Monday, October 26, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part III

We now turn out attention to describing the city-state physically.

The polis was a defined geographical unit, the boundaries of which were known to its citizens, located in an Asty or concentration of urban dwellings. Prior to the Polis, tribes defined separate rallying points for military, religious, or political purposes. With the emergence of the city-state, however, these functions became concentrated in one place. Courts became centrally located and geographically separated religious functions were brought together in the temple of the state gods.

The most important Poleis became economic centers when they attracted potters and other artisans to re-locate there, but it’s important to point out that the initial growth was not a result of commercial activity, but rather, was the complex organization of an agrarian society. Athens, in the beginning, was a group of villages located around the fortress acropolis -- the connection between government and people being a loose one. There were no walls until hundreds of years later when the people had money to build them. Anyway, its was the people and not the structures that mattered as Alcaeus said – “neither houses finely roofed or canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.”

The aristocrats gained the most from the emerging political system by consolidating their power. They became the officers of the state and imposed their moral and artistic preferences on the people. But that is not to say class power was out of balance, because the Polis was fundamentally a reaction of its citizenry as a whole to the problems of the age. All classes were convinced they must work together to make sure the changing world did not produce chaos.

One can see, in the restriction of individual freedom, a brake applied to the aristocratic class, and whether or not they agreed to it easily, the result was a balance between the classes that would last for hundreds of years. The people of the Polis became patriotic, not by class, but as a people sharing a newly forged independence.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part II

In the last post we established background for the growth of the Polis. The key ingredients for this included the establishment of an aristocratic class that was wealthy and powerful, the strengthening of a lower class of small farmers through numbers, and a setting of isolation which allowed the Polis to incubate undisturbed. With the foundation laid, we now move on to the process.

We start with the most fundamental element – the decline of personal leadership. In many evolving societies, the same situation would have seen the central leader become dominant, the early Roman Republic and its Etruscan kings serving as a good example. In other sitiations, personal leadership succeeded because it was supported from the outside and gained power artificially.

But personal leadership did not survive in Archaic Greece.

The authoritarian model left after the Dorian invasion was the Basileus, a tribal chieftain who served as a military leader and not a king. The Basileis (plural) ultimately disappeared because they could not accumulate enough power to become kings. The factors blocking the accumulation of power follow:

• Their only wealth was derived from personal holdings and they never were able to control the wealth of others (taxation).

• They were never able to establish an inherited position.

• The aristocracy viewed itself as equal to the Basileus and would not cede power to a single individual.

• The masses derived power from numbers and their participation in the military (phalanx). Greater and lesser land owners stood together in battle and against personal leadership.

• Kingship was not needed when foreign threats were minor.

When did the Polis come into being? No one knows exactly, but the following diagram is an approximation.

We know that the words of Hesiod are pre-Polis because they describe an age of kings. We also know that there was an increase in the tempo of artistic activity around 700 B.C, which may have been linked to the new freedoms of the Polis. Lastly, we know that the creation of the Phalanx (circa 700 B.C.) roughly coincided with the beginning of the Polis. Perhaps the Phalanx was the final key to creating balance between the classes -- a balance which faciliated the building of a cooperative political system.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part I

The Polis was one of the two great outcomes of the Greek Archaic Age, along with colonization. While the former was an expression of the Greek desire to expand trade and reach the outside world, building of the city-state was far more important to the Greeks and western man as a whole because:

The Polis was the first governmental structure that supported the free expression of the human mind to pursue an intellectual foundation for his existence.

We will take the next couple of posts to describe how this happened.

We start in the Archaic Period – the Revolutionary Portion where the Greek people were in a struggle to create a cultural model which would remove the individual from the tribe and overcome the clan-based existence which had constrained man’s ability to reason since he came into being.

An aristocratic class came to power in about 750 B.C, as the most powerful and aggressive segment of Greek society. As they acquired wealth, the aristocrats were able to assert their independence as individuals. They began to create social distinctions to separate themselves from the rest of the people, and adopt a more refined and cultured way of life. This, in turn, fostered a more conscious analysis of man’s nature and place. Oriental influence was pervasive and the aristocrats did not limit themselves in any way, demanding new models for artistic expression.

Early on the upper class realized the value of passing on their cultural model, so fathers began to set standards for their children’s education by engaging tutors and philosophers to teach them. As the children grew, they were subject to peer pressure to conform to the model of their class, which resulted in a tightening of the model.

So the aristocracy grew – but not unchecked – because it had two significant constraints: its character and pressure from the outside. The aristocratic class had not existed long enough to forget its roots and it continued to retain a kinship to the rest of the society. Pressure from the outside was exerted by the masses, who, lacked power, but had unity and the capability to meet the needs of the aristocracy in the economic and military spheres.

