Greece is the Word
I have a modest proposal that might simultaneously celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens, strengthen Britain’s low stock in Europe and allow us to help a dear friend in terrible trouble.
Perhaps the most beautiful and famous monument in the world is the Doric masterpiece atop the citadel, or Acropolis, of Athens. It is called the Parthenon, the Virgin Temple dedicated to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom who gave the Greek capital its name.
The Acropolis contains other temples and represents in the minds of scholars, historians and all who care about our past and the source of our civilisation, the pinnacle of Athens’s Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles; that period of peace between the wars against Persia which they won, and the wars against their neighbours Sparta, which they lost.
For students and lovers of architecture the Acropolis (over which I made a spectacular fool of myself some years ago) will always remain one of the most perfect examples of the Doric order ever constructed. The Romans and Arabians later added arches, ogees, domes, pendentives, barrelled vaults and squinches to the basic elements of architecture, but the Parthenon’s grace has never been surpassed. Its influence is all around us. Pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, entablatures, triglyphs and metopes may sound strange but we see them every day in high street buildings, town halls, 18th century churches, squares and crescents. Some people who spot trains or birds are called sad. I am a sad corbel, buttress and apse spotter – one who loves that there is a name for everything in architecture, a full and rich anatomy.
Doric elements were not the only thing that came from Greece. 5th century BC Athens was a city state that gave us Aristotle and his devising of logic, categories, ethics and poetics; Plato and Socrates led ceaseless quests for the discovery of the truth behind people, phenomena and politics. Their refusal to take as true any baseless, unprovable assertions made by priests, tyrants and hierarchs but instead to examine honestly from first principles took nearly two millennia to be rediscovered by the renaissance and then enlightenment philosophers who shaped our modern world very much with Periclean Athens in mind. Euclid and Archimedes are to this day heroes to all mathematicians and engineers. Their blend of rationalism and empiricism is at the heart of all science and sense. The sheer magnificent beauty of Euclidian geometric theorems and their proofs, has never, most mathematicians would agree, been surpassed.
The duty of Athenian citizens to play a part in justice through the tribunals on the Areopagus Hill was taken seriously, as was democracy in the form of regular voting: there was even an agreed assumption that theatre as a total art form that combined mask, dance, poetry, drama, history, music and religious ceremony was an essential element of public life and formed part of an open analysis of Athenian identity. As Nietzsche pointed out in his supreme The Birth of Tragedy, the Greek people had gone from tribal blood feuds, war and savagery to a peak of civilisation in a very short time indeed. Nietzsche chose the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of the two sides of the Greek (and of course all human) character. One part harmonious, reasonable, artistic, musical, mathematical and idealistic, the other consumed by appetite, lusts and loss of reason through desire, greed and ambition. Whether we call these Freud’s ego and id or Forster’s prose and the passion, which we must “only connect”, no civilisation I can think of seems so clearly to display through its art, rhetoric, philosophy and politics just what it is to be a human, a social and collective being, what Aristotle himself called in a phrase almost worn away by universal use, “a political animal”.
Of course we are not talking about an ideal society. Slavery, the subjugated role of women, open paederasty and xenophobia, helotry and harlotry – these are not things wholly in tune with the temper of our own times. Read E. R. Dodds’s masterly The Greeks and the Irrational and you will see they weren’t all algebraic geniuses with a bent for brilliant oratory and logical exposition. But Athenian education, open enquiry, democracy, justice and a harmony of form in sculpture and architecture were quite new to our world and indeed their ability to question themselves is one of the things for which we are most indebted to them.