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
Even citizens of classical
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
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 (
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
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
By 390, all the tremendous creativity of participatory democracy, tragedy and comedy, sculpture, architecture, and historical writing in
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
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.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.