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date: 15 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces the themes for the first part of this book, ‘Hellenes and Hellenism’. In the classic Victorian statement of political and social criticism, Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold wrote that to get rid of one's ignorance and to see things as they are is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and from the simplicity and charm of this ideal, Hellenism and human life is imbued with a kind of clarity and radiance. The rest of the article briefly describes related themes such as modernity, classical antiquity, Greek society, colonization, Alexander the Great, Hellenistic culture, Rome, Hebraism, Islam, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

Keywords: Hellenism, Victorian, political criticism, Matthew Arnold, human nature, Greek society, Hellenistic culture, Enlightenment

This section begins with a group of complementary papers which take as their focus the historical development of a ‘new urbanism’ in Greece from the eighth century bce. James Redfield reflects on changes in social structures during this period, while Sara Forsdyke looks at the parallel evolution of civic institutions, all of which culminated in the polis, the ‘city-state’ familiar to us as the backdrop to the rich cultural legacy of the fifth and fourth centuries.

Put like this, of course, there is a risk of whiggery, of making the rise of the classical polis sound somehow inevitable. (Aristotle actually believed that it was: his claim that man is a naturally ‘political’ animal, Politics 1253a3, includes the thought that a polis was the natural expression of human social activity.) In fact, of course, it is the result of complex interactions between society as a whole and the individuals and interest-groups of various kinds which make it up. This is something that is especially easy to see where external pressures are concerned, and emphasized here in the discussion of the economic context by Sitta von Reden, and of the military context by Peter Hunt. But if the polis was not a historical inevitability, the ‘natural’ expression of human sociability, it is also true that the idea of the polis came to acquire a special place in Greek thought that went far beyond the confines of the historical and geographical reality. It became a trans-historical standard for Hellenic identity; as such it remains a central topic in Hellenic studies.

That the idea of the polis came to stand as a reference-point for Hellenic cultural ideals is not, as one might have thought, purely the result of later memory, or memorialization of the political structures that obtained during a rich and productive era in Greek cultural history. This happened, of course; but it built on a conscious attempt by its inhabitants to promote the polis as a centre for cultural identity. Robin Osborne looks at how the city developed (that is, how it was developed) physically to reflect an ideal, ‘common’, identity, cultural and political; and John Ma shows how this work of physical construction involved the creation of a history, an ideal past for the polis, which is owned by each individual citizen as much as the corporation. Its history is the citizen's ancestry—and, since the citizen might be memorialized in inscription or statue, he might in his turn aspire to a kind of immortality as part of his city's historical identity.

The burgeoning science of human nature was very sensitive to these developments, and recognized the implications for human identity. In the later fifth or early fourth centuries bce philosophers started to develop a systematically dualistic account of human beings as composites of body and soul—the body as something (p. 184) which embeds the person in a particular community, but the soul, the true ‘self’, as the locus of desires and beliefs which those communities could shape. Personal identity, then, as Christopher Gill suggests, is for these thinkers social identity, and it is no coincidence that Plato's utopian designs for a polis in the Republic are largely structured around rethinking the educational curriculum—or, conversely, that Protagoras assigns the central role in moral education to the city as a whole (Plato, Protagoras 326e).

Among other institutions important for displaying and shaping social identity, one thinks particularly of the formalized drinking-party, the sumposion, structured as a microcosm of polis life—a ‘micropolis’, as Fiona Hobden explains it. The symposium provides a safe context for what might otherwise be potentially subversive reflection on the city itself, but also, and at the same time, for the individual's reflection on himself as a member of the city. As it happens, the institution also illustrates in microcosm the way in which the historical polis perpetuates itself as an idea, or ideal of hellenicity: for it is quickly elevated from historical contingency to an enduring literary genre, still alive and well in the period of Roman occupation through writers such as Plutarch and Athenaeus.

