No future in Athens’ dreaming: the discourse of kingship ancient and modern

The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, released in 1977 as commentary on the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, offered a powerful warning of the dangers of political nostalgia. The message was reinforced by Jamie Reid’s powerful image of a familiar portrait of the queen with her features obliterated by the ransom-note rendering of the song title and group name.

God save the queen

We mean it man

There’s no future

In England’s dreaming

The song’s lyrics assess the consequences of monarchy as an element of the political imaginary, the shared ideas and images with which a community thinks about its political institutions and practices, the queen isn’t a ‘human being’ but is nonetheless loved (see music and culture website Louder than War for a detailed analysis).

'God Save the Queen' single sleeve
‘God Save the Queen’ single sleeve from 1977, designed by Jamie Reid.

As Jon Savage showed in his cultural history of the punk years, England’s Dreaming, nostalgia for an imaginary past was part of the culture of English decline to which punk’s ideology emerged as a response; when England dreams, it looks to the past. Savage opens his survey of punk with the observation that ‘first we need the location, the vacant space where, like the buddleia on the still plentiful bombsites, these flowers can bloom’.

In identifying this void, Savage tapped into a broader critique of democratic culture. The problem of sovereignty for republican democracy is that there is no figurehead. But even in a democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the institution of monarchy operates as much as part of the political imaginary as it does as a real institution. Witness, for example, speculation about the queen’s feelings about Brexit and parliament, as in this Guardian article about her blue and yellow hat.

Classical Athens handled the problem of the democratic void in a distinctive way, as cultural historians have shown. In the same year as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols released their single, the French ancient historian Nicole Loraux completed her doctoral thesis, ‘Athènes imaginaire. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre athénienne et de sa fonction dans la cité classique’, which would be published in book form a few years later as The Invention of Athens, and which remains one of the most powerful explorations of the democratic Athenian political imaginary. The synchronism is not coincidental – this was a time when cultural theorists drew on new insights to explore societies ancient and modern. Loraux’s exploration of Athens was focused on a specific location – the public funeral speeches held to commemorate the war dead – in which Athenian politicians shaped the city’s political imaginary.

But location within Athens where some of the most visible work was done, as Cornelius Castoriadis, theorist of the political imaginary, noted, was the tragic stage. Athenian tragedy peoples the political imaginary and fills the democratic void, the lack of an identifiable individual holder of sovereignty. The citizens perform their politeia to themselves and the wider audience, but the Athens on stage is quite different from the Athens of the present. Athenian tragedy thus presents an intriguing anachronism, in the figure of the democratic king, who personifies Athenian virtues in his speech and actions. The Athenians’ self-image revolved around their support for those who asked for help, and tragedies such as Euripides’ Suppliant Women and Children of Heracles show Athenian kings, Theseus and Demophon, delivering that in person.

However, the figure of the tragic king is not entirely politically innocent. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written during the final stages of the Peloponnesian War when Athenian democracy was severely weakened, shows Athens at the point when it was newly united into a single political entity, with Theseus as its king. The citizens of Colonus are unsure of how to operate in this new environment, or how they should receive the problematic suppliant Oedipus. It falls to the king to assert the wishes of the unified centre, receive the suppliant and ensure the divine favour his cult will bring to the city. But, as the recent production of this play as the 2019 Cambridge Greek Play showed, the articulation of Theseus to the democracy is not entirely explicit in Sophocles’ play. This production opted to set the intricacies of Athenian political debate to one side, and to focus on the powerful story of Oedipus’ rejection of Thebes and of the successors fighting for control of it. Oedipus’ grant of support to Theseus and his successors asserts a continuity of Athenian rule from the king himself to the democratic archons who performed the religious role of the king in the democracy of Sophocles’ time.

Theseus (on the right, posed like a tyrannicide) and the Crommyonian Sow (on the left): red-figure vase painting
Theseus and the Crommyonian Sow: detail from a red-figured kylix showing the deeds of Theseus, attributed to the Codrus Painter, c 440-30 BCE, British Museum.

In The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece, I explore the developing role of the image of the king in critical discussions of Athenian Democracy. Theseus was, in democratic Athens, as much of an iconographic presence as Queen Elizabeth II is in the contemporary United Kingdom. His statue appeared on temple pediments, his deeds were illustrated on temple friezes, as did paintings in public buildings. The labours he performed on behalf of the city were often depicted on painted pottery; he was often presented in similar clothing and poses to the tyrannicides, his clothing used to connect him to the iconography of democracy, rather like the queen’s hat. Like the Sex Pistols’ queen, Theseus could be a beloved monarch of Athens without being a human being, a living presence in the city. And Athenian nostalgia for the imaginary political past was often invoked and manipulated during times of civil strife, as is its contemporary British equivalent.

