David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: greece

Leftism and the Banausic Thinker: From Plato to Verso

This is an essay about defining one’s self as better than the world, as purer than the world. The urge to take your marbles and go home is a very old one, yet its role in art and politics is paradoxical, since taking your marbles and going home would seem to suggest that you will be ineffectual and unremembered. In fact, I think that is what happens most of the time. But the purist’s ability to survive latently in society owes to a peculiar form of elitism. Sometimes the elitism is obvious; other times it hides under a mask of ideology.

Plato and Banausia

In her excellent study Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995), Andrea Wilson Nightingale delves into the various strategies Plato uses to distinguish his fresh new domain, philosophy, from whatever it is that everyone else is doing, which is most certainly not philosophy. Plato is not just talking about poets and sophists here, though they’re definitely on the list of pretenders to the throne, but also others who might claim to be doing philosophy, like Isocrates. Isocrates, either had a very fortunate or unfortunate name, was one of the best-paid philosophers of his time, and the dialogues seem to direct a fair number of barbs his way. Plato makes him the target of a seeming bit of nasty dramatic irony at the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates predicts great, great things for the young Isocrates.

In particular, Plato uses a particular word when Socrates attacks these non-philosophers. They are banausic.

Plato exploits and redirects the rhetoric of banausia–rhetoric which was traditionally used by aristocrats to express their contempt for manual and/or servile labor. Take, for example, the claim found at Symposium 203a, where Socrates says:

“God does not mix with man, but it is through this [daemon] that all intercourse and conversation takes place between the gods and men, whether they are awake or sleeping. And the person who is wise in this regard is a daemonic man, but the person who is wise in any other regard, whether in the realm of arts and sciences or manual labor, is banausic.

The dichotomy drawn here between the “daemonic man” (who is, of course, the philosopher) and the “banausic” individual recurs at Theaetetus 176b-d, where Socrates says:

“God is in no way unjust, but is as just as it is possible to be, and there is nothing more similar to god than the man who becomes as just as possible. It is concerning this activity that a man is revealed as truly clever or else worthless and cowardly. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and virtue in the true sense, and the ignorance of it is manifest folly and viciousness. All other things that appear to be cleverness and wisdom–whether their sphere is politics or the other arts–are vulgar or banausic.

It’s generally held that Greek culture disparaged merchants and laborers in favor of the aristocratic warrior class (see M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, for example). The humiliation, feebleness, and ugliness of cuckolded craftsgod Hephaestus is another indication, in contrast to Athena, who may patronize the crafts but is just as much the patron of warriors. Nightingale claims Plato to have taken that distinction even further: now even true knowledge is no longer the province of the banausic, but only accessible to a very specific elite.

Nightingale summarizes the history of the usage of the term banausic, finding it to be “highly derogatory” in usage by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. But what exactly is it to be banausic? The most common translation is “mechanical” (Levett’s Theaetetus, Allen’s and Nehamas/Woodruff’s Symposium, McDowell’s Theaeteus), though there is also “materialistic” (Howatson’s Symposium). That captures the English sense of the word “banausic” (it is an English word, meaning mundane, rote, or mechanical), but the usages of it in Greek philosophy are specific enough to mean far more than just that. (And arguably, “mechanical” is anachronistic relative to what it suggests to us.)

The associations suggest a few possibilities, in ascending order of extremity:

  1. Banausic thought has to do with automated, rote “know-how” type thought processes, distinct from the refined thought of a philosopher.
  2. Banausic thought is that which is commodified, exchanged, bought and sold, and no better than any other good for sale.
  3. Banausic thought is any thought directed toward a particular practical outcome, any thought that isn’t wholly disinterested and detached from the mortal world, period.

Nightingale quotes Aristotle to the effect that even the crafts aren’t inherently banausic, only if they are done for the sake of trade, and suggests that Plato agreed. Thus her position is that Plato means something more extreme than (1): somewhere between (2) and (3):

Plato, in sum, suggests that the philosopher occupies a disinterested position, since his wisdom is by definition incommensurable with all other “goods”… The philosopher, as it seems, is a mercenary who is no mercenary: an outsider who serves the city free of charge.