The word aristocratic is often used in a negative connotation; implying arrogance, abuse of wealth, etc., but I use the word in a more fundamental sense here. I believe an aristocratic class develops as a logical step in the process of building human society. You always here me talking about people and their segmentation in society – a natural process we cannot alter. In the same way, the aristocratic class is the first to develop out of tribal society because it is made up of individuals who are able to use intelligence and guile to accumulate wealth and power – both used to exert control over the lower classes.

In Greece, that control was tempered by the small farmers who were able to act as a counterweight to aristocratic power through numbers. They experienced significant growth to the point of a surplus of people, and those numbers drove migration and mobility of the class and a freedom to choose how they wanted to live.

In the end, the delicate balance between the classes was protected by geographical isolation. Greece was free to incubate its city-state in a pure form without interference from forces on the outside that would upset that balance.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One More example of Oriental influence on the Protocorinthians

The following image is the best example I could find of a frieze (in this case Achaemenid) showing its influence on Protocorinthian pottery. I intended it to be part of the previous post on that subject, but didn’t have permission to use it in time.

Thanks to Karin Welss for letting me use the image and Charles Jones for pointing out my mistake on its origin.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Greek Feudalism Links to Europe 500-1500 A.D.

I continue to be fascinated by the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the more recent European Dark Ages to the point of thinking and writing more about them. I want to test the hypothesis that both periods featured similar human behavior.

How this for an idea? What If the human experience during the Greek Dark Ages shows us the model of evolving human behavior in societies – a model that is repeated under similar circumstances? Then the Europeans, with knowledge of the Greek experience, would have known what lay ahead of them. They could have, in fact, predicted their future.

Of course, they never had a chance to acquire that knowledge because access to it was cut off by the suppression of pagan thought and culture that came with the early Catholic Church’s efforts to establish dogma. The Europeans were left in the dark regarding Greek history (no pun intended).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because we have to create a context for our comparison by more thoroughly reviewing the Greek experience. Take a look at the following diagram, which shows the Dark Ages and the Archaic Period with key dates in the latter identified. The Archaic Period was dominated by the Age of Revolution which included the most significant changes in Greek culture and world view in its history. We can see how Protocorinthian pottery sits at the beginning of the Revolutionary Period as its documenter.

There was plenty going on – colonization, development of the Polis, and changes in Greek religious philosophy. As far as religion goes, it was a period where power of the human mind replaced fear of the gods (think enlightenment). One can imagine the timid man struggling to trade in the animal barbarian view for brain dominance – the winning out of the intellect.

The Greeks evolved their religion in response to the upheaval of the Revolutionary Age in three fundamental ways: continuous expression of fear, reinvention of the personalities of their gods, and the creation of cults. Continuous expression refers to the use of monsters in art. By displaying objects of fear, over time they became less fearsome. Early pottery featured lions fighting, while later images make the animals look tame enough to be stuffed. They had become abstract images.

The gods were re-invented to show their human side (e.g. Heracles) which included their being re-casted as seekers of justice. This validated the sense of justice and morality emerging in the new Greek society, and made the gods the standard for right and wrong.

Lastly, cults appeared as an emotional safety valve. Orphism, mystics, seers, and mysteries helped to put the unknown answers to life in a box. Three major cults emerged – those of Dionysus, Apollo, and Heracles, with the former dominant. Cult worship evolved as a way to purge away fears and reassure the individual he could survive.

We see these significant adaptations in Greek religion and wonder about them. Surely religion was serving as a emotional guide, allowing man to think in new ways. But man has always adapted his religion to his situation. Just look at the MTV churches we have today.

We also see similarities between Greece and the European Middle Ages. In Europe, it took the reawakening of man’s spirit and confidence in himself to overcome a corrupted fear-based dogma which suppressed his desire to learn. The Europeans only had to rediscover their humanness. The Greeks had it tougher, because there was no past to use as a guide.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Three Ages of Man – Repression, Freedom, and the End of Responsibility

One of my core beliefs is that human beings in society differentiate themselves by aptitude and intelligence. People have a strong desire to become self-actualized -- to control their lives and have the freedom to pursue whatever interests them. Man knows (or senses) that when he lives alone he cannot become self-actualized because he must spend all his time trying to survive, so he decides to live with others. But society can be repressive so man has fought for freedom throughout history – to get out from under repressive elements limiting his opportunities. Modern man, for the most part, has achieved that goal, although he must except the fact that freedom has its price and that price is responsibility. When a man has control over his life he must be responsible to himself and his family.

Since mankind appeared on the earth, he has separated himself from the other animals through the use of his highly developed brain. At first he had to compete with other hominids for supremacy, but by the end of the Paleolithic Era the competition was eliminated and Homo Sapiens stood as the sole surviving Human species.

