The Art of Creating a Free City
This paper defends a unique understanding of the nature and purpose of “art” or “the arts.” It goes beyond standard typologies of the arts as music, poetry, epic poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, architecture, and so on. It goes beyond the views of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who thought of the arts as leisure time activities that stimulate the senses in some way and add a certain quality of human life. For Hume and Kant, the truly serious human endeavor was scientific inquiry, whether understood as Hume's empirical skepticism or Kant's a priori rationalism. In both cases, scientific inquiry is the only path to truth. For Kant, science is emotionally detached, universally true, objective, and the cause behind a new level of human evolution. For an empiricist, science is based on data that is collected and distorted with as little emotional and cultural bias as possible. The arts, by contrast, are expressions and reflections of emotions and cultures.
Both philosophers enjoyed the arts and thought of them as part of a complete human life, but they both trivialized the nature and power of the arts. They insisted upon detaching the arts of earlier societies from any claims about a supernatural realm and the connection between human nature, nature, and some kind of deity or deities. For Hume, the purpose of the arts is instead to develop 'delicacy of taste,' to refine the senses, making a person more discriminating in the appreciation of sights, sounds, and tastes. For Kant, art is 'purposefulness without purpose,' the cultivation of our natural response to color, shape, sounds, etc. In both cases, the arts can lead to cultivation and refinement, even making people less adversarial toward their fellow human being, but does not educate the intellect in any important way. They do not give us scientific knowledge or knowledge about the ultimate meaning of human life. For Hume, we have no such knowledge. For Kant, the exercise of human reason and the indirect proof from the exercise of reason to the belief in God is the proper way to address questions of ultimate meaning. Religious belief is based on reason and our knowledge of its limits and must be separated from emotion and the arts.
Ancient societies, in contrast, took the arts much more seriously. The painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and so forth of ancient cultures was dedicated to leading the human psyche from the world of sense to a more profound, spiritual world. Art was used to inspire people to recognize and dedicate their lives to a view about t he ultimate meaning and purpose of life. People went to religious shrines, the seat of the most serious art, to be continually reminded of their place in the universe and the importance of the way they lived for realizing their destiny, individually and co llectively. The arts were used to stimulate an emotional sense of a higher power and a higher purpose in life than our existence as natural beings.
Ancient Greek culture is based on a third alternative, a position I will call 'spiritual humanism.' What is assumed to be supernatural in most religious traditions, beyond human control and understanding, is understood as what it means to be fully human among the Greeks. The purpose of this paper is to understand the place of art and the arts, in many senses of that word, in the culture of the ancient Greeks.
Creating the Social Institutions and Traditions that Nurture a Culture of Spiritual Humanism
The stories of Greek paideia show that human beings are by nature social and political creatures, because they always describe people living in social and political contexts. The choices people make always have social and political consequences, even when they deny such consequences and think they are acting only from private, individual motives that are unrelated to any broader whole. Homer and Plato, in particular, present their stories of the gods and humans and the relationships between them within a context of a city/society. The ultimate values of that society affect all the choices made; and t he individual choices, in turn, affect the societies.
In the Iliad, Homer presents readers with two models for a city or society. Troy is a monarchy, ruled by a family that inherits political power. The Achaeans are a federation of city-states, run by members of the most privileged families, like an aristocracy. The story shows the ways each type of city can be corrupted. Troy is corrupted by wealth and pleasure. King Priam allows his son, Paris, to indulge himself at the expense of everyone else when Paris steals Helen from her husband Menelaus. When war breaks out, Priam thinks he can pacify the Achaeans with money. The Greeks refuse the offer, claiming they are “above” this particular kind of barbarism. Yet the most powerful Achaeans have their own weakne sses: they are corrupted by the desire for personal power and glory at the expense of the city. Agamemnon and Achilles get into a personal power struggle, also over a woman, leading to ten more years of war and causing great suffering for the other Achaeans as well as the Trojans.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus, on his way home from the war, visits and lives in a number of very different communities. He is interested in the ways these communities are organized. He analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each one. The Phoenicians clearly have a superior city, in the way it is organized and in the character of the ruling family. The queen’s name is Arete, the Greek word for overall excellence in a human being. The city, then, is ruled by virtue, or excellence.
Greek tragedies also show the connection between individual characters and their extended families. Decisions made by one member of a ruling family have consequences, positive or negative, that last for many generations. Some of the ruling families live in “t ribes” that pass on a “curse” from one generation to the next: the Oedipus complex and the curse of the House of Laius, sibling rivalry and the curse of the House of Atreus, etc. By contrast, Odysseus comes from and passes on to his son the blessings of being part of the House of Laertes. Like his father before him, he exercises virtue in relation to his spouse, his children, and the citizens of his city, Ithaca.
