Greece for the Greeks? Pt. II Conversations with a Greek Philosopher
At the end of our time in Athens, I posted here about the marginalization of modern Greeks in the last several centuries of global work in Ancient Greek philosophy. That post sparked a long and lively debate over on my Facebook wall with another philosopher that encouraged me to think more carefully about how ‘ancient philosophy’ has come to be constructed. Last weekend, in the middle of our good times in Neapoli which you can read about here and here, I raised this question about the relationship between modern Greeks and ancient Greek philosophy, literature and tradition generally with our friend Kosmas Raspitsos, whose book on the Latinization of ancient Greek thought is not unrelated to this question. Kosmas works on German philosophy and ancient Greek philosophy and the history of the philosophy of language and translation, and he’s a modern Greek who is interested in the question of how the disconnect between ancient and modern Greek has been produced, so he was perhaps the perfect person to ask. We spent a good chunk of our time talking about this issue so I’m writing this follow up post to share some of what I learned.
This is a long post, so if you want to just jump to my summation of the themes that emerge, you can jump to the end by clicking here.
There seem to be a number of factors that work together to accomplish this distancing of modern Greeks from ancient Greek tradition: the initial Hellenizing of Greece, Orthodox Christianity, the Orientalization of Byzantine culture, the German Romantics construction of ancient Greece for the sake of Germany’s own identity construction in the late 18th and early 19th century, and contemporary modern Greek efforts at cultural purification that direct them back to ancient Greece (through the construction of it by the German, and English, romantics and then through an antagonism with and effort to overcome the ‘eastern’ essence of modern Greece as constructed by Northern Europeans).
Hellenistic Period: Language and Thinking
Ancient Greek thinking and culture in the fifth and fourth century BCE is reconstrued by the thinkers of the Hellenistic period (3rd c. BCE) who see the Classical period (fifth century BCE) as the height of Greek culture. Alexander himself tries to cash in on the cultural capital, as we say now, of ancient Greece by speaking of himself as a god / hero. I think this is important to realize — that the fetishization or fascination with ancient Greek culture and the notion that there was something higher, purer, truer, and more authentic about it begins pretty much as soon as that culture has been eclipsed.
It is during this time that diacritical marks are introduced in an effort to preserve the ‘authentic’ sound of ancient Greek. Why would the authentic sound of Attic Greek need to be preserved? Because of koinê. Greek spreads around the world because Alexander conquers the s&*! out of the world, spreading Greek with him as he goes, all the way to present-day Afghanistan. So Greek is basically the lingua franca of the eastern empire, and you know, the more a language expands, the simpler in structure it becomes — koinê basically doesn’t have the grammatical complexity, some, even then, would say elegance, of Attic Greek. When the Roman Empire conquers Greece and points east, Greek becomes the language of letters. For example, the Septuagint, the Old Testament that was used by the Jews around this time, was in Greek. But there is concern that the koinê is too common. Koinê, the word for the common language, also means prostitute, the common woman. So the common language is like the prostituted language, the language that can fill all our needs, that we can use however we want, but that none of us want to take responsibility for. It’s easy, but it’s not respectable. So we need diacritical marks! Gotta make this language respectable! Aristophanes of Byzantium introduces the marks in the the 3rd c. BCE and they begin to find their way into papyrii in the 2nd c. BCE. By the 3rd century CE, the Christian church is concerned to make the language as clear as possible for the sake of clarity in the disputes that are forming around Christian doctrine. So the church also gets behind an effort to purify and systematize the language. We’ll get back to more about how the language needs to be purified again 15 centuries later after it has been mixed with Venetian and Turkish for the sake of a renewed cultural identity that connects Greece back to the ancients.
So much for language. Philosophical thinking also changes in the Hellenistic period with the move toward Stoicism and the early hints at the development of the subject as the interior space in which one is truly what they are which will reach its fruition in the fourth century CE with Augustine and the concept of the will. This way of thinking is foreign to Greek thinking before this time (see Vernant’s essay, The Individual and the City-State). For the Stoics there is also a sense that what happens in this world doesn’t matter because one can transcend it – setting the stage for Christianity and Paul, and then Augustine, to make use of Stoicism and a Hellenized Plato for Christian doctrine about soul and the afterlife. Even the relationship to eros shifts in this period. Consider that in the time of Socrates, every house had a phallus in the front yard. Every place of worship, yup, also a phallus. There were sex organs everywhere! This was not a prudish people. But the Stoics, they wanted passion controlled, managed, overcome. There’s no place for Dionysius here! I’m surely using too many exclamation points for Stoicism.
