THE LIFE COURSE OF GREEK CIVILIZATION AND THE PREMATURE AGING AND SUBSEQUENT MONSTERIZATION OF THE WEST
ANNOUNCEMENT OF PANAGIOTIS TERPANDROU ZACHARIOU AT THE FIRST WORLD OLYMPIC CONGRESS OF PHILOSOPHY - SPETSES 2004
What makes one who has been smitten by age, having completed a full cycle of life, sigh with yearning? What else other than the glory of his youth - when the faculties of his body could keep pace with the ever-young impetus of his soul. I would therefore like to speak to you of vigor, impetus and youth; the strength of timeless beauty and of truth; virtue, praise of the sublime; poetic views of the divine. I shall speak to you of youth, but not so much of that of a human being as of that of a civilization which experienced its formative years so fully that it established the ultimate standard by which to measure humanism throughout the globe. In our time we are certainly in dire need of such a standard.
If we want to assess the quality or lack of humanism in a civilization, we can metaphorically liken its historical and cultural development to that of a human being. If it is wanting by way of humanism, we can then explain its condition through analysis, pretty much the same way a psychiatrist researches his patient's past to diagnose the symptoms which have led the latter to his couch.
In order to make this metaphorical link, we must first establish the desired objective in both cases; that is to say that just as a healthy person has to experience all the stages of physical and intellectual development in order to meet his full potential, so must a civilization experience all the stages of growth in order to enjoy its own 'Golden Age.'
The formative period for the development of a person is that between infancy and his late teens, during which he reaches adulthood experimenting with his environment, expanding his vocabulary and getting to know his body in relation to his mind. The significance of physical exercise and sport cannot be overstressed here, since a sound body is likely to host a sound mind. Family and society play an equally significant role as they must ensure that these phases are experienced so that the youth may eventually reach sexual maturity and live life to its fullest attended by the vision splendid. If any traumatic shifts deprive a person of any of the said primary stages, his development will prove incomplete with adverse repercussions in later life.
The same can be said of a given civilization or nation, for if it is to develop in a humanistic way, it should also gradually experience its youthful stages in respect to its environment, its language and its culture. In order to develop to its fullest potential, its infrastructure must provide for the desired development of its individual members.
It was the absolute experience of cultural youth that enabled Greek civilization to establish the Olympic Spirit, thus laying out the parameters to be embraced by all who want this world to function as a young, healthy entity. Τhis was not due to a superior Greek race, but to the conditions that enabled the Greek world to complete a full cycle of life, leading to humanistic wisdom. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the rest of the all-consuming Western world stretching from Rome to the U.S., which, deprived of these primary stages, for reasons that will be mentioned further on, is, on the contrary, driving the planet to disaster.
What is comforting is that the Olympics offer us a standard of measure that can record the level of humanism throughout history and set the ordinates for a desired level of quality throughout the globe. Their quadrennial course recorded the biorhythms of the Greek world, whilst their demise chronicled 1600-years of dogmatic darkness. Their re-emergence as a global event in 1896 marked the yearning for a human measure of things, in response to man's fragmentation by the gears of the Industrial Revolution. Today, however, as an oscillator, the Olympics are now indicating an all-time low by way of humanism throughout the globe. The underlying fear of a terrorist strikes during these Games bears testimony to the plight of our aging world.
Our only hope for an elixir of youth lies in the quintessence of the original Olympic Spirit. A metaphorical trip back in time can point out to us the factors that shaped the youth of the Greek World. Then we can backtrack to the present pointing out the reasons why, instead of continuing an uplifting course, the West deviated from humanism and declined into a demoralizing culture of consumption and global insecurity.
So let us take a trip back in time through a metaphorical approach that may clarify western history in a way that it has never been achieved before.
In its early childhood, conditions enabled the inhabitants of the Greek World to interpret nature through the imaginative eyes of an inquisitive child. The picturesque diversity of the Grecian landscapes provided a playground to the imagination. For the natural beauty of Hellas, highlighted by her translucent skies framed human activity in such a way that it inspired equally beautiful myths and thoughts, reflecting the playfulness of the era.
In this young state the Helladic peoples developed a tongue to meaningfully accommodate their observations and their experiences. The semantic fields of vocabulary were so poetically stimulating, that thoughts and utterances functioned erotically - and what could be more humanizing than Eros? In fact, Greek is the only language whose word for 'word' (lexis) stems from 'legein' (to lie) which originally means to 'lie' with one's thoughts, alluding to an erotic relationship between words and thoughts. The civilization that this language produced heralded exactly what Hesiod had said: that along with Chaos, in the beginning there was Eros, the force with power to join so that birth might follow. It was this concept of cosmogony that gave birth to the word "harmony", as there is "harmos" (point of contact or golden mean) where there is union.
