The School of Athens: Moments in the History of an Idea

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The School of Athens: Moments in the History of an Idea
  1    THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS: MOMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF AN IDEA PR Bosman Inaugural Address at Unisa, 13 November 2013. SUMMARY In this address, Bosman follows the idea through history that ancient Athens offers an education. He concentrates on three instances: Pericles’ speech on democracy in Thucydides, Raphael’s eponymous fresco in the Vatican, and Newman’s discourses on the idea of the university. It starts as an ideal of an open, free and equal society that produces a certain free/liberal mentality, then narrows down to Athens’ intellectual legacy and the idea of a university as an open community of equals occupied with the intellect. Its manifestation in Victorian Britain is as the core of liberal education for producing a cultivated mind,  which Newman wished to offer to the previously disadvantaged in Ireland. Liberal education is thus shown to be rooted in democratic ideology, but currently suffers from being considered non-utilitarian. In line with Thucydides, ‘Athens’ today does not function as a norm, but as a tool to reflect on our own  world. **************************************  When planning an inaugural address, one has to consider carefully the constraints of the genre. For it requires a sense of occasion absent from the usual scholarly lecture. It should, like the song of the Sirens, both inform and entertain. With a mixed audience, it can be neither technical nor superficial. Erring towards generalisation might still be forgiven, but towards the superfluous not. Finally, it should ‘augur’, the Roman term for reading the signs of the gods from the flight of birds. In this context, I take that to mean presenting some statement on the current and future position of the professed discipline.  What sort of a position statement would be appropriate for a South African Classics professor in this second decade of the 21 st  century? This question occupied me in the past months. Should I consider the state of scholarship in my own field of specialisation? Should I go for the ‘stereotypical homily’, as it was recently called, on the rather unpromising question, ‘Why still offer Classics’? 1  Or should I simply provide light amusement for the occasion from the store of the classical tradition? I decided, in the end, to steer a middle course, and reflect on the notion of ancient Athens - in its historical as well as metonymic sense - as offering an education. How did it come about that  Athens attained the reputation as a ‘school’ for the world and for all time to come? I will not try to sell the discipline I profess, nor be indignant about its current precarious position in academia. Rather, I take my cue from the Confucius saying that ‘one who understands the present by reviewing antiquity is worthy to be a teacher’. 2  I thus hope that the following survey will provide us with some insight into where we are at the moment, also, hopefully, reminding us of aspects of a Humanities education which we are currently neglecting or perhaps have forgotten. During the past century, Greco-Roman antiquity has been pushed, or shall we say freed, from its romantic, idealised and normative pedestal. 3  Classicists nowadays, much more realistic and 1  Atkinson 2012:181. 2  Quoted by Raaflaub 2013:3. 3  This includes the exaggerated historicist expectations of 19 th  and early 20 th  century  Altertumswissenschaft  ; cf. Latacz 1995, Vogt 1997.  2   modest about their discipline, look at antiquity quite differently: from high level abstraction to grass-roots complexity, from delicate poetry to crooked kings, courtesans and fishcakes. 4  We now look at their flaws even more than at their accomplishments. They not only inspire, but also  warn us. Above all, they help us to reflect and to think. In what follows, I will dip into three moments in the history of an idea. I shall treat each of these moments as a dialectic relationship between the expressions of an ideal and its contextualisation. 5  Prominent features of an ideal are the ability to inspire and to transcend immediate context. On the other hand, the task of the classicist is to always look closer at contingency. When these lines cross, ideals get destabilised, but rarely discredited altogether. Only the first of my moments belongs to classical antiquity, but all three have in their own right become classic texts. The first (Pericles in Thucydides) sets up Athens as a society to be emulated. The second (Raphael, from high Renaissance Italy), narrows ‘Athens’ down to its intellectual legacy. The final moment (Newman, Victorian Britain) argues for the liberal arts as the core of a university. I will follow the link between democratic ideology in Thucydides, through the Renaissance ideal of open intellectual enquiry, to Newman’s idea of the university as a space for the cultivation of the mind. Together they offer a particular trajectory of how Athens, and what the city came to stand for, has been appropriated. Our first stop takes us to Greece of the fifth century BC, and the funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (2.35-46) . 