Hobden compares the symposium to a Männerbund (‘brotherhood’); and Claude Calame too reflects on its role as a backdrop to the discourse of social ‘initiation’ in his broader discussion of ‘rites of passage’—those rituals which more or less explicitly sacramentalize and define the development of the individual as a social being in ancient Greece as in other societies. One aspect of this question, the definition of sexual identity, is given further consideration here in two chapters, by Eva Cantarella and Laura McClure. Cantarella considers various ways in which sexual norms were constructed as part of a wider pattern of relationships— and the problems, given the social context within which these relationships are understood, to which the evidence for particular relationships gives rise; McClure focuses on specific issues in understanding how individuals could be constructed as sexual beings. But, for all its importance, sexual identity is not an issue apart: the negotiation between biology and culture hinted at in McClure's question is, for example, reflected in an interesting way with the issue of slavery, addressed by Page duBois. Where society operates to give cultural shape to biological facts in the case of sexuality, it denies cultural identity (or, strictly, cultural significance) to slaves, who become ‘mere’ bodies. (Aristotle's suggestion that ‘ideal’ slaves are psychologically impaired is instructive in this context too: Politics 1260a12–17.)

Slaves are ubiquitous, yet nearly invisible: central to the functioning of the polis, but ‘outsiders’ to it as well. In this sense, there is something else that they symbolize: the relationship (or potential relationship) between the polis and other peoples and races; and this is the subject of the group of chapters that follows. This relationship is often conceived in terms of actual or potential hostility. Benjamin Isaac, in a piece with implications more generally for how one can talk about topics where the Greeks didn't have a word for it (duBois reminds us that ‘homosexuality’ is (p. 185) another example), shows that the Greeks might not have known colour prejudice, a defining feature of modern racism, but were no less racist for that. The highly institutionalized character taken on by travel in the Greek world may be explained in part by this suspicion of foreigners and foreign lands. The sea, discussed here by Kim Ayodeji as a standpoint offering a neglected perspective on ancient Greek life, is neglected partly because it symbolized for the city-dwellers who dominate our evidence the threat of the foreign: untamed, but unavoidable; a means of travel, yet a means which presented a constant danger to life and liberty. Travellers, then, tried to take their city with them: travel is typically conducted as a civic act, one justified and defined by one's tie to the city: trade, for example, or martial aggression, or—an extreme case—colonization (touched on here by Maria Pretzler in her discussion of the range of travel experiences reflected in surviving literature). The nature of Greek religion facilitated the transition to some degree, however; for, as Julia Kindt argues here, it is something whose practice might have coloured every aspect of the individual's experience of their polis first and foremost, but whose shared form makes the connection between their local and Panhellenic identity. No wonder, then, that the principal occasions for travel included, precisely, religious festivals, alongside opportunities for patriotic display such as the Panhellenic games (discussed by Jason König). But religion is not the only means by which an individual's polis-identity turns out to be as much a bridge as a bar to identification with the interests of ‘foreigners’ of one sort or another. Carol Dougherty reminds us that one did not have to go abroad to encounter them, for every polis is itself somewhere visited, after all—and its visitors become part of its identity. As ever, it turns out that the boundaries of self-definition are rarely as sharp or inflexible as the Greeks, or as we as their interpreters, sometimes try to make them.

In the last chapter of the section, Christopher Rowe considers the theoretical perspective on the polis as the immediate context for an individual's flourishing. That ancient political philosophy has such strong roots in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle is no doubt part of the reason for the perpetuation of the polis as idea. The Cynics and, later, the Stoics chafed against the artificial boundaries of the conventional polis; the Stoics in fact lived at a time when its political centrality was over. In them, ‘the notion of humanity works itself free from that of the polis’, as Rowe says, with the historical polis in mind. But it is significant that they rethought their own ideal in its terms. In championing the life of the ‘cosmic community’, what they call the ‘cosmopolis’, they from one perspective invite us to bring the ideals of the polis to bear on the universe as a whole. The number of Greeks for whom the polis was a lived reality was relatively small, then; but seen from this point of view, every Greek utopia was in the end a polis. (p. 186)