Politics, the Polis, aloofness, and involvement

parthenon north frieze horsemen
Parthenon, North Frieze

J. J. Pollitt’s The Art of Ancient Greece is a book that I’ve learned much from — and plan to write several entries about. I’m grateful to Pollitt.

In one place in this book, though, he makes some remarks about the relation of Greek philosophers to the political scene around them that I can’t agree with.

The Schools in the Academy and the Lyceum were private, voluntary associations, unsubsidized and unsupervised by the state. Within them political questions might often be examined and data about governmental institutions were collected, but such activities were engaged in primarily for the private satisfaction of the members of the schools, not as a service to society in general. Neither Plato nor Aristotle seems to have been concerned, as the earlier Sophists had been, with preparing students for public life in the usual sense.

One can admittedly see an exception to this in the fact that several members of the Academy undertook to draw up new constitutions for various Greek cities.

Pollitt is normally very acute, but his comments here are not clearly worked out.

It seems unfair for Pollitt to accuse these people of not placing themselves “in the service of society in general.” For example, it’s a blunder to accuse Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander, of not intending to prepare his student for public life. It’s condescending that Pollitt presumes to judge the personal feelings behind their written words: if those philosophers had a chance to answer, they might well resent the comment that their thoughts were only for their “private satisfaction.” Plato and Aristotle certainly believed their advice would improve anyone who followed it and they sincerely hoped that people would.

Was it enough for them just to be right and to say so, or would they need to involve themselves in the life of the city in order to change it? Would it be good if the listener became better? Or would they require him to become perfect?

The traditional interpretation of Plato might regard this latter charge as accurate. Still, though, I can’t bring myself to believe it. I wonder if Plato isn’t par excellence the example of the writer who wants us to change, not just learn — who opens up and allows, who invites us to want to move ahead, each step building on the actuality of the ones before.

Pollitt continues:

A less profound but perhaps more dramatic exemplar of the aloofness of the Fourth Century was the Cynic Diogenes of Sinope (c. 400–325 B.C.), whose ideal of autarkeia, ‘self-sufficiency’, led him to adopt a life which was something like that of a mendicant friar without any particular religious dogma. To the average Greek of the fourth century there was perhaps no more astonishing sight than that of Diogenes flouting convention, ridiculing the institutions of the state, insulting grandees, and searching for an honest man with his proverbial lamp. He may have seemed a comic figure on the surface, but his influence was lasting. The ascetic withdrawal urged by Epicurus (contrary to popular notions) and the Stoic conception of kosmopolites, ‘citizen of the world’—both formulated toward the end of the century and dominant in the Hellenistic period—reflect the discontent with the life of the polis that which Diogenes’ flamboyant protests had brought out in the open.

Again, it’s unreasonable to call these ideas “aloof.” Their focus may not be directed specifically toward the polis, the city state as a particular form of political organization; but that doesn’t mean they’re unconscious of society, or disinterested. To be kosmopolites is not to be against social interaction or even against citizenship—it seems rather to transfer the idea of citizenship from membership in the polis, ‘the city’, to membership in the kosmos, meaning namely in ordered society. Was it even the the idea of polis that Diogenes protested against, or was it the particular cites he saw? Epicurus my have urged withdrawal from society, but he cared about people enough to tell them his message—and, as Pollitt mentions, his message was one that people apparently needed to hear and, along with that of the Stoics, was important in the succeeding era.

This quote illustrates the seeming need of art historians to conflate events in art with other contemporaneous events, subsuming one under the other, so as to arrange them in neatly understood bundles—preferably illustrating a progression, forward or backwards, with the periods before and after, and if at all possible showing that sense of “evolution.” Pollitt may not emphasize a contention that fourth century art was a lapse from an evolution in the previous century but his pejorative tone implies that he thought that the ideas underlying the art were a retreat. It might good to praise some particular art for its success in contextualizing its subjects, for example by showing how they were grounded in their polis. But that isn’t the only way an art can succeed. It doesn’t have to portray subjects at all. If it does, it doesn’t have to portray them by contextualizing. It doesn’t have to contextualize them only socially. If social, they don’t have to be eager citizens of a polis. It can be great when they are and when the artist can show it effectively; but there are other possibilities as well.

The fifth century Parthenon friezes, illustrated above, are Pollitt’s touchstone for art that portrays its characters contextualized in their polis.

Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau—Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch also portrays its subject deeply contextualized in her society, but it’s not a polis.

Manao Tupapau—Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch - Paul Gauguin
Manao Tupapau—Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892)
Paul Gauguin
(Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY)

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This entry was posted in Ancient Greece, Ethics, Philosophy, Plato, Politics, The arts, Visual arts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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