For this reason, a significant bourgeois class did not emerge that would allow the social and economic advancement of, for example, the intellectual professions.

We may take as an essential and social model the figure of Friedrich Schiller, poet, playwright and historian. Of humble origin, he trained as a military doctor, but became one of the first professors of history in Germany and author of the first great publishing success of the 19th century, his History of the Thirty Years’ War. Schiller and Goethe lived under the protection, and many times the whim, of the nobles and petty princes; and both considered, like many German intellectuals, culture as a way out and an escape route from the situation of social constraint.

Heinrich Heine said that in Napoleonic times, England dominated the sea, France the land and Germany the air, thanks to its cultural creations. Culture was conceived as a way of sublimation and escape from the present, and it was thought that there could be full human freedom, civil, cultural and intellectual, without full political freedom, thus creating what Leonard Krieger called the German idea of freedom, a freedom under the cloak of authority, often times arbitrary.

Such freedom under surveillance and such constraint of a social class, the bourgeoisie, meant that culture was understood as a form of nostalgia for a past in which that freedom had been possible – and that was the role of Greek and Roman culture, evoked as absence in Schiller’s own poems, which we can clearly see in his Die Götter Griechenlandes:

Ja, sie kehrten heim, und alles Schöne,
Alles Hohe nahmen sie mit fort,
Alle Farben, alle Lebenstöne,
Und uns blieb nur das entseelte Wort.
Aus der Zeitflut weggerissen, schweben
Sie gerettet auf des Pindus Höhn,
Was unsterblich im Gesang soll leben,
Muß im Leben untergehn.

(Yes, they returned home, and everything beautiful,
Everything high they took with them,
All colors, all sounds of life,
And all that was left for us was the lifeless word.
Torn away from the tide of time, they float
They are saved on Pindus heights.
What shall live immortal in song,
Must perish in life).

The idealized past of Greece is the poet’s true homeland, as it was for Goethe; the land where the lemon tree blooms. The poet understands the evocation of the past, in which freedom and beauty were lost, as an essential function of poetry and historical narrative. This is also the case in Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel, Hyperion. In this novel, Hyperion’s letters to Diotima evoke both the loss of freedom, love and happiness, through creation and reading. The Germans created a culture understood as a remembrance of the national past and of a past they identified as their own in Greece and Rome. This explains the importance of the study of all aspects of the past in the development of their national culture. In it, this German idea of conditional freedom was directly linked to the idea of Bildung, or education and shaping of the mind and life of each individual; and fundamental in that Bildung was the creation of the new European university by Wilhelm von Humboldt, at the University of Berlin, under the protection of the King of Prussia.

Wilhelm von Humboldt created the so-called research university, in which a professor had full freedom to teach and research his knowledge and was provided with the means to do so. This professor, be it L. von Ranke, G.W.F. Hegel, K. von Savigny, J. Liebig and so many others, would train not only students but also researchers; and thus, the institutionalization of the Altertumswissenschaft became possible. The new university gave birth to a new social and personal type, the professor, with his specific ideology and ethics analyzed by A.J. Engel.

In Germany, the university and the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists), were the essential means of social ascent, in a country where the delayed industrialization did not allow until very late the birth of a rich bourgeoisie. The Jews, excluded from the university professions almost until the 20th century, took refuge in them. The German professors were free in their privileged world, isolated from politics by their knowledge; but they always depended on the political power in the public universities; and that is why they were always politically very conservative and could not react to the rise of Nazism, according to Fritz Ringer. Such was the internal framework in which the Altertumswissenschaft was institutionalized. Let us now see what it consists of.

The German word, Wissenschaft, designates any kind of systematic knowledge of a given subject, and is not exactly equivalent to the English term, “science.” There is a Judentumwissenschaft, a set of knowledge necessary to be able to understand and study Jewish culture and history; and for the same reason there is a Religionswissenschaft, which does not consist in reducing religious phenomena to a science, because then the specifics of religious experience would be reduced to nothing. The Altertumwissenschaft is a whole system of knowledge necessary to be able to study what is considered a strongly unitary phenomenon, which is the world of classical antiquity.

Its basis is the knowledge of two languages, Greek and Latin, in all their aspects: morphological, syntactic and semantic, the study of their history and all the metrical, stylistic and rhetorical forms necessary to be able to understand the texts in these two ancient languages. But this study of languages is only a part of it, since it also includes the study of archaeology, epigraphy and numismatics, as well as, of course, classical history and all literary genres: epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, prose, history, oratory, and philosophy in its various parts, as well as all the sciences developed by the Greeks and Romans. August Boeck pointed this out in 1886; but he also indicated that philology was “the knowledge of what is known.” By this he meant that its aim was to achieve the understanding, or in other words, the updating of the experiences lived in all fields, felt and thought by the men and women of Antiquity.

Naturally, only very few authors managed to master all these fields, although some did, such as Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who wrote on Greek language, literature, history, philosophy and religion. By doing so, Wilamowitz maintained the idea of the unity of the subject of study, and because he was aware of the hermeneutic character of all these disciplines. A classical philologist turned philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer, thus developed a theory that gave a perfect account of the work of the philologist, the historian and the philosopher. For Gadamer, these disciplines, called hermeneutics, were structured as follows.

