Friday, June 21, 2013

Classical Athens (508-323): Sublimity and Stupidity

Tradition refers to Cleisthenes (ca 570-ca 508 BC) as the father of democracy because he restored, reformed, and stabilized its practice in Athens beginning in 508. While many Athenians resented this form of government, it was a creative response to existing challenges. The truth, goodness, and beauty of that moment lay in aiding the success of that experiment in an untried but profound method of government. The Athenians that did so established the political context for what would be the most creative period in the history of Athens and as creative a period as any city in Olympia has ever experienced.

Athenians of that time were the first to experience tragedy as a form of drama beginning with the plays of Aeschylus (525-455). Judges first selected one of his plays for performance during the Dionysia, the annual festival to Dionysius (Bacchus), in 499 and he first won that competition in 484. While his seven surviving plays were staged between 472 and 456, he wrote up to 90 of them. It is quite possible, then, that Athenians got to enjoy live performances of tragedies by Aeschylus for over 40 years from 499 to 455.

All forms of government must enable their participants to respond creatively to challenges. This is especially true in response to war. Athenians got to experience an unusually strong affirmation of their experiment in democracy with their wholly unexpected victories against invading Persian armies in 490 at Marathon and 480 at Salamis. The strength of this affirmation expressed itself in the tremendous acts of creativity to come.

Even citizens of classical Athens, however, had their dark side. While the culture of the city inspired creativity, it also allowed irrational acts of destruction. Primary responsibility for the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 belonged to Miltiades, but the Assembly irrationally had him jailed in 489 and he died there shortly afterward. Primary responsibility for the Athenian victory at Salamis in 480 belonged to Themistocles. Happily, the Assembly had the decency to wait until 471 before irrationally sending him into exile.

Politically irrational, Athenians still got to enjoy profoundly creative tragedies by Sophocles (c. 496-c. 406). He first beat Aeschylus in the Dionysian competition in 468. While only 7 of his 120 plays survive and all are difficult to date, Athenians may have enjoyed experiencing plays by Aeschylus from 499 to 480, by Aeschylus and Sophocles in competition from 480 to 455, and by Sophocles with others from 455 to 425.

Tradition refers to Herodotus (c. 484-425) as the father of history. He worked diligently on The Histories from 455 to 430. The Histories of Herodotus is the reason why we still celebrate the victories of Hellenia, led by democratic Athens, over the imperial armies of Persia. Herodotus moved to Athens in 447. The Assembly irrationally denied his application for citizenship in 443 and he moved on. At least for four wonderful years Athenians could learn from him and he could absorb and record the meaning of their times for us.

Phidias (c. 480-430): one of the greatest sculptors and builders of all time. He gave us one impressive Athena (bronze, 456), one majestic Athena (gold and ivory, 447), the most perfect Hellenian temple ever built (Parthenon, 447-431), and a Jupiter both impressive and majestic (Olympia, gold and ivory, 431). Even so, the Assembly irrationally arrested him and he died in jail in 430.

Socrates (c. 469-399): smart guy but not the lover of wisdom (philosopher) that tradition insists he is. He couldn’t stand democracy or the people who practiced it. Living during one of the most culturally creative periods anywhere ever, he didn’t notice and spoke only words which encouraged others to savage it. To their eternal disgrace, the Assembly had him executed in 399. More justly, they should have simply exiled him and a handful of his drinking buddies to Sparta and should have done so much sooner. They’d have spared themselves much agony and disgrace and the reality therapy might have done him some good.

Amazingly enough, Aeschylus and Sophocles didn’t exhaust the possibilities of tragedy. Euripides (480-406) wrote 90 more of which 19 survive. He first competed in the Dionysia in 455 and won, probably by beating Sophocles, in 441. He died the same year as Sophocles, a generation older, but Athenians still got to enjoy 75 years of the best drama ever.

Happily, that drama wasn’t all tragic. Aristophanes (c. 446-c. 386) fathered comedy, writing 40 plays of which 11 survive (written 427-386). Just as the tragedy of reality was overwhelming the meaning of any tragedy on stage, Aristophanes arrived in an attempt to mock his fellow Athenians back to their senses.

Perhaps at times it worked but sometimes it didn’t. The Assembly exiled a very capable general, Thucydides (460-411?), in 423. Happily for us, he used his freedom to travel and wealth for leisure to write his fascinating History of the Peloponnesian War. He piously started it in 479, where Herodotus left off, and continued it until his unexpected death in 411.

So, looking back at just over a century (508-399) of culture in Athens, we have tremendous reasons to celebrate. We have the creation and vigorous (if tragically flawed) practice of participatory democracy, the creation and 75 years of sublime dramatic tragedy, the creation and practice of history by two of its best writers ever, the creation of some of the best sculptures ever alongside the construction of the most beautiful Hellenian temple ever, and the creation of dramatic comedy by one of its best practitioners ever.

By 390, all the tremendous creativity of participatory democracy, tragedy and comedy, sculpture, architecture, and historical writing in Athens was over. Even that, though, would have been enough to justify the glory which Athens enjoys to this day.

Unbelievably, one last unexpected burst of creativity was left, this time in philosophy. Plato (c. 428-348) started his Academy in 385, the first institution of higher learning in Olympia, and wrote down his philosophy in a series of dialogues and letters between 385 and his death in 348.

He was followed by Aristotle (384-322), his most brilliant student, who started his rival Lyceum in 335 and shared his philosophy with students until 323. Plato and Aristotle: between the two of them, they created the substantial foundation of Olympian philosophy which we still enjoy.

In one last display of irrationality, Athenians grew so menacing that Aristotle exiled himself to keep them from sinning a second time against philosophy. His departure in 323 marked the end of an unprecedented 185 years of cultural creativity.

May we celebrate all that was true, good, and beautiful which Athenians bequeathed to us during that time and learn from all that was stupid, evil, and unseemly which they irrationally shared with us as well. Inspired by their example, may we too commit ourselves to responding as creatively as they did to the challenges we face. May we also celebrate, as sometimes they didn’t, the creativity now occurring in our midst.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.