Some (like F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Ryle) imply that Plato’s position is almost completely that of (3): that in the face of practical political failure (first in Athens, then in Syracuse), an embittered Plato concluded that any civic engagement by a philosopher, no matter how disinterested, is partly corrupt and banausic. Plato doesn’t explicitly require the philosopher to be a recluse, but the demand not to engage in commerce certainly seems to extend to not working, laboring, or otherwise participating in an economy:

Plato denies that there is any human virtue in work and that certain aspects of it even appear to him to be the antithesis of what is essential in man.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought in the Ancient Greeks

Nice work if you can get it, then.

The restriction on the commodification of philosophy would seem to restrict philosophy to those who can do without money, either by being rich aristocrats like Plato and Aristotle, or living in poverty like Diogenes and the Cynics. The ten years of mathematics Plato wants for the rulers of his ideal city are perfect training in this light, since mathematics was of little occupational value in classical Greece, having never been linked to practical applications. For Plato, mathematics has an appealing character, being full of (seemingly) indisputable truths with (apparently) no practical or commercial value, rendering it immune to the charge of being banausic. Presumably, after you’ve spent ten years doing something of no commercial value, you are sufficiently insulated from commerce to enter into the more marketable realm of philosophy.

Yes, philosophy was more profitable than mathematics in ancient Greece. The sophists were charging huge amounts for their services in how to persuade people, and Isocrates made quite a mint as well. But to clear the bar against banausia, wisdom doesn’t just have to be non-commercial, but also incommensurable, incapable of being perverted or corrupted through political or civic ambitions. (Presumably acceptable goals would be deployment of such wisdom to serve the Good and the True, though exactly what would qualify is hard to specify. By the Laws, at least, Plato was willing to get quite mundane in his prescriptions.) According to Nightingale, Plato’s philosopher must embrace an “outsider” position; he must break free of any contingent social fabric, similar to how Nietzsche sees his ideal man emancipating himself from his surrounding stupidity. It’s not that the philosopher rejects creating all practical results, but that most participation of the world is so toxic as to make philosophical thought impossible.

In Plato’s domain, being an outsider was not a position sought by much of anyone. The polis was so tightly-knit and bereft of privacy that most modern people would find it suffocating. But sometime late in the 18th century,  it became quite popular indeed to declare oneself an outsider, and especially in the United States, this became a tradition and a marker of authenticity. So this produced a new problem, which is how to tell the daemonic outsiders from the banausic outsiders.

Daemonic Art

Plato’s classification prefigures that of the Romantic position of the artist in touch with fundamental Ideas of Beauty and Truth. Thus, Plato wants the artists out because they and their “complicated mimesis” are too much in competition for the title of “Non-Banausic Thinkers,” as one common interpretation goes.

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author, insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality…The history of literature, of each literature, is the history of these unmistakable voices which through the centuries speak to each other and captivate us with the magic of their singularity.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Well, it’s one thing to think these things about yourself, and quite another to be right about them. And the problem of self-classification has never really gone away. I can tell you who I’d put in that skein of real creators, but there is quite literally no way for me to convince you I’m right (except through rhetorical force and force of personality, but I’m talking about actual proof here). This problem of being unable to establish a final authority for what art is truly daemonic and which is merely banausic, apart from mere estimations based on the durability of various works, is a practical marker for separating art from politics and science. Science and politics depend on at least the possibility of final agreement, the sense that there’s some negotiation that will win at least grudging acceptance from almost everybody.

In other words, science and politics are banausic because they depend on the commensuration of different schemata, and the results revise past, supposed solutions into ones that are generally accepted (often grudgingly) to be a bit better. Such negotiation over aesthetic value opens the trap door that causes art to drop into the realm of the banausic. If I permit your criticism to change my opinion of some novel, I’m doing so on my own terms, not for the sake of some practical nicety or some new superior synthesis. If I hold on to the value of one book which the aesthetic synthesis rejects as worthless, that is an acceptable and sensible position in art, rather than a dead-end or a reactionary position as a similar position would be in politics or science (not that it couldn’t be right, potentially–just that the terms of the debate are different). When the zeitgeist dredges up Stefan Zweig and declares that we should all be reading his books, and Michael Hofmann goes on the attack against him and says no, he’s still worthless, it’s a very firm either/or distinction: either Zweig is daemonic or he is banausic, and there’s nothing in between.