A hermeneutic discipline studies a cultural and historical whole that is defined by the existence of a corpus of texts which is transmitted over time, while being studied and enriched. This body of texts shapes a cultural and personal identity and creates a sense of belonging. Think, for example, of the role of the Old and New Testaments in Christianity, the Talmud in Judaism, and the Koran for Muslims. Each member of that group is recognized as such through tradition. His identity is delimited by that tradition and through its identification with the corpus of its texts. But it is by immersing oneself in it that one constantly recreates one’s identity and renews it, while at the same time keeping alive the tradition to which one belongs. Hermeneutic activity is based on reading, rereading and commenting on texts. In it, to read is to begin to write, and to write is to read again.

This going to the old textual corpus and then returning to the present is what Gadamer called the “hermeneutic circle;” and it is this circle, based on continuous and endless reading, that is the basis of the work of the historian, the philologist and the philosopher, three figures that overlap in the field of Altertumwissenchaft. Without texts, without books and without reading, all these studies become meaningless.

David Hume once said that “reason is and must be the slave of the passions,” to the scandal of moralists and Stoic philosophers. In reality Hume led a rather discreet and stoic life, and so what he meant by that phrase is that the motor of our psychic life is not thought, but feeling – passion. For that reason, it is incomprehensible that the gigantic effort, in all the disciplines necessary to be able to study classical antiquity, could have been developed, if there had not been some deep interest in it.

And, of course, there was deep interest in Germany. Greek and Latin formed the basis of the baccalaureate studied at the Gymnasium, the secondary school for those who would go on to university studies, and which, by the way, was attended by not even 10% of young German adolescents, since the majority who studied did so at the Realschule, where they studied modern languages, and sciences and techniques necessary for the development of commerce and economic or industrial activity.

The prolonged study of Classical languages made it possible to create a whole corps of professors and scholars, who made possible the massive work of study and cataloguing that made it possible in Germany to create the great corpora of inscriptions and texts, and to elaborate the great instruments of consultation, such as, the Real-Enzyklopaedie, a gigantic collective work, indispensable for study, even today; and which was developed over many years, like so many other working methods.

What did the Germans see in Greece and Rome? We might even say, why did they become obsessed with Greece, which exercised a kind of tyranny over German culture and thought? They no longer saw in it a nostalgic past, in which men had been free and happy, as had been the Greece of Schiller and Hölderlin, but a model to be followed in all areas of culture, for Greece had created philosophy, science, art and the best literature, and also provided the models on which European political systems were based.

The Altertumwsissenschaft conceived Antiquity sub specie aeternitatis, as had been the model of Roma aeterna. Ever since Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople, the double idea of translatio and renovatio developed. Rome could remain Rome elsewhere and constantly renew itself. The emperors of Byzantium remained emperors of Rome, and then also the czars of Russia, who called themselves Caesars. And the same thing happened in the West, ever since the coronation of Charlemagne, which meant the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which survived until the Napoleonic wars, when it was neither sacred, nor an empire, nor Roman, nor Germanic, as Voltaire pointed out, but which was renewed with the Second Reich and then unfortunately with the Third Reich which was supposed to last a thousand years.

Greece and Rome were the timeless model to imitate for the entire German cultured society. If we read the 1878 book by Jakob von Falke, a jewel of German publishing for the quality of its engravings and binding, we can realize that, despite its shortcomings as a historical work, since for its time it does not cite either Droysen’s or Mommsen’s works, it reflects very well the passion of the German bourgeoisie for the Classical world. It is a luxurious book of great size that could adorn a good bourgeois salon, attesting to the admiration for that vanished world.

The paradigm of classical history sub specie aeternitatis began to be criticized in the early nineteenth century by authors such as Tocqueville, and was the subject of fierce ideological battles, as each country tried to identify with the Classical past in its own way, creating antithetical models.

The Germans tended to identify themselves, following the model created by K.O. Müller, more with Sparta than with Athens, since Sparta, a traditional state, with an agrarian base and militaristic organization, was conceived as a kind of simile of Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century: agrarian, disciplined, militaristic and conservative, as Édouard Will pointed out years ago. Similarly, English liberals, such as George Grote, identified Athens with their native England: maritime, commercial, democratic and enlightened.

And in the United States, where the presence of Classical studies was always very limited since the subject was not taught in secondary education, Classical models served on the one hand to justify their peculiar institution, slavery, but on the other hand, they were also a model for the drafting of their republican Constitution, conceived on a more Roman than Greek model. One of its drafters, however, proposed in an amendment that the new official language of the USA should be the Attic dialect, as they could no longer maintain the language of their metropolis.

In France, from the very moment of the Revolution, the Greek and Roman republican models were present, and for this reason numerous histories of Greece and Rome were published. This approach has always been present among French historians of the Classical world, even among those who had political commitments that were later very debatable, as in the case of Jérome Carcopino, in whose work this was always a fundamental component, since he believed that the study of the past could not be dissociated from the present.

After the mark left by the numerous works of Arnaldo Momigliano on the development of the historiography of antiquity and Classical studies in general, the study of the historiography of ancient history is now an academically consolidated field. Luciano Canfora has published numerous books and articles on the subject. In all these works it can be seen how all political ideologies – liberal or conservative, Marxist, Fascist, Nazi, or of any other type have needed to be confirmed through the study of their precedents in antiquity. This need to find a justification in such origins is what has so far kept alive in many cases the interest in the ancient world, and to some extent continues to do so.

