On Being a Tourist at the Parthenon
Yesterday, we went up to the Acropolis. Most people know that the Parthenon is on the Acropolis. The Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaia, and the Erechtheion, which stands on the site of the Old Temple of Athena and is a shrine to Athena and Erechtheus, are there too. Alongside a number of support buildings like the Pinakotheke, the Acropolis in the time these buildings were built mostly in the sixth and fifth centuries was a thriving place of ritual sacrifice and worship of the gods.
Today when you walk around the Acropolis, it’s well-nigh impossible to have any sense of the space as a sacred site. Throngs of people taking selfies of themselves with the ruins, or finding some fellow traveller to be a photographer for a moment. Some people are even taking video of the buildings. I found this appalling not only because the sign at the entrance strictly forbids videoing the site, but also because it seems preposterous. Are you videoing because you expect the building to get up and move? Who will you actually subject to this footage? Are you really so afraid of having an unmediated experience of something that you must position a camera between yourself and the world? These are my thoughts. But to be fair, it’s only May, so the crowds aren’t even that overwhelming. We’ve been told that in the height of summer, 6000 people pore off each cruise ship that comes into the harbor and make their way up to the Acropolis. That experience must feel even more removed from the site as a sacred space.
Reiner Schürmann uses the Parthenon as an example to discuss Heidegger’s concept of epochal being. He explains that human beings think and experience being differently at different times, just as our experience of the Parthenon is uniquely different from the experience the Athenians of the Classical period had of it. We experience it as an artifact. We have a difficult time experiencing it as a sacred space, though I imagine if we were there alone, we might be better able to approach that religious sense of it. But even that religious sense, would not be of honoring Athena or needing Athena, but of a sense of proximity to the ancients.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should be nostalgic for the Athenians’ ‘authentic’ experience and bemoan our own. The experience of the tourist is an experience, too. Our experience can be heightened by better understanding the Athenian experience, but it can never be the Athenian experience. We can’t produce the same religious sense of the gods that the Greeks had. There’s a temptation to suppose that the Greeks had a purely religious sense of that space, which we think of as good and that’s why we regret our own experience, and that we have an experience of it as inauthentic, removed, unreal, a simulacra. But we’d be assigning to the Athenians something perhaps too pure. They didn’t just have this pure sense of the gods. Pericles had the Parthenon built and many other Athenian ancient buildings as well, because he wanted to assert Athenian supremacy. The Athenians themselves weren’t sure whether the goddess would come through. The need to build a temple to house her and the need for regular sacrifices testify to a sense of a goddess who wasn’t always reliable. Well, not so much unreliable, as maybe not paying attention. They placed an armless statue of Athena Nike in the temple on the Acropolis because they wanted to keep her there and assure that she would not fly off. Even the Athenians had a sense of the absence of the god in their invocations and worship of her. Even the Athenians had an already politicized sense of their invocation of the gods. Religion was not pure and true then and something we find brandished for political ends now. Perhaps on that point, we share an experience with the Athenians, though I doubt they would have bemoaned that sense in which religion was used by the city. They would say, of course it is, that’s why we call the Parthenon the place of Athena Polais. We are appealing to the goddess as the protector of the city. And the time and money we put into this doesn’t just show Athena we care, it shows other cities that we have lots of resources so they best be on the ready.
All this brings me to my own questions about how I have been reading and teaching Plato’s Apology. In the Apology, Plato offers an account of Socrates’ defense against the charges that he corrupts the youth and does not believe in the gods that the city believes in with an appeal to the gods. I’ve taught the Apology following the question of whether Socrates’ appeal to the gods through reason is actually a challenge to the power of the gods, with the idea that Socrates is calling into question the blind obedience to the gods or to tradition that is represented by his accusers. But this sense of the complex use of the appeal to the gods that I’ve been thinking about through my experience and research about the Parthenon leads me to wonder if no one really had a pure blind devotion to the gods in the fourth century BCE. Everyone was using the gods for their own end. Socrates then uses the god for his own end in a completely different way than everyone else was: they use the gods to further their own political projects. Socrates uses the god to provoke a reflection and consideration about what is good and true. Socrates isn’t different because he challenges the gods or because he doesn’t believe the god, he is different because he, like the Athenian, appeals to the gods, but he appeals to the gods for the sake of some search for goodness and truth, for some sense of whether something is right not just because it is what me and mine want, but because it is what is best. I’m looking forward to thinking about this more in my Ancient Philosophy course in the Fall.