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HAVING AN ATHENS
Being a conversation inquiring as to the importance of Athens in Platonic philosophy.
What do you think would be required for the revitalisation of the West? Is that even possible?
There are two centres to Western civilization, and ironically - or importantly - both of them are in the east, namely Jerusalem and Athens. These are the two great cities of the "West", the sacred cities. Rome is a different matter. In some sense it is an extension of Athens, so we'll leave it out of this. Because by these two cities we are designating, of course, the Graeco-Roman heritage generally, and the Judeo-Christian heritage. The West, Western civilization, is built upon those two foundations and upon that symmetry.
Reason and revelation?
Amongst other symmetries, yes. The vitality of the West depends upon them both, so revitalisation would require a proper reengagement with these two foundational structures, the Graeco-Roman heritage and the Judeo-Christian heritage. Is that possible? Probably not. But we fight for it all the same. Largely, it is a matter of stories. Fighting for our stories. The vitality of a civilization is its narrative, its story of itself. Post-modernist dissolution purports to do away with such narratives. Vitality is having a viable story.
So revitalizing the West is more than just returning to its Christian roots, as some people suggest?
That type of Christian reactionary ideology is a response to the perceived threat of Mahometan immigration amongst other things. Which is understandable. But besides the Church there is also the university. The university is degraded in the West. Too little is being said about that. There is advanced intellectual decay in our universities. The Academy is cancerous. We hear about declining church attendance and other symptoms of the decay of Christianity, but too little attention is given to the decay of the Academy. Which is not a matter of declining numbers but declining standards. A revitalization of the West must include intellectual renewal as well as spiritual renewal. If that were possible. Most likely the decay has much further to go yet and renewal, or restoration, is only possible after the complete collapse of Western institutions. In any case, the tradition is built on two cities, Athens and Jerusalem - and their stories.
Why are these two great cities of the "West" eastern?
Orientalism is not a new phase in Western culture. Both Athens and Jerusalem are Western cities by appropriation, by an annexation of the east, by an expansion eastwards. The Romans acquire Athens under Sulla. And the aquisition of Jerusalem is the great epic of Rome that forms the substance of Christianity. Remembering that Christianity is an oriental religion. We forget that too readily. So too is the Greek tradition. It is acquired by, imitated by, the Romans. This is a deep cultural process, orientalising. And the Greeks themselves did it with the Persians. The Greeks resisted the Persians but in other respects acquired aspects of Persian culture. So there has always been this looking eastwards and bringing the East to the West. In our pivotal narratives there are two great eastern cities. Athens and Jerusalem. The vitality of a civilization depends upon having a viable story.
A story that concerns Athens and Jerusalem and those two traditions?
Those traditions are the stories. The stories are set in those two sacred or symbolical cities. The Biblical stories. The Gospel stories, that is. But there are also the stories of Athens. To be a reader of Plato, especially, you need to become a citizen of Athens, in a sense, and participate in that city and its stories. The word 'civilization' implies city. When we ask about the vitality of civilizations, then we are asking about cities. Symbolical cities. It is not an issue of sociology. I am talking about symbolical cities. The polis as a foundational unit. It is an important symbolism. The sacred city. Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem. The city as an eschatological symbol. But Athens is such a city also. Athens is the 'city writ in heaven'. Athens is a symbolical city in the Western imagination. It is a city of the philosophical imagination and one becomes a citizen of it, occupies it, lives within its story. There is a topography of the imagination, the mind.
What do you mean, to live within its story? How is that done?
One of the things that happened to people, Europeans,in the XXth century is that they were stripped of their stories. It is very obvious when you start reading XIXth century works. People in the past lived with a story, specifically the gospel narrative in the case of Christians. They lived with a common story. And in this sense they were citizens of Jerusalem and, by imagination, they inhabited the Holy Land. I find this fact striking about XIXth century writers. It is as if they occupy two places at once. There is their actual location, their physical location, wherever it might be, but there is also a spiritual and imaginative topography that they inhabit. And it is conspicuous that we no longer do that.
I don't understand. What do you mean they lived in two places at once?
