Thursday, 1 March 2018

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.