The very word for 'god' (theós) clearly reflects this poetic interpretation of things, as it stems from the verb 'théein' (to run). Observing the movements of nature and of celestial bodies like the Sun the most accurate word was coined to represent the divine sources; and since Greek thought possessed humanitarian qualities, the deities were anthropomorphic - capable of great momentum and agility, hence the athletic bodies of the Olympians who personified beauty, strength and youthful energy in tune with the youthfulness of the Greek world. It was this deep understanding of both the erotic element and the turbulence of human existence that produced the humanitarian axis of Greek culture and religion - a combination rendering the Hellenic world free of thought-stifling dogma, since the gods themselves had resulted from a long evolutional process.
The poetic, and often erotic, interplay between gods and mortals provided a consciousness that produced myths offering moral guidance and respect towards the natural environment. King Erysichthon, for instance, was punished with eternal hunger after he had decimated the sacred elms of Demeter to expand his dining hall. The modern world, whose young are raised devoid such didactic myths, no longer understands the term 'hubris is punishable by the gods'. Like Erysichthon, modern man treats nature with a feeling of impunity, and is thus also condemned with an insatiable appetite for consumption. It is truly ironic that the word 'hybrid,' which modern science promotes as something positive, stems from the Greek word 'hubris,' which to the Greeks meant something condemnable as "overwhelming human pride" that defies nature and, therefore, the gods.
Later in life, just as a hearty youth learns his body, the Greeks experimented with their cultural adolescence in games that brought out the best in the human form. The very word for "exercise" in Greek is 'gymnastikē', from 'gymnós' - 'naked', hence "gymnasium", eventually barbarically chewed down to what is now known as the "gym." At this young age, there was no feeling of shame for the body and its functions, as is evident in the phallic symbols depicted in the art of this era. In this culture governed by Eros, sexual drive was recognized as the propellant of one's creative prowess millennia before Sigmund Freud, as was the practice of sexual restraint for higher achievements. The latter was exemplified by the male figure of Greek statuary whose genitals were depicted as disproportionately small to the rest of the body, a dictate, which signified the restraint to be exercised if one wanted to rise above the basic passions that would otherwise hinder the poise and serenity of a righteous human being. If Greek art can never be surpassed, but only copied, it is due to the serenity of the Greek faces in the "agalmata", the Greek word for statue which translates as "those that soothe and uplift the spirit."
Young Greece found the warmth and guidance of a family hearth in the city states that comprised the body of Hellas. The human dimensions of these cities allowed for healthy interaction among their inhabitants as well as immediate access to the natural environment that fed them. The circular dances depicted in pottery of the era with the interlaced hands of the dancers symbolize their social solidarity. Each city would form its own dancing circles, which interlinked once every four years in the games, as portrayed in the Olympic flag today. The noblest humanistic thoughts were spun by the free citizens of such cities. Antagonism did arise, as it does among young siblings, but these intercity conflicts checked any tendencies towards hypertrophy, ensuring that no cell within the body of Hellas would develop carcinogenically at the expense of the whole. The virility of the Greek world owed itself to this oxymoron: a deep national consciousness on the one hand and internal strife on the other. The Greeks poetically discerned harmony between contrasts, for as already mentioned, Harmony, herself, was the daughter of two such opposites: Aphrodite (love) and Ares (war).
The Olympics celebrated this youthful harmony of the Greek world: its poetic interpretation of the divine, its common language, its love of human nature and the heartwarming hearth of its cities. Eros galore! The Olympics recorded the prime of the Greek world during the classical era as evident in the unmatched artistic beauty that accompanied it. Myron's 'discus thrower' to this day bears testimony to the youthful outlook on life of the classical Greeks. Only in the full bloom of cultural youth can there be such an idealistic approach to the human form compared to the mutated figures exhibited in today's age-smitten world.
Hellenism reached middle age with the advent of Alexander the Great. One cell had become hypertrophical. The onslaught of the Greek Macedonian phalanx meant that the city states would never again rise to their former status. Just as a middle-aged person who has led a full life becomes more reserved and seeks greater self-understanding, Greeks in cities like Athens and Alexandria established schools and libraries where all the knowledge and experience of the past could be assessed and studied. However, without its former youthful vigor, Hellas became easy prey to its rising birth child in the west: Rome.