People in the past - say the people who colonized Australia, settlers from England, Europe, or we might mention the Americans as settlers from England, Europe - they also lived within a Biblical topography. A topography of the imagination. The average XIXth century person spoke about Jerusalem and Nazareth, and the well in Samaria, and the River Jordan and the road to Damascus as if these were real places to them, although places of the imagination. They lived in those places spiritually. The gospel stories were living realities and they knew those places. So they lived in the 'life world' as the sociologist calls it, but also in a story world. I read accounts of, say, gold miners who travelled to southern Australia in the 1850s. The gold rushes. There they are at the far end of the earth, but in their writings - diaries and so on - they also live in a Biblical world. That is to say they still live within the gospel story. Jerusalem is not just a city in the Near East, it is a city of the mind, the spirit, the imagination. Americans did this too, often through the motif of the Promised Land. America as a Biblical land. Which was, in fact, lacking in the Australian experience. But it was a strong force in American settlement. Most evident in the Mormons, of course. Which is one reason I take an interest in Mormonism.
And we have lost that? Have we lost the capacity to do it, or is it just that religious faith has declined?
You can still meet Christians with this sense of story. This is something conspicuous about Christians, or certain Christians anyway. They live within a story. Quite apart from factors such as 'faith' or 'belief'. They have a story. They are people with a narrative. Their lives are framed by a narrative. The gospel is not ancient history to them. It is current. And the religious life is richer for this. This is an obvious way in which religion enriches a person's life. It installs a story, a grand narrative, into their life, or places their life in a greater narrative. For the Mahometan, he lives in the age of the Prophet. He knows that world. It is a very strong impulse in Mahometanism, to keep alive the sense of the Prophet's age and world and to retain that story. They occupy that story. They live in it. They copy it as a paradigm. The religious life is a life of stories. But so too is the philosophical life. Athens is a city of stories too. The Graeco-Roman heritage is a heritage of stories. And the principle story, the central story, is the story of Socrates. The avatars of the West are Jesus and Socrates. The great cities are Jerusalem and Athens. It's an important symmetry.
And we are supplied with the story of Socrates by Plato?
Yes, and it is Plato who sanctifies Athens. In the Republic we are given a description of the ideal city, the city of the philosopher kings. This is an idealised Athens. Too few commentators note this. The city of the Republic is Athens. This fact becomes very clear in other Platonic dialogues too, such as the preface to the Timaeus. The city state, the polis, described by Socrates in the Republic is Athens, an Athens redeemed. Throughout the dialogues we encounter decadent Athens. But in the Republic we are given an ideal view of the city of Athena, the goddess Athena. And we are told that it is a city 'writ in heaven', a celestial city. Sacred Athens. So the Platonic tradition gives us Socrates - and it is an idealised Socrates, not quite the historical Socrates - and he occupies an idealised Athens. The philosopher's task is to become a citizen of that city. To have an Athens. We are told this in the Republic too. We are told that, in whatever age, the philosopher may become a citizen of that great celestial city, the city of philosopher-kings and of justice. This is what becoming a philosopher, in the Platonic sense, entails. It means to become a citizen of this celestial Athens.
So the revitalization of the Academy would entail returning to Plato? Putting the story of Socrates at the centre of our intellectual culture again?
There is no age as anti-Platonic as ours. Especially the second half of the XXth century. The complete denial that there are fixed realities. The descent into relatvism in the modern West is anti-Platonic. So intellectual renewal means a new engagement with the Platonic tradition. I take the view that the greatest periods of the West are when the Platonic intellectual tradition is strongest. Plato is the Athenian, par excellence. Or at least Socrates is. The story of Socrates is dramatized in the dialogues of Plato, and the backdrop of the drama is classical Athens. And so classical Athens becomes a fixture - an enduring place - in the Western intellectual imagination. In the practice of Platonic philosophy we become citizens of the celestial Athens. And followers of Socrates. Fellow citizens with Socrates, the greatest of the Athenians.
Through an act of imagination?
It is a specific texturing of the imaginative life. It is an important and necessary part of engaging in Platonic philosophy. Importantly, we do not come to it through history. History is a hardening. The narrative must be fresh and flexible and must live in the imagination. There is no direct value in the historical Socrates. Plato very deliberately crafts a particular portrait of Socrates in the dialogues and it is not the Socrates of history. Similarly, we are not concerned with historic Athens. Rather, like the case of Socrates, we view the historic Athens through a certain constructed lens. It is an idealised Athens. An Athens of archetypes. Athens as the Form of the city, just Plato's Socrates is the ideal philosopher, the Form of the philosopher, in history. Profane history extinguishes the imagination. The proper engagement with Plato's Athens is essentially imaginative, and imaginal, to use the Corbinian term.