Another important factor in separating modern Greek life from ancient Greek tradition is Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity not only separates the Greeks from their ancient history, it also separates them from the west. In the fourth century CE, the Roman emperor Constantius II, the son of Contantine the Great, orders the destruction and desacralization of all pagan sites in Greece. At the end of the fourth century, Theodisius banned pagan practices with the encouragement of Ambrose. Constantine established the church in Constantinople, Byzantium, and is considered the first Byzantine emperor. He was also the Roman Emperor – all Byzantine emperors called themselves Roman Emperors – which finally became a problem when Charlemagne wanted to be called the Roman Emperor in 800 CE. So, some argue, Orthodox Christianity is the original church from which Roman Catholicism splits and becomes a splinter sect. I learned in my research that the papal coronation of Charlemagne was motivated by Pope Leo III’s refusal to recognize Empress Irene who had been crowned the Byzantine empress. The split between the eastern and western churches is due to some guy not being able to handle a woman in leadership. But back to the point, what happens after Charlemagne is the pope in Rome becomes at odds with the church in Byzantium and they have disagreements but basically just let each other be until 1054 when it all falls apart and we have the Great Schism. So Orthodox Christianity turns Greece into the center of Byzantium – the Peloponnese was the last hold out of the Byzantine empire in the fifteenth century. Separated from ancient Greek tradition by the destruction of paganism and constructed as other-than-Rome, other-than-Europe by its separation from Roman Catholicism, the Holy Roman Empire and the historical and political disputes that form Europe, you could argue that Orthodox Christianity plays a crucial part in the Orientalizing of Greece as well as in disconnecting Greeks from ancient Greek culture.
The Turks invade in the fifteenth century and Greece becomes a part of the Ottoman Empire — more easternliness. Then the Venetians invade in the 18th century. Finally, in the early 19th century, the Greeks fight a war of independence and drive everyone out. Now they are on their own, but who are they? They’ve been colonized over and over again since the Romans. Heck, since the Dorians. What, you mean, there’s no such thing as autochthony (read more about the history of the Athenian self-understanding as springing out of the ground in my earlier post)? Alas. The 19th-century Greeks are asking themselves this question at the same time another important European country is trying to unify itself and think about who it is.
Enter Goethe. As the separate princedoms of Germany begin to think of themselves as a unified Germany, there is a drive to find a cultural narrative that binds Germany together. The Romantics, from Goethe to Hölderlin, Novalis to Schiller and Schlegel, as well as other German thinkers, like Hegel and Schelling, contribute to reinventing the myth of ancient Greece in order to identify Germany with Greece. So first they need to invent the idea of ancient Greece. Then they need to argue that Germany is the true inheritor of ancient Greece. Thus, in the process of inventing ancient Greece, they also invent modern Greece as distinct, eastern, not the true inheritors of ancient Greece. The Germans tend to create a romanticized, well, yah, they’re Romantics!, sense of ancient Greek life. The English, by contrast, have a more realistic sense of ancient Greek culture because they had Byzantine texts for longer and they saw the connections between the two rather than the German effort to reject what was Byzantine for the sake of what was truly ancient Greek. One exception among the Germans was the Protestant theologians in Tübingen who had established an exchange with the Greek Orthodox theologians in Byzantium — one could argue that Greek Orthodox is closer in theology to Lutheranism than to Roman Catholicism. Since they had been speaking to Byzantine Greeks since the 16th century, they too had a clearer view of ancient Greece than the Romantics. After the Second World War, Erich Kästner was another figure who saw the original ancient Greeks in Byzantine culture — while Byzantine had been considered Oriental, first dubbed by Voltaire and continued to be considered so up until the Second World War. Some of what becomes clear is that it isn’t so much that modern Greece isn’t of the east, but that ancient Greece itself was perhaps more eastern, less ‘purely’ western, if that means the origin of Germany, than the Romantics might have liked.
Germany’s libidinal investment in Greece explains why, when Greece is casting about for a new king after they achieve independence, they look to Germany, and the second son of Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto. If Germans are true inheritors it makes sense that a German would be the new king. So Otto comes to Greece.
More on language
Greece is a new country, also looking for a new founding mythology, which they realize they have right in their own backyard. So they begin by trying to purify their language by returning to ancient Greek. Modern Greek has been mixed over the centuries with Venetian and Turkish, as I said above, and modern Greeks speak other languages, too, like Albanian, so that needs sorting out. The Greeks just went right back to Homer and replaced vulgar Greek words directly from Homer, a process which ends at the beginning of the twentieth century. By vulgar, I don’t mean the dirty words, but the words that the people used. But interestingly, it is the vulgar culture that remained closer to genuine ancient Greek culture. It remains the case, Kosmas tells me, that it is in the theater, the music and the language that the sentiments and dispositions that are closer to Classical Greek can be found in contemporary Greek life – the Dionysian elements rather than the Stoicized Hellenic elements. Perhaps this is also reflected in the easternization of Greece. The very element that the Germans eschew in the modern Greeks is what prevents them, until Nietzsche, from seeing the complexity of the ancient Greek tradition.
Greece for the Greeks?
You can see from the length of this post that we did talk about this all weekend, with short interruptions to fight about Heidegger. I took several themes from our conversations — and I imagine there are other accounts, but this one seems convincing to me.
- Modern Greek nationalism and modern German nationalism combine in an effort to construct the idea of ancient Greece that both modern Greeks and Germans needed. The modern German needs may have trumped the modern Greeks’ needs where their notion of ancient Greece produced their idea of modern Greece as eastern, bastardized by Byzantine and Ottoman influences in contrast to a purely western source culture that is ancient Greek.
- The production of ancient Greek culture as a touchstone began pretty much immediately in the Hellenistic period and with Alexander.
- While there was certainly a break from classical Greek culture through Orthodox Christianity, there are more traces in contemporary Greek life of ancient Greek life — if we are willing to challenge both our idea of what modern Greek is and what ancient Greek is. Nietzsche might be helpful here in finding the important place of the Dionysian. That is, if you want another German to help explain the Greeks.
Updates: edited for grammar and spelling and links added.