References

  • Atack, C. (2020) The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece (London: Routledge).
  • Castoriadis, C. (1987) [1975], The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Easterling, P.E. (1985), ‘Anachronism in Greek Tragedy’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 105, 1–10.
  • Lefort, C. (1988) [1986], Democracy and Political Theory, trans. D. Macey (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Loraux, N. (1986) [1981] The Invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city, trans. A. Sheridan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Savage, J. (1991) England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and punk rock (London: Faber).
  • Worley, M. (2017) No Future: punk, politics and British youth culture, 1976-1984 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

 

 

Antony Gormley and antiquity: positioning the body in time and place

‘Art is about reasserting our first-hand experience in present time’ (Antony Gormley)

Antony Gormley’s sculptural installations are now-familiar additions to landscapes, from the Angel of the North to the beach at Crosby. Two recent exhibitions of his work extend the temporal dimension of his work, engaging with the human past. They reconfigure iconic spaces and works of art that represent two important moments in the history of the sculptural representation of the human body, archaic Greece and Renaissance Italy. Each era offers a distinctive view of the male body as a universal ideal, a central theme of Gormley’s work. By installing his sculptures within the Uffizi gallery in Florence (Essere, February-May 2019) and on the archaeological site of the sacred Greek island Delos (Sight, May-October 2019), Gormley engages in a dialogue with these sculptors of the past.

Antony Gormley Shore exhibited on Delos
Antony Gormley’s Shore (2012) looks out across the harbour of Delos.

The Delos installation, a collaboration with Greek contemporary art foundation Neon, characterises itself as a repopulation of a depopulated space. The population of Delos was removed in ancient times, first by the Athenians as they sought both to gain the favour of the gods and to assert their imperial strength, and later as the once-flourishing Roman trading community abandoned the island, not long after it was sacked by Mithridates in the first century BCE. Only archaeologists and site staff now live there, amid the stacks of sculptural and architectural fragments that hint at what is now lost.

Discussing the exhibition in a video accompanying the exhibition, Gormley likened these fragments to pixels and the simplified elements that make up his own sculptures. He also noted that his sculptures, cast in solid iron, are materially different from their bronze and marble classical predecessors, and cannot be seen as replacements; asserting this difference perhaps forecloses possible resistance to Neon Greece’s installation on the island, and also sidesteps claims that Gormley’s work has a direct affinity to the archaic kouros. The exhibition guide notes that a figure installed outside the island’s museum is seated on a replica, not an original column drum. In the fine print, a boundary between ancient and contemporary is asserted.

Another Time XIV in the sea at Delos
Another Time XIV (2011) on rocks at the northern end of Delos, passed by approaching ferries from Mykonos.

The first of Gormley’s figures, from his Another Time series, looks out from the island, one standing in the sea as the ferry from Mykonos rounds the northern edge of the island. Another stands in the harbour, one greets visitors as they enter the site, and others can be glimpsed on its higher ground. They produce a sense of isolation as they watch ships pass the empty island; these figures are, in Gormley’s words, ‘[bearing] witness to what it is like to be alive and alone in time and space’.

In antiquity, communities from across the Greek world dedicated kouroi, idealised sculptures of the youthful male body, within the sanctuaries on Delos, recognising the island’s status as the birthplace and sanctuary of Apollo. Cult figures of Apollo himself were also placed in the temples built by cities such as Athens on the island. Gormley’s abstracted versions of his own body seem in dialogue with this tradition, which raises some questions. Is it hubristic of a sculptor to place images of himself on Apollo’s island? Can Gormley’s figures be equated with the idealised archaic kouros? In a 2013 interview Gormley identified the kouros with its characteristic pose as an important moment in the history of sculpture.

The abstraction and severity of the figures that result from Gormley’s meditative and intellectualised artistic practice, and his repetition of types, suggests his continuing engagement with the kouros, but also a development. While the Another Time figures are recognisably casts of Gormley’s own body and features, the more recent figures constructed from blocks, rods and spheres, often mathematically calculated and computer-generated collocations of simple solids, are only visibly so through their continuing proportions, rather than their surface appearance. One might apply Nietzsche’s categorisation of art in his Birth of Tragedy; Gormley tends to the austerity that Nietzsche associates with Delphic Apollo and archaic sculpture. perhaps Delos, the other Panhellenic centre of the cult of Apollo and still home to many kouroi, is an appropriate location for Gormley’s project.

Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum.
Shift II (2000) lying prone in the main gallery of the Delos museum, looking towards sculptures from the classical Athenian Temple of Apollo.

Gormley’s account of the relationship between his sculptures and their archaic forebears is perhaps given by Shift II (2000), a figure prostrated on the floor of the Delos museum, offering itself in an imagined gesture of proskynesis towards the remaining sculptures of the classical Athenian sanctuary. Within the museum, the dark iron figure contrasts starkly with the light stone of the temple and votive sculptures, although a different contrast would obtain if those sculptures retained their original polychrome surface and applied decorations, hinted at by the remaining attachment holes in the statue of Athenian princess Oreithyia.

Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos
Signal II (2018), site-specific installation at the top of the ancient path ascending Mt Kynthos, Delos

The sculptures placed within the most sacred locations – Chute II (2018) in the mysterious grotto of Heracles on the slopes of Mount Kynthos, Signal II (2018) at the final turn of the main path leading up to its windswept summit, home to sanctuaries in antiquity – represent perhaps a nervous system, perhaps a lightning strike, but hint at connections between the soul and the divine, a spiritual rather than physical body.

These recent works were produced for the site; finding them takes you away from the short circuit of the ruins of Delos town trod by tour parties. There is much fun to be had spotting the many sculptures resting in the houses and shops of Delos’ Roman town, but only a few of them offer such a rewarding connection between site and artwork. Again, the site-specific Water (2018), gazing mournfully into a cistern at the edge of the agora, suggests the sense of loss that Gormley aimed to invoke.

Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.
Water (2018), site-specific sculpture installed overlooking a cistern at the edge of the Italian agora, Delos.

Before the Delos installation, the Uffizi in Florence hosted a small retrospective as well as sprinkling a few sculptures around its galleries (February-May 2019). In this show too, signature Gormley figures looked out from iconic viewpoints, a figure from Another Time from the corner of the galleries to the Ponte Vecchio, barely noticed by tourists looking at the same view, and a fibre-glass Event Horizon figure on the roof of the Loggia overlooking the main piazza, with his back to the café’s outdoor terrace. While Gormley suggested that this ‘Event Horizon’ intimates the meeting of sky and earth, its position in this significant space also sets it over the many iconic sculptures of the Loggia and piazza, including Michelangelo’s David, that Renaissance reimagining of the classical figure.

Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.
Event Horizon (2012), fibreglass sculpture installed on the parapet of the Uffizi galleries, overlooking Florence towards the campanile and dome of the Duomo.

Just as with the Delos installation, the figure installed in a less prominent location suggests a dialogic encounter with a past culture, but that of classical antiquity rather than the Renaissance context of the Uffizi collection. A small side-room contains a Roman sculpture of a hermaphrodite, and for the duration of the exhibition Gormley’s Settlement IV lay alongside it. The Uffizi’s display prevents one from engaging with the classical hermaphrodite sculpture as originally intended, by walking around the figure to encounter first its female and then its male attributes. But placed next to the male figure of the Gormley, the hermaphrodite’s designed ambiguity and playfulness offers a counter to the austere masculinity of the pixellated but recognisably gendered modern work. Arguably Gormley’s adaptation of his own body into a universal is politically problematic – some critics (such as Skye Sherwin in the Guardian) have questioned whether it is an appropriate stance for a privileged white man to take – but in positioning a sculpture derived from his own body next to the Roman type of the hermaphrodite he anticipates the critique of the gendering of his work and invites debate on the construction of gender and its reinforcement in visual art.

Two sculptures side by side - Antony Gormley's Settlement IV (2018) and Roman hermaphrodite
Two sculptures side by side – Antony Gormley’s Settlement IV (2018) and Roman Sleeping hermaphrodite, Uffizi galleries, Florence

Gormley is now taking over a third iconic space, the Royal Academy’s main display galleries, for a major retrospective. Here too the reduction of the complex human form to groupings of simple solids (even Platonic ones) is on display in groups such as Slabworks (2019).