Jerusalem is still a sacred city. Is it true that Athens has only an historical significance now, compared to Jerusalem?
Christianity is vociferous. Loud. And it remains at the heart of Western civilisation, whereas in the XXth century Athens has gone into decline. Even more so than Christianity. In the XIXth century - think of the English public schools, schools that trained intellectuals for the entire British Empire - it was more common to live in the story of Athens. The classical education - learning Latin and Greek. Studying the classics. In the British classical education, you could live in close company with Socrates and Aristophanes and all the Athenians of that generation, classical Athens. The educated gentleman in the British Empire, even if he was in the Punjab or Singapore or Hong Kong or New South Wales, he lived, intellectually, in ancient Athens as well. To be educated was, in a sense, becoming a citizen of ancient Athens. Since then that ideal of the classical education has collapsed. Christians might still occupy Jerusalem - as a mental and spiritual space - but few intellectuals occupy ancient Athens in that way anymore. We live in an age in which the classics, the Graeco-Roman heritage, has been dislodged from the centre of the culture. In that sense it is a very Christian age in the West today. Christo-Islamic tensions fills the whole space. Jerusalem is pivotal, intense. Athens not so.
What are the steps to becoming such a citizen?
In the first instance it is just a dwelling of spirit. And we dwell there by becoming engaged with the dialogues of Plato. Which have a providential quality in the West. They are like intellectual scripture. We shouldn't pit reason and revelation against each other in a false polarity. The story of Socrates is sacred too. Enter into the story. Socrates, wisest and most just. He is, of course, a horrid little man - an anti-hero as much as a hero. That is the nature of it. But you become a citizen of Athens by engaging with the story of Socrates. Metaphorically, you are in Athens, tagging along, following Socrates - this horrid little barefoot man - around the Agora. It is an intellectual positioning. It means to become philosophical, in the Platonic sense. We follow old Socrates around the streets of Athens, puzzled by his arguments, amused or outraged by his antics.
So it is merely a matter of reading Plato?
We might read a bit of background history, or we might study maps, archeology, and learn Greek, read other Athenians, the Athenian drama, but just by reading the dialogues we develop a sense of the city, and that is the sense that needs to be fostered. It is the same with the gospels. There is a world presented in the gospels. It is not the same world as the world of the Biblical historian or the archeologist. It is, instead, lit by the light of an imaginative reading. And so we let this happen with the dialogues of Plato. When we enter the dialogues we enter the company of Socrates and we enter Athens. This is a very deliberate feature of the dialogues of Plato, but rarely appreciated. All the dialogues - the Laws is an exception, the Phaedrus to some extent, but only just - are set in Athens. Plato is very particular about this. His Socrates never - or rarely - ventures outside the city. Why has Plato done this? He constructs and maintains a very specific narrative space, and that space is Athens. It is a general rule: when you are reading Plato you are in Athens. So in that sense the city is always present, always the backdrop for Plato's philosophical dramas. This is one of the first facts about Plato. The dialogues are set in the city and, moreover, many of the dialogues are about the city.
Many of the dialogues are set on specific historical events, aren't they? Doesn't it help to understand the historical context?
History and historicity in Plato is a complex matter, and deliberately so. What is history and what is myth? What is logos and what is muthos? No other writer, in any age, is as capable of walking the fine line between history and myth as does Plato. Plato never indulges in outright fictions. Except perhaps in the Menexenus, which is an interesting case. But generally if an event didn't happen, then he is careful to make sure it might have happened. Did young Socrates meet old Parmenides? Probably not. And yet Plato has made it, written it, so that such a meeting might have taken place. And it might have.