The Olympics recorded the waning biorhythms of the Greek world during the Roman period when professionalism and bribes became common phenomena during the Games, robbing them of their idealistic spirit.
As someone approaches the setting of his life's sun, he tends to turn to religion hoping for some kind of continuity or rebirth. This was pretty much the case with the Hellenic World, which eventually embraced religious dogma. Stoic philosophy and other theories had paved the way for what was once an unlikely marriage of Hellenism and Judaism; unlikely, because it concerned two opposing worlds of thought: those of anthropocentricism and of theocentricism, respectively. The former had been built around the axis of Eros, whilst the latter around un-iconic, imagination-stifling dogma. It was truly something like the mating of a horse and an ass, respectively. These two incompatible elements produced the hybrid of Christianity, whose various interpretations were to constitute one of the greatest blights of the modern world (just as all religions embraced by the world's un-inquiring masses). The result of the aforementioned 'marriage' was indeed a 'mule' - and a mule is sterile. Its infertility later manifested itself in the closure of all philosophical schools; and although the gods had survived in the forms of saints, dogma had exterminated the concept of divine motion (théein) and the significance of Eros. The divine would no longer 'flirt' with or court mortals as it had done for a long time during the classical years. Having said what it had had to say, it then retired as judge and executioner. Eros had been smitten by the concept of death and promises of a better afterlife. This pause of divine motion was a death blow to the psychosomatic momentum of the Greek world, clearly evident in the gaunt semblances of Byzantine icons. The Olympics recorded this inertia when they were banned in 394 AD by Emperor Theodosius.
From the childlike playfulness of the archaic age, the youthful virility of classical years, the middle aged sobriety of Hellenistic times to the old age of Byzantium and the present, Greece has completed a full cultural cycle. Now it can only hope of rising, like the phoenix, from its ashes.
However, a question that needs to be answered is this: why did no other western culture produce anything like the Olympic Games? Despite romantic movements like that of the Renaissance, why was there no similar cultural bloom of humane proportions in the western world, which is the so-called heir to ancient Greek civilization, as many western scholars whimsically claim?
The answer becomes evident on simply contrasting the cultural cycle of the Hellenic world to that of all other regions that fell under its direct or indirect influence.
An unfortunate domino-effect of 'civilizing' influence from Rome to Britannia wrested barbaric peoples from their primitive cultures and threw them into a world that had already completed its cultural cycle. "Unfortunate" because they were deprived of their vital self-discovery stages of youth; and as already mentioned, the absence of these phases brings about traumatic consequences whether concerning people or nations. What is striking is that in both cases the ones suffering from such sudden shifts react pretty much the same way as those who go from rags to riches overnight: they dive head long into consumption.
Returning to our metaphorical approach to history, the Greek world was well into middle age when the Italian tribes in the west were still in their infancy. When the Greek Pantheon had already been long established and Greek literature had recorded all the myths and decoded their allegories philosophically, Roman religion was still limited to the worship of functions and objects. Being within close proximity of Hellenic culture, the Romans were the first western Europeans to be awakened from their infancy and placed into advanced manhood. This abrupt transition robbed them of their indigenous formative years. Without the fruits of their own imagination; such produce had to be imported from the Greek pantheon, just as their rudimentary vocabulary had to be enriched by Greek diction leaving the Romans with a feeling of cultural inferiority. The Roman poet Horace echoed this realization when he noted: "Defeated Greece has subdued her crude conqueror."
To counterbalance their lack of literary and philosophical originality, the Romans became monsters of practicality, marking them as great engineers and road builders. Their genius, though, was employed to consume the wealth of the empire's natural world. Devoid of a city-state system, Rome was destined to become hypertrophical, and instead of humanizing citizens, it produced consuming masses which treated nature with impunity and filled arenas with creatures to provide base amusements. The unchecked consumption of the Romans is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in their overindulgent banquets, during which, unlike the Greeks, they would eat to a surfeit and then induce vomiting so as to gorge down more food.
As the Roman Empire expanded like a greedy cancer cell, it wrested more primitive people out of their cultural infancy, if not the womb. As the legions moved northwest, historians like Polybius and Strabo recorded hyperborean tribes, which still practised incest and cannibalism. The repercussions of their traumata due to their culture shock was even longer lasting and its reverberations are to this day felt in the infrastructures of modern societies, for within a mere four hundred years since their first contact with the civilised world, most European peoples had become Christianised since by then the empire had progressed to its "old-age" period of Christian dogma - from the infant cry of the cave to the old man's cloak, with no experience of adolescence or youth inbetween....