  • Meanwhile, Gormley is not the only contemporary artist whose work is on show in the Cyclades. Organisers Neon have a further installation, The Palace at 4am, in the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, in which work by several artists is displayed alongside its collection. Some of the works make a profound and telling connection with the ancient objects; Rena Papaspyrou’s set of ‘Small Samplers from the Urban Landscape’ assemble found materials from the city streets into aesthetically pleasing collages, which complement the museum’s fragmentary pots and grave goods, excavated from the Delos Purification Pit. The placement of these works together highlights the transience of settlement in the ancient and contemporary Mediterranean.

References

  • Jessica Hughes (2014) ‘Antony Gormley’, Practitioners Voices in Classical Reception,  – interview with Gormley covering an earlier museum installation at the Hermitage.
  • Nietzsche, F.W. (1999) The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, eds R. Geuss and R. Speirs, trans. R. Speirs Cambridge.

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: an anachronistic community of its time

‘Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?’ is a familiar stock question from magazine celebrity profiles, usually eliciting an anachronistic assemblage of historical and even fictional figures who could never possibly have shared a meal at the same table. The creation of such groups goes back to classical antiquity, with the anachronistic groups assembled as the cast of dialogues such as Athenaeus’ Sophists at Dinner and Macrobius’ Saturnalia. More recently, in the 1970s the artist Judy Chicago (1939- ) used the idea of the fantasy dinner party to construct a celebration of often untold stories of women’s history and skills, in The Dinner Party (1974-79), an installation now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. The monumental work presents table settings at a celebratory banquet for 39 women from the past, a refreshing and informative alternative to male-dominated groups, and a visible version and expansion of new feminist research into women’s history. Chicago has described the work as ‘an imaginative picture of women’s long struggle for freedom and dignity’, which she hoped would help both men and women to develop ‘an understanding of the full history of the human race’. The imagined women diners stretch back into mythical prehistory – the ‘Primordial Goddess’ of a posited matriarchal past society – and reach to the present, to the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who was still alive when the work was created.

The organisation of the Dinner Party repays attention for its simultaneous subversion and deployment of historiographic and genealogical structures from literature and art. It challenges some cultural practices – the traditional focus on male achievement in historiography, and the privileging of fine art in art history – while replicating others. Its strict periodisation of the past is not the only hierarchy in play, although it is the most visible. The triangular arrangement of the table groups the women into three periods: from ‘prehistory to Classical Rome’, from the beginning of Christianity to the Reformation, and from the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution.

This periodisation itself is strongly marked, suggesting a traditional connection between the Roman and American republics, and also the privileged position of Christianity in historiographical organisation, also suggested by the choice of 13 seats at each table, as at the Last Supper. The first group shows how historical periodisation can overwrite other forms of organisation of the past. The Primordial Goddess is the first in a sequence which moves from women identified as ‘mythic’, including named goddesses Ishtar and Kali, to the ‘legendary’, Sophia and Amazon, to the historical, starting with Hatshepsut, one of few women to have ruled Egypt as pharaoh, and including Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea and finally Hypatia, who appropriately marks the boundary between the pagan and Christian pasts.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party on display in Brooklyn
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is now displayed in a custom gallery at the Brooklyn Museum

The ends of each table meet, so Georgia O’Keeffe is also sitting next to the Primordial Goddess, which implies a cyclicality and an achronic view that surmounts the temporal divisions; but the plates in each place develop from flat surfaces to the fully three-dimensional and non-functional ‘plate’ representing O’Keeffe. The imagery of the vulva and the butterfly which runs through the plate designs links them to Chicago’s own artistic practice, in turn criticised for its essentialist emphasis on the body by later feminist critics such as Rozsika Parker and Grizelda Pollock in Old Mistresses (1981: 127-130). The plates also led to controversy, being described as ‘pornographic’ by politicians seeking to deny funding for the work’s continuing display.

Another hierarchy emerges from the installation’s ‘Heritage Floor’; as well as the 39 women seated at the dinner, the names of 999 ‘women of merit’ are painted in gold on the floor, organised into ‘streams of influence’ and each related in time and action to one of the seated diners. In a similar way, Judy Chicago as creator represents the many women who worked on researching and making the installation, many of them working the intricate embroideries that customise each place setting. Photos of each originally appeared on ‘Acknowledgement Panels’ which are an integral part of the work, but not currently on display (though accessible online). The impact of Chicago’s attempt to make visible the collaborative labour of making art has been lessened.

Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner
Mary Wollstonecraft place setting in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, with plate and embroidered table runner

Feminism has moved on since the creation of the Dinner Party, and some of its juxtapositions present imagery jarring from present perspectives. The idea of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) as dining companions is an intriguing example of the work’s creation of an anachronistic community, but their adjacent place-settings point to some limitations of feminist analysis of the 1970s. The English writer and campaigner Wollstonecraft is depicted with a particularly fine instance of the embroidery skills she despised, showing her calling girls to exercise their right to education, and featuring embroidered versions of her words; the back of her place setting uses the same techniques for a moving depiction of her death in childbirth. The plate for Sojourner Truth, the black and formerly enslaved American campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and for women’s rights, on the other hand, puts images of African art on the table, acknowledging an important connection – but the central image is a mask; Truth’s runner is entirely non-figurative, drawing on the traditions of African textile art but making no direct personal connection with her works. While this represents the original cultures of African Americans and responds to the experiences of the enslaved, it turns Truth into a cipher for the suffering of slavery, gazing on her otherness rather than representing her unique campaigning voice.

Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party
Sojourner Truth place setting from the Dinner Party

The monumental installation was first exhibited in 1979, and toured the world during the 1980s, but was not then exhibited again until it became the centrepiece of the Elisabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The temporary exhibition galleries surround the triangular space in which the Dinner Partyis displayed; they surround its permanent and anachronic narrative with changing questions. This is particularly true of the Center’s current exhibition, ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’, which offers a very different history of a liberation struggle, that for LGBT rights. The contrast between the two displays materialises changes in debates on women’s and LGBT liberation struggles in the past fifty years. The protagonists of the Stonewall Uprising are not a presence at the Dinner Party; but in the temporary Stonewall exhibition, titled after the words of activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92), the complex temporality of queer liberation struggle is evident in works recognising the impact of social precarity and the AIDS crisis on queer communities and celebrating their activism. This complicates artists’ urge to connect with a past beyond that told by conventional histories, both to explore the historical context of the Stonewall riot and its cultural legacy, and to reach into a deeper mythic past. The rich range of media deployed by artists includes textile banners, which in this display context can be seen to converse with those of the Dinner Party.

Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- )
Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ), on display at the Brooklyn Museum in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall 

And one colourful and optimistic work in particular connects the present with the mythic past, Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ). In this painting, a femme figure – perhaps a primordial goddess like those Chicago evokes? – mounted on a rainbow-tailed horse leads a riotous assembly of bodies across the cosmos. While Chicago’s structure offers a closed loop of history, and other queer art on display reflects a crisis of futurity, Moleski’s figure points joyfully into a colourful future.

  • The Elisabeth A. Sackler Center’s web page for the Dinner Party contains all the images and detailed, thoughtful commentary, often pointing towards some of the issues discussed here.
  • Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski web site, https://www.amaryllisdejesusmoleski.com
  • Chicago, J. (1996) The Dinner Party (New York and London).
  • Edelman, L. (2004) No Future: queer theory and the death drive (Durham, NC).
  • Gerhard, J.F. (2013) The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 (Athens, Georgia).
  • Lynne, J. (2015) ‘From the Mythic to the Personal, Two Artists Envision Womanhood’, Hyperallergic, 28/4/2015.
  • Parker, R. and Pollock, G. (1981) Old Mistresses: women, art and ideology (London).

 

Alexander Boris de Pericles Johnson

Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):

I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.

Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.

Boris Johnson admiring bust of Pericles
Boris Johnson has been eager to play up his classical connections, as in this 2011 Mail on Sunday article

Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.

Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.

Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.

As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).

800px-Pericles_Pio-Clementino_Inv269_n2

Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.

References

• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.

Galen, Polybius and the construction of authority

The desire to connect with important figures from the past leads authors from later antiquity into anachronism, as they seek to establish connections with earlier writers. These were the findings reported in the final two papers of our Anachronism and Antiquity seminar series, ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine: Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’ by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, and ‘Polybian Temporalities’ by John Marincola. The continuing authority of intellectual traditions associated with Plato and Hippocrates in particular saw writers asserting a connection to them and the intellectual traditions associated with them. These two papers showed Galen and Polybius to use and manipulate traditions associated with specific areas of expertise, respectively medicine and political theory. The close readings their speakers offered enabled us to see the distinctive strategies used by each.

