BMCR 2002.05.12

Agon, Logos, Polis: The Greek Achievement and Its Aftermath

, , Agon, logos, polis : the Greek achievement and its aftermath. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. 255 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 3515077472. DM 86,05.

This selection of essays had its origins in Agon: A Conference on the Common Place, Tragic Fate, Contemporary Return and Democratic Future of the Classical, held in April 1997 at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. The conference was organized by the international political and social theory journal Thesis Eleven (Sage Productions) and the Program in Hellenic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. A statement from an issue of Thesis Eleven honoring Cornelius Castoriadis is relevant to the approach of the present volume: “The trajectory of the journal has taken it from a neo-Marxist conception of critical theory to a more pluralistic and self-questioning one; this leads to an opening of alternative horizons rather than a clear-cut paradigm shift, and although other projects have developed in similar directions, there is no exemplary or definitive pattern to follow.”1

As might be expected of a collaboration between classicists and critical-social theoreticians, the essays range in scope from critical examinations of the reception of classical culture to narrower aspects of philosophy, politics, religion and anthropology. The particular themes adopted by the authors fulfill the editors’ promise to consider the “uniqueness and universality” of the Greeks by exploring the connections between architecture, tragedy, religion and culture. As might also be expected, the essay styles and contents illustrate certain differences in approach between most classicists and critical theorists. The authors do not always agree, either in approach, emphasis or conclusions. This book must be read critically. It is generally addressed to a professional audience.

A key theme of these essays is the relevance of the classical tradition to modern life. In his “Gnosis and Tradition” (pp. 15-28) Murray maintains that the classical past has functioned as a foil to dominant cultural trends from Charlemagne through the Renaissance: “each generation in the classical tradition has indeed created a new synthesis in opposition to the dominant ideology.” Classical Studies has a counter-cultural role. When pushed underground it becomes a haven for the intellect and the soul: “during the whole period of communism the classical past was felt by individual teachers and pupils throughout the Soviet zone as a secret world where the human spirit remained free.” In our own day, Murray worries, the very same relegation of the classical world-view to secret societies, in the form of hermetic specialists, threatens to undercut the value found in study of classical antiquity. This reviewer must report that the sheer density of at least two essays in this volume could confirm those fears. However, more optimistically, although Murray may see the classical world-view as an “effective counter-cultural phenomenon in the modern world of materialism,” it should not go unnoticed that a concern for material values accompanied the fall of communism and its stranglehold on the human spirit. Rather than referring to individualism and self-interest as “tyranny” we might identify the release from duty to the spokesmen of the collective as exactly how human beings have been freed from tyranny.

Murray’s defense of classical studies is theoretical in the sense that he argues why classical learning is a value. Ruprecht’s “Why the Greeks?” (pp. 29-55) suggests rather that “the Classics cannot be justified theoretically anymore than History or Religious Studies can be.” “The best argument for the Classics…is simply to display them, not to waste time arguing for my alleged rights to such a display.” Of course arguing for a right to offer a display and justifying that display theoretically are not the same thing. Ruprecht’s central thesis, clearly stated, is that ” The history of the larger Mediterranean basin after the so-called “classical age” may be viewed, in one sense, as a long series of Hellenic Revivals.” If Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Damascus, Baghdad, Toledo, Paris, Florence, Venice, London, Munich and Berlin are vital to civilization, then the importance of the Hellenic revivals in those cities does approach the self-evident, once those revivals have been distinguished theoretically from other phenomena. No greater case can be made for the importance of ancient Greece than to recall those revivals, and to differentiate them from Roman, Frankish and Byzantine practices. Ruprecht sees a predictive value here; by paying attention to the eighteenth and nineteenth century revival of which we are a part, “we will be in a better position to understand what may be coming to an end now.” Ultimately Ruprecht and Murray share the same concern, and their approaches to that concern are mutually supportive.

