Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Deisidaimonia


The heart of Connelly's Parthenon book is her fresh interpretation of the sculptural frieze that runs right around the building high near the ceiling under the columned porch. Rather than depicting a historical civic ceremony from the time the Parthenon was built, as widely believed, Connelly reads a saga of the city's founding by the gods and earliest kings in the mythological past, including human sacrifice.

Whether she is right is for classical scholars to decide. Of more interest to me are Connelly's insights into the Athenian mind at the time of the so-called Golden Age of classical culture, the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E., a time of astonishing innovation in philosophy, science, politics, art, and literature.

The beginning of the modern world? An emergence from darkness and superstition into the light of rationality? Was it but a short step from the Acropolis of Pericles to the Monticello of Jefferson? Well, yes and no, according to Connelly.

The picture she paints is of a people obsessed with the gods and events of a mythological past. Religion provided a political cohesiveness, a sense of being a chosen people, and a claim to the land grounded in divine assignment. One can almost feel the tension between two parts of their brains pulling in opposite directions -- toward reason and the future, and toward blind faith and the past. I would call it cultural cognitive dissonance.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is. America today is a leader in science, technology, democratic institutions, art and architecture. We have had -– are having? -– our own Periclean Golden Age of cultural dominance. And yet, like Connelly's Athenians, the majority of Americans are obsessed with a mythological past, a past full of miracles and divine interventions, presumably for some of the same reasons the Athenians clung so tenaciously to their founding myths.

We split the atom and believe some of the same cosmological myths as did contemporaries of Democritus. We fly to the Moon and welcome angels to the Earth. Afflicted with pain, we try medicine and prayer. Can a culture sustain such dissonance? This brings us to another scholar of ancient Greece who you have met here before: E. R. Dodds. More tomorrow.