Plato's dialogues include references to Sparta and Troy. The Athenians demonized Sparta as more primitive than Athens because the city was structured around victory in war as the ultimate human achievement. They demonized Troy as the city dedicated to wealth as the ultimate goal. In their minds, Athens was the superior city because its institutions and cultural practices all aimed to cultivate the love of wisdom in citizens. Plato’s dialogues show that Plato agreed with the view of human nature and culture underlying Athens’ many institutions and traditions. The city’s founders, or wise rulers from the past, exercised one of the highest arts, the art of statecraft, when establishing the city’s many institutions. If the citizens could learn what the institutions and customs were designed to teach, the citizens could take turns ruling and being ruled in turn. They would not abuse the wealth, power, inherited privilege, or freedom they were given by the city. Rather, they would use their advantages to nurture a culture of cultivation and cooperation, in relation to fellow citizens and in interaction with other cities.
Plato’s hero, Socrates, took advantage of all the city's institutions and behaved in exactly the way the founders would want all the citizens to act. Ironically, Socrates was condemned and killed for 'not believing in the city's gods' and for 'corrupting the youth.' Plato’s dialogues show that the Athenians lost sight of the vision of the human condition underlying the city’s institutions and traditions. They lost their desire to cultivate the practical wisdom necessary to rule and be ruled collectively. The city eventually collapsed. Plato’s dialogues, like Homer and the other texts of Greek education, are cautionary tales, showing audiences what sorts of mistakes to avoid and what ways of life to pursue in order to flourish, individually and collectively.
Many traditions and institutions in Athens provided opportunities for citizens to cultivate practical wisdom. The most obvious symbols of the ultimate foundation and goal of Athenian culture were the name of the city and the temple to Athena at the top of the Acropolis. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, justice, and just war. The temple was covered with friezes that told the story of the evolution of culture, the war between the gods and the giants, the Trojans vs. the Greeks, the less civilized losing out to the more civilized.
The architecture and sculpture of the temples and monuments of Athens also reflected their underlying worldview. The Greeks thought, or recognized, that human beings naturally respond to symmetry and proportion. They find beauty in a mathematical proof, demonstrated in the most simple and intelligible way, just as they find beauty in the majesty of a temple, with columns built disproportionately so they look proportionate to human beings. The roof of the Parthenon follows the same line as the hills outside of Athens, showing that human cities are simply the creation of a certain unique kind of species realizing its nature, which is its desire to exercise all of the sacred powers given to it by the gods, or by its capacity to contemplate reality beyond its survival needs and to seek truth, justice, beauty, and virtue.
The journey from the marketplace to the temple also reflected their worldview. Unlike a Medieval cathedral, the temple was not set at ground level in the middle of a noisy, dirty city. Religious seekers were not given the ‘message’ that this world is dirty and sinful, the opposite of the world the human soul will enter after the body to which it is attached dies. Instead, the physical layout of the city indicates that the goal of a religious seeker is to move slowly from the world of physical needs to the world of the spirit, without forgetting either. Even at the top of the hill, the friezes remind suppliants that religion has a central place in the dirtiest, most secular human enterprises, like fighting wars. To the Athenians, the gods and goddesses had a role to play amidst all human conflicts: marriage, family, friendships, work life, and political life, and all of life invo lves complex and difficult decisions with legitimate claims made by inner and outer ‘voices’ expressing their single-minded point of view.
The fact that Athena is the patron goddess of Athens encourages citizens to recognize and honor political institutions and to dedicate themselves to develop and exercise their capacity for political wisdom. Citizens were made aware of the importance of the rule of law, the civilized way of preventing war and resolving conflicts between citizens.. The Athenians assumed the gods gave them the powers and responsibility to develop a legal system that would promote the well-being of all the citizens. The system requires citizens to create just laws, in some instances to hire judges who apply the laws to particular cases justly, and in other instances to assign jurors to decide the verdicts. Many decisions regarding public policy were determined by majority vote in the Assembly of citizens. Those who qualified for citizenship were chosen by lottery to sit on the Assembly and vote on public affairs.
Solon, among others, created the Athenian constitution in order to create a city-state that would not be victimized internally by a continual war between the rich and the poor, as so many city-states were, and would not be in continual conflict with foreigners because of the drive for power and/or greater wealth. This dimension of public life was fashioned by those gifted with the power of statecraft, a gift given by Zeus and Athena, who employed the powers of Apollo to help them.