However, what is happening nowadays is that these justifications are no longer undertaken by means of documented research work, carried out in accordance with the rules of the historical method, but by means of informative books of a more or less propagandistic nature. This is what is happening in the USA with authors who seek in the Greek past a legacy according to which only a strong military power can be the guarantee of freedom, economic development and democracy, tending to change the Athenian model for the Spartan one, in cases such as that of the ideologist Robert D. Kaplan. Although this new orientation is also present in the case of professional historians of Greek antiquity, such as, Victor Davis Hanson.

The Russian Revolution, the birth of Fascism, Nazism and later the Second World War, and the process of decolonization of the world brought about profound transformations in Western societies that caused the Classical models, conceived under the paradigm of eternity, to enter into crisis. Nevertheless, Classical studies managed, until recently, to maintain their vigor, because the richness of Classical sources, covering all fields (medicine, science, philosophy), and all possible aspects of social and family life, and the expression of the most varied ideas and feelings, provided an excellent testing ground for all kinds of studies. Feminism, of course, drank profusely from ancient sources and also the so-called gender studies or the history of sexuality, a subject vetoed by the authors of the nineteenth century.

The Greek sin par excellence became the object of privileged study in the departments of gender studies. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been published, creating a field of work that has been synthesized by James Davidson, a Classical philologist, in a comprehensive and exhaustively documented book that stretches into 634 pages. It is said that you can only study what you love, what you hate, or what you have already dreamed about. In that sense, and if we leave aside the enormous effort involved in the study of Classical languages and philology, less than that of mathematics or physics, however, Classical studies should not be in crisis and be subjected to a certain shared melancholic sensation of seeming to live out its end.

Numerous voices of alarm have been raised. Victor Davis Hanson himself, along with John Heath, has asked the question: “Who killed Homer?” According to them, only the recovery of Classical wisdom as a whole that integrates what in the USA is called “humanities” can allow Classical studies to be saved, lost in a world that values publications only by their number, obsessed by publication for publication’s sake, and in which the monographs of those who know more and more about less and less, and focused on insignificant topics supposedly very technical, have made the reading rate of the Classics decline sharply, in a parallel process to the loss of general knowledge among a good part of the professors.

In Italy, Salvatore Settis has asked himself the same question, as has a historian of Greek philosophy, Giuseppe Cambiano. The idea is repeated. Reading the Classics is fundamental because of the richness of their contents and because we cannot understand our cultural legacy without them. But what would happen if we no longer recognized, or even wanted to recognize our cultural legacy? What if what we reject is the book itself and reading, two essential components without which neither history, philology nor philosophy would make sense? Could it be that the rejection of the world of books is global and therefore that the hermeneutic disciplines have become impossible? Some believe so.

Each society creates its own system of global communication (very different in oral cultures), and among cultures with different degrees of literacy and in the electronic, visual and digital world. Marshall McLuhan had already warned of this in his now classic book, The Gutenberg Galaxy. These communication systems do not absolutely determine linguistic expression, much less thought. But they can do so, if they are used inappropriately.

Information can be processed in different ways and can be measured and quantified. All information is either assimilated or lost; and the process of assimilation takes place over time, since information is a flow. The assimilation capacity in a given time is inversely proportional to the speed of the flow. If speed is the result of dividing space by time:

S= s/t,
then the speed of the information is equal to its quantity divided by time:

S= Qi/t,
being the assimilation the division between the information itself and time. That is:

Ai= Qi/ t2

For this reason, the proliferation of information in the digital media, which of course is a great enrichment and creates very useful tools for consultation and research in the field of Classical studies and ancient history, becomes a toxic tool, if it is not used as a means to an end. The training of a historian or scholar of the humanities can only be based on the study of texts, on their reading, re-reading and analysis, and on the practice of reflective writing. Digital media are just that, media, as are printed dictionaries. A dictionary contains all the words; but in order to write, one must know how to handle language in terms of structured thought. Buying a dictionary is not enough. There are also all the letters on a keyboard; and they can be combined in millions of random ways; but a chimpanzee amanuensis will hardly create a good book.

Computer experts have drawn attention to the birth of a process of transformation of language and thought because of the abusive use of the Internet. Nicholas Carr points out that the Internet system favors parataxis over syntax. The user tends to move from link to link, in parallel processing, and to reintegrate links by superposition, not in a complex and durable structure. This explains the rejection of deep and long-term reading that is already being observed. Two Spanish professors of Greek literature have told me the same anecdote. None of their students had read the Iliad, in Spanish of course. One of them managed to get a Canto read, the other ordered it, but found that it just summaries of the “argument” taken from Wikipedia. This is not an exception, as the rejection of reading among humanities students is becoming the norm in philosophy, history and philology, sometimes supported by some professors.

The rejection of reading, and the idea that everything can be found on the Internet, contributes to the creation of what one computer engineer, Jaron Lanier, has called the “digital herd.” If everyone searches for the same thing, with the same search engine, in the same set of files, they will necessarily find the same thing. Originality thus disappears, because in history and philology it consists of discovering little-known data and establishing relationships between them that had not been found before. This requires continuous, meticulous and patient reading over many years of training and apprenticeship, as well as knowing how to find new modes of written or other forms of expression. The problem is that many teachers are contributing to the destruction of the ability to express oneself through the inappropriate use of PowerPoint.

PowerPoint is a program created for making advertising presentations. It is very useful for this and for processing images of all kinds, but not texts, which are reduced to almost childish outlines. That is why Franck Frommer considers it a program that can make us stupid. The information that is hackneyed, superimposed in a conventional way and expressed in a simplistic way is the opposite of creation and historical research and exposition, so it can be said that the history of antiquity and Classical studies will end up in a serious crisis, if we do not return to the only world that can make them possible, the world of texts, reading, reflection and good writing.

