Friday, 18 August 2017

What Did The Ancient Greeks Ever Do For Us?

I mean apart from democracy, philosophy, architecture, statuary and theatre, what did the Greeks ever give us? They always come off favourably in comparison with the supposedly more barbarian and plagiarist Romans, but for 'democracy' you also had 'despotism' (read Plato's "The Republic" which shows the way democracy can very easily slide into tyranny through its own lack of true awareness of important values). However it's the philosophy and the theatre which I really want to challenge for the supreme value of their heritage as it has passed down to us. 

I'm not going to say too much about the philosophy, except where it has resonance in art. Plato's phenomenalism is a crucial concept to how we perceive reality, with his famous example of slaves in a cave viewing the shadows thrown on the cave walls by their fire, equating to perceptive reality for these slaves who have never seen the world outside of the cave. He derives this example through his belief that the whole world of appearances which we take for reality, is but a degraded version of true reality and (aesthetic/mathematical) beauty.

For the highest existence of any object is its ideal form and in our world, actual objects never attain such an ideal form. Now this represents an important way of thinking & perceiving even in our modern world. Of course there are no 'ideal' forms of objects, but what there are is linguistic nouns which categorise all sorts of various 'non-ideal' forms of similar things; all breeds of dogs are 'Dogs' is the simplest representation of this. But consider something more debatable - is a flatpack table in Ikea's warehouse still a table before it gets sold and erected? Is a slave or hired prostitute at an orgy, who is ordered to bend over so that food can be served from their naked back, are they a table? Is the ammo box that the soldier utilises while on patrol to quickly scoff down his rations, a table, or is it still only an ammo box containing rocket propelled grenades? 

Phenomenalism and particularly Nominal Phenomenalism, means that the supposed evidence of our senses and particularly the dominant one of sight, actually goes through a pre-filter of language, grouping similar things together as a shorthand that may not in fact do justice to the complexity of 'reality'. And this filter of language is of course the mainstay and dominant tool of us writers. We can use it to not only describe reality, but to challenge its consensus by really examining its linguistic short-cuts. So we could and possibly should be challenging accepted reality and showing how it has been constructed. Those writers and philosophers who study signs and symbols (semiologists) do this on one level, but writers can bring it to the linguistic realm. 

Now let's come to Greek Theatre. It is absolutely entwined with politics in Ancient Greece, that politics being in the main direct participatory democracy (the military oligarchy of Sparta didn't produce much in the way of playwrights). Plays in Athens were performed during religious festivals, the rest of the time the theatres in the small administrative demes were used for political meetings of the whole community entitled to vote. Plays in these festivals were in competition and accordingly were sponsored by patrons, most of whom were professional politicians, else citizens who wanted to wield influence. Many plays debated the issues of recent or contemporary events, while comedies lambasted real prominent citizens to their faces sat there in the audience, to remind them of their place to serve the Polis rather than their own interests. The ancient Greek word for playwright has as its root 'teacher' or trainer, while the word 'Praxis' which Aristotle coined for the dramatic action, also stands for a body of practical political action.  

So Greek plays were not politically neutral and for all their show at having both sides of the debate (much like Plato's dialectic philosophical style), actually there was really only one message either the playwright, or his patron wanted to impart (just like Plato's "Republic", though his other dialectic works were more ambiguous and even handed in their conclusions). Plays were always geared to preaching to their audience and that audience were those with the vote in the democracy (so not women or slaves who were excluded from voting). The plays preached reasoned debate, when in fact they were tilting for a single point of view, with their own constructed democracy as the highest value (not an 'ideal' one in Plato's eyes, far from it as above). Those individualist citizens who weren't team players, or those with a tendency towards demagoguery, were constantly being defeated on stage.

For such men displayed 'hubris', that is the excess of pride in imagining yourself above your station within the society. Any individual citizen who wasn't a team player, was regarded as having hubris and all Tragic dramas in the Greek canon had men brought low by their hubris. Indeed even the word 'hero' which reverberates so powerfully in our own society, initially emerged from Greek theatre, not existing outside of that context beforehand. The dramatic hero is a demiurge, that is a man who sees himself superior to his fellow man, halfway to being a god and of course, such tragic heroes are felled by their hubris. The stage actors had to play both heroes and gods, an act and an appropriation involving of hubris in itself just in case any of them got ideas above their station. Hubris implicitly reinforces a 'know your place' attitude, for to flout it inevitably means personal destruction. 

The clinching point about this propagandist theatre comes from a word the Greek's themselves coined, 'catharsis'. Catharsis means a purging, initially a purification in the religious sense. But when applied to the theatre by Aristotle in "Poetics" it has a more manipulative meaning. Theatre, in line with praxis, is vicarious, the audience experience the play as brought to them by the actors. We don't know whether they were passive in the amphitheatres, or like Shakespeare's 'Pit' rowdy & interactive with the stage. But by the end of a tragedy, having seen Orestes put out his own eyes, or the abasement and cruelty visited upon "The Trojan Women", or the double suicide of the lovers to conclude "Antigone", the audience are purged of their passions through the very extremity of the emotions wrought in them by the action on stage. That is, the playwright has taken them on such a journey, they are useless for anything at the end of the play. Certainly no call to action, only the playwright's sly reinforcement of whatever particular message he was putting across and the audience too played out to resist that message. Wrung out and spent, they go home marvelling at the stagecraft, story and spectacle, confirmed in the moral teaching the playwright conveyed. 

I could go on about how the heritage from the Greeks has further hamstrung us in our modern age. That Greek philosophy's main thrust was seeking to answer the question 'what constitutes a good life?', which for Plato, in the context of a city, was living a 'Just' life. For Aristotle it was living a balanced life, avoiding excess at either end of the spectrum of behaviour. Now this may or may not be a reasonable philosophical question to consider (I would say there are more pressing ones along the line of what is man, why is he here on earth, what is he supposed to achieve in his short life?) But - and you can't necessarily blame the Greeks for this, their inquiry into goodness was hijacked and taken on by the Christian theologian-cum-philosophers, whose answer was of course faith in God and following a set of moral and behavioural commandments. Again, a rigid moral unilateralism that is today in tatters and has led to the evils of slavery, colonialism, subjection of women and our own bodies, which have only furthered the crippling issues we face today. 

So yes, I do declare, what have the Ancient Greeks done for us, except to set up the parameters by which we have navigated to our very troubling modern age? 

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