The first references to nature or physis in Athens* were made by those supporting aristocratic partisans against their perception of a rigid democratic establishment in the 420s BCE. Nomos was considered the embodiment of popular sovereignty. Before physis, “to eon” or just “that which is” or easier “the fact” was opposed to nomos. The sophists chiefly served–for a fee–the aristocratic youth whose parents’ wealth and good birth had ceased to give them the power to which they thought they should be entitled. The distinction the sophists offer between physis and nomos justifies the aristocratic claim against entrenched democratic interests.
Physis was associated with one’s birth, so it allowed the aristocrats to associate their own power with their birth, and thus with physis. The aristocrats thought that by virtue of their birth they had a claim to rule. The sophists give them the language of physis to justify this claim through birth, which points to ways that the reference to physis in its beginnings was in the service of a kind of eugenics, those of better birth were those whose rule was more natural. Nature itself was of those who were better born. To be better born was to be on the side of nature. From that claim, the oligarchic interests take up the sophistic view that physis is just what is against the nomos or convention that changes and is thus without ground–a charge familiar to us as a criticism of democratic approaches to justice from Plato. If those who are better born whose claim to rule is natural, and returning to the ancient customs wherein the well-born ruled, then nature is just what had always been, and the changes wrought by the increasingly democratic regimes were suspect. Nature gets put on the side of “things remaining the same,” and convention on the side of constant change and radical disruptive power of the commoners. The sophists introduce arguments that further put physis on the side of intelligence against wealth. Those who newly make wealth still do not have the intelligence that comes with being well-born.
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.
As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more
We were supposed to get home on July 3, but we didn’t finally get here until yesterday because our flight was cancelled in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia, and still have family there, so this wasn’t all bad. We were able to push our flight back one more day so we could spend July Fourth with my brother, his wife and her family. They live north of the city in farm country so it was nice to get out of the concrete jungle and see some grass after the unbearable heat of Athens. They have neighbors who own a dairy farm who set off their own quite impressive firework show. It wasn’t quite the Northern Liberty drug dealers show that I saw a couple years ago from a friend’s roof, but it was good.
It seems fitting that we were stuck in Philadelphia on our way back from Athens. Read more
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. Read more
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics noting that human beings are marked by their desire to know, a desire that is prompted by wonder, wonder that has before and continues to lead human beings to philosophize. So it seems fitting that our first day in Athens has brought wonder, both big and small. Read more
The Greek word ἱστορία (of course I’m going to tell you about the Greek word) means inquiry or investigation or the learning that happens through inquiry. There’s a trend in higher ed about how to get students to learn by doing and the inquiry that occurs in the engagement beyond the classroom, and I’ve been struck myself by how I, someone who has dedicated her life to thinking about things Greek, still needed the motivation of a trip to Greece to read and reread Ancient Greek history, mythology and architecture. I’m trying to be a good student, preparing myself by learning and refreshing my learning in advance so that I can achieve better insight and understanding when I’m there. I hate the oh-I-should-know-that-feeling and the if-I-knew-more-about-this-I’d-probably-appreciate-it feeling that comes from not having done the research, so this time, I’m hoping that doing my homework lets me have those brilliant serendipitous moments of recognition, connection and clarity. So you could say I’ve been engaged in a historia of the history of Greece, but especially of Athens. Read more