6  Halfway through this famous speech, Pericles claims his city, Athens, to be the παίδευσις   τ  ῆ ς   Ἑ λλάδος , the school or the education of the Greeks (2.41). 7  By this he meant Athens’ democracy and the kind of citizen it produces.  Thucydides’ History   is a monumental work in which the historian reports in meticulous detail on the 5 th  century war between Athens and Sparta which lasted for 27 years. In terms of world history, the war was little more than a drawn-out scuffle between small neighbouring states. 8  But like most things classical, it is not so much about the ‘what’ than about the ‘how’: the way in  which Thucydides goes about his task proved to be foundational to all historical writing to come. In a brief methodology (1.22.4), he describes his method as to research the detail of the events  with the greatest possible rigour. Disregarding the fabulous, the romantic, and - as it turns out, the divine and the personal, not to mention the feminine - he aimed at clarity of insight: into  what actually happened, but also into recurring patterns of political behaviour. For, he concludes his brief methodology, his purpose was to write not a throw-away rhetorical exercise, but a κτ  ῆ μα   ἐ ς   α ἰ  έι , a possession for all time. In the course of the history, Thucydides affords his hero Pericles three speeches. The 2 nd  speech is a truly classic text, and probably the single most influential text ever in the history of democracy. Its setting is the funeral of the Athenian soldiers who died during the first year of the 4  Titles of books by Ogden 1997 and Davidson 1997, which perhaps exemplify the change of interest. 5  I use the following terms in a non-technical sense: ‘idea’ as ‘a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action’; ‘ideal’ as ‘perfect standard’ and ‘idealisation’ as ‘presenting something as closer to perfection than it really is’; cf. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 2009 (5 th  edition), 868-9. 6  The scholarship on Pericles’ funeral oration is immense. Some of the best treatments are given in Hornblower 1991:294-316; (partial) reception of the speech in Roberts 2012:140-156; specifically on 2.41 in Potter 2012:93-115. 7  Cf. Hornblower 1991:308, who prefers ‘example’ in reference to 2.37, the start of the exposition on democratic ideology. Warner 1905 and Hammond 2009 have ‘education’. Jowett’s (1900:130) ‘the school of Hellas’ has proven to be influential. Loraux 1986:177 n. 6 refers to a similar idea in Plato Prot  . 337d, Athens as ‘prytaneion of wisdom’,  which links up more directly to Raphael’s fresco discussed below as Thucydides does not primarily have Athens as think tank in mind. 8  From his perspective, however, Thucydides saw it as ‘the greatest κινήσις  (disturbance/ movement) that ever the Greeks had to contend with’ (1.2).  3    war. 9  The main thrust of the speech is – somewhat surprisingly - a eulogy on the city’s constitution, the reason why Athens is a παράδειγμα  (paradigm, example) to the other Greek states. ‘Our constitution’, says Pericles, does not imitate those of our neighbours…For it is rightly called a δημοκρατία , because it is geared towards the many, not the few.’ In what follows, Pericles gives an exposition of the Athenian success story as flowing from this constitution,  which shapes the souls and the behaviour of its citizens. A paraphrase of the main points will illustrate its impact. 10      Equality before the law is counterbalanced by public esteem based on excellence and merit.  The political system allows for drawing from the talents of the whole citizenry. Nobody is held back because of poverty or humble srcins to contribute to the common good.    In everyday life, people are free to live as they please. Tolerance reigns in private life, but the public sphere requires obedience to the laws of the city.    Publicly, the state provides for various forms of recreation. Privately, the people themselves add to the pleasant atmosphere by adorning their homes. Goods are imported from all over to enhance the Athenian quality of life.    On military matters, Pericles contrasts the Athenian way directly to that of the totalitarian Sparta. They are conformists, with rigorous training, discipline and secrecy; the Athenians maintain a casual, open life-style, but nonetheless remain formidable. 11      Unlike in Sparta, the Athenians aspire to beauty and intellectual endeavour. They accumulate  wealth not to show off but to contribute to the common good.    Being a direct democracy, citizens either stay abreast of what goes on in politics or be considered ‘useless’; they talk things through properly in public before putting policy into practice.  The eulogy on democratic life ends triumphantly with a neat inclusio , by which the term  paradeigma   at the start of the speech has gained the more precise meaning of  paideusis: an   education. He adds - in a monster of a Thucydidean infinitive clause - perhaps the first description of the mindset of the free Athenian citizen: self-sufficient, versatile, and able to deal gracefully with a great variety of circumstances. We will see how these qualities return in Newman’s view of liberal education.  After 2500 years, we are struck by how modern the eulogy seems. 