BMCR 2008.05.43

Athènes et le politique. Dans le sillage de Claude Mossé

, , Athènes et le politique : dans le sillage de Claude Mossé. Bibliothèque Albin Michel de l'histoire. Paris: Albin Michel, 2007. 1 v. (351 p.) ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9782226179012 €20.00 (pb).

The political, and how it manifested itself in classical Athens, has always been a key referring point for everyone reflecting on the nature of democracy. Many modern founding fathers derived their own visions of politics from this cradle of democracy. For professional historians, however, contemporary concerns cannot be the only motivation to study ancient Athens. In contrast, every society also has to be investigated for its own sake, has to be understood from the angle of otherness. How did the political came into being, how did it develop, and how did it work? First of all: what is “the political”? These essential questions have moved many ancient historians over the last decades. One of them is the French scholar Claude Mossé, to whom this volume has been dedicated. Together with Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, she put forward new approaches to the study of ancient Greece. Meanwhile, her way of questioning does not seem revolutionary any more, which is the best proof that her reasoning has been convincing. Forty years ago, however, a holistic perspective fundamentally enlarged the subject of ancient history. For it did not restrict the political to politics any more, but envisaged all the dimensions involved: political, social, economic, and religious aspects as well as cultural, to name only a few.

This publication commemorates Claude Mossé’s oeuvre by putting together contributions from colleagues, friends, and pupils, who all have been inspired by her way of questioning and who have continued the path she took by developing individual approaches within the general frame. Apart from the introduction (Pauline Schmitt Pantel, François de Polignac, “Introduction,” pp. 7-12), the commemorative volume begins with a personal homage by Jean-Pierre Vernant (“Claude Mossé,” pp. 13-16) and closes with an interview on biographical aspects of Mossé’s vocation (“Naissance d’une vocation. Entretien avec Hélène Monsacré, juillet 2007,” pp. 331-340), before an impressive “Bibliographie sélective de Claude Mossé” (pp. 341-349) demonstrates her productivity and interests. Among them, “Athènes et le politique” has been of primary concern, and that is what the volume concentrates on.

Although Claude Mossé never herself intended founding a “school,” and she has always been aware of international connections, especially with Moses Finley, national research traditions do exist and still have a big influence on the way scholars conceptualize the ancient world. Instead of considering this phenomenon as backward, we should welcome the differences: they enrich the perspectives on human societies no unified scientific community, restricted to one common code and one common language, could ever achieve. The only danger consists in neglecting other traditions, in neglecting other contributions to similar questions which have arisen somewhere else. Does the double invention of the wheel degrade one of the inventors? Or does it show that each of them had the right idea at the proper point of time?

Be that as it may: a volume like this one celebrating a French research tradition risks sticking to national perspectives. That it avoids this trap is demonstrated by Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard, in “Les lieux du politique dans l’Athènes classique. Entre structures institutionelles, idéologie civique et pratique sociales” (pp. 271-309). The reader may forgive that the reviewer for beginning unconventionally with this contribution, a brilliant synopsis of different debates on the political in Athens.

Azoulay and Ismard open their “panorama historiographique” (p. 306) with a preliminary definition of the term under discussion, “le politique” (pp. 271-272). They distinguish three main approaches to the political: the institutional, the social, and the anthropological, which they juxtapose before trying to develop a new approach out of these three. The value of this well-written essay does not so much consist in the suggestion to take the best of every approach and to define the political as the intersection between institutions and social practices, “la croisée des institutions et des pratiques sociales” (p. 306) or “l’encroisement du politique et de la politique” (p. 306). It lies in the elaborate preparation of this conclusion: via concise systematisation and differentiation, via clear descriptions and valuations, the authors link French, Anglo-American, and German research contributions and demonstrate a global knowledge in the field. By avoiding a definite answer to the main question, the search for a new definition of the political is characterized as a story with an open end. Indeed, the authors have spotted areas where further research could lead to a richer definition of the political, “une définition enrichie du politique, articulant les normes, institutionnalisées ou non, les pratiques et les événements” (p. 309). In sum, they have written an inspiring research report. If the reader prefers getting a global view of the volume’s topic before diving into single problems of the political, he should read this article first.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, in “Naissance du politique” (pp. 17-23), briefly resumes his thoughts on the political and how it came into being. Without doubt, he is one of the leading French thinkers of the 20th century. But owing to the lack of footnotes in the main part you might wonder if he alone has been working on the topic. According to Vernant, the birth of the political began in the seventh century with the notion of sovereignty linked to the ideas of power and order. These positive connotations to sovereignty led to a neutralisation of power: it was spread among equals; the idea of isonomia arose; not a king, but nomos and dikê were the real core of power. Finally, the political became part of a public debate, the deciding step of the development: “le politique, dès lors, ne se contente plus d’exister dans la pratique institutionelle: il est devenu ‘conscience de soi'” (p. 22).