Meier’s essay “The Greeks: The Political Revolution in World History” (pp. 56-71) narrows the answer to the question “what have the Greeks given us?” to “a decisive moment of world history between the early civilizations and the Christian West … the emergence of the political.” Although it remains an open question, Meier insists, whether we will be able to isolate either the particular factors of Greek influence on the West (popular assemblies existed in Mesopotamia) or the primary causes of the Greek political achievements, it is possible to discern a central contrast between the Greeks versus Asia, Africa and America. The Greek marginalization of the monarch is both a cause and a consequence of early political thought. This thought remained “independent of the powers at the time,” and, as rulers were unable to impose a solution to various crises, so they were unable to monopolize political thought for their own ends. Political thought, combined with learning and the recognition of citizenship, left men such as Solon to discover that order itself, and not the whims of a tyrant, was the defining characteristic of the political community. Cleisthenes strengthened the separation of social order from political order by creating an artificial political order that recognized citizens at all levels of society. Ultimately, given earlier advancements, the fifth-century democratic developments were matters of “historical contingency.” However, it is not at all clear that archaic developments necessitated the fifth-century democracy to that degree.

Although Meier stresses that self-contained communities and “the versatility of the aristocracy” were preconditions for the emergence of “institutions compatible with freedom,” neither geography, a power vacuum in the Aegean, weak monarchic centers, nor a median distance from Oriental civilizations can explain the results. Meier’s process-oriented approach favors a “contingent conjunction” of primary causes “in successive situations” as decisive for the early phase of Greek evolution. Yet Meier’s defense of archaic poetry as political thought implies what may be the most important factor in the rise of the Greeks: the use of one’s mind to reject one-man rule in favor of political order grounded on laws, and the recognition of that order as superior to any particular authority. The very strength of political thought lies in its superiority to any particular political power. Once political thought began to serve as an analogy for cosmological order, which reached beyond any divine powers, political thought was forever committed to the idea of order as it applied to the polis as a whole.

Raaflaub’s “Political Thought, Civic Responsibility, and the Greek Polis” (pp. 72-117) stays with the topic of political thought, seeing it as “focused on the conditions and relationships within the polis and on the relations between communities.” He turns to three “distinctive phases” in Greek history: Homer, Solon, and the crisis of post-411 BC. Raaflaub may indeed raise eyebrows, given his use of Homer as evidence for such thought; but his piece is the best documented textually of the essays in this volume. Raaflaub sees in the opening seven lines of the Iliad“a community brought to the brink of disaster by the irresponsible behavior of two of its leaders.” The reader may remain unconvinced that this familiar passage refers to a political community rather than a military camp, or that Agamemnon’s actions are anything other than those of a military commander with a military ethos. Raaflaub further supports his claim using the Cyclops incident in Odyssey 9.106 f., and with further passages from the epics.

To support his interpretation of political thought in Homer Raaflaub makes an uncomfortable leap to the claim that “a city was not necessary to constitute a polis.” What is uncomfortable here is not that political thought may exist in Homer — what else can the Thersites incident mean? — but rather that we must find poleis in Homer if we are to find political thought. This approach appears not only to dispense with the physical infrastructure of a city, but also with its essential political character. Roman soldiers could acclaim their general “Imperator” and thereby motivate him to claim political power. But can we conclude that the Roman army constituted a polis? Most interactions between Homer’s commanders and the soldiers appear to be more characteristic of a military setting, in which the poet emphasizes basic problems of power, deliberation and psychological motivations in order to bring out political matters. The assembly scenes do exhibit political thought, but they need not be seen as poleis to do so.

Raaflaub is on firmer ground with Solon, both intellectually and topographically, since Solon has a theoretical foundation for his actions and engages in true political reflection in what is undoubtedly a polis. Solon’s advancement, which separates human actions from divine intervention and replaces belief with certainty, allows him to validate individual responsibility in moral terms. This political thought set the foundations for his laws, which approximate equality (“similarity” rather than “equality”), attain a measure of certainty, and increase citizen access and participation. To validate Solon’s achievement Raaflaub concentrates on Solon’s refusal to claim a tyranny, his role as teacher, his balance between opposites, and his support of the traditional social order while bringing political reforms to all.

