I just finished redoing the deck. My dad who is a contractor recently told me that you should be putting 5% of the value of your house into it every year if you don’t want to be losing value. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued by saying, you’re basically rebuilding your house over the time you own it. I was actually glad to hear the 5% because I had misremembered him saying 10-15% some years ago. The rebuilding point is something I have been mulling over a bit. It reminded me of the problem of Theseus’ ship. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates explains that he has been waiting in jail for some time to be executed because no executions could occur during a festival. The current festival celebrated Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which I report on after visiting Knossos last summer, where the fabled labyrinth was said to be. To celebrate the festival, a ship was sent out to Delos ritualizing a recreation of the trip to Crete. But over time, the boards had to be replaced, raising the question of whether the ship was still the same ship if none of the original boards remained. Socrates’ discussion of the festival in a dialogue focused on the question of the immortality of the soul raises the question of what keeps a person the same if all the “boards” that comprise a person change. (One recent commentator points to the range of ways that the dialogue associates Socrates on the one side and the Athenians on the other with Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, suggesting that the execution of Socrates is the final stage of this re-enactment for the Athenians, where Socrates takes the place of the Minotaur and on the other hand Socrates himself re-enacts the trip by finally dying and escaping the labyrinth of his body). Read more
One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back. I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true. If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure. In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world. Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new. And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.
In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more
On New Year’s Eve, I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to see its special exhibit on the Greeks. The Museum has collected 500 artifacts from Greek museums, which cover 3500 years of history, beginning with the Minoans on Crete and other Cycladic islands. I had seen many of these pieces in their home museum, which admittedly, is already pulled from the original context, but seemed at least to beckon to the sense of the place from which they were found. Seeing them all pulled together robbed them of their aura (in the Benjaminian sense), it seemed to me. I’m glad they could pull it together for people to see, but I just want to put the plug in for going and visiting places and the museums in those places.
Aristotle scholars spend a lot of time arguing over whether and in what way a life of action, what is called a ‘practical life’ (from the Greek praxis), which includes a life focused on ethical and political concerns, can possibly achieve happiness, or whether only contemplation — the theoretical life of the philosopher or thinker or scientist — can achieve complete happiness for human beings. Commenters suppose from several chapters in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 that the case is obviously on the side of contemplation. Then they fight over how to limit that claim or re-interpret it.
But today, I’ve been prepping those passages to teach and I just don’t think they add up to the obviously strong argument for contemplation against deliberation that pretty much everyone who reads Aristotle seems to think they do. One argument in particular — that it’s what the gods do — seems just not the case. What the heck then is Aristotle doing? Here’s what Aristotle writes:
But that complete happiness is a certain contemplative activity would appear also from this: we have supposed that the gods especially are blessed and happy–but what sort of actions ought we to assign to them? Just acts? Or will they appear laughable as they make contracts, return deposits, and do anything else of that sort? But what about courageous acts? Do the gods endure frightening things and run risks, because doing so is noble? Or liberal acts? But to whom will they give? And it is strange if they too will have legal currency or something of that sort. And what would their moderate acts be? Or is the praise, “they do not have base desires,” a crude one? All that pertains to actions would appear, to those who go through it, petty and unworthy of gods. (1178b8-17, Bartlett and Collins translation)
Puh-lease, Aristotle. It seems just as likely from all this that the gods don’t do any of these things because the gods don’t really live virtuous lives. Do the gods do just acts? No, Zeus steals women and cheats on Hera on the regular. The whole of Hesiod’s Theogony seems to be about the frightening risk-taking acts of gods. But no, not because it’s noble. They want power, or they’re just bored. Liberal acts? Well, basically, that seems to be all of Homer and most of Hesiod where Zeus gives things to gods, and that part where Zeus and Prometheus divide stuff up and give it out. “And what would be their moderate acts?” Got me there, Aristotle: we don’t know, because no god has yet to be moderate. Read more
I just returned to Heraklion from several days driving around Crete. I’m particularly impressed by how little the Olympian gods are on display here. The Minoans, as we learned at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, worshipped the snake goddess. The same snake goddess who is defeated by Apollo to establish himself at Delphi. And yet, Zeus nonetheless is part of the story on Crete, particularly as situating himself as the beast and the sovereign, a theme I keep returning to in light of my summer reading of Derrida. For Derrida, the relation of the beast and the sovereign is peculiar because the sovereign is both what is most separated, other than, the beast and what becomes beastly in order to maintain, enforce or display sovereignty. Hobbes’ Leviathan is the sovereign who must be a beast to maintain power. Rousseau’s sovereign must be a wolf. Machiavelli’s a lion and a fox. For Derrida, the effort to drive out the beastly appears to produce the beastly in what attempts to drive it out. Thus, at the heart of the logic of sovereignty, even in human sovereign rationality, there lurks a beast. I can’t help but see this beastly sovereign in all the stories on Crete where Zeus, the sovereign Olympian appears.
Today we visited the palace at Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Knossos is considered the cradle of the first European civilization and is believed to have been continuously occupied for 8000 years from the Neolithic through to the Byzantine period. As I said in my last post, I’ve been reading Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign lectures, so I see beasts and sovereigns everywhere. Or perhaps, it’s Greece, so beasts and sovereigns–beast-sovereigns, sovereign beasts–are everywhere. Knossos and its environs are the ancient Minoan site of the beast and the sovereign, of the beast who opposes the sovereign and of the beast who is sovereign, of the sovereign who appears as the beast and as the sovereign who becomes sovereign by defeating the beasts. This is the place of the Minotaur and of Zeus. I’ll get to Zeus in another post–we’ll be visiting his birth place and his place of rest (Zeus died!) in a couple days. Read more
I said at the beginning of the year that I’d listen more to new music and write about it. I did that once so far. I was a little overwhelmed with all the different new things I should be listening to. Then in the freshmen colloquium course I taught this semester, we had a class session where we read and listened to protest songs–Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Rage Against the Machine. We talked about what makes protest songs work as protest songs. In the next class meeting, students were asked to bring in their favorite protest songs. To get things started, I offered my own: Anaïs Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall.” Read more
I asked my students to write a paper explaining how Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony is a model of what a standard for nature is, what such a standard reveals about Hesiod’s view of nature or “the way things are”, and what is difficult about establishing a standard for how things are. I decided I would do this assignment, too, to give them a sense of what I am looking for and for an opportunity to continue blogging about Greek mythology. Read more
Yesterday was our anniversary and our last full day in Nafplio. Today we are off to Athens for two days, where we hope to see Aristotle’s Lyceum, which has only recently opened, and the National Archaeological Museum. On Saturday, we took our last excursion in the Peloponnese, this time to Epidauros which has the largest and best preserved Greek theater. Read more
Sometimes it’s nice to just do some plain old sight-seeing and not think about how it fits into my understanding of ‘the Greeks.’ Last Saturday, we walked around Nafplion / Nauplion (Drop the ‘o’ if you so desire, no one seems to mind. Note that upsilons often become ‘f’ in modern Greek; find this particularly strange as a pronunciation of ‘autos,’ the ancient and modern Greek word for self). By walked, I mean climbed. And by around, I mean up. 999 steps lead up the Palamidi Fortress that we can see from our terrace. The steps begin about two tenths of a mile away. Legend has it that the the fortress / castle, which
has 9 separate bastions, originally had 1000 steps that led up to it but some horseman was really excited when they defeated the enemy and charged his horse up the hill breaking the first step. It’s not clear there actually are 999 steps — we didn’t count, we were too busy walking. Read more