We cannot be sure. Which is the point here. Plato very deliberately leaves us in a space between fact and fiction. We can never be sure just what is historical in Plato, and he is very deliberate about this. We should ask why? Because he purposefully avoids an ossified sense of history. In the dialogues he presents us with reasoned philosophy side by side with cosmic myths. Philosophy involves both. Platonic philosophy is derived from both. History, profane history, will harden our sense of reality. Plato keeps it moist with mythology. It is a deadening process to try to read Plato through its historical context. Everything about a Platonic dialogue discourages us from doing that. They may be anchored in history - because Plato does not indulge in baseless fictions - but they are essentially supra-historical. And our sense of Athens - the city of the philosophers - must be supra-historical too. Based in history, but essentially supra-historical.
So, between history and myth? Between fact and fiction?
Plato is very careful to build up a sense of Athens that is between history and myth. It is the historical city seen through philosophical eyes, and in the Platonic sense this means seeing the city as recollection. The objects of the world serve to remind us of their ideal models. So Athens, in Plato - and the characters in Plato - are types, archetypes. Or at least they shine with an archetypal light, they shimmer with their perfection. Athens itself is a symbol. Objects are symbols. They point to some other reality. This is the sense in which it is "idealised". When the Platonic philosopher looks at an object, he sees its ideal, its perfection. There is the duality of copy and model, but there is a borderland between them. That duality is not final. This is the "imaginal" realm. Plato's dialogues take place in an "imaginal" Athens, if you like. The reader has to breathe that air. To read Plato right is to be sensitive to this borderland, the tension between real and ideal, history and myth, logos and muthos. Plato keeps us, holds us, in that suspension. Too much history will reduce the city to ruins.
What do you mean?
Historical readings reduce Plato to museum pieces. It requires a deconstruction of Plato's historical fictions. But it involves ignoring or explaining away the fact that Plato dances with history. The proper spirit of it is to acknowledge the dance and to join it. But people like to say, "Plato says such-and-such, but the historical facts were xyz." That is not philosophy. It is textual archaeology. Instead of that, you have to find the pulse of it. And it is somewhere between reason and revelation. We can witness various approaches in some orientalist paintings of the XIXth century. In some, the artist is just recording what he sees. These are artists who have travelled east, to Athens, which was then under the rule of the Turks. In other cases the artist has an archaeological interest. But in others the artist catches a glimpse of the ideal city, is moved to envisage the ideal city. These are very interesting records. It is a case of Europeans rediscovering Athens.
Athens was under the Ottomans? When was this?
In the late XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries. And then into the XIXth century. There is the interesting phenomenon of Europeans rediscovering Athens. Through orientalist eyes. Not an intellectual rediscovery, but through a journey. Athens had been severed from Europe and is under the Ottomans. Orientalist depictions of Athens in the XIXth century are fascinating, because we see Europeans rediscovering this sacred city which, of course, is in ruins and is occupied by the Turks. You can see the ruins or you can see beyond it to the celestial city and acknowledge - remember - the place of the city in the soul of the West. There are journeys east that are journeys into the past, and also in an important sense journeys into the self. The same is true of Jerusalem, whether in the Crusades or later. Jerusalem is a city in physical reality, but it is also a city of the imagination and the spirit. And likewise Athens. When European travellers, orientalists, ventured into Ottoman Greece to find Athens it was a journey over land but also through time and also into the European spirit. Athens is not just any city. It is at the heart of Western identity. So the records of European travellers going there - especially when it was under the Ottomans - are especially interesting. Some only see ruins.
Who does that? What are examples?
Some painters who arrive in Athens in that period record the ruins. Such as Carl Rottman who reached Athens in the mid 1830s. (See below.) We see an arid landscape more or less faithfully recorded and the Acropolis in ruins. This is an historical view, obviously. It is interesting but only as an historical record. It tells us about Athens at that time.
But its only interest is historical because it is confined to that period?
There are a great many such paintings and drawings. Historical. The Western artist wants to record an historical moment. Edward Dodwel, the Irish artist, published a famous collection called Views of Greece, which are very lovely. Largely, the orientalists were very accurate in their drawings, especially of architectural features and other features that they might want to duplicate, reproduce. Some artists were neoclassicts and were involved in recovering details, drawings, to be applied in neoclassical projects back home. In some cases, though, - more interesting - there is a sadness to the ruination. Paul Spangenberg later in the century depicts Athens in desolation. The once sublime city has been lain to waste. (See below.)