During the Neolithic Period, man became a farmer and gave up the life of a nomad. He developed tools and lived in tribes of 150-2000. There was no real social or economic stratification in those primitive clans, although the accumulation of herds led to differences in wealth. At the dawn of the Bronze Age, man began to live in larger groups. Villages were formed and social stratification began. With stratification came repression. The wealthy used their power to control the poor. The poor had no rights, so those at the bottom of the economic scale became dependent on the wealthy. The average man was repressed socio-economically but remained responsible for his own life and the lives of his family.

We move on through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and the advent of complex societies and governments where both Athens and Rome provide us with examples of attempts to overcome inequality and repression through the creation of legal systems which would extend basic rights to all people. Still the people were repressed and governments continued to be controlled by wealthy aristocracies. When these classical governments failed, mankind endured a long winter of the Dark Ages lasting a thousand years. I characterize human society from the late Stone Age through the Renaissance as a repression society where the weak are controlled by the strong while individuals retained responsible for their own lives.

The renaissance caused a reawakening of the human spirit and a sense of the value of the individual in society. This new found power of the people led to the American and French Revolutions ushering in a new political age with legitimate rights held by the people and a real opportunity to control their government. I characterize this period in human society as the end of repression and the dawn of freedom. During this time people continued to maintain responsibility for their own lives.

Now we come to the third age of man in society: the end of personal responsibility. This is a time when freedom prevails but personal responsibility is dead. Beginning circa 1970 with the political indoctrination of projected responsibility, there followed a movement of human behavior toward this projection. I not sure of the origin of the former – possibly it was the creation of liberal academics, who were idealistic in believing that all those who needed help could be saved and that government was the savior. I label this projection because the indoctrinators were unconsciously denying the legitimacy of human responsibility.

What evidence do we have of this new age in action?

1. Murderers who were abused as children are now sympathetic figures.

2. The responsibility for human stupidity and negligence has been transferred to corporations. If I drive an ATV down a hill and break my neck, it’s the vehicle’s fault. If I stick my hand in the spinning blade of a lawnmower and get hurt it’s the manufacturer’s fault. If I eat packing materials and get sick it’s the fault of the shipper.

In the United States, the legal profession has become a major contributor to the death of responsibility. There is a daily drumbeat of commercials featuring attorneys looking for new clients to add to their victims list. There are so many lawyers they have to invent new ways to make money – sue McDonalds because its customers get fat, perhaps? Since we keep electing lawyers to Congress, we keep extending the umbrella they provide over the trial lawyers association, protecting its sources of income. So more lawyers means more law suits and more transfer of responsibility.

3. Politicians who break the law should be given a second chance, as long as their publicist is able to build a nice contrition story. They’re human and made a mistake, so we have to forgive.

4. Corporations are evil. They try to enslave their workers, and rob their customers.

5. If a person does not have money or a job, its not their fault -- they have been disadvantaged by the evil in society. Government must make up for this inequality.

Politicians no longer feel responsible to the American people. Their re-election rate is so high because groups that benefit from the legislator’s efforts provide the money and propaganda that produces more votes than the opposition.

The lack of responsibility has also reached the educational system where teachers have given up responsibility to accurately grade students. Now everyone gets good grades, because no one wants to limit a student’s opportunities by giving him/her a low grade. Why are colleges so focused on standardized test scores? Because grades are no longer a measure of a student’s capability.

The list goes on and on.

Now that I’ve painted an ugly picture, you may wonder when third age ends and the fourth age begins.

The end of responsibility is directly related to the distance man has removed himself from REAL living. Remember the guy at the beginning who lives alone in the woods? That’s REAL living. What we have now is something else.

Although we can observe the imbalance of human responsibility, does anyone care? Is this even a bad thing, or just some higher form of human existence? During the Paleolithic Period, people who had bad eyes died. That was natural selection. Now people get glasses and live a normal life. Is the end of responsibility a similar progression?

To me the logical endpoint of the denial of responsibility is “1984” in reality – a time where the government, and their investors (corporations) take care of all of us. Where all jobs are government jobs or we work for a government contractor.

What could prevent this unhappy reality? We'd need a catastrophic event – war, famine, climate change. Something that would force man to be responsible again. Responsible for his survival and the survival of those that matter to him.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review of the book Cleopatra and Anthony by Diana Preston

I was asked by the publisher to review Diana Preston’s book Cleopatra and Anthony and express my opinion on this non-fiction story of Rome and Egypt. Most everyone knows the tale of Octavian’s rival and his love affair with the Queen of Egypt, which followed her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, but there is much detail beneath the legend and the story told by Shakespeare.

Anthony, along with Lepidus and Octavian, became second triumvirs of Rome during the period between the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian as Caesar Augustus. After disposing of Lepidus, Octavian was ready to take on Anthony directly in a fight for control of Rome, and defeated him at the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C. Anthony, his spirit broken, committed suicide when he thought Cleopatra was dead. The Queen of the Nile, shrewd in her own right, had successfully used her personality and her body to help maintain the autonomy of Egypt and protect her family against the growing power of Rome. It was only when she realized that she would have no power over Octavian and would become a spectacle of ridicule that she decided to end her own life.

