Saturday, 3 March 2012

The limits of Pericles’ living with beauty and living with wisdom



A final word, for the time being, on Pericles, his funeral oration and Athenian democracy.

Having taken into account Robin Lane Fox’s lecture on Why Pericles Matters, which wants to rescue Athenian democracy from modern critics – determined to subject it to their anti-colonial, anti-imperialist fixations – and assert the radical and unique nature of Periclean Athens; and Cornelius Castoriadis’ insistence that we transform Pericles’ famous dictum, of loving beauty and loving wisdom, into loving and living with beauty and loving and living with wisdom; it is important to note that when Pericles speaks of Athens and the Athenians in the funeral oration, he is speaking of a vision for Athens and Athenians. Not that Pericles is conjuring up a utopia, because Pericles with his democratic reforms, his revival of the city’s monuments and subsidisation of the arts, put flesh and bones on his vision, but a vision is what his exhortations in the funeral oration amounts to.

Thus, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that Athens was a pristine society that lived up to Pericles’ hopes for it. Indeed, although there is a chronological justification for including Pericles’ funeral oration so early in Thucydides’ account of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, its early mention also allows us to see how, through the next 27 years of the Peloponnesian war, Athens and the Athenians fell catastrophically short of Pericles’ advice to love and live with wisdom and love and live with beauty.

We also note that Pericles’ vision of an entwined city and citizenry was hotly contested and deeply resented by significant sections of the Athenian body politic.

In particular, Athens’ aristocratic class – to which the blue-blooded Pericles belonged – loathed Pericles and his innovations, and this hostility to Periclean democracy was shared by Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, Aristophanes and so on, who all regarded it as inclined to demagoguery, mob rule and recklessness. (Indeed, Plato was not only antipathetic to Pericles’ democratic ideals but also his promotion of the arts, with the philosopher notoriously proposing the banning of poets from his Republic).

Thus, Athens’ surrender to Sparta after the Battle of Aegospotami (404 BC) was put down to a succession of disastrous decisions taken by the Athenian assembly, while other decisions in the course of the conflict – such as the slaughter of the Melians and the execution of the six generals (one of whom was Pericles’ son) following the Battle of Arginusae (406 BC, for failing, after victory, to rescue stranded sailors) – reveal the limits of loving and living with wisdom and loving and living with beauty. (And, of course, loving and living with wisdom didn’t stop the Athenians condemning Socrates to death in 399 BC).

Castoriadis would also have us believe two things about Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war. First, that it signified the end of Athenian democracy and the extraordinary flourishing of culture that accompanied it; and, second, that the gravediggers of that democracy were Alcibiades and Cleon.

On whether Alcibiades was a gravedigger of Athenian democracy: you could, in fact, make a stronger case that it was the vagaries of Athenian democracy that destroyed the life and career of the brilliant general – by bringing trumped up charges of sacrilege against him, prompting him to abandon his command in the Sicilian expedition (perhaps, the defining episode in the Peloponnesian war) and go into exile and, worse still, seek sanctuary in Sparta – and that, therefore, it was the fickle, myopic Athenians, who dug their own graves, not Alcibiades.

Nor is it clear that the Peloponnesian war did end, as Castoriadis says it did, Athenian democracy or terminate that remarkable period of creativity in the arts that characterised Periclean Athens.

John R. Hale in his book, Lords of the Sea, makes a case for an Athenian recovery after the defeat at Aegospotami, the pulling down of Athens’ walls and Sparta’s occupation of the city. Spartan leadership of the Hellencic world soon became detested and Athens’ military prowess, particularly its sea power, revived, as did Athens’ cultural invention, with Plato teaching at the Academy and Isocrates at the Lyceum, while the sculptor Praxiteles was adorning Athens with his masterpieces. Thus, it was Alexander the Great and the Macedonians who buried Athens and its unique society, not Sparta and certainly not Alcibiades.

Ultimately, then, we note that living with wisdom and living with beauty does not preclude – and did not preclude in the Athenian case, as Thucydides demonstrates – living with sickening violence, injustice and rank stupidity.

*The video above is a reading of Plutarch’s life of Pericles. It’s an old-fashioned rendering – and it even refers to the goddess Athena as Minerva, which is unacceptable – but Plutarch is an essential source for our knowledge of Pericles.

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