'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

23 September 2010

Ancient Greece

What a magic moment as my imagination took flight and I felt the pulse and inspiration of the ages in the ruined streets of ancient Athens, over which the gods watched, the heroes excelled and through which the philosophers walked, talked and taught.
Ancient Greece is the source of so much of what we call Western Civilisation. The gods, the philosophers, the writings, legends and heroes. The culture, politics, and the history are a shining light from our past. The legacy of Greece is perhaps the most fascinating and relevant of all the gifts from the ancient worlds.  Many of the ideas that we see as emanating from this collection of city states probably had its roots in the wisdom and writings of even older civilisations like the Egyptians, but it was the Greeks who wrote so eloquently of the great mysteries of life and developed greater depth to the propositions that try to explain the inter-relationship of man, the earth and the cosmos. The richness of what they passed down continues to be re-examined, re-worked and wondered at by each generation. I would like to indicate just a little of what I admire and play with the ideas and  images that come to mind. Although Rome eventually ruled,  they found much of their wisdom, art and belief in  the land of Greece that they absorbed.
The Philosophers or The Lovers of Wisdom
Socrates - An ugly, badly dressed, barefoot, heavy drinking old man who wandered the markets talking and challenging anyone who would listen and leaving no written word, is hardly the image of one who has come down to us as one of the great men of civilisation. Thanks to Plato and others, we know of this most exceptional man. Particularly fond of talking to the most attractive of young men he was charged with corruption of the morals of youth, as well as blasphemy. Taking hemlock before his execution added to his legend. Plato's dialogues is the source of much of what we know of his questioning and the search to know thyself; for in that knowledge lies virtue. Much more on Socrates is on this site including the Apology written by Plato as a record of Socrates discussion and defense of his trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth.
Click for a whole page here on Socrates
Plato - A student of Socrates and  teacher of Aristotle. What a sequence of inspiration. He was the greatest and most influential of philosophers and has left to us almost all he wrote. More traveled and more inclined to the good relations of the wealthy and powerful than his teacher,  his methods and ideas were infused into Christianity some centuries later. It is strange that the influence of so many Greeks have shaped a religion started by a bunch of common workers from Judea. No doubt Saint Paul, as well as the suppressed Roman admiration of the thought and sophistication of the defeated Greeks had much to do with this influence. His works still help mould the thought of the world today.
Aristotle - The greatest book I have read is Aristotle's Ethics.  Originally I came across it when researching a discussion on love while at university. I had a running eighteen month  argument with a friend. Until the wee hours of the morning our discussion wandered somewhat logically from Astronomy to Religion and to any subject that interested young minds that were exploring life and attempting to find a place in it, if not 'The Truth'.  I found the collection referred to while exploring 'Love' in the Catholic Encyclopedia. From there it lead to further reading that I would rather flippantly summarise as - Socrates explained why we should think, Plato taught us how to think and Aristotle advised us what to think. I don't want this simplistic statement challenged too seriously. By all means discuss, but search for yourself. No doubt we may all get or not get what we want, need or seek out of reading, but do try The Ethics, one of the greatest masterpieces of human thought, particularly Book Eight.
The School of Athens - Raphael's idealised 'School of Athens' in the Vatican, extolling the virtues of Philosophy. Here Plato has the face of Leonardo da Vinci and Aristotle is represented as Michelangelo. Raphael also makes an appearance. How interesting and apt that the men of the Renaissance saw themselves in comparison with the age of the Greeks. With the adoption of all things Greek the churches ideas and ideals, again drew much from the philosophers as they had done in the days of Saint Paul, and during the time of the Romans.

