And while the weekend itself has been pretty packed full of stuff to do – catching up on marking, attending a conference on refugee integration, getting a bunch of work done for SERRC, and a pile of personal correspondence – I did at least manage to relax while doing all that.
Just a moment.
• • •
The Polis was more than a city. It was more than the first democracy in the West, whatever democracy must mean if it includes modern parliaments, presidents, and these strange town assemblies.
Talking about the Polis as a primordial democracy is very inadequate to the deeper meanings of how Polis-era Greeks lived. That is, how they understood their lives, the nature of their society, their place in the world, and their relationship to time and history as individuals and societies.
The metaphysics of their societies, in other words.
A Polis Greek person’s relationship to nature. It’s about fear, really. People knew how fragile humans were compared to the power of natural forces, the forces of the Earth.
Powerful storms could wash away their homes. A few too many dry seasons, and your whole community starves. Even just getting lost in the woods would be enough to kill someone – dying of exposure, fatal injury, drowning, or even attack by predators.
All of this is still true, but the development and omnipresence of our industrial civilization has complicated our relationship with the Earth. And made it much more violent.
|Most of our record keeping about history is totally unreliable. Danny|
DeVito's character in Hoffa, a movie I loved as a teenager, never
existed. Bobby Ciaro was an amalgam of two different people
who couldn't work separately in the narrative.
Only humans were mortal – we had distinct, singular, unique identities and we knew we were going to die one day. That’s the condition of mortality.
The Polis was an institutional means to fight our mortality. The continuity of the Polis itself maintained the records and famous stories of debates, speeches, and displays in the assembly. The leaders of the community – those who were able to leave the hard labour of maintaining their lives and households to families and servants – had a shot at immortality.
Glory and fame in your community – the display of virtue in debate, speech, and leadership – was how a mortal could survive their own death.
|How real can our modern myths ever really be?|
Hell, most Hollywood studios can’t even make a biopic without merging real-life characters and smoothing out their subjects’ messy lives into straightforward narratives. That’s just a matter of a few years of production. Think about the kind of mutation that happens to a society’s narrative memory over centuries of retelling.
Achilles wasn’t simply “brave and bold.” He was a person, with all the complications involved. But by the time he got into the song, brave and bold was all he was.
The Polis was an institution that kept the histories of its leaders – their remarkable speeches, their thundering arguments, their theatrical acts in the public square – rooted. The gathering of Polis leaders was a place of governance, but most people wanted to go there for the chance of mythmaking.
Myths that would preserve their memory without transforming them. Their great acts in public leadership would be preserved as the acts of men, not becoming literature or image. The stone of the city and the square made their memory material.