Diana Preston reverses the title and the roles of the Roman general and the Queen of Egypt – making her the strong, politically savvy ruler while Anthony plays the role as the frustrated, decadent general. This is certainly a twist on the old story, but probably appropriate because Cleopatra was more than a just a temptress and symbol of Egyptian excess. For most of history she has received credit only for seducing two famous Romans and not for her accomplishments as a politician. The book is successful in highlighting the activities of Cleopatra as she tries to hold her world together, much of the time abandoned by Anthony while he was married Octavian’s sister in an attempt to keep his relationship with Octavian intact.

What I don’t like about the book is the style. The writing has this staccato-like rhythm that rolls out fact after fact like a machine gun. We’re about to have the Battle of Actium so let’s talk about Roman ships and how their made. The calendar is mentioned and we launch into the Julian modifications. Events become the launching pad to digress into cultural detail that sits below the surface action. I was also put off by the number of references to the primary sources used by the author – too many “according to Appian” and “Plutarch states that”. It’s as if the author is concerned we won’t trust her facts so she feels the need to include copious references in the middle of the narrative.

My third complaint is about the use of vocabulary which includes modern words and colloquialisms rather than traditional wording. Here are a some examples.

“Too late, the sweating Romans realized they were under attack, dropped their spades, and grabbed their swords.”

“Cicero would sneeringly deride him as resembling a prizefighter.”

“Convinced that Anthony had not been a safe pair of hands, Caesar, for the moment at least, dropped him.”

This kind of narrative is jarring to me and seems out of place. Perhaps this style reflects a new kind of writing which combines historical narrative, techniques of the novel, and popular culture. If others like the style that’s fine. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Protocorinthian Pottery in the Revolutionary Age

One of the great periods in the history of Greek pottery, the Protocorinthian, is defined by the years 720-640 B.C. The Protocorinthian Period is commonly associated with the term “orientalizing” referring to the influence the cultures of Asia Minor exerted on the Greek styles during Archaic Period. The influx of artistic ideas from the Near East had a profound effect on the course of Greek art, but the Greeks did not simply copy outside ideas. What is special about the Protocorinthian Period is that Greek artists took Near Eastern art themes and adapted and modified them for their own purposes. The degree of oriental influence has been debated among scholars to the point of general agreement that the orient was influential but did not determine the course of Greek art. The Greeks may have originally used eastern motifs as a starting point, but what they ended up with was an art form wholly Greek.

Prior to the beginning of this new period, Corinthian potters were producing the finest of the geometric style, while Attic version was seen as stiff, rigid, and over elaborate in comparison. The Corinthian potters became restless with their technique and began a period of experimentation where they expressed themselves in new and daring ways. This restlessness was found in all aspects of Greek culture at the time, for the Greeks were in the process of emerging from the 'Dark Age' and renewing themselves culturally. The first tentative steps were geometric variations (zigzag or wavy lines), but then the lines changed in character and the vessels in shape. Before long animal and human figures were featured on the pottery. The commercial success of these new styles throughout the Greek world encouraged the Corinthian potters to continue their stylistic development.

How does an orientalizing influence fit in here? Trade and expanding Greek settlements created more interaction with the oriental people, particularly the Assyrians and the Phoenicians. The cultures of the Near East were highly developed compared to Greece at the time and the Greeks naturally looked to these cultures with admiration. The most visible aspect of a culture is its art, and here the Greeks found many examples from which to emulate. The life subjects painted on the Greek pottery were adapted from similar themes found in eastern non-ceramic media such as metal and sculpture. One need only look at Assyrian reliefs and similar Phoenician art forms to see the connection. Many motifs common to Protocorinthian and later Greek art have their origins in Near Eastern art, such as the palmette, lotus, sphinx as well as artistic techniques such as

The following collage shows the boldness of the new Corinthian style.

Compare the first piece of pottery with the last three, taking into account the Assyrian friezes. Number one is almost completely geometric, while the others express a new creativity which takes the frieze concept and places it on the pottery. This innovation took place over a 30-40 year span.

It is interesting that as this orientalizing style was achieving enormous success throughout the Greek world, certain sub-geometric styles continued in Corinth. It’s as if the Corinthians were willing to be daring in the commercial markets but conservative in their own style. Both styles continued down to the year 600 B.C. when the sub-geometric finally disappeared.

The Proto-Attic (Athenian) Period nearly parallels that of the Protocorinthians, but the Athenians were not able to create a style that was as popular during this time. Later, the Athenians would become more innovative and overtake the Corinthians who had compromised style for production.

This post was co-authored with Matthew Rogan.