These type of paintings are always a measure of just how much things have changed in the course of the XXth century. We all know what Athens is like today! Just over a century ago it was a desolation. Emptiness. Spangenberg's painting is not merely reportage, though. There is a melancholy. This is the great city of the philosophers reduced to ruins by the ravages of time. Others had different interests. Turner, for instance, as always, was interested in light; not the least bit interested in architecture. He's a landscape painter, although he does capture the 'air' of the site and that is important. Not even a landscape painter but an air painter. It is not just a metaphor: to breathe the air of Athens. The modern city is hopelessly polluted, and you would not want to breathe the air! In ancient times - this is based, I think, on a reference in the Timaeus-Critias ensemble of Plato - it was believed that the air of Athens was responsible for her many philosophers. Turner is interested in the air of the city. (See below.)
How is the air of Athens responsible for the philosophers?
There is a reference in the Timaeus - Plato's great cosmological dialogue, one of the keys to Plato. It mentions, or implies, that the quality of the air in Athens is conductive to philosophy, and this is why Athens is famous for giving birth to philosophers. It is not a reference that modern readers are in a position to fully understand. Although a painter like Turner helps us. We tend to homogenize matters. But in fact there are subtle differences of quality in the air in certain places. Air is not just air. Just as soil differs in one place to another, so too does the air. Actually, soil and work work together as a single system, but that is another matter... Plato might just as well said that the soil of Athens, the soil of Attica, produces good philosophers. He says the air does. A painter like Turner tries to capture the subtle differences in the air and light, atmosphere, in different places. As an artist he is sensitive to exactly that. In his painting - he visited Athens - he tries to capture the air of the place. He paints a scene of a military skirmish, but it is insignificant and incidental in the context of the painting. Turner is interested in the air. In ancient times the air of Athens was famous. The air, the atmosphere, of philosophers.
So you mean the air is - or was - conducive to philosophy?
Yes. Although there is a deeper significance. It is not really the time to go into it here, but the goddess Athena - the patroness of the city - is an air goddess. There is an esoteric significance to that. It is not what Mr Turner is about, though. But when the ancients said that the air of the place was fit for philosophers they were alluding to Athena as an air goddess, a goddess of the air. Although Ruskin writes a book about it in the XIXth century, so perhaps it was not entirely remote from Turner, after all. To discuss it would lead us into esoteric matters about the goddess Athena. Instead, all we need to say is that the philosophers breathes the air of ancient Athens. And yes, that is a matter of the imagination, the intellectual or spiritual imagination. We say it metaphorically - to breathe the air of ancient Athens - meaning to live in that world, imbibe its atmosphere. Actually, it has a deeper significance that has to do with Athena. When we are in Athens we are under the gaze of Athena. Ruskin writes a beautiful little book called 'Queen of the Air'. Possibly Turner's landscapes and seascapes are informed by the same understandings Ruskin records in that little book and that he acknowledges is a power of Athena.
So what artists paint an idealised Athens?
The best examples are the paintings of the German artist Leo von Klenze. Those are the most celebrated examples. He journeyed to Athens but rather than recording the ruins there, or just the landscape,he was moved to re-imagine the ancient city. But not as an archaeologist might. (See below.)
You see, in the late 1830s the Ottomans were expelled from the city and a German, Otto, became its first king after independence. Von Klenze, a court architect, was invited to Athens to assist with restoration projects and projects for public buildings.
So the Germans - who have such a rich philosophical tradition - had this connection to Greece?
We forget this connection between Germany and Athens. It is important to German romanticism. Perhaps the Germans don't forget it, but the rest of us do. The Germans took possession of Athens after the Turks. It is important to the Germanic sense of continuing the Greek philosophical tradition. The connections between the Germans and Athens - and the Greek philosophical tradition, and the Greek current into European culture - are rich and important. The feminine archetype, Athena, the goddess of the city - as a feminine archetype - is rooted in the northern soul of Europe. In southern Europe it is the Virgin Mary. This is a dichotomy that underpins something of the Reformation, essentially a northern/southern sundering.
So there are two cities, two avatars - Christ and Socrates - and there are two feminine archetypes or Forms, as well?