Galen group from the Vienna Dioscurides MS - seven doctors with Galen in the centre
Another anachronistic community: Galen, seated centre in a position of authority, among a group of doctors and pharmacologists, some of whom predate him. From a sixth-century illuminated manuscript which contains the De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides and texts by other doctors pictured. 3v Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski opened her paper by setting out Galen’s intellectual context and the many developments in both abstract areas of philosophical thought, such as metaphysics and epistemology, and more applied medical thought, such as the new understanding of the human body gained through dissection, which separate the second century CE writer from the fourth century BCE. Galen’s desire to associate his own arguments and ideas with distant predecessors becomes an engine for generating anachronisms, as he seeks out passages in their texts which can be associated with later ideas. Although Brooke Holmes’ paper at our Florida conference last year had a very different approach, she likewise found Galen’s readings of Hippocratic texts to be an important site for the manipulation of genealogical time in the pursuit of scholarly authority.

Polybius is an author whose work has received relatively little scholarly attention, perhaps in the shadow of Frank Walbank’s massive historical commentary, although there are signs of a Polybian Renaissance and his models if not his actual text have long been of interest to historians of political thought. John Marincola showed the sophistication of Polybius’ understanding of time in his great project to weave together the histories of the Mediterranean world and explain the rise of Rome. Polybius’ excursus into political theorising in book 6, in which he explains the growth and success of the Roman Republic through anacyclosis, a universal model of political development and change into which all political communities can be fitted, is an interesting example of the incorporation and modification of traditions, while asserting the authority of a key figure from the past. His account of the development of political societies clearly owes a great deal to Plato’s account in Laws III, although he is clear that he is extending it (6.5.1), with the incorporation of newer ideas from authors intermediate between him and Plato. Only Plato, and the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, are named.

The urge to create connections with intellectual founding figures and their ideas through the construction of genealogies is widely prevalent in ancient thought. But intellectual filiations such as those between Galen, Plato and Hippocrates appear to operate much like other forms of genealogical explanation. While complete king lists were developed by chroniclers, only a few kings were the subjects of myths frequently told. Founder kings attract more stories, as do those who are involved in significant political change, such as Theseus as synoecist of Athens. Only these kings appear in the literary tradition, in Athenian rhetoric or allusions to the distant past in historical and philosophical texts.

We can find these practices replicated in contemporary academic practice. The use of Thucydides and Herodotus to represent all of ancient historiography generates many problems for those seeking to contrast ancient and modern approaches to the writing of history. Firstly, the historians of the later Greek and Roman worlds were able to work with and manipulate an established tradition. Secondly, this manipulation of tradition is apparent in the genealogical histories of other disciplines, particularly the histories of medicine and philosophy, as Galen’s works amply demonstrate. Both Darbo-Peschanski and Marincola have made important contributions to scholarship in this area, and their papers showed how careful reading of ancient texts can still reveal new insights into the intellectual culture of antiquity.

References

  • Darbo-Peschanski, C. (2007) L’historia: commencements grecs. Paris.
  • Gotteland, S. (1998), ‘Généalogies mythiques et politique chez les orateurs attiques’, in D. Auger and S. Saïd (eds.), Généalogies Mythiques. Paris, 379-93.
  • Marincola, J. (1997) Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge.
  • Walbank, F.W. (1957-79) A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. Oxford.

Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Anachronism and Antiquity: Trinity Term 2019 seminar series

View of Oxford's High Street in 1810 by Turner
View of the High Street, Oxford, JMW Turner, 1810. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford WA2016.48.

Convenors: Dr Carol Atack, Dr Mathura Umachandran.
Venue: First Floor Seminar Room, Ioannou Centre, 66 St Giles’.
Time: Mondays,  14.00–15.30.

Week 1 (April 29)

Tim Rood, University of Oxford: ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’
Carol Atack, University of Oxford: ‘Writing Plato’s Republic in the twenty-first century: Jo Walton’s The Just Cityand Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex’.

Week 2 (May 6)      

NO SEMINAR (faculty meeting)

Week 3 (May 13)

Miriam Leonard, UCL: ‘Time and Revolution’.

Week 4 (May 20)

Tom Phillips, University of Manchester:  ‘Shelley’s Antiquities’.

Week 5 (May 27)

Mathura Umachandran, University of Oxford: ‘Theorising Anachronism with Theodor Adorno and Erich Auerbach: “Late Style” and “Figura”’.

Week 6 (June 3)

NO SEMINAR (Faculty meeting)

Week 7 (June 10)

Catherine Darbo, CNRS Paris/Maison Française d’Oxford: ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine. Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’.

Week 8 (June 17)

John Marincola, Florida State University:
‘Polybian Temporalities’