12  Its apparent modernity is, however, rather an indication of the degree in which the modern world has appropriated the Periclean ideal. Athens has since Hellenistic times been renowned for its art, literature and philosophy, but it took the world a long time to favour its democratic constitution, not until the nineteenth century. 13  Today, and also in our own country, the Periclean vision is ubiquitous.  14   9  Pericles as leading Athenian general, ‘best endowed with wisdom and foremost in public esteem’ was considered the appropriate person to deliver the required oration at the occasion. On the genre of the epitaphios  , cf. Loraux 1986. 10  Earlier in the History   (1.70), Corinthian ambassadors to Sparta link Athenian success to national culture: the  Athenians are innovative and quick to set new ideas in motion; the Spartans, on the other hand, are conservative and slow to act. The Athenians are adventurous and bold, often testing the limits of their abilities. The Spartans, in contrast, are distrustful of what they can accomplish and careful to remain within their means. The Athenians are up and about, the Spartans afraid to leave home. On this topic, cf. Luginbill 1999, 2011. 11  Cf. also Herodotus 5.78. 12  Zagorin 2005:68 recently referred to the ‘free and many-sided development of personality, a life combining thought and action and consisting in the exercise of diverse faculties – intellectual, practical, and aesthetic’. He also, rightly, emphasises ‘the supreme obligation of loyalty and service to the city’; the  polis  -centred values return in liberal education as ‘benefits to the common good’. 13  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘glory that was Greece’ in ‘To Helen’. 14  Cf. Roberts 2012 on the  Nachleben of the Periclean  epitaphios.  The similarities to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, also an eulogy of democracy at a war funeral, are remarkable.  4    At this point, however, the dialectic between ideal and historical contingency must set in, a process which removes some of the shine of this rhetorical jewel. Firstly, the limited nature of ancient democracy is sobering, at least from a modern perspective. The freedom and equality of Pericles’ eulogy extended only to citizens, that is, freeborn adult males of Athenian descent. 15   While the idea was certainly revolutionary in ancient times - it does sound less impressive when one considers that only about one eighth of the population were eligible to vote. Secondly, the speech occurs in a particular textual context. It is crucial to remember that the  voice of Pericles is not that of Thucydides .  There are considerable complexities involved in the role of speeches in the History  , but the bottom line is that Thucydides constructed them to be contextually appropriate. In this particular case, we have good reason to believe that the speech is that of the historian, not the statesman. 16  To what extent its ideology reflects that of the historical Pericles is difficult to assess; what we do know is that Thucydides had very definite textual purposes with the speech at this point of his narrative. 17   The History of the Peloponnesian War   covers the war from 431 BC, but the author also deals with the 50 year period before the war. During this period Athens grew powerful and so destabilised the political status quo . A reluctant Sparta had no choice but to declare war. When the funeral oration occurs in Book 2, the war’s first year was negotiated with relative success. Athens maintained control of the sea and was reasonably successful on land as well. Its empire was relatively stable, and its resources continued to grow. The city was at the height of its power. A gloating Pericles is certainly not out of order at this point.  The triumphant tone, however, appears misplaced almost immediately after the speech, when  Thucydides describes the outbreak of a plague within the walls of the city which decimated the population and damaged its moral fabric.  The ebb and flow that follow outline Athens’ gradual demise: self-interested populist leadership led to wrong decisions in the popular assembly, which in turn led to disastrous undertakings. In Thucydides’ view, Athens self-destructed, despite its much-vaunted constitution. In 404 BC it capitulated to Sparta. For Thucydides, who wrote from a post-war perspective, Athens offered no ideal but rather a  warning: like all things human (  τ ὸ   ἀ νθρώπινον  ), their demise shows them as subject to three negative forces: fear, ambition, and self-interest. Perhaps the darkest shadow cast on Athenian democracy was its possession of an empire, about which both Pericles and Thucydides are unapologetic. The Delian League was srcinally set up to counter the Persians, but soon became a source of Athenian wealth. As the strongest state in the League, Athens extracted protection money from their small allies to fund their own expenses. 18  An appalling cameo of Realpolitik  later in the history deliberately portrays Athens as the tyrant towards the small island of Melos: imperial power can afford neither morality nor justice, it can only increase the brutality of its oppression. 