Thursday, 1 March 2012

Cornelius Castoriadis: Why Pericles Matters

I mentioned in my previous post on Robin Lane Fox’s defence of Pericles and his funeral oration that the Athenian statesman’s address is also regarded by the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis as ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’.

And, indeed, it’s worth dwelling on why Castoriadis believes this because in so doing we can make an important amendment to Lane Fox’s interpretation of Pericles’ funeral oration, particularly that part of it where he refers to Athenian culture and education inculcating among Athenians a ‘love of beauty’ and ‘love of wisdom’ as part of a process of creating better and fuller citizens.

Essentially, Castoriadis argues that the traditional translation (which Lane Fox ascribes to) of Pericles’ Philokaloumen gar met’euteleias kai philsophoumen aneu malakias – we love beauty without ostentation and we love wisdom without being soft – is too literal and limits our understanding of what Pericles is saying and of the nature of Athenian democracy.

Rather, Castoriadis says:

‘Pericles’ sentence is impossible to translate into a modern language. The two verbs of the phrase can be rendered literally by “we love beauty… and we love wisdom”, but the essential would be lost. The verbs do not allow this separation of the “we” and the “object” – beauty or wisdom – external to this “we”. The verbs are not “transitive,” and they are not even simply “active”: they are at the same time “verbs of state.” Like the verb to live, they point to an “activity” which is at the same time a way of being or rather the way by means of which the subject of the verb is

‘Pericles does not say we love beautiful things (and put them in museums), we love wisdom (and pay professors or buy books). He says we are in and by the love of beauty and wisdom and the activity this love brings forth, we live by and with and through them – but far from extravagance, and far from flabbiness.

‘The object of the institution of the polis is for [Pericles] the creation of a  human being, the Athenian citizen, who exists and lives in and through the unity of these three: the love and “practice” of beauty, the love and “practice” of wisdom, the care and responsibility for the common good, the collectivity, the polis.

‘Among the three there can be no separation; beauty and wisdom such as the Athenians loved them and lived them could only exist in Athens. The Athenian citizen is not a “private philosopher,” or a “private artist,” he is a citizen for whom philosophy and art have become ways of life.’

The Greeks, Castoriadis says, never stopped asking: what is it that the institution of society ought to achieve? It is a question to which the Athenians answered, he says, in this way: the creation of  human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom, and loving the common good.


Hermes said...

Castoriadis is absolutely correct. However, he missed something very important either because he was not interested in such things or he had internalised the prejudices of Western Europe. Heidegger and then more fully Yiannaras and others highlighted that the experiental approach to wisdom, beauty, truth is a constant in Greek history. Aristotle, who documented the way Greeks thought rather than some particular faction such as Plato or Xenophon, wrote most fully about this. The Romans objectified truth. Later the Greek Christians pursued an experiental approach to wisdom and truth or God whilst the Latins sought to know God as something to be learnt using logic entirely. God (wisdom or truth) was something out there rather than something lived.

John Akritas said...

Indeed, from a Greek point of view, what is the point of going to a museum or gallery, standing in front of a canvas of the crucifixion and resurrection, for example, staring at it, admiring the technique of the artist, declaring it beautiful and so on when you yourself could be part of beauty by taking part in the preparation and procession of the Epitaphios and so on. Who is more cultured; the art critic with his history of art degree, who finds in art a brief respite from his appalling life, or the 'uneducated' villager who lives and breathes Pascha and so on?

Hermes said...

That is right. The highest form of communion with truth, beauty, wisdom (Periclean Athens) or with God (the Christian city) is not simply a rational intellectual act but a sharing of life and experience with others mediated through the city-state or through the Church. Just as one is one cannot fulfil their potential - understanding beauty, truth and wisdom - outside the city-state, one cannot know about the divine outside of the Church.

Anonymous said...

So the Franks merely had and have an intellectual relationship with God whilst the Greeks had an "experiential" relationship with God. Really...?

How then do you explain St Francis or St Catherine or even Padre Pio?

Prometheus said...

Hermes (and John), your attempt to draw an analogy between the Greek experience of beauty/philosophy and the Christian "experience" of God/divine, etc, is just another BRUTE misappropriation of the ancient Greek spirit/ideal.

Aren't you tired, finally, you Christians exploiting Hellenism in order to give some credibility to your desert ideology? Enough is enough...

It is kind of funny also, that you both agreed with Castoriadis, who placed even MORE the emphasis on humans the essence and experience of beauty, and placed the notion of Good in human terms and in society, and this life, and on the other hand you relate it to supernatural "mambo jumbos" such as the Christian God, Eastern, etc, etc.

If i am not mistaken, John last time got "spanked" by an expert (on this site) on one of his analysis/interpretation of Castoriadis, i don't remember on what issue specifically, but you guys still insists on these arbitrary analyses, this time throwing hints on the validity of the peculiar term "ellino-xristianos", if i understand well. (the post by John is's the comments here i don't understand).

Some people need to take off their ideological glasses. Also, some people if they don't understand Castoriadis, they should at least not try to exploit him. There is NOTHING in Castoriadis that would even lent an argument to "ellino-xristianismos". The man was more than clear...he totally SEPARATED the two.