Crete: Even Ancient History has an Ancient History
First photograph is of the town of Chora, Naxos seen through the ruins of the Apollo temple.
Today we leave Crete, traveling on to the second half of our journey — studying Derrida in Italy. What has been most impressed upon me during our time in Crete is how much human history precedes what I think of as the beginnings of history. As someone who teaches and writes about ancient Greek philosophy, I’m often trying to get students to think about how Greek thinkers are in conversation with their context and how we remain in conversation with the Greeks as part of our context. It’s not just that students don’t understand the thinking of the Greeks without understanding their context, it’s that they don’t think that the Greeks have a rich context. If we just think the Athenians consider themselves to have sprung out of the ground–to be autochthonous, to come from where they are–and we know of nothing that precedes them, this might seem like a reasonable claim, one we have no cause to be suspicious of, just like Americans assuming that we have more claim to be here, we have who have been here for ten generations, than those who are just arriving if we know nothing of the history of what preceded our ancestors ten to fifteen generations ago.
I don’t think I have taken seriously enough how the Greeks that I read and think about had a history that extends as far back and farther back in time than they do from me. There were signs of human existence in Knossos dating back to 7000 BCE. Early Minoan civilization dates to around 3900 BCE. The stories of Minos and Ariadne and Theseus were projected back in time way before the time when they had force and were celebrated in Greece.
We had the good privilege of meeting with Tom Brogan (Wabash ’88), the director of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory on East Crete (INSTAP) in Pachela Ammos several days before coming to Naxos. When I asked him what they meant by prehistory, he said that they think of pre-history as around the Geometric period around 800 BCE or so. I was somewhat surprised, thinking of pre-history in terms of writing, and when I expressed my surprise saying as much, he wisely responded, yes, but what counts as writing? I said Linear B? Homer and Hesiod? To which he asked again, and how do we date them? Is the person who wrote down the myths of the oral tradition that they inherit the one who begins to write or are the stories themselves a break from pre-history to history?
The point seemed to be that there is always a history to a beginning. The beginning always has another beginning to it. Or as Heidegger would say, the archê withdraws — the origin as such escapes us because we can always ask for the context and origin of the origin. Thus, Hesiod begins his account of the theogony of the gods with the emergence of Chaos out of which things come to be. There was always something there before, even before Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky), the first gods. As the famous story about the response to Bertrand Russell’s lecture on cosmology goes, it’s turtles all the way down.
I think of the history of philosophy as fundamental and necessary work that informs how we think today both as the return of the repressed–something we think we can reject but that continues to permeate our thinking and as that which by ignoring altogether becomes our unreflective thinking–and as that whose questions inform our continued problems and questions. I have never thought the history of philosophy was just the work of scribes reporting on what people thought, but always the work of ourselves in conversation with the tradition both in order to challenge that tradition and to learn from it. How much more importantly I should take the history of these ancient philosophers, then, if they too had a history as deep and variegated as mine, as cross-pollinated by different traditions and civilizations –the Cycladics, the Egyptians, the Mycenaeans, the Minoans–as mine. The Classical Greeks of the fifth and fourth century BCE might be said just as much to be claiming the history they say is “theirs” as the 18th and 19th century German philosophers and British classicists claim ancient Greek history as I discussed last year a number of times. Now more than ever it seems that the present moment can only become otherwise by critically investigating how we have constituted our history, a history which in its constitution also constitutes the “our” of the history.
The photographs in this post after the first are of doors in Naxos.