The Male Greek
Although described as a democracy, we would hardly recognise the political system where only free male citizens voted. Women although respected, ruled only in the home, and slaves had no power at all. The aim of the Greek educational system, was summed up by the words:, ’beautiful and good’, meaning that beauty of body and goodness of soul were the essence of human i.e. male perfection. In many societies in the ancient world we saw the expression of power and strength and the representations of body and soul in art, but I wonder that in Greece we see the only flowering of democracy, the more developed reasoning of philosophy, the golden perfection of realistic art and the honouring of the naked male body. Did that greater freedom of the individual lay open the opportunity to examine love and beauty in greater depth than in other cultures. One of the fertile customs was the Symposia, a gathering of men in the guise of a dinner or drinking party where discussion would be held and entertainment provided. An often recorded image of such gatherings is the participation of naked youths as cupbearers and dancers. Women also entertained, but were not participants. Today I often hear commentators praise our modern advances, but we should not be fooled into imagining that true individual freedom has yet arrived. Freedom, that is, which respects the rights of all not just the biases of the few.
The education of youths took place in the gymnasium, situated in the center of every Greek town. There boys and men spent a large part of their day engaged in physical and intellectual exercise. An open space was surrounded on three sides by single arcades, and on the southern side by a double arcade that enclosed the Ephebeion, the training ground for the epheboi (young men). At the sides were baths, halls and other rooms, where philosophers, rhetoricians, poets and the many friends of male beauty would gather. Behind  were further arcades, the xystos, for the training of adult men, and connected to the palestra, the main training ground for the youths. The rooms were decorated with statues of gods and heroes. The word gymnasium, from gymnos - naked, reflected the fact that all sports were performed unclothed. Male nudity was a widespread phenomenon of Greek life. Nudity was practiced not only in the gymnasia, but also at the great national competitions in Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and on the Isthmus, at religious ceremonies, at public festivals and at private feasts where the young cupbearers and dancers were usually nude.

Ephebi -Epheboi originally referred to the youths of Ancient Greece between the ages of fifteen and twenty but the term eventually came to refer exclusively to boys of around eighteen who attended the Athenian school for literature and philosophy. A time of learning and a time to prove one's  manhood through obedience, and purity of thought and action - discipline of mind and body. More on the Athletes and Games of Ancient Greece will be seen on a separate post
The Gymnopaediea
The Gymnopaediea was the great, annual dancing, singing and gymnastics  'festival of naked youth'  in Sparta. For boys and men only, it was held over several days  in mid-summer,  from the seventh century BC.  Eric Satie wrote some beautiful piano pieces by this name. Such a festival of rejoicing in the arts and beauty of the physical form  is something we could all contemplate rather then the obsessive, financially motivated competitiveness and aggression that is often sport today. Perhaps it is an idealisation but where would we be without such dreams. Yes they were rewarded with honours and gifts, but the nobility of the enterprise shone through as it also honoured the gods.

The Plays.
What a treasured source of  inspirational theatre are the many plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, still to this day. Stories of grand human tragedy that molded the imagination of their audiences. Stories of legends and gods that threw light on the lives of every man. The first of our valued and affecting written arts that  live with relevance, fabulous story-telling and common humanity. For two and a half thousand years they have gripped the imagination of people of all cultures. What sublime genius developed in that small state when democracy (of sorts) allowed man to think. Theatre itself grew out of the religious festival celebrations and the communication of ideas through ceremony. Eventually it moved beyond the realm of the gods and onto the plight of heroes and then the common man.
 Thank the heavens that they are still revived, adapted and re-written regularly in our theatres. One of the most outstanding in recent years was the much hailed London and New York (she won the Tony there) production of  'Medea' with Diana Rigg. This loud, gripping performance, which I was honoured to see in London, was dominated so colossally by the stature and vocal majesty of the now Dame Diana Rigg.   More locally and recently has been the equally loud and aggressive version of  'The 'Bacchae'  reworked as 'The Cult of Dionysus'  in the style of Japanese Butoh - physical theatre, by a Brisbane group Zen Zen Zo. This troupe of young local actors are one of the most exciting reminders of the strength of the theatrical experience.  Inspiration of these masterpieces does and always has stretched far beyond the actors stage. Musicians, writers, artists and film makers have always found the stories, morality and emotions of these ancient works compelling sources for further retelling and development. If you are looking for a readily available example of such works, see the magnificent 1962 classic film of 'Electra' with Irene Papas, described by The New York Times as 'majestic and awesome'. She also stars in a movie of Sophocles' 'Antigone' and in the powerful 'The Trojan Women' by Euripides along with Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Genevieve Bujold. For those who have acquired a taste for the films of the great poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, he created two masterpieces 'Oedipus Rex" and 'Medea' (with Maria Callas). The film 'Medea' by Lars von Trier is a visually stunning rework of the play as well.
The Labyrinth

from Nikos Giavropoulos 
Some books I have on Ancient Greece etc.
The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature M C Howatson.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary
The Iliad and an Illustrated Odyssey Homer
The Greek Myths 1& 2 Robert Graves
The Histories Herodotus (two translations)
The Republic, The Last Days of Socrates, Phaedrus and Letters VII & VIII Plato
2  Anthologies of Greek Literature
The complete (existing) plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes
Cultural Atlas of the Greek World
Who's Who in the Classical Word (Oxford paperback reference) ' by Simon Hornblower (Editor), et al

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