François Lissarague and Alain Schnapp follow Vernant’s understanding by stressing the thesis of a conscious movement towards civic autonomy in Athens around 500 BC when the political was separated from religious and mythic spheres (pp. 36-37). In “Athènes, la cité, les images” (pp. 25-55), the authors argue that the lack of images representing civic activities does not contradict a strong civic self-consciousness. While civic identity was expressed in monuments, architectural programmes, reliefs, and inscriptions, vase pictures were restricted to discourses on heroes and gods acting under human conditions. As the political was omnipresent in everyday performances within the civic space, pictorial details alluding to the urban setting were enough to evoke the political kosmos: “la cité, celle qui délibère, qui décide et qui agit, est bien sur l’agora. Dans la cité des images, la politique est une figure de l’absence, ‘une chose qu’on a sans l’avoir’ ( kaiper ouk echôn echein)” (p. 55).

The three following contributions focus on the relation between the political and the religious. Louise Bruit Zaidman, in “Le religieux et le politique: Déméter et Koré dans la cité athénienne” (pp. 57-82), differs from Lissarague and Schnapp concerning the old question whether the political sphere should be regarded as independent from the religious or not. After elaborating the involvement of the non-poliad goddess Demeter in Athenian affairs, the author concludes: “La religion n’est pas plus ‘au service’ de la politique qu’elle ne lui commande. Privé et public se confondent plus qu’ils ne s’opposent” (p. 82).

With her discussion on “Les magistrates au service des dieux: le cas des démarques en Attique” (pp. 83-109), Stella Georgoudi underlines the same by demonstrating how these local Athenian officials had to fulfil not only political but also religious duties. She contradicts any theory proclaiming an older religious power whose representatives were steadily deprived of their influence by the representatives of a rising civic power (p. 101).

Referring to the tribe Aiantis, François de Polignac circles around the construction of identity by regarding continuity and change in the context of the Cleisthenic reforms (“Ajax l’Athénien. Communautés cultuelles, représentations de l’espace et logique institutionelle dans une tribu clisthénienne”, pp. 111-132). More precisely, he investigates whether the political reforms meant a rupture with established religiously, socially, and culturally bound identity structures, whether the widespread theory of new organisation levels existing parallel to older ones can be held. Concentrating on culturally defined space, he first elaborates that the Aiantian identity specialised on references to marginality. Then he asks how this phenomenon was rooted in the Cleisthenic reforms, e.g. the choice of the eponymous hero Ajax, or how the reforms were based on already existing structures. He concludes that the Cleisthenic reforms traced back to older community traits on the one hand and symbolically reinforced the new political links to compensate for the abstract institutional level on the other hand. In sum, older and new identity levels should not be seen in opposition, but complementarily: “l’organisation civique clisthénienne et les autres formes de groupement et d’association ont contribué, chacune à leur façon et de manière complémentaire, à la construction du sentiment individuel et collectif d’appartenance à la cité, qui constitue le coeur du politique” (p. 132). Thus, the political is a question of identity.