An ancient history sub specie aeternitatis is no longer possible, because the regression of Classical studies in general education makes it impossible for most people to identify with that world and consider it as an eternal model to imitate, in a world that is changing rapidly in economic, political and military areas, and that seems to want to value continuous change, and on its own, in the development of communication technologies, which make them increasingly faster and which offer so much information that is impossible to process.

If there is no global and eternal model, we must return to the world of melancholy. As we have seen, it was a world in which the past, gone forever, appears in a fragmentary way. History sub specie melancholiae can only be the fragmentary reconstruction of that disappeared past, but also the evocation of its absence and the finite expression in a small text of our infinite desire to know and not to fall into oblivion. The Greeks believed that what distinguishes melancholy is the sensation of the loss of sense and perception of the future. There is no future for the melancholic who contemplates with distance the spectacle of his own life. We have seen, following Pseudo-Longinus, how the sublime emerges in the scene of the spectator before the shipwreck. There is no single spectator before the spectacle of the past and the present world; and therefore, as long as several spectators can communicate, there will no longer be room for individual melancholy; and there will be room for the hope of leaving for the future small traces and remains among the ruins of time.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “Clio, Muse of History,” by Charles Meynier; painted in 1800.

Hellenism: Past, Present, Future

When we commemorate the Metropolitan in the Liturgy, we do so out of submission to his authority. The commemoration of the local Metropolitan does not necessarily signify our prayers for his health or longevity, rather it is a token of our canonical subordination as a parish and Eucharistic community to a certain bishop. Greek Orthodox Christians must reflect carefully on this fact. Will they continue to subordinate themselves to shepherds whose only interest is the dissolution of Hellenism and Orthodoxy with the substitution of what St. Kosmas termed the “ψευτο ρωμαϊκό” that is, a false Orthodoxy, a false Christianity, a false Hellenism?

Now, two hundred years after the glorious Greek Revolution, again, we are called to muster our defense of everything sacred: Our Christianity, our Hellenism. We do this by arming ourselves with the weapons of faith. Unlike in 1821, these are not literal weapons. They are the weapons of piety, of conviction, of knowledge, of evangelical truth. We have allowed the Constantinople Patriarchate to create a false “Orthodoxy” in Ukraine to the detriment of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by the saintly Metropolitan Onouphry. One of the false “bishops” acknowledged by Constantinople recently declared that the faithful of the canonical church should be “marked on the ear” as we “mark stray dogs.”

This “bishop”, Adrian (Kulik) of Shepitivsky, who made this statement on Facebook, had a rather circuitous path to the OCU. He was born March 25, 1972 in Kkmelnitsky province. He studied for two years in the Moscow theological seminary, from 1991 to 1993, but continued his studies in the Lvov theological seminary of the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox church—a self-consecrated schismatic organization. He served in Kiev as a deacon, and then in 1993 moved to the US, where he was received into the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), in which jurisdiction he was ordained a priest. In 2001 he officially left the OCA by reason of his return to the Ukraine. In 2002, he joined the Ukrainian autocephalous church of North and South America and the diaspora, where after his tonsure as a ryassaphore monk with the name Bogdan, he was consecrated a bishop in New York by bishops of the Ukrainian autocephalous church of North and South America. In 2004 he returned to the schismatic Ukrainian autocephalous church, and was received into that church in Kiev, then appointed bishop of the Cherkassy and Kirovograd diocese. He continued to serve as bishop in that church in other dioceses. Due to a conflict of opinions between two lines of the Ukrainian autocephalous church, he was tonsured a stavrophore monk, which he received with the name Adrian, and re-consecrated bishop on the same day. In 2913 he switched churches again, this time to the Kiev Patriarchate, and was assigned as rector of the church of St. George in the city of Khmelnitsky.

The glorious generation of 1821 such as Kolokotronis, such as Makriyiannis, such as Papaflessas would in no way tolerate such ridicule and stain as a matter of principal. We have allowed the Constantinople Patriarchy and its affiliates to subsist off of our work and labors and to create a plutocracy off of the labors of our fathers and grandfathers which has not benefited Hellenism in the least. It is my sincere conviction that now, Greek Orthodox Christians must vote with their feet. Complacency with the agenda of the Patriarchare at Constantinople means one thing only: Hellenic Orthodoxy won’t live to see a 300th year anniversary of the Greek Revolution.

In essence, the patriarchate of Constantinople, despite its claims at persecution by the Turkish state authorities, has enjoyed the relative tolerance of Turkey as of late. In fact it praises the Turkish government often and is often used by the Turkish government as a propaganda platform. The vast majority of the Patriarchate’s flock (and thus income) are Greeks of the USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the UK (Greek Cypriots in the case of the later). In the last one hundred years, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has, in general, aided western allied (American, British) interests—since the Allied Occupation of Constantinople until our present day. In return, the Patriarchate is “guaranteed” its existence in Turkey i.e. the western powers apply the proper pressure on the Turkish authorities which do not do what they did in 1955 (search for “Istanbul pogroms” on Wikipedia) to the rest of Constantinople’s Hellenism, to the 2000 or so remaining Romoioi of the City: decimate and expel them.