Now, it’s exactly such commensuration that makes relative assessment possible. Plato doesn’t think that argument between philosophers and non-philosophers is of much value. The only people who are fit to argue are those who have already secluded themselves from society. So Plato does seem to be making a generalized ad hominem: unless you have taken yourself out of society, you are a banausic thinker, regardless of what you say.

Banausic Politics, False Consciousness

Plato effectively makes a sweeping accusation of false consciousness across all of society. Far more comprehensive than anything Marx put across, Plato says that merely engaging in craft, trade, rhetoric, or politics is sufficient to cut one off from access to truth and justice. He does not say that he is the only person qualified to make such an accusation, but the standards he sets are quite high: you must have no stake in society, you must not trade in society, you must not negotiate with society’s members.

More recent accusations of false consciousness lower the bar a fair bit, but less than it seems. The bogeyman of anti-liberal leftist thought is that which is defined as “neoliberalism”; the term has been so sweepingly used across different political and economic systems that I think it’s pointless to try to define it. Like “(late) capitalism” itself, “neoliberalism” has become, in Hans Blumenberg’s memorable words, “a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world.” As “socialism” has served for the right, “neoliberalism” is now simply the term applied to all that is bad in the world, whether it is laissez-faire libertarianism, corporate welfare, gentrification, or drone warfare. “Neoliberalism” becomes a single, overarching system uniting and enveloping any and all power structures. This goes alongside calls to exempt one’s self from the system altogether, with declarations that democracy offers a false choice, the illusion of freedom, the right to be a slave, and so on and so forth. (Zizek is probably the most famous promulgator of these homilies, but they are quite common.)

With this comes the statement that work in a neoliberal society is demeaning, draining, and corrupting. Indeed it often is, but the Leftist critique is totalizing: the terms of work are such that one cannot escape such degradation even in a relatively comfortable job–that is, unless one ascends to the somewhat amorphous realm of the upper classes, at which point you become a tacit oppressor. Either way, your existence is inauthentic. Neoliberal existence is inauthentic, something from which you must be emancipated. Alternately, if you work a day job and suffer from what used to be called liberal guilt, it is something which mandates self-flagellation.

Those who are making the critique are thus placing themselves in a position similar to Plato’s. Their thought is not up for grabs (except by Verso and Zero, I guess), and they declare themselves immune to charges of collaboration with the ubiquitous neoliberal regime. Ergo, academic positions are very important, for they are some of the very few sanctioned jobs that don’t open one’s self up to charges of banausic thinking, labor organizing being another, more time-consuming one. (Plato would never accept this, of course, as the pursuit of an academic career and salary would already be sufficiently corrupting to make philosophical thought impossible.) The purgative power of “critiques” becomes a self-protecting scheme to ensure that the power of the truth is not diluted. Those who disagree with the critiques are seen to have a vested interest in the system–that is, they are banausic.

Leftism becomes, in this case, one of Mancur Olson’s “latent groups,” which exist only in opposition to a dominant group and do not seek to grow, lest they lose their sense of definition. In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas elaborated on Olson’s latent groups by functionally describing how such a latent, idealist group survives based on three defining factors, which should all sound very familiar to those who’ve traveled in leftist circles:

  1. Weak leadership, owing to the tendency of members to leave or schism over even a minimal ideological or practical disagreement
  2. A strong boundary between members and non-members, maintained through group policing of purity, commitment, and in-group equality
  3. A tacit, shared belief in an evil conspiracy (e.g., neoliberalism) outside the group

The strong boundary is another way of declaring the incommensurability of the group’s values with the values of those outside the group. The group is pure; everyone else is a willing or unwilling victim of the conspiracy. Such a purist community endures (tenuously) via the persistent, though unconscious, reification of the wider conspiracy:

1. C, the belief in conspiracy, is an effect of weak leadership, and strong boundary.
2. C is beneficial in keeping the community, Z, in being.
3. C is unintended by Z so no insulting charge of duplicity stands against the believers.
4. Because of weak leadership, no consensus can be mustered for formulating or applying laws or for punishing deviants. The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled by the strong boundary, which automatically insures that exit will be costly. So only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, C, in outside conspiracy, but C maintains X. These causal links are not perceived.
5. C maintains weak leadership and strong boundary by actually splitting the community or expelling when treachery is suspected, producing a history to make every would-be leader nervous.