How could anything like the Olympic Games be established when these societies no sooner had had the chance to discover their bodies in relation to their minds, than they were made to feel shame? They had scarcely begun to enhance their own languages with vocabulary that would allow them greater semantic affinity with the axioms of an advanced civilization, when they were forced to adopt foreign speech. Vulgar Latin completely replaced the indigenous tongues of many tribes like those of the Visigoths in Spain and of the Celts in Gaul, hence Spanish and French respectively. Consequently, the thoughts of these masses were not stimulated by semantic meaning, but by sounds. Hardly had they developed their crude religions, when foreign interpretations of the divine were inflicted upon them.
Ignorance gave way to religious fanaticism. The peoples of Europe embraced a rough interpretation of Christianity as the answer to all that perplexed them - and for the first time in history campaigns were launched against "infidels" culminating in the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition.
Focusing on the minutiae of dogma gave Northerners a sense of control and the achievement of some order in the world they had been thrown into. However, the absence of Greek Eros is clearly manifested in the highly embellished architecture of gothic buildings, which, however lush, cannot conceal the lugubrious mood emanating from the arches and crevices, which seem to sag like the skin of the prematurely aged western world - a world that had not experienced Eros and lacked the vocabulary and the aesthetics to express it. The harmony emanating from a Parthenon was never indigenously achieved in the West since there was no notion of Eros to produce the "harmoi" (the con-nexuses of golden means).
In fact, the lack of Eros and the Dionysian element within these sects, which, due to Judaeo-Christianity, frowned upon the exuberance of life, produced introverted societies and people who had to subdue many human passions. To counteract this plight, many became obsessed with collections and books and, in particular, the study of the classics.
This drove many of them to Greece proper, and (like the Romans before them) they pillaged the land for antiquities for their collections and museums so as to fill the cultural void. In fact, 18th and 19th century Romantics whimsically looked upon ancient Greece as the childhood of Europe. Unfortunately, the social make up of a nation is the sum total of its own cultural DNA.
This is nowhere else more evident than in Greece. Up until their recent exposure to the 'demoralizing' influence of the international mass media, Greek societies - especially in rural areas - retained an uncanny continuity with the past, boasting the healthiest social infrastructure in Europe. Greeks were still dancing their hand in hand circular dances in cities and the provinces. American writer Henry Miller was so inspired by mid-twentieth-century Greece that he wrote The Colossus of Marousi, a meditation of the humanistic significance of the country. Despite the dark periods of foreign occupation, the unbroken evolution of the Greek language and culture had served as conduits of memory within Greek societies. At the end of his sojourn, aware
of the contrast between Greece and the West, he lashed out at his own United States in his work entitled The Air Conditioned Nightmare.
The repercussions of the premature aging of the West are felt to this day throughout the globe. Its lack of a humanizing substratum led to the proliferation of carcinogenic politico-economical systems. The Industrial Revolution exponentially
increased the mobility of these all-consuming societies, whose 'time-is-money' mentality, forced labour and ethical conventions deprived their members of the basic value of joy, the principle of pleasure - Eros himself. Western Judaeo-Christianity had stifled all natural urges. When Freud psychoanalysed western civilization, he diagnosed partial or total erotic impotence, noting there was no possible therapy since there is no future for an organism whose heart has stopped beating. However, Eros has always overridden such conventions, as did Aphrodite, who, forced into marriage with Hephaestus, went on to make Ares, the god of war, her lover. In our time we have borne witness to the truth behind this Greek myth on seeing the puritan west in the face of the U.S. giving an outlet to its erotic suppressions through unchecked belligerence.
For all its technological progress and surface glamour, the Western World at large continues to ravage the planet's wealth in the same manner the Romans had done. This has resulted in such gluttony, that western cities have become disproportionate to the measure of man and therefore not conducive to true human development, but to that of individualism. Unlike a citizen of ancient Athens, a modern city-dweller is condemned to the realm of 'idiocy' since individuals no longer feel they contribute to society or to any common well being. One who abstains from social and political involvement is an idiot in the true sense of the word, as it stems from the Greek 'idiòtēs' (private person, one who does not get involved in public affairs). The increasing abstinence from voting in political elections in both the U.S. and Europe confirms that westerners reside in an ever-expanding world of 'private' persons who are content in the 'privacy' of their homes where screens dictate lifestyles and modes of behaviour conducive to their consumer societies. The glamorization of violence in films dehumanizes oncoming generations creating an ever-increasing demand for consumption and escapism from reality and from cultural memory. What is really scary is that globalization depends on this order of things - which reinforces what Einstein once said about the two infinities: "the infinity of the universe, and that of human idiocy."