As is well documented—and has been generously commented on as of late—the Patriarchate of Constantinople mistakes its interests with those of the West. Certainly, western powers such as America have declared common cause with Constantinople and the evidence of their co operation, especially as concerns the birth of the schismatic false “church” in Ukraine is ample. In fact, this information is confirmed by the western powers themselves. One need look not further than the former Secretary of State’s (Pompeo’s) statement: “Took action on lots of fronts with Russia, including religious freedom. I made sure the U.S. supported international recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, helped the Metropolitan escape Russian influence,” which was posted on Twitter.

Western powers historically attempted a “containment” of Russia, using every means possible to this achievement. Napoleon did so and Hitler did so. Communism is no doubt a supreme evil and ought to have been contained and stopped. Yet, for the duration of my lifetime Communism has ceased to exist in Russia. The USSR collapsed some 31 years ago. The world should understand the first victims of Communism were the Russian people themselves, and the Russian church itself. Communism: the supreme evil to which the Russian Church fell victim as is testified by the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia whose memory we recently celebrated. The Russian Church and the Russian Orthodox faithful earned “top of the list priority” in the persecutions driven by the Soviet regime. As the West continues its traditional assault on Russia, it seems the Constantinople Patriarchy has confused its interests both political and ecclesiastical with those of the Western powers, and thus its “war” on the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the establishment of a false “autocephalous” “church” in Ukraine.

What does the survival of Orthodoxy and Hellenism, in particular, Hellenic or Greek Orthodoxy have to do with these events? It is clear that the shepherds of Hellenic Orthodoxy and the political authorities that rule Greece—i.e. the Mitsotákis government—are taking us for a shipwreck of the finest caliber. This is quite fitting, it is quite “Byzantine” of them. Similar courses of action were followed in other times by the Patriarchate of Constantinople co-operating with the Byzantine empire—read the life of St. Simeon the New Theologian and find out how the illustrious ecclesiastical authorities of the time buried icons of St. Simeon’s spiritual father to extinguish his veneration which they considered blasphemy. St. Simeon was finally exiled for speaking eternal truths to the Constantinople Patriarchy.

Prior to this, many know well that St. John Chrysostom himself died as a disgraced former bishop of what is today the Greek Orthodox Church, which promogulated his exile, ultimately causing his death. Thus, St. Simeon the New Theologian wrote of the bishops of the Constantinople Patriarchate (as if Christ was speaking to them): They (the bishops) unworthily handle My Body and seek avidly to dominate the masses… They are seen to appear as brilliant and pure, but their souls are worse than mud and dirt, worse even than any kind of deadly poison, these evil and perverse men! (Hymn 58)

How is the Russian Patriarchy different, you ask? Never did the Russian Patriarchy claim any rights and prerogatives not its own. Never did it begin teaching that it is “first among unequals” – Constantinople has done so. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church freely has apologized for its historic errors. The persecution of Old Believers, the imprisonment of St. Maxim the Greek are examples. The Russian Church historically has also stood up to the Russian state. The death (execution) of Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow is a testimony to this. The suspicious death (likely poisoning) of Patriarch Tikhon is also testimony of this. And what has Constantinople ever apologized for? How has Constantinople or the Church of Greece ever stood up to the State’s interests when their end result is the destruction of Christianity and the family unit? Archbishops Seraphim and Christodoulos of Athens are exceptions. The later resisted the intrigues of the Constantinople Patriarchy to the point where they struck his (Christodoulos’) name from the diptychs.

Since Constantinople is leading Hellenic Orthodoxy, I as a Greek Orthodox priest -though now under from within the Russian Orthodox Church—will never stop proclaiming that it is leading Orthodoxy and Hellenism to a cliff and to destruction and to ultimate demise. There is certainly no contempt within me for the See itself. There is only righteous disdain for the decisions of the men who occupy the See. Invoking the intercession of such Fathers, such as, St. John Chrysostom and St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Symeon the New Theologian I bring to mind the ancestors of today’s Greeks who fought their way out of Turkish slavery and into the light of freedom. Look around yourselves and at least in the secrecy of your own interior thoughts and life be honest with yourselves: is this the Hellenism and Orthodoxy they were shot, burned alive, or roasted over open, coal-fires for?


The word “Hellenism” conveyed different concepts at different times throughout Christian history. Consistently in the first millennium it meant “paganism.” St. Basil uses the word “Hellenic” meaning “idolater.” This was a time when identity was based primarily on faith. As the Eastern Roman Empire disintegrated, the final Emperors added to their title the phrase “of the Hellenes”—in addition to “of the Romans.” Gemistus Pletho, a late Byzantine (pagan) philosopher who died around 1453, was among the first to “revive” the idea of a modern Greek cultural group/nation as we would come to understand the Greeks today. Yet, he rejected Christianity by adopting a neo-pagan identity; prior to this, to be Greek (as we understand Hellenic identity) meant to be: a Roman citizen, an Orthodox Christian, and one who spoke Greek, in addition to one’s native language (Armenian, Turkic, Bulgarian, etc.).

With the advent of the Ottoman Empire, the Emperors of which retained within their title the phrase “of the Romans”, the “millet” system—the classification of society into various religious groups that constituted the pillar of their identity—was established. In the Orthodox Christian part of the “Roman” millet were Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians etc., and they referred to themselves and were in turn referred to by the Turks as “Romans”. Conversion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam meant adoption of a Turkish identity and—for our modern intents and purposes—amalgamation into the Turkish nation. This is exactly why today, in Western Turkey, most Turks look (and act) European, i.e. Greek, as they descend from Greeks who at various historical stages adopted Islam. There were also “middle” groups, such as the “Crypto Christians”, who outwardly practiced Islam yet maintained an “underground” Orthodox Christianity in secret churches with secret clergy. Other “millets” were the Jewish Millet, and the Armenian Millet—for Armenian Monophysite Christians.