A further symmetry. There is Mary. Jerusalem. And Athena. Athens. The Greek tradition, the connections to Athens, are richer in the north, in Germany as it happens. This also meant that German orientalists had access to Athens. Von Klenze took employment there. So he had to re-imagine the city and in this he produced pictures of the idealised city, ancient Athens in her golden age. These are not archeological renderings, though; these are architectural visions. This is the Athens of legend. And this is the Athens that we want. This is the same Athens that we find in Plato's dialogues. This is Athens - city of philosophers. So this is the Athens with which philosophy should be concerned. Historians and archaeologists can fuss about other versions of Athens, but the philosopher should make himself at home in the Athens of the philosophers. Socrates' Athens. Plato's Athens. This is the Athens that Von Klenze imagines. Note that it is not one of those precise historical reconstructions. These days, with 3D animation and technology, we have scale models of ancient Athens and you can navigate around in the city.
Virtual reality. Like in a computer game?
Like in a computer game. We don't need that.
It goes too far. It is like the difference between erotica and pornography, if you like. A wit once said that the only difference is in the lighting, but the real difference is in imagination. As they say, pornography "leaves nothing to the imagination", whereas we very definitely and very deliberately do want to leave something to the imagination. The ideal is not the super-real. In modern art, there is the movement or the style called the super-real, super-realism. It is a mode of painting that tries to out-perform the camera. But that is not the "ideal". It does not try to capture the essence or the Form. The super-real, virtual reality, has a deadening effect upon the imagination. Whereas the whole task here is to foster an imaginative sense. Much as a book does. A novel creates a mental picture of places and people. Very different from a movie. You are much better to read the gospels than to watch Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ which is pornographic in its realism. In any case, Von Klenze - his paintings are idealised, an idealised rendering of ancient Athens, not virtual reality. He is a beautiful painter, Von Klenze. An architect but also one of the great orientalist painters from Germany. When he went to Athens in the first half of the XIXth century he gave us a vision of its classical ideal.
So we enter the Athens of the imagination?
Or the imaginal. The oriental city of true philosophy. If the West is to be revitalized it is necessary to make that journey again. There are cities of the imagination. Athens is one of them. To journey again to the garden of the philosophers in Athens. That is another important painting in this respect. It is by the Hungarian, Strohmayer. Antal Strohmayer. Who also journied to Athens and instead of painting what he saw with his physical eyes he reimagined the Athens of the philosophers in the painting 'The Garden of the Philosophers', in 1834. (See below.) Of course, needless to say, historical Athens almost certainly never looked like that. Which is entirely beside the point. Strohmayer paints the Athens of the philosophical imagination. This is a location in the European soul. Today, we live in an age where the Academy, the university, as an institution, is dangerously debased. It is now the realm of the soulless technocrat and of the relativist and of the post-modernist who knows no greater virtue than sheer power. Christianity is compromised and confused, certainly, and the Church is in a sorry state, but the university is in a state of even deeper decay. What has been lost is the garden of the philosophers, in Athens. The imaginal Athens. This is the Athens that needs to be rediscovered, as a cultural, civilizational project, but first as the personal project of anyone interested in Platonic philosophy.
Which is in a worse state, the Church or the university?
The university. Although in recent times we have seen the virtual collapse of Protestantism. There is hardly anything of value left in Protestantism. And in any case, these institutions overlap. The disease that has beset the universities is largely a disguised Calvinism. The Catholic Church has her problems, of course, and yet the Eastern Orthodox churches are in a healthier state. Even after eighty years of the Soviets the Russian Church is very healthy. But the Academy is in advanced decay almost everywhere. Very little is being done about it. The garden of the philosophers has been turned into a wasteland. People who are concerned with cultural decline, and so are also concerned with cultural renewal, they are aware of the spiritual problems in Christianity. But the West - and this is my key point here - is and has always been a mixture of Jerusalem and Athens. Christianity was never able to fully Christianize the occidental soul. And this is a matter of providence. The pagan spirit was never fully subdued, and the greatness of the West, and the greatest epochs of Western civilization, always drew upon Athens and Jerusalem. So any revival of the fortunes of the West - which you'd have to regard as unlikely anyway at this time - must include a renewal of the spirit of Athens. A return to Christianity will not suffice. You will hear it said that a renewal of the West must consist of a return to Christianity. I am more concerned about a return to Athens.
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