Having said all this, is there any hope of instilling humanism in the Western World? Can the Titan Mnemosyne and her nine daughters be resurrected?
If we, at some moment of mental lucidity, draw aside the stifling veil of the present order of things and discern the primary role of Eros in the impetus of human nature, not to mention the factors that have led us to Erysichthonian consumption, the West might experience the youth and harmony it has been deprived of. We may come to realize that in its total sum humanity is no more than a conduit of recycled organic matter and energy that perpetuates the universe pleasantly only if it produces poetry in the process. Our only hope is to be found in Europe where humanism may flourish and hopefully reach its transatlantic by-product, whose unfathomable cultural void is draining the planet of its natural environment.
Τhis requires therapy for all the plights that accompany old age or even a rebirth from the ashes. Besides, the symbol of Hellenism is that of the mythical Phoenix that is born out of its own ashes. Suffering humanity is in desperate need of an elixir of youth. If we study the DNA of the Olympic Spirit, comprised of body and soul, rejuvenation is feasible. Humanity must be imbued with it to understand the primary significance of the impetus of Eros, which interprets and expresses grandeur: the beauty that was expressed in cities proportionate to human beings where each citizen felt himself to be an active cell of a greater whole.
This cannot happen in multicultural metropolises and their suburbs. When people have to drive miles from their homes to work or to shop in malls, where "no loitering" signs are posted, they are deprived of every form of healthy contact with their fellow citizens, unlike their ancient Athenian counterparts. Priority should therefore be given to decentralization so that human communities may once again inhabit the Countryside. Meanwhile, multicultural societies should be discouraged, since melting pots only end up destroying the cultural diversity of the planet; therefore producing a global monoculture homogenized by the mass media. To avert this, human societies should be given the time to ferment into their own cultures. Today it seems as if politico-economical systems are purposely creating conditions that encourage incessant instability of populations with the aim of breaking down cultural identities so that a 'monocultural' equality may prevail - a lowest common denominator that answers to consumption. Those who strive for that sort of equality hunger for absolute authority over the dumbed-down-to-equality masses.
Let us, then, not forget that the quintessence of the Olympic Spirit was formed by citizens of 'anthropocentric' cities that poetically celebrated both their homogeneity and their uniqueness - by citizens who interlaced their hands and formed circular dances. Nowadays, the circles are broken and hands fall at the sides. Now even eye contact has ceased as everyone is wrapped around him/herself to the sound of monorhythmic beats and a virtual reality that discourages any essential human interaction.
Only when the adherents to this way of life shed their earphones, grasp each other's hands and form circles like the ones undulating in the Olympic flag, will the Olympics, as oscillators of humanism, reflect the desired measure of civilization throughout our planet. As human beings we owe it to ourselves to struggle via memory and virtue to attain the ultimate objective of Harmony. And the memory resides in the ideals and thought process of Hellenism, without which Western Civilization collapses.
Besides, this is what renowned historians and classicists the world-over have always held as the only course of human development that could save the planet; that is to say, the study and application of the dictates found within Greek language and thought."
That was my lecture at the First World Olympic Congress of Philosophy in 2004, one month before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens. The content of my paper was ascertained by the ceremony's anthropocentric theme and the emphasis that was placed by the presence of the connecting force of Eros fluttering above the wonderful procession of heroic figures and unraveling themes, in contrast to the «Eros-absent» opening ceremony of the London Olympic games 8 years later, where the English countryside was thematically turned into a dark pit of industry spewing out soot and fumes, followed by ghoul and gobbling-laden nightmares of bed-ridden children terrified by the ghostly figure of Cruella de vil looming above them, and later by the silly antics of Mr Bean. Not only had it nothing to do with the Olympic Spirit, whose purpose is to promote human excellence, but also offered no inspiration for any continuity of culture, just a quagmire of elements and sound rhythms without the interlacing of hands.
The contrast between the
Greek and London Olympic ceremony echoes what the Roman emperor Hadrian said
when he was asked why he was so obsessed with Hellenism:
I love Greece because it is the only civilization that deviated from monstrosity...
It is high time we once again set the standards for human excellence. And to do this, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, must be reinstated; for only through memory will the nihilists be illuminated and humanity be put back on its feet.