Language, in this religious context, was secondary. There existed Turkish speaking Greek Orthodox villages in Anatolia well into the 20th century wherein Turkish was written in Greek characters and scripture readings at the services were read in their dialect of Turkish, Karamalídika. And later, there existed Greek-speaking Muslims in places like Thrace and Crete. These were formerly Greek Orthodox Christians who embraced Islam for the status, wealth, and influence that came with conversion. The fact that language did not immediately translate into national identity is not an Eastern phenomenon: the French of Lorraine spoke German, and the Irish to this day speak English. In Asia, Japanese is written in Chinese characters. We will return to the issue of language as one of the primary sources of identity (the other being Faith) below.

During the nationalist movements beginning in the eighteenth century, the various Balkan ethnic groups conspired against the Ottoman Empire. Revolutionaries, such as, Rigas Ferraios envisioned a “re-birth” of the Roman Empire: an Orthodox Christian Federation stretching from Moldova across to the Dalmatian Coast and down the Balkan Peninsula to Greece and east to Anatolia, including Syria, Egypt and the Holy Land—the capital of which would be Constantinople. This would be a “multi-cultural” and “multi-ethnic” empire wherein many would co-exist as they did in Byzantium, with the common factors of faith, citizenship, and language.

Various uprisings had occurred against the Turks, such as the Orlov Revolt and the First Serbian Uprising. Success came when nationalistic tendencies were left aside. Though what we term today as the “Greek Revolution of 1821” began in Iasi, Romania, as the “start” of a pan-Balkan revolt, the end result was that only those living in what became modern Greece revolted. When falling back on their insular tendencies, on jealousy, intrigue and selfishness, the Greeks quickly descended into factions and proceeded to a series of civil wars that were fought consecutively in the decade after the Revolution of 1821 and before Greece became a sovereign entity in 1831. Consequently, only the intervention of the Great Powers, in the end, enabled the establishment of a Greek Kingdom, and its freedom and protection against the Ottoman Empire was guaranteed. Guaranteed by who? By the great Christian Monarchies of the time: Russia, the United Kingdom, Austria, and France.

Not all the Greek revolutionaries spoke Greek; many spoke Arvanítika—such as, Markos Botsaris—or Vlach, or even Turkish. Knowledge of Greek or lack thereof did not imply non-inclusion into the body of those we know today as the Greeks. The Greek government in the early twentieth century engaged in a massive “re-education” campaign that resulted in the near extinction of Arvanítika in places like Kranidi (where I was ordained), Hydra, Aegina, and Thebes.

The end result of this campaign, however, was a uniformity in terms of identity according to the nationalistic European model, which is: To be x means to speak x. This concept that identity flows solely from language, naturally, is foreign to the Eastern Roman (and later Ottoman) concept of identity wherein identity is based primarily on common faith.

Aléxandros Papadiamántis, “the saint of Greek letters”, within his short stories, records the last vestiges of such a society. Evidence of this is, within the predominantly Greek context, the appearance of Arvanites, or converted Turks or Slavs, who with their dialects, sayings, and customs enrich the Hellenic world. Such influence, which runs multiple ways, is seen in persons such as the philhellene Bavarian Doctor, Wilhelm Wild (†1899), who “adopted” the “strange ways of the Greeks,” living amongst them on Skiathos for over fifty years, having come from the Kingdom of Bavaria to Greece as a young man to fight in the later phase of the Revolutionary War.

The Eastern Roman concept of identity passed well on to the Russians who, during the time of the Russian Empire, converted and amalgamated many tribes and peoples—Finnic, Turkic and others—into the Russian Empire through missionary activity. Besides the adoption and perseverance of Byzantine state symbols (doubled headed eagle) and titles (Tsar) this effort to unite an empire on the basis of faith is the Eastern Roman legacy that lived on within the Russian Empire. It was for this reason that Patriarch Nikon of Moscow said, “Though I am a Russian and son of a Russian, my faith and my religion are Greek.”

Hellenism is Ecumenicity in the sense that many peoples can be grafted onto the body. This is the Roman identity, the Orthodox identity, which we find alive and exemplified in such authors such as the above-mentioned Papadiamantis. And yet Papadiamántis stands firmly within what may be termed the “European Christian tradition” along with other writers such as Chekhov, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton. In its originality, therefore, Hellenism is not insular, it is outward looking, and confident in its contact with other cultures and civilizations. And yet, it preserves and maintains Tradition as it has been transmitted through the generations.

We conclude our present thoughts ahead of a series of questions, however, which inevitably arise: In what condition is Hellenism today? What is the supposed “guardian” of the Hellenic Christian identity (i.e. the Greek Orthodox Church, the Constantinople Patriarchate) doing to preserve and transmit the Eastern Roman legacy? And, is it the proper vehicle to conduct this transmittance? What has it truly given the Greeks in the past one hundred years? These questions will be answered shortly…


“Two Hundred Years After the Greek Revolution”: We arrive at the topic of Hellenism today, Hellenism in the modern world and specifically, Hellenism outside the modern day nation-state of Greece. What is the state of Hellenism and Orthodoxy amidst the Hellenism of the diaspora?

During the Turkish oppression of 400 years, the Church was the guardian of what might be termed, “the Eastern Roman conscious identity” of the Greeks. Later, after the Revolution of 1821, the state naturally participated in this effort of ethnic cohesion. Greeks were travelers and explorers from the times of the ancients to our own era. The urge to go forth and explore, colonize, and create new worlds is hymned and lauded in Greek literature from the sixteenth-century Erotokritos to the works of Papadiamántis in the nineteenth century to the songs of our own modern Savvópoulos. Exile. Colonization. These are among the defining characteristics of Hellenism’s essence. Until the time of Nasar and the nationalists in Egypt, Alexandria had a thriving Greek community. My own great-great grandfather made a fortune laying marble in Alexandria. One of my distant ancestors, Photius, became Patriarch of Alexandria in the early twentieth century (where, by the way, he opposed the introduction of the new calendar), and until 1955, when perhaps one in four citizens of Constantinople were Greeks.

Segments of the Greeks began to immigrate abroad—at first to far-off America, Australia and Panama (to build the canal)—but also to places like Italian Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and the Congo in Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. During these decades, a Greek family on average had one quarter of its relations abroad. After the Second World War, the Greeks immigrated to Western Europe—mainly Germany, the Cypriots, to the UK—and Canada, and (once again) to the USA, and yet other far-off places. After the economic crisis of the 2000’s, an unexpected wave of immigration, helped by common EU citizenship, made its way to places—some of them quite unexpected—like Hungary, Czechia, and Poland—countries whose citizens themselves had, during the Communist era, immigrated to Greece as a stepping-stone leading to the wealthier European nations. Now roles were reversed, and, once again, Germany and Austria saw an influx of new Greeks.

The direction taken by the Greek ecclesiastical authorities—the guardians of Hellenic identity in the lands abroad among the diaspora—historically, in the new world, sought maintenance of an ethnic ghetto. There is nothing inherently negative about self-preservation… except to say that, historically, Hellenism has sought to “conquer by influence”. Contact with other civilizations is a sought-after affair, and exchange is encouraged. Hellenism seeks to “graft” others to its world by conversion to Orthodoxy and adoption of its habits, its thinking, and its world-view by other civilizations.

Yet preservation of our faith and culture—while influencing the surrounding culture—were never hallmarks of Constantinopolitan policy. The end results of the policy promoted by the Greek ecclesiastical authorities under Constantinople are: decades of food festivals and dance associations, which promoted what may be termed a “distorted” Hellenism. These have nearly ensured the extinction of Hellenism proper in the New World. The focus on Orthodox Christianity was absent; “Americanization” in such a context was the key. How can we look and act more “normal”? How can we rid our church of things like Byzantine music, vigils, and monasticism and cassock-wearing priests, and fill in with European-style choirs with organs, beardless priests in suits, pews, and hymnals? And today, how exactly do we become more “woke” so as not to offend the militant left? How do we promote moral inclusivity and neo-Marxist movements? How do we dilute everything sacred in our worship—even the age-old practices concerning the Holy Mysteries? Admittedly, certain elements of traditionalism—such as the clergy wearing cassocks and beards—made a comeback. These cannot save the irreparable damage done. These are just musicians playing as the Titanic sinks.

Undoubtedly, the fault also lies with our parents and grandparents, many of whom silently allowed this corruption to occur, and others who even affirmed and promoted it for their own gain and for their own purposes (“respected” positions on parish councils, etc.). While I grew up, for example, traditional Greek Christmas carols were ignored; instead, Christmas carols translated into Greek from English (most of which are originally German) were sung. There’s nothing inherently wrong with western Christian carols. But western messages and values permeated my young being, not the messages and eternal truths of our Orthodoxy heralded in the eternal Byzantine carols of the Greeks. The question became: Why this mania of forsaking anything that strikes as Byzantine? Papadiamantis, Seferis, Elytis—these authors—perhaps the most profound Greeks of the past one hundred years—were never mentioned to us as children. No one ever told us of the Erotokritos or Diogenis Akritas.

I had a question as a child that nagged internally at me: each Saturday I was dragged by my blessed mother to Greek School where I was absolutely forbidden to speak English in class. Yet, on Sunday, perhaps half the Liturgy was celebrated in English. Our priest dressed like a Roman Catholic in a suit. Any sense of traditionalism was scoffed at. My young mind did not understand the contradiction, and, without perhaps the proper articulation on an internal or external level, I asked myself a basic question: “Why is our Greek Orthodox Church not really Greek and not really Orthodox?”

As more information on Orthodoxy in the traditional Orthodox nations readily became available with the advent of the internet in my early teens, this question only deepened. This question would lead me, at around fifteen years or age, to the respected and ever-memorable Fr. Mikhail Lubochinsky—a man who became a formative father in Christ. He introduced me to authentic Orthodoxy. Later in my life, as I read and translated Papadiamántis many years after Fr. Mikhail’s unexpected repose in 2014, I began to see in this simple Russian priest living in twentieth century Canada an example of a nineteenth-century Greek priest.

What does this mean? Elegant and yet simple, charitable and sacrificial to all his parishioners, faithful in his celebration of the Divine services and the Holy Liturgy, with an unwavering, other-worldly purpose, the ever memorable Fr. Mikhail sought to initiate his spiritual children into the inner mystery which is the true Christian life. Irrespective of their particular background or ethnic identity, all—Poles, Georgians, Greeks and average Canadians alike—were made to feel as equal children under his pastoral care, with no distinctions, no exceptions. Would our ancestors account such a man as not being a Greek? Fr. Georges Florovsky, the eminent theologian (and by coincidence godfather of the aforementioned Fr. Mikhail from whom I was told stories of Fr. Georges’ little-known asceticism and fasting) said: “If a theologian starts thinking that ‘the Greek categories’ are archaic, he automatically will lose the rhythm of Catholicity. We must be more Greek to be truly Catholic, to be truly Orthodox.” Broadly speaking, the “Greek” referenced by Fr. Georges is defined as the Hellenism born from the early Church Fathers, such as the Cappadocians, who reconciled Ancient Greek philosophy with Christianity. This has nothing to do with genetics and DNA and who is descended from who—these categories are absolutely irrelevant. As a flower, one could say, or as an organism, Hellenism blossomed then, and is growing still.

Would our ancestors account the modern day Greek bishops as true Greeks? The question—“What would the ancestors say?”—is the fundamental question. Recently, Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto stated: “Let us work together for the glory of God and for our Holy Orthodox Faith in Christ! Only then will we live in peace, unity and love. In doing so, Greeks in Canada will accomplish even greater things! This is what we deserve! This is what we need. Let us all advance as one. Let no one remain behind or forgotten.” And yet, the policy of assimilation within the West promoted by the official Greek Orthodox Church in the past fifty years has failed the Greeks. This policy has ensured that scores—that thousands of Greeks—have become totally Anglicized, and finally, foreigners to the Orthodox Church.

Those who have a conscience know and understand that the official Greek Orthodox Church has absolutely nothing to offer them. It is void of any spirituality, any authenticity, any hint of originality. It has become a parody wherein once a year a food festival occurs, the main goal and focus being the collection of funds—with no absolute existential goal, no ultimate purpose or end beyond the exchange of funds, soulless numbers within a system. We could say it has morphed into a bank with the guise of faith. And reading these words, the Greeks know this message to be true as they see their children apostatizing from Orthodoxy and not speaking Greek, not feeling any particular “tie” to their ancestral homeland—the same homeland Metropolitan Sotirios appeals to to provide Hellenism with “ethical” support. This is not to say anything of the ties the Greeks no longer have with their Byzantine ancestors and the Eastern Roman legacy of Byzantium championed by Fr. Georges Florovsky!

Here is a fact we must all reckon with: The fact that ninety percent of those who identify as Greek Americans are not Orthodox Christians—a fact that the Greek Archdiocese of America ignores. It’s time that we find a new mode of ecclesial existence in order to preserve our faith and identity as Greeks.

Adherence to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the New World has seen a ninety percent apostasy.2 I ask: why should the Greeks continue to adhere to Constantinople? Since when was adherence to the Greek Archdiocese of America or Constantinople the defining characteristic of Hellenism? Are the Greeks who adhere to the other Patriarchates, such as Alexandria or Jerusalem, any less Greek? Are the Antiocheans, who still term themselves and their Patriarchate, “Greek Orthodox”, though today they are all Arabic-speaking, less Greek? If so, then Kottas Hrístou who died for Greece while screaming “Long live Greece!” in Bulgarian as he was hung by the Ottoman authorities also isn’t Greek. When nineteenth-century Orthodox Slavic immigrants to the new world termed their parishes “Greek Catholic”, what did they reference? The Unia? Obviously not.

They were referencing the Ecumenical Hellenism we mentioned, the distinct combination of Orthodoxy and Hellenism on which our common ancestors, the Eastern Romans, built a mighty empire. Whether we are Greeks or Serbs or Romanians or Russians, this legacy is our legacy. We are all co-inheritors of this legacy. We all share in the common duty of preserving it and influencing modern culture with it. In these uncertain times we live in, in this truly “novel” age of history that has dawned, little stability is left in western society. We must look into the past, to the Faith of our ancestors who intercede on our behalf, and we must seek new historical (though not physical) destinations and solutions to the seemingly insolvable problems we face. Despite the fallen men and women of Byzantium, it was a society wherein Christianity and Christ came first. This is what the common goal should be: that the Kingdom of God is reflected within our own earthly kingdom. Do all men and women not share in this goal as common children of the Father? Is our Eastern Orthodox Christianity not the basis of unity for all?

Here in the West, since the Russian Church has given us the opportunity to live the faith purely, there is no “loss of Hellenism” in doing so from within the Russian Church. After all, what is the difference in being a Greek under the Russian Church or a Greek under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem? How does an Orthodox jurisdiction—a representative of the Eastern Roman Church—“prove” its Hellenism? Were the Greek Bishops who served the Russian Church historically, such as, Evgenios Voulgaris and Nikephoros Theotokis, both of Kerkyra, not Greeks?

Here, in the New World, for us Greeks, the preservation of our language, our customs, and our traditions—but primarily our Orthodox Christianity—can only occur under the freedom provided by the Russian Orthodox Church, since the Greek Archdioceses long ago rejected their true vocation. The Greek Archdiocese claimed that Russians can live their faith within it in the so-called “Slavic” Vicariate, composed of defrocked and disgraced Russian clergy who were unfaithful sons. History will prove that I, and those who follow this example, are the faithful children of the Eastern Roman legacy. We invite those who care about the preservation of Orthodoxy and Hellenism—while ensuring their transmittance to the peoples of this land—to come and work with us.


Father Ioannis Fortomas, originally from Canada, now serves as Orthodox priest in the Peloponnese (Greece). His work is regularly fearured in Pravoslavie.


The featured image shows Christ as Pantocrator, a mosaic from the Pammakaristos Church, Constantinople (Turkey), 11th-12th century.

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.