Monday, February 10, 2014

Upwardly mobile?


Ever since the European Enlightenment, 5th-century Periclean Athens, with its iconic Parthenon, has been widely taken as exemplar of rational humanism, secularism, art, literature and democracy. Joan Breton Connelly takes issue with this interpretation, in her new book The Parthenon Enigma. She refers to the Athenians as a "supremely deisidaimoniacal people."

There's a word for you. But before we get to that, let me throw out a whimsical connection of my own.

There's no question that Athens had a Golden Age, of which the Parthenon is a sublime symbol. The question is: Why?

Two weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times had an article by Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (excerpted from their new book) purporting to explain why some groups of people are at various times more successful and upwardly-mobile than others. Think, for example, of Asian-Americans now, or Jews almost anytime. Chua and Rubenfeld offer three mutually necessary qualities that together correlate with success: 1) A sense of one's superiority as a group; 2) Paradoxically, a sense that even with one's superior qualities, one can never measure up to expectations; and 3) a willingness to defer gratification, i.e. to forego immediate satisfaction for long-term gain.

Without agreeing or disagreeing with their thesis, let me ask: What of 5th-century B.C.E. Athenians?

Connelly offers ample evidence that they met the first two requirements. She writes: "Theirs was a spirit-saturated, anxious world dominated by an egocentric sense of themselves and an overwhelming urgency to keep things right with the gods."

And what of a capacity for delayed gratification? This stopped me for a bit, and then the penny dropped.

Early in the mythological history of Athens, the gods Poseidon and Athena competed to see who would have the honor of being the city's divine patron. Poseidon struck the Acropolis with his trident and water gushed forth, an ample, immediate flood. Athena touched the rock with her spear and brought forth an olive seedling, which she planted.

We know who won the competition.