Banausia, then, is the conspiracy of society. The more maximally general it is, the better. “Neoliberalism” is one form of such a conspiracy; there is no shortage of others.

But for a self-proclaimed leftist, this latent group attitude is self-defeating: it is the elitism that dare not speak its name. If you are Plato and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, it is at least consistent to reserve the fruits of wisdom for a very select few while secluding yourself from society. If you are Lenin and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, you think you know better than everyone and have no trouble enforcing that belief by violence and dictatorship. If, however, your stated goal is enlightened liberation and growing awareness, the division of thought into one tiny wedge of Truth (accessible to you and your mates) and one gigantic wedge of Banausia (left for everyone else) makes you incapable of interfacing with the world on any terms outside your own narrow, pure argot. And indeed, many Leftist groups are wary of any growth that would threaten their strong boundaries.

The radical activist Saul Alinsky, who certainly got results, was notable for his sheer lack of purity, his indifference to ideological principles beyond some very rough anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethics. That is politics. If, on the other hand, your believe your thought to be incommensurable, and believe the thought of all others to be banausic, then you will view engagement with the toxic heap of neoliberalism as an unalloyed evil–even as you engage with it–and you will sink into the dustbin of history on a mountain of critiques, tweets, tumblrs, and Verso Books.

When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Father Time: Chronos and Kronos

"Classic" Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn

Classic Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn (Kronos)

It is easy to confuse the Greek god of time, Chronos (Χρόνος), with Zeus’ Titan father, Kronos (Κρόνος). So easy, in fact, that the conflation has been made for over two thousand years. The Greeks conflated them regularly, at least according to Plutarch. The Romans then coopted Kronos into the form of Saturn, who later became known as Father Time and the god of time.

To make things even more confusing, sometime in the late Roman Empire, Saturn was then conflated with the Greek concept of kairos, which designates a pregnant or opportune “special” time. Kairos is somewhat opposed to chronos, which signifies day-to-day time in general. Chronos is the quotidian, the recurrent, the passing of the years, while kairos is the moment, the event, the suspension of the normal. But both were piled onto Saturn over the centuries.

Time is always a messy concept, in mythology and otherwise. I haven’t found a good overview of the nooks and crannies of these nominal twins; this is my attempt.

The Greek origins are frustratingly fuzzy, as usual. Chronos doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, which tells the usual story of Kronos eating his children and then being tricked by his wife Rheia into regurgitating them, then being defeated by them (as well as Zeus, who Rheia hid).

But Chronos does appear in the cosmogony of the sixth century BCE writer Pherekydes of Syros. Pherekydes posits three primordial deities: Chronos, proto-Zeus figure Zas, and proto-Gaia figure Chthonie. Zas marries Chtonie and gives her the earth and sea as a wedding present, turning Chthonie into her present Ge, the earth. The gifts are partly created, however, by Chronos himself:

Zas always existed, and Chronos and Chthonie, as the three first principles.. .and Chronos made out of his own seed fire and wind [or breath] and water… from which, when they were disposed in five recesses, were composed numerous other offspring of gods, what is called ‘of the five recesses’, which is perhaps the same as saying ‘of five worlds’.

Fragment 52, Kirk, Raven, Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers

Then there is a big gap in our knowledge, and the next thing we have from Pherekydes is Kronos (not Chronos) fighting with Ophioneus over who should hold the heavens. Kronos wins. Apart from the oddness of Kronos allying with Zas, there are all sorts of other questions:

Scholars have generally assumed that at some point Chronos becomes Kronos, and Zas Zeus, and perhaps Ge Rheia. Such an assumption seems likely to be right, but poses some problems for our understanding of the relationship between Zeus and Kronos: do they clash as in Hesiod after the fall of Ophioeus, or are they allies in that battle and subsequently, with Zeus simply assuming a more prominent role toward the end of the poem? … There still remains the fact that Zeus (as Zas) and Kronos (as Chronos) have both existed forever, in contrast to Ophioneus, and there seems no good reason why either of them should suddenly engage in conflict with the other….