The contribution of Claude Mossé, “Justice et politique à Athènes” (pp. 133-145), opens a section on the political in juridical contexts. Mossé begins with a research report on law and politics in Athens, stresses source problems and contradicts a development “from popular sovereignty to the sovereignty of law”: the actors on the juridical stage were part of the demos and bound to this final source of legitimisation as every debate had to be fought in public courts. After all, juridical and political processes in Athens resembled each other so much that you can hardly draw a line where the “political” ends and the “juridical” begins.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, in “Pour une poignée de figues. Judiciarisation moderne et sycophantie ancienne” (pp. 147-178), departs from “judicialisation” as a modern phenomenon to present a fresh view on the ancient institution of sycophancy (professional denunciation) before this analysis is used to shed light on modern problems in turn: in contrast to the dominant interpretation, Athenian sycophancy cannot be regarded as a symptom of the decline or denaturisation of the juridical system. In reality, this institution helped neutralising social differences, for it minimised political inequality by enabling the participation of any free man, of whatever degree of eloquence. Consequently, sycophancy was essential for political justice. As modern democracies lack the face-to-face factor, nowadays juridical quarrels open the way to direct confrontation with the state — again a question of political justice and participation.

Anger, the leitmotiv of the Iliad, played an important role in many contexts of Greek society. In “Le rôle de la colère dans les tribunaux athéniens” (pp. 179-198), Évelyne Scheid-Tissinier describes anger as a part of the competitive principle essential to the juridical system: when the judges entered the Athenian assembly they articulated their well portioned anger before they pronounced the judgement.

What do we know about love in the time of Pericles? The title of Pauline Schmitt Pantel’s contribution, “Aspasie, la nouvelle Omphale. Genre, sentiment et politique au siècle de Périclès” (pp. 199-221), puts the genre at the beginning of her subtitle: more or less, we depend on Plutarch, his biographical approach and the older sources he used. Consequently, this is an essay on love discourses and the role emotions were expected to play in the life of important men. It was exceptional that Pericles depended emotionally on his beloved concubine, and that was a political question concerning the relation between individual and community. What was the place for emotions in politics? They seem to have been important. Therefore Plutarch constructed the love relation between Pericles and this concubine to add a touch of humanity to the character of the great Athenian leader.

Theseus was a founding hero of Athens, a king who was the first ruler of the embryonic democracy. Where does the concept of a primordial king come from? Annie Schnapp-Gourbeillon, in “Thésée et les siens” (pp. 223-247), discusses different contexts, from Mycenaean to Archaic times, from history to myth, and concludes that there never existed any strong conception of monarchy in Greece, that monarchic power was always challenged.

That the Spartan way of life was idealised by Athenian oligarchs, who at least mentally wanted to escape the current political system in Athens and enjoyed nostalgic dreams of a better society, is the topic of Françoise Ruzé, in “‘Lacôniser’ à Athènes: à propos des Guêpes d’Aristophane” (pp. 249-270). Instead of aiming for a revolutionary movement, their idealisation of the patrios politeia was a matter of inner migration: “Lacôniser était plus chercher un refuge que trouver une arme de combat” (p. 270).

François Hartog, in “Fin de la démocratie athénienne” (pp. 311-329), comes back to the topic of Claude Mossé’s thesis: by analysing the debates of the last decades he makes clear how discussions on the end of Athenian democracy (in the fourth century) have always been discussions on contemporary political concerns at the same time.

To sum up, this volume not only commemorates the promoter of a living research tradition but demonstrates the future potential of approaches initiated a long time ago. The answers to the leading question differ in style and judgments, e.g. how to define the relation between the political and the religious. However, the book is a unity because every essay does refer to the general question. You can doubt whether self-consciousness really is essential to all the aspects of social and cultural life discussed in the volume (cf. the introduction, p. 10). However, this consideration does not degrade the value of the publication: on the contrary, it offers various opportunities to develop new approaches to a never-dying topic. For the history of science, the book could become a departing point. To say it differently: pour les lieux du politique dans les sciences du monde antique, ce tome est un lieu de mémoire.