Monday, 11 February 2019

Comparing Alcibiades and Plato

'Comparing Alcibiades and Plato, one could say that in a sense… Plato is a sort of inverted Alcibiades. Considerably younger than Alcibiades, undoubtedly thirty years his junior, Plato sublimates this passion for power that Alcibiades couldn’t master and that led him to do what he did in the history of Athens; Plato transposes it onto another level, the level of writing, of schooling, of counsel given to the powerful and to tyrants. This is what he did, it seems, in Sicily with Dionysius and then with Dion.’ (Cornelius Castoriadis: On Plato's Statesman).

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Castoriadis on Plato and the end of Athenian democracy


‘Plato played quite a considerable role in what can be called the destruction of the Greek world. In the eyes of history, he transformed a de facto destruction into an apparently de jure destruction. That is to say, if the Athenian democracy collapsed in the end, it was ultimately in the order of things – not in the sense in which Herodotus says, ‘All that is great must become small’, and vice versa, but because it was fundamentally rotten, a regime dominated by the ignorant crowd, the impassioned and passionate crowd, and not by the wise man or by wisdom, the just man or justice. Thus, rather than being a historical tragedy, the fall of Athenian democracy becomes a case of immanent philosophical justice.’ (Cornelius Castoriadis: On Plato's Statesman).

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Mekas, Cassavetes, Papatakis and the two versions of Shadows




Above is a clip of the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who died this week, talking about falling out with John Cassavetes and Nikos Papatakis over Cassavetes’ first film Shadows (1959), which Papatakis produced. The story is that Mekas, who moved in the same avant-garde and underground New York film circles as Cassavetes, was blown away by the first version of the film but that Papatakis suggested a reshoot to make it more commercial. Cassavetes agreed with Papatakis and Mekas felt betrayed. 

In fact, the first version  of Shadows was long thought lost, only for Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney to discover it in 2003. This is Carney’s account of that discovery. What Carney doesn’t mention in his piece is how the first version of Shadows has rarely been shown as a result of a dispute between Carney and Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, over who owns the film. Carney has accused Rowlands of blackballing him for revealing the more unpalatable side of Cassavetes’ genius. 


‘There was a lot that was wonderful about Cassavetes that no one ever denied, and that I still believe to be true. There is no question that he is one of the great twentieth-century artists – in any medium. He was a visionary and a dreamer, a passionate, nonstop talker who was exciting to listen to. He was a born charmer, with the charisma of a Svengali. People loved to be around him. They basked in his energy. He inspired them and could talk people into doing seemingly anything. It took those qualities to make the movies. He had to throw a lot of magic dust around to keep people working long hours without pay. He had to play with their souls to motivate them.

‘But as I dug deeper, I was forced to recognize that you can't have the positive without the negative, the virtues without the corresponding vices. Cassavetes was a super-salesman, a Pied Piper, a guru – but he was also most of the other things that come with the territory. He was a con-man. He would say or do almost anything to further his ends. He'd lie to you, steal from you, cheat you if necessary. He could be a terror if you got in his way. If he liked you or needed you, he was a dream – kind, thoughtful, generous; if you crossed him, he was your worst nightmare.

‘To put it comically, you might say that he had a short man's complex or a Greek man's macho streak. The positive side is that he was a fierce competitor and a perfectionist. When it came to making movies, nothing could make him compromise his vision. The negative side was that he was incredibly proud and temperamental. He would turn on you if you even politely questioned his judgment or wanted to do something different from what he did. It was good he wrote, directed, and produced his own work, because no one was less of a team player. He couldn't deal with authority. He had to be the boss, the center of attention, the star of the show – on and off. If he didn't get his way he threw temper tantrums and behaved childishly.’

Monday, 21 January 2019

Castoriadis on Plato, the Greeks and living without hope

In a previous post, I looked at Plato’s disavowal of Hesiod’s depiction of a universe underpinned by chaos in favour of a view of the world permeated by goodness and noted the far-reaching ontological and philosophical implications this had, especially in the formation of Christianity.

Cornelius Castoriadis  is also interested in Plato’s break with the classical Greek vision of the world. For Castoriadis, the Greek perception of Being as Chaos – at the heart of which is the tragic imaginary showing that ‘not only [are] we not masters of the consequences of our actions, but we are not even masters of their meaning’ – is substituted by Plato with a religious or quasi-religious ontology in which Being equals the Good equals Wisdom equals the Beautiful. Thus, Plato, Castoriadis says, rejects the ‘nucleus of the Greek imaginary’ – in which there is an absence of order for man – and replaces it with a theological and unitary ontology that presumes an underlying harmony and rationality in the world.

