Have you ever had that moment when something you’ve been trying to teach for years finally comes together because of one brief moment of pedagogic brilliance? I find these moments rare. But I just had one. I teach ancient Greek philosophy. One reason I like to teach this course is that it asks that students take seriously the question, why should we do philosophy rather than not? Ancient Greek thinkers remind us that the question of whether philosophy is worth studying is as old as philosophy itself and not something invented by the neoliberal university.
The difficulty in introducing this question is figuring out where to start. If you start with Plato, for whom this question is explicit in the Apology and the Republic and pretty much all over the corpus, you get the question pretty clearly, but you ignore the two hundred (at least) years of thinking in the Greek world that precede Plato, thinking which Plato himself explicitly references. So students walk away thinking Platonic, or at least, Socratic, thinking is the beginning of philosophy. So I push back and teach the pre-Socratics. But if you start with the pre-Socratics they seem like the primitive thinkers to Plato or Socrates’ developed thinking. So for years now, I’ve been trying to start with Hesiod’s Theogony. Read more
This picture is what erupted into view at the crest of the mountain on Delos that had previously hid itself entirely from view.
In his book, Sojourns, Heidegger journals his travels through Italy and Greece and the Greek islands. I have something of a love-hate relationship with Heidegger. I couldn’t think the way I do nor read ancient texts as I do without the influence of Heidegger. And yet, when he writes things like: “The Asiatic element once brought to the Greeks a dark fire, a flame for their poetry and thought to reorder with light and measure,” I want to scream. Heidegger holds a common prejudice that I tease my students for adopting so easily: the East is exotic, full of fire and passion and the West brings order and logic. When I read that line, I was put in mind of Foucault’s discussion of the Chinese encyclopedia in the Introduction to The Order of Things. 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
I’ve been reading the novel Phaedra by June Rachuy Brindel (St. Martin’s Press, 1985) about the story of Phaedra and thinking more about the transition of the worship of Gaia, the earth goddess, to the Olympian pantheon that I talked about in my first and second posts on Delphi. Brindel sets up the action of the novel, the confrontation between Phaedra and Theseus, as a confrontation between the life-giving power of the earth goddess and the kind of world that worshipped the earth goddess to the war mongering of those who keep the cult of the Olympians. Even Zeus must keep justice with violence. Read more
Legend has it that Martin Heidegger was walking in the Black Forest with friends when he came across a country shrine and crossed himself. Knowing that Heidegger had given up his Catholicism, the friend asked what he was doing. Heidegger responded something like, “Many have prayed here, the gods must be near.”*
We arrived in Delphi and looked over the valley that cuts through the mountains up to the water and thought, the gods must be near. Read more