19  Of democracy as a system, he was highly sceptical. Democratic Athens was a wild shoot, prone to error and only able to flourish when they were guided by an extraordinary leader. In his summary view of Pericles’ career, he states that Pericles ‘led them rather than was led by them’ and that Athens ‘though still in name a democracy, was in fact ruled by her first citizen’ (Thuc. 2.65). The funeral speech, from this perspective, becomes an ambivalent text: did it flow from 15  At a rough estimate of around 250 000 inhabitants at its height, full citizen rights applied to only about one eighth of the total, or approximately 30 000 voters. 16  On the speeches in Thucydides, cf. various in Stadter 1973, more recently Pelling 2009:176-187. 17  See however, Luginbill in n.10. 18  Pericles exhorts the Athenians to love their city, not for its constitution but for its dynamis (power); cf. Crane 1998:322. 19  ‘The empire you possess is by now a tyranny – perhaps wrong to acquire it, but certainly dangerous to let it go’;  Thuc. 2.63 transl. Hammond.  5   personal conviction, or was it mere war propaganda, the shrewd statesman playing his audience in his own personal power game? The democratic ideal was at best highly fragile, at worst a rhetorical ploy. 20  But, taking another step back, do we as modern readers have to accept his rather grim view of human nature? Does his critique annul the democratic ideal? In Thucydidean scholarship, the author was traditionally regarded as the dispassionate realist who – in Nietzsche’s view – managed to remain brutally honest in facing the truth. But during the course of the 20 th  century, scholars have become more aware of his own gaze, to the point where a ‘post-modernist  Thucydides’ has started to emerge. 21  His effort to suppress his own view masks an intensely personal involvement with his subject. For some, this raises the suspicion of ulterior motives for  writing the history, whether shifting blame for the war from Athens or exonerating Pericles and his war policies of Athens’ eventual defeat. 22  Others argue that Thucydides’s negative view of democracy does not square up with the facts. In reality, Athenians from all social strata bought into the system. The city’s decisions and policies were for the most part well-considered and prudent. Its prosperity and stability cannot be attributed to its empire only. 23  Rather, the environment of future-orientated self-investment and collaborative commerce (Ober) attained its real heights in the fourth century, long after Athens lost its empire (Hansen). Apart from an extraordinary increase in per capita income, its culture of tolerance, personal freedom and freedom of expression drew economic, artistic and intellectual capital from across the Greek  world. The city experienced an efflorescence of culture on a scale unprecedented in world history. So it came that subsequent history less heeded to the warning of the historian than it was inspired by the vision of his character. Athens came to set the standard for centuries to come, not so much for its political constitution as for presenting the epitome of civilization, the acme of art, literature and thought. Probably the most eloquent visual expression of Athens as School is the fresco by High Renaissance painter Raphael, at the start of the Cinquecento (1508). Its current name, La Scuola di  Atene, appeared in print only some 130 years after it was first painted, 24  though scholars do not discard the possibility that this was its name from the start. The name is somewhat misleading, as the figures in the painting are only by exception from Athens: the group rather represent the totality of ancient/pagan learning. Raphael’s School of Athens is regarded as one of the finest examples, if not the highlight, of the classic Renaissance style. 25  It depicts a graceful scene of men clothed in ancient dress and engaged in various forms of intellectual activity: conversing, reading, explaining and listening.  They are set within a luxurious Roman-like architectural structure, through which the eye is lured to the open, blue sky above and at the back. 26  The figures are framed by oversized statues of two 20  Cf. Potter 2012. 21  Connor 2009. 22  The views of, among others, Badian and Luginbill, cf. Forster 2010. 23  Cf., somewhat exaggerating, Ober 2006. 24  In Gaspare Celio’s  Memoria delli nomi dell'artefici delle pitture che sono in alcune chiese, facciate e palazzi di Roma,  written from 1620 and published in 1640; cf. Nesselrath 1997:12. 25  Hall 1997:21-22 notes that already the 16 th  century author on the Renaissance painters Giorgio Vasari ‘singles Raphael out for the grace and perfection of his style, for the ease with which he represented everything, and for the appropriateness of his expression, gestures, drapery, movements, the order and force with which he arranged them’. Bellori (end 17 th  century) put Raphael’s classic style with ancient Greek sculpture as the pinnacle of art; the ideal beauty in these two forms is based on correcting the imperfections of nature. 26  The architecture reminds of the massive structure of the imperial baths (Caracalla, Diocletian or Trajan), the pantheon or the Church of St Peter; either way, it deliberately sets Greek learning in Rome.
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