Castoriadis describes Plato’s innovation as a ‘philosophical monstrosity’ and argues that it has parallels with other theological and unitary ontologies, such as Hebraico-Christianity (with its belief in the Promised Land, resurrections, messiahs and the afterlife), and liberalism and Marxism, with their belief in progress and human perfectibility.

Castoriadis illustrates Plato’s rupture with the classical Greek vision of the world by looking at how the latter would have addressed Kant’s three fundamental questions of philosophy: What can I know? What should I do? and What am I allowed to hope?

On the first two questions, Castoriadis says, the Greeks initiated an illimitable discussion that precluded ever arriving at a categorical ‘Greek answer’. However, on the third question, What am I allowed to hope? the Greeks did provide ’a definite and clear answer, and this is a massive and resounding nothing’.

Castoriadis goes on that hope
‘is not to be taken here in the everyday trivial sense – that the sun will again shine tomorrow, or that a child will be born alive. The hope to which Kant refers is the hope of the Christian or religious tradition, the hope corresponding to that central human wish and delusion that there be some essential correspondence, some consonance, some adequatio, between our desires and decisions, on the one hand, and the world, the nature of being, on the other. Hope is the ontological, cosmological, and ethical assumption that the world is not just something out there, but cosmos in the archaic and proper sense, a total order which includes us, our wishes, and our strivings as its organic and central components. The philosophical translation of this assumption is that being is ultimately good. As is well known, the first one who dared to proclaim this philosophical monstrosity clearly was Plato – after the classical period had ended’.
As for the pre-classical and classical Greeks, Castoriadis says, their denunciation of hope and robust belief that the world can never be fully ordered (that the only order that exists is the order Anaximander describes, which is order through catastrophe, Being as creation and destruction), has profound implications for the way they did politics and philosophy:
‘For Hesiod, hope is forever imprisoned in Pandora’s box. In pre-classical and classical Greece, there is no hope for an afterlife: either there is no afterlife, or if there is one, it is worse than the worst life on earth – as Achilles reveals to Odysseus in the Land of the Dead. Having nothing to hope from an afterlife or from a caring and benevolent God, man is liberated for action and thought in this world.’

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Chaos and goodness: from Hesiod and Plato to Christianity and Nietzsche

What does Nietzsche mean when he says: ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’? An interesting essay, Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth, by E.E. Pender, gives us an idea.

The subject of the essay is Plato’s attempt, particularly in the Timaeus but also in the Republic, to establish a new creation myth for the Greeks that would supplant Hesiod’s Theogony, which Plato objected to on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently edifying and, indeed, that Hesiod’s depiction of the gods and their role in creating the universe was fundamentally wrong.

In particular, according to Pender, what Plato wants to correct in Hesiod is the ‘moral chaos’ of the Theogony, in which the gods are often portrayed as jealous and spiteful, engaged in plotting, deception and violence. For Plato, god is incapable of malevolence. He is by nature good and his motive in creating the universe is to advance goodness.
‘Unlike Hesiod’s Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus, Plato’s supreme god is not seeking to create a world order that will allow him simply to gain and then hold on to power. This god and those he creates are themselves good and their aim is to create further goodness.’
Furthermore, Pender says, into Hesiod’s universe, in which chaos is the primal force and strife and power politics define the relationship between the gods, Plato wants to interject a benign and rational being – a demiurge or craftsman-father – able to impose harmony and rationality. Whereas Hesiod identifies a universe permeated by disorder, out of which an ordered cosmos can never fully emerge, Plato sees a world infused with goodness, always striving to achieve perfectibility.

Plato also wants to correct Hesiod when it comes to defining the attributes of the Muses, the goddesses that inspire in the creation of art and the pursuit of knowledge. In Hesiod, the Muses exist to soothe grief and help men forget their troubles; but in Plato they lose their psychogogic qualities and acquire a more transcendental and metaphysical role, which is to guide the human soul (through philosophy and philosophical exercises) towards divine harmony and reason.

In Plato’s creation tale, then, Pender concludes, ‘the principle of goodness is eternally present, the triumph of order and reason is assured by design, human beings have the means to become like gods’.

In which case, to return to Nietzsche and his ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’ – a statement, it’s worth stressing, intended to insult Christianity, Platonism and the masses; we can now see that it is not a long road to travel to get from Plato’s ‘eternally present principle of goodness’ to Christianity’s depiction of God as the epitome of goodness; from Plato’s ‘triumph of order and reason assured by design’ to Christianity’s God the Creator and Jesus the embodiment of divine logos; or from ‘human beings [that] have the means to become like gods’, to Christianity’s belief in transfiguration, in which man, innately good (i.e. even if not born good, then always capable of it), aspires, via communion with God or redemption through Jesus, to become suffused by the divine.

* Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth is contained in the book Plato and Hesiod, which you can download as a PDF from here.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Theodoros Kolokotronis: ‘one of the leaders of our race’

One of my favourite parts in one of my favourite Nikos Kazantzakis’ books is the following from Travels in Greece: Journey to the Morea, in which the Cretan author reflects on the character of perhaps the foremost hero of the Greek War of Independence, Theodoros Kolokotronis, the Old Man of the Morea. I’ve always liked Kazantzakis’ description of Kolokotronis, which has him, for 50 years, patiently preparing for the fight against the Turks, for the moment when his life would begin and take meaning.

The Old Man of the Morea
Today as I sit in a Tripolitan coffeehouse watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive and valiant soul of Kolokotronis. Here in Tripolis, air and mountain are still filled with his ample breath. From the days he spent as a merchant in Zakynthos, gazing at the mountains of Morea across the way, sighing:

I see the spreading sea, and afar the Morea,
Grief has seized me, and great yearning…


until his censure by the land that he liberated, and those final serene moments when Charon found him, Kolokotronis’ life was a dramatic, characteristic unfolding of a rich modern Greek soul: faith, optimism, tenacity, valour, a certain, practical mind, deceptive versatility, like Odysseus.

When the penpushers all lost their bearings, or the tin-soldier generals bickered among themselves, Kolokotronis would see the simplest, most effective solution. Gentle and softhearted when it served the great purpose, harsh and savage when necessary. Harsh and savage most of all with himself. When he served as a corsair on the ‘black ships’ he once found himself without tobacco. He opened his pipe and scraped it in order to get some burned tobacco to make a cigarette. But at the same instant he started to smoke, he felt ashamed. ‘Here’s a man for you,’ he muttered to himself with scorn. ‘Here’s a man who wants to save his country, and can’t even save himself from an inconsequential habit.’ And he flung the cigarette away.

Thus he conditioned and hardened himself, in order to be prepared. For years in foreign armies he studied the art of war, the ‘manual of arms’; aboard ship he learned the risalto, the assault; he made himself ready. And when the revolution burst out he was primed, fifty years old by then, organised from top to toe. Armed to the teeth. He had amassed knowledge by the quintal, cunning, bravery, wide experience; he wrought songs to relieve his ‘yearning’; by contributing an axiom at a crucial moment he would silence the unorganised chatter. Our modern Greek problems have not yet found more profound, humorous and epigrammatic expression.

He had both impulse and restraint, he knew how to retreat so that he could advance; hemmed in by enemies, Greeks and Turks, he was forced to mobilise all his bravery and wile so that the Race would not be lost. Often all would desert him, he would be left alone in the mountains, and then burst out weeping. He sobbed like the Homeric heroes, with his long hair and helmet; he sobbed and was refreshed. He regained his fortitude, formulated new schemes in his mind, sent off messages, involved the elders once more, mocked the Turks, conciliated the Greeks; and the struggle began again.

Kolokotronis, with all his faults and virtues, is one of the leaders of our race. Here in Tripolis, which he took with mind and sword, his scent still lingers dissipated in the air; with patience and concentration a youth should be able to reconstruct, as model and guide, the peerless Old Man. And thus, with a struggle now invisible and spiritual, to reconquer and ravish Tripolis.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Greek history: a never-ending story

This is how Isaac Asimov concludes his book, The Greeks: A Great Adventure.


‘History is a story without an end. Almost at its opening, Greek history dealt with the battle between Europe and Asia; between the men on one side of the Aegean Sea and the men on the other. It was Greece and Troy; then Greece and Persia; then Greece and the Ottoman empire. And it continues.’

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Isaac Asimov on the Spartans

Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for two centuries, not that Isaac Asimov, in The Greeks: A Great Adventure, thought much of the Lacedaemonians: 

‘Sparta was never really suited to the task of leading Greece. The Greeks were at home on the sea and Sparta was not. The Greeks had interests from end to end of the Mediterranean and Sparta was interested, in her heart, only in the Peloponnese. The Greeks were quick, artistic and free and Spartans were slow-moving, dull and enslaved either to each other or to the military way of life. 


‘In later years, the Greeks of other city-states sometimes admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so virtuous and seemed to lead Sparta to such military glory. However, they were wrong to do so. In art, literature, music, love of life, all that makes it worthwhile to be on the earth, Sparta contributed nothing. She had only a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a brutal slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue and her way of life soon became more show than substance. It was her reputation that saved her for a while when her core was rotten. She seemed strong as long as she won victories but whereas other states could withstand defeats and rise again, Sparta lost her domination of Greece after a single defeat. The loss of one major battle [at Leuctra, 371 BC] was to expose her and dispose of her.’