On the whole, then, I think it best to assume that Zas and Chronos work together in harmony from beginning (of which there is none) to end, and that the battle with Ophioneus (from his name clearly a Typhoeus counterpart) and his brood is the only conflict which Pherekydes envisioned.

Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth

Kirk and Raven say that Pherekydes was clearly “addicted to etymologies,” and so perhaps did the joining of similarly named gods, turning Time into a creator and Zeus and Kronos into allies.

Onto the post-classical Hellenistic world. In his book on the Orphic poems, M.L. West tells of Clement quoting from a hymn to a god that is both father and son to Zeus: “The god is probably Kronos (Chronos), called Zeus’ son because of the story in the Rhapsodic Theogony that Zeus swallowed the older gods and brought them forth again. Cf. Hymn 8.13” This leaves us with the perplexing loop of Kronos killing both his father and children, only to have his surviving son become his father.

And the ourobourus is doubly appropriate because one of Chronos’ early forms was a winged serpent, which developed into a three-headed serpent in Orphic cosmogony:

The serpent form of Chronos may have its origins in Egyptian fantasy, but in Orphic poetry it took on a symbolic significance which justified its retention and elaboration. Chronos was represented, we are told, as a winged serpent with additional heads of a bull and a lion, and between them the face of a god. How is this to be imagined? The detail that the wings were `on his shoulders’ suggests that the whole upper part of his body was of human shape apart from the wings and extra heads. This is also indicated by the fact that his consort, who was `of the same nature’, had arms. If the couple are mainly anthropomorphic above the waist and snakelike below, they are reminiscent of Echidna (Hes. Th. 298-9, Hdt. 4.9.1), and even more of her consort Typhoeus as he is represented on a well-known Chalcidian hydria in Munich.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

Zeus and Typhoeus (Chronos?)

Zeus and Typhoeus (akin to the Orphic Chronos–minus two heads)

West sees a common Indo-European origin to these myths shared by Indian, Egyptian, and Greek sources. He speculates:

The snake was an ancient and natural symbol of eternity because of its habit of sloughing its skin off and so renewing its youth. It may also be relevant that the serpent with human head and arms is the regular shape of river-gods. The idea of Time as a river is present in at least one passage of tragedy (Critias 43 F 3.1-3 `Tireless Time with his ever-flowing stream runs full, reborn from himself’); and it would be assisted by the fact that Oceanus is usually the father of rivers, if in the Orphic poem Chronos was represented as born to Oceanus. River-gods are not usually fitted with wings, of course, and would have no use for them. But they are a natural adjunct for a cosmic serpent with no earth to glide upon. We may compare the wings of Pherecydes’ world tree, and in art the wings of the sun’s horses. In a wider context, wings are freely bestowed by archaic artists upon all manner of divine beings, and fabulous monsters such as sphinxes and griffins are also winged; the type of the winged Typhoeus has its place with them. That Time should be winged is something in which it is easy to find symbolic meaning.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

As an anthropomorphic god, however, Chronos fades out while Kronos retains his standard position as Zeus’ father, parricide, and filicide in classical Greek sources.

Plutarch, though, continues to speak of a more figurative allegory known in the Orphic cults and to the Greeks in general:

And they are those that tell us that, as the Greeks are used to allegorize Kronos (or Saturn) into chronos (time), and Hera (or Juno) into aer (air) and also to resolve the generation of Vulcan into the change of air into fire, so also among the Egyptians, Osiris is the river Nile, who accompanies with Isis, which is the earth; and Typhon is the sea, into which the Nile falling is thereby destroyed and scattered, excepting only that part of it which the earth receives and drinks up, by means whereof she becomes prolific.

Plutarch, “Of Isis and Osiris”

Kronos was not the only one to be allegorized into chronos, however. There are bits of evidence of hero-demigod Herakles/Hercules also being equated with the winged serpent.