The Theater of Dionysius, also located on the side of the Acropolis Hill, makes clear the connection between the kind of emotional and intellectual education that tragedy is intended to produce and the capacity of citizens to exercise practical wisdom and rule themselves well. The context within which tragedies were performed indicates the way those who set up the system wanted citizens to learn how to rule themselves. The tragedies took place within the context of the Panathenium, a religious festival dedicated to Athena that took place every four years.
The plays show the many, many ways human beings make serious mistakes at critical moments in their lives. They bring ruin on themselves and everyone else. The plays show that the sacred deities can drive human beings to the highest levels of creativity or the greatest destruction. The plays show the need to recognize and balance out all the sacred passions and to exercise them at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way, etc. Audience members are shown types of difficult situations most human beings get into, the most common mistakes they make when confronting these situation, and the disastrous consequences that follow. Audience members are supposed to learn from the mistakes of tragic characters and avoid making the same mistakes themselves and discuss the tragedies with their fellow citizens so that citizens can educate each other.
Citizens from all over, not just Athens, came to the festivals and attended the plays. Members of Greek society who were not citizens—women and slaves—also attended. The plays included characters from all walks of life. Often these characters were wiser and/or more humane than the members of the ruling class. Audience members were supposed to be able to 'see through' the veneer of civilization, the different social positions and social roles, and understand a deeper reality, the true humanity, in all members of society. All members of society were expected to become critical thinkers, to live more examined lives themselves and to be able to see through the false rhetoric and hypocrisy of others, so they were not fooled into blindly obeying unjust leaders.
Tragedians submitted 'packages' of three tragedies followed by a satyr play. The judges chose three finalists. Citizens voted on which they liked best. The system was set up to tell people that tragedy was not mere entertainment. The organizers wanted citizens to take the plays seriously, to learn the lessons. The satyr play sent another message: citizens had to be serious about public affairs, but also had to balance out this seriousness with an occasional outburst of wild and ecstatic emotion, an emotional release that prevented citizens from becoming emotionally repressed. Emotional repressio n can lead to self-righteousness which, in turn, leads to the wrong choices in critical situations.
At the foot of the Acropolis, not far from the Theater, is the Agora, or marketplace. People came from everywhere to buy consumer goods. The goods themselves came from all over the world. Trading in the goods required to survive took place in the shadow of the Acropolis and the temple of Athena, reminding citizens that their business activities must be conducted according to Athena’s powers of wisdom and justice. Immediately beside this marketplace of material things was located the 'marketplace of ideas.' The Bouleuterion was where the council of citizens met whose task was to organize public affairs, set priorities about what would be voted on in the Assembly in what order and what judicial cases would be heard in what order. They posted announcements about current events. Citizens were encouraged to take time to discuss these issues with fellow citizens, thereby educating themselves about what choices tend to lead to better or worse outcomes. Citizens could also learn about the characters of some of the more prominent citizens and learn about their own characters as they reflected upon their own opinions on political issues.
Locating the meeting place for political leaders right next to the marketplace and posting information about current affairs sent the message to citizens that they had a civic duty to be informed about public events. Further, rulers had a responsibility to be open and transparent, letting citizens know the issues at hand and the decisions made. Leaders did everything possible to organize the city so as many members of the society as possible, voting and non-voting, citizens and non-citizens, would have access to information about public life, especially the most important political issues of the day. A space was provided to citizens to stand or sit and talk about the issues. Two temples were built there, to Zeus and Ares, again emphasizing the importance of the art of deliberation so even the most serious decisions, those related to war, would be discussed openly. Another temple dedicated to Hephaestus, the craftsman, indicated that the material goods purchased in the marketplace should be made well, under the guidance of a god, and sold at a just price.
The Acropolis, therefore, was meant to be a reflection of the city as a whole, a microcosm of the macrocosm. The temple represented the ultimate goal: justice and wisdom. The Athenians believed that from the top of the hill Athena could see both the affairs of the city and the sea, the city’s link to other cities. The friezes on the Parthenon reminded the Athenians of the importance of working with other city-states and foreigners to avoid war, and the Athenians were reminded to avoid going to extremes and to avoid internal faction in the context of war. The stories of the gods provided moral guidance. Ultimately, citizens had to discuss those stories and come to their own understanding about what lessons they were supposed to learn and how those lessons applied to the particular situations at hand.