The political thought of the crisis of post-411, which is cognizant of a “distinct political sphere within the polis,” nevertheless remained connected to the established political polarizations. This suggests that the separation claimed by Meier between political thought and any particular political power was not hard and fast, and that the essential point is that no particular leader could monopolize such thought. The contrast between Solon, who took a third position on moral grounds, and the sophists, who rejected morality and produced no new system of ethics, meant that any claim to represent the entire community was immediately suspect. The post-411 crisis resulted from the disengagement of politics from moral principles and needed a moral solution that was not forthcoming. Ultimately then the crisis was philosophical, a matter of ideas.

This is a fit introduction to the next essay, by Vernant, on “Forms of Belief and Rationality in Greece” (pp. 118-26). His specific concerns are the nature of believing and belief, and the status or boundaries of religion in Greek society. What is belief, he asks, in a society without religious books, Church, priestly sacerdotal body, traditions of religious belief, dogma, credo, theology or instructions? Obviously much turns on how these are understood. Vernant sees three elements to this question: practices, idols and faith. Practices means how beliefs are put to work; “believing cannot be separated from practices.” Vernant observes that there was no heresy in Greece, only violations of practices such as introducing foreign gods or not following prescribed rituals. Vernant offers no specific examples or citations to support his views.

But Socrates’ enemies as reported by Xenophon claim that Socrates did not accept ( οὐ νομίζων) the gods that the city acknowledged ( ἡ πόλις νομίζει). Isn’t the issue here precisely the status of νομίζω ? Unfortunately Vernant does not cite a single classical source in his article and does not tell us here how we can understand such a term. The same goes for idols, which Vernant claims are “inserted into a social and political system.” Do I take this literally? Was there first a social and political system, into which these idols were inserted? Inserted by whom? When? Or, consider Vernant’s example of the archaic xoana, which were confiscated by the city (which one? when?) and become a “sort of mirror into which the city can look at itself.” Similar questions arise with faith, which “reside(s)” in mythic stories; in the Greek’s “love” for the gods, (which is not reciprocated); with the bonds between men and gods (which are exercised solely through “social mediation”), etc.

Such aporiai left me at a loss how to engage, for example, with Vernant’s description of Plato: “he wants to teach the latter [children] two new types of discourse from the perspective of belief and rationality, which cannot be separated, since there is a certain type of rationality in the mythic story, another rationality in the discourse of the sophists, and yet another in the belief of the philosopher.” How can we attain a “perspective” of belief and rationality if belief, rationality and practices cannot be separated? How does the “faith” that “resides” in the mythic story relate to “belief” and consequently to practices? Is the philosopher’s “dialogue” with the student a “practice” that is inseparable from the content of the ideas? Do the ideas change if the practice changes? Vernant has written extensively about these matters, but this particular essay left little guidance to address such questions.

Vidal-Naquet need not have wondered whether he should apologize for beginning his “Beasts, Humans and Gods: the Greek View” (pp. 127-37) with Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island instead of a classical source. In addressing the question of man’s civilized identity he claims that “the wild state is always negatively defined by the criteria of ‘civilization'”; early Greek literary texts “presuppose a definition of the human being in contrast to gods as well as to wild beasts, even if humans remain capable of communicating with those other worlds.”2 The distinction is not based on human beings versus nature, since it is man’s “savage nature” that Vidal-Naquet is concerned with. Further, the beastly is not only the savage, since the Lotophagi and the Cyclopes are both inhuman. Vidal-Naquet also notes that the Raw and the Cooked is not sufficient (he is of course indebted to Marcel Detienne, Claude Levi-Strauss and Vernant). The questions turns to points of context between men, gods and animals. Both the so-called “Golden Age” and the time of cannibalism apply to men and gods, as techne and hunting bridge the gap between men and beasts. Man’s identity is found by differentiating the “human thing par excellence from so-called lesser skills. This is techne politike, which Zeus gives to all men.

Consequently transgressions of the established divisions between gods, beasts and men can occur in more than one way. The blurring of distinctions found in the Dionysian and Orphic cults are repeated by the Pythagorean and Cynic philosophers and have consequences for human relations. “Dionysian ecstasy reunites those whom the city separates : men and women, masters and slaves.” The subversive threat of these cults was recognized: in 186 BC the Roman senate condemned Bacchantes to death. If the Cynics tied men to animals as the Orphics tied men to gods, and the Cynics were indeed a “rationalization of the Dionysiac religion,” then Vidal-Naquet may be right to see an essential connection between the Cynics and the Pythagoreans, and thus a way to understand the later ascetic movements and the ideals they embraced.

Continuing with the theme of defining man through political awareness and independence, Castoriadis explores “Aeschylean Anthropogony and Sophoclean Self-Creation of Anthropos”3 (pp. 138-54). Castoriadis maintains that Aeschylus’s use of Prometheus to pass on poiein-prattein (acting-creating) from the gods to man contrasts with Sophocles’s understanding of self-creation as the essence of what makes man deinon. To Castoriadis, Aeschylus not only claims that man’s defining abilities, such as his ability to use fire or to conceive his own death, are divinely derived. The nature of Aeschylean man is itself fundamentally of other-worldly origins, and is outside of his own abilities to act and create. This is the basis for his other abilities. Sophocles rather sees man as deinoteros than nature absolutely and universally. Man creates his own nature; “the substance of anthropos, to deinon, is his own self-creation.” Contrary to the gods and to animals, “The ti estin of anthropos, which is expressed and expounded through various attributes, is the very work of anthropos. Hephaistos is art, but man is what he makes himself. Man is self-taught, for instance, edidaxato, and the middle indicates an active return of the energy upon the subject who carries out the action.

Castoriadis sees Sophocles as more radical and therefore more profound than Aristotle, since the philosopher understands man as possessing reason and as a political animal. For Sophocles man has created these attributes; he is truly self-taught. But would Sophocles have accepted the infinite regress that this implies? If it is not in my nature to teach myself then how can I do it? Man may be deeply self-taught, but he begins with a capacity for self-teaching that is his to use, to abuse, or to ignore. Does this alone not make him deinoteros than the gods (whom he created) and the beasts (whom he hunts)? That man takes nothing from the gods does not mean that he does not begin with his own, most awesome, nature.

Arnason’s “Autonomy and Axiality: Comparative Perspectives on the Greek Breakthrough” compares Castoriadis with S. N. Eisenstadt’s “Axial transformation”4 (pp. 155-206). Arnason finds that Castoriadis’s focus on autonomy, understood as man’s discovery of his creation of his own social norms, differs only on the level of detail from Eisenstadt’s Axiality, in which “the possibility of consciously ordering society” leads to tensions. Eisenstadt’s “transcendental and mundane orders” do not correspond precisely with Castoriadis’s “archaic world-views which assumed an essential similarity and continuity of the two levels.” The other-worldly / this-worldly is not the same as transcendental / mundane. Nevertheless Arnason thinks that the growing “accountability of rulers” is as fundamental to Eisenstadt as autonomy is to Castoriadis.

Castoriadis, for instance, sees a radical questioning of the order as central to order-building, while Eisenstadt sees the mundane order as more dependent on sublime models derived from the ultimate order. Nevertheless, the two views share fundamental similarities. Each accepts the lack of cultural determinism in the Greeks, and each attempts to explain the lack of strong political centers and the resulting ability to shape their societies politically. Consequently Arnason’s further arguments, including his critiques of four rival interpretations (agrarian, economic, class struggle and warrior community approaches) begin from these assumptions. For example, the alleged agrarian foundations of ancient societies bring E. M. Wood and V. D. Hanson closer together than either might accept.5 Arnason sees this as an attempt by the Greeks to solve particular problems, not loyalty to a given structure. Ultimately Arnason sees Castoriadis and Eisenstadt as singling out the “interconnected order-maintaining and order-transforming roles of culture as primary themes for further discussion.” But beyond the critiques it is not evident how much of relevance has been added to the progress of those discussions.

Both Murray and Ruprecht emphasize the importance of architecture in the reception of the Greeks, and each acknowledges a debt to Rykwert’s recent study of the Greek column and architectural orders.6 Murphy’s essay “Architectonics” (pp. 207-32) is centered thematically on the connections between architectural and political orders. Kosmopoiesis and architecture are each properly of phusis and not of nomos. The underlying architectural order corresponds to citizen relations in the polis. The Greek’s concern for the fundamental order was an attempt to balance forces, either physical or political. The comparisons between polis and temple extend to a tripartite structure in architecture and in politics. A mimesis of appearances is purported to exist in Egypt’s architecture and today’s modern city; a mimesis of phusis rather characterizes the Greek temple and the polis. To focus on architectural style rather than the order is like focusing on the masks and lies of citizens; each is concerned only with surface appearances and not the underlying logic.

But questions arise. Since architecture and politics are each properly a mimesis of the kosmos according to phusis (in lieu of a mimesis of the community by nomos) then how does Murphy’s claim follow that New York City’s buildings are dealing with a surface nomos instead of a deeper phusis? Why is it that “public” works is to be the standard of whether a community functions by phusis rather than nomos? Is it enough to say that “there was to be found in New York City no equivalent of the ‘collective works’ of the historical cosmopolises”? Are New York’s buildings not precisely the products of individual co-operation according to shared “customs and attitudes” rather than “ties of nomos”? Doesn’t nomos supercede phusis in today’s world precisely when individual action is tied to the arbitrary decrees of a government that alleges to speak for a collective? A divide between the ancient and the modern is certainly found in the scale of human associations, but a claim that an American city is not based on phusis cannot be maintained by simply asserting that individual self-interest rather than “collective works” sets the terms. The phusis of the kosmos here is precisely the recognition of individual freedom as inalienable by nature, and the destruction of life itself follows when an improper nomos destroys those rights. But to see that we must see past surface appearances.

Lambropoulos “On the Notion of Tragedy in a Culture” (pp. 233-55) is a detailed look at Georg Simmel’s “On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture.”7 Explorations of classical origins focus on themes of continuity, promising examples for the “mapping of survivals.” It is rarer to find explorations concerned with “the operations of classicism itself.” The classical tradition becomes a way of understanding the processes of archaizing trends within culture itself. This focus on process rather than history is consistent with Lambropoulos’s view of the source of “the idea of the Tragic, which emerged at the end of the eighteenth-century with German Idealism as a means to establish an indigenous Hellenism.” Lambropoulos’s examination of Simmel’s essay follows from this foundation. “Simmel opens his essay by positing Hegel’s distinction between subjective and objective spirit as the fundamental dualism of soul and structure within the realm of the spirit.” “The inner drive of its [the soul’s] organic evolution towards greater perfection demands the integration of its history and the manifestation of its destiny, which can only be achieved through form. Thus Simmel’s argument implies that soul is less-than-soul since the soul by itself, without the help of forms, cannot find fulfillment.” Readers interested in partaking of the modern forms of German idealism through detailed analysis of this particular essay will find this of benefit. Others may find this the least interesting of the offerings in this tome.


1. J. P. Arnason and P. Beilbarz, ‘Castoriadis and Thesis Eleven‘, in Thesis Eleven 49 (May 1997) vi.

2. Vidal-Naquet tells us that he also made this point in ‘Land and sacrifice in the Odyssey: A study of religious and mythical meanings’ in P. Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter (Baltimore and London 1986) 15-38.

3. Originally published in Greek, the essay appeared in Aphierôma ston Konstantino Despotopoulo (Athens 1991) and Anthropologia, Politikê, Philosophia (Athens 1993).

4. S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘The Axial Age breakthroughs: their characteristics and their origins’, in S. N. Eisenstadt (ed.) The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (New York 1986).

5. E. M. Wood, Peasant Citizen and Slave: the Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London 1988), and V. D. Hanson, The Other Greeks (New York 1995).

6. J. Rykwert, The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture (Boston 1996).

7. G. Simmel, ‘On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture’ (1911), repr. in The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other essays, tr. K. P. Etzkorn (New York 1968).