Athenagoras and Damascius both record that the winged serpent Chronos was also called Heracles. Why? What was there about Heracles that enabled him to be identified with a creature of such physical monstrosity and such cosmic importance? Only one plausible answer has so far been suggested. In the legendary cycle of twelve labours, in the course of which Heracles overcame a lion, a bull, and various other dangerous fauna, some allegorical interpreters saw the victorious march of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Time is measured by the sun and the solar year. It is thus that Heracles-Helios can be addressed by the author of the Orphic Hymns as `father of Time’ (12.3), and by Nonnus as `thou who revolvest the son of Time, the twelve-month year’ (D. 40.372). By the same token, it may be argued, the Orphic Chronos, Time himself, might be identified with Heracles, the indomitable animal-tamer of the zodiac.

However, there is another possibility. For Plato, time is defined by the complex movements of the sun, moon, and planets; and when they have played through all their permutations and returned to the same relative positions, the `perfect year’ and the `perfect number of time’ are complete. The early Stoics derived from this their doctrine of the Great Year, at the end of which the cosmos is totally dissolved into fire. They defined time as the dimension of cosmic movement. Time was therefore coextensive with the Great Year, and could be considered to pause in the ecpyrosis. Now we find in Seneca, after a thoroughly Stoic exposition of the identity of God, the author of the world, with Nature and Fate, the argument that he may be equated with (among other divinities) Hercules, `because his force is invincible, and when it is wearied by the promulgation of works, it will retire into fire’. The allusion is on the one hand to the Stoic ecpyrosis, on the other to the pyre on the summit of Mount Oeta in which Heracles was cremated and achieved apotheosis after completing his labours. In this Stoic allegorization of the Heracles myth, then, the cycle of labours corresponds to the totality of divine activity in the course of the Great Year. Since divine activity is coextensive with the cosmos, that means that Heracles’ labours represent everything that happens in cosmic time.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

This is admittedly rather speculative. It is noteworthy, however, because it links Chronos to one of two Greek cults that thrived heavily under Rome, those of Herakles and Dionysus.

The movement from the literal to the figurative is not the only direction. The process works in reverse as well. What subsequently happens is a combining and recombining in which incompatible features are freely merged and tossed away. Here the best single guide is Ernst Panofsky’s article “Father Time.”

In none of these ancient representations do we find the hourglass, the scythe or sickle, the crutches, or any signs of a particularly advanced age. In other words, the ancient images of Time are either characterized by symbols of fleeting speed and precarious balance, or by symbols of universal power and infinite fertility, but not by symbols of decay and destruction. How, then, did these most specific attributes of Father Time come to be introduced?

The answer lies in the fact that the Greek expression for time, Chronos, was very similar to the name of Kronos (the Roman Saturn), oldest and most formidable of the gods. A patron of agriculture, he generally carried a sickle. As the senior member of the Greek and Roman Pantheon he was professionally old, and later, when the great classical divinities came to be identified with the planets, Saturn was associated with the highest and slowest of these. When religious worship gradually disintegrated and was finally supplanted by philosophical speculation, the fortuitous similarity between the words Chronos and Kronos was adduced as proof of the actual identity of the two concepts which really had some features in common. According to Plutarch, who happens to be the earliest author to state this identity in writing, Kronos means Time in the same way as Hera means Air and Hephaistos, Fire.

The Neoplatonics accepted the identification on metaphysical rather than physical grounds. They interpreted Kronos, the father of gods and men, as nous, the Cosmic Mind (while his son Zeus or Jupiter was likened to its ’emanation,’ the psyche, or Cosmic Soul) and could easily merge this concept with that of Chronos, the ‘father of all things,’ the ‘wise old builder,’ as he had been called. The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. Also, they re-interpreted the original features of his image as symbols of time, His sickle, traditionally explained eithcr as an agricultural implement or as the instrument of castration, came to be interpreted as a symbol of tempora quae sicut falx in se recurrunt; and the mythical tale that he had devoured his own children was said to signify that Time, who had already been termed ‘sharp-toothed’ by Simonides and edax rerum by Ovid, devours whatever he has created.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Note that pace Panofsky, the snake/dragon imagery of time was not new to the 4th/5th centuries CE. Neoplatonics like Proclus were aware of the Orphic cosmogonies and were resuscitating an existing, though latent, symbolism.

Nonetheless, we have some ex post facto justification here. New explanations are created that invoke anachronistic features of the deities. If Kronos devouring his children originally had nothing to do with time, now it does. Time now becomes gloomy because Saturn is gloomy. In place of Orphic “unaging” Time, we now get aged, cranky, hungry Time.

Far from being an abstraction limited to philosophy, Time seems better thought of as one of those absolute metaphors darting between concept, symbol, and personification. Time latches onto Kronos because of a lexical similarity, but it latches onto Herakles through arcane associations mostly lost to us. It infects myths like a virus.

By the age of Petrarch (1304-1374), Renaissance humanism makes for a new recombination. Petrarch’s Triumphs portrays a menacing, conquering time. Saturn was readymade for the job. Saturn’s castrating scythe now signifies the ravages of time. (Destruction is always an easily-reappropriated metaphor.) The scythe also links time easily to his compatriot Death, who is associated with the scythe as early as the 11th century.

Small wonder that the illustrators decided to fuse the harmless personification of ‘Temps’ with the sinister image of Saturn. From the former they took over the wings, from the latter the grim, decrepit appearance, the crutches, and, finally, such strictly Saturnian features as the scythe and the devouring motif. That this new image personified Time was frequently emphasized by an hourglass, which seems to make its first appearance in this new cycle of illustrations, and sometimes by the zodiac, or the dragon biting its tail.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Petrarch's Triumph of Time

Petrarch’s Triumph of Time

And with this new conception of time, the menacing portions stick while the innocuous features–like the wings–do not, even though it was the wings that were associated with time in the first place! The serpent imagery is long-gone, overwritten by Christianity.

By this point, the idea of time devouring his children (not Zeus, but us) has taken on real metaphysical weight, and time the destroyer proceeds into the present day. It’s not Goya’s Saturn but Rubens’ Saturn that captures this new Saturn-as-Time, white beard, decrepit body, and staff/scythe.

Petrarch, Triumph of Time

Rubens' Saturn (1638)

Rubens’ Saturn (1638)

Your grandeur passes, and your pageantry,
Your lordships pass, your kingdoms pass; and Time
Disposes wilfully of mortal things,

And treats all men, worthy or no, alike;
And Time dissolves not only visible things,
But eloquence, and what the mind hath wrought.

And fleeing thus, it turns the world around.
Nor ever rests nor stays nor turns again
Till it has made you nought but a little dust.

Time in his avarice steals so much away:
Men call it Fame; ’tis but a second death,
And both alike are strong beyond defense.
Thus doth Time triumph over the world and Fame.


Euripides’ Bacchae: Two Boys at Play

The Bacchae has a reputation as Euripides’ greatest play. It’s hard for me to say. Even for a wildly eccentric and subversive playwright like Euripides, it is very odd. It was one of his very last plays, written quite late in life (in his 70s possibly), but even the contemporaneous Iphegenia at Aulis is nothing like it. It is concertedly archaic and much more soaked in myth and paganism than most of his other, more “human” dramas like Medea and The Trojan Women, which give voice to tremendous amounts of pain and suffering on behalf of life’s losers and victims.

The Bacchae lacks a certain type of immanent universality, though it has plenty of blunt impact. It is still overwhelming and shocking, and ends with one hell of a memorable image: King Pentheus’ severed head impaled on a very phallic thyrsus held by his mother, who has disemboweled him in the midst of Bacchic ecstasy. (The thyrsus is a fennel staff with a pine cone or bunch of leaves on top, a Dionysian symbol.)

Agave (center) and part of her son Pentheus (left), from Brad Mays' production

Thematically, however, it deals in more abstract universalities. Since abstract universalities are more prone to change over the millennia than concrete notions of pain and death, it is more difficult to grasp just exactly what is going on with the Dionysian cults and rituals that occur, even if you’re familiar with how they operated. Add to that Euripides’ inevitable perversions of received values and ideas, and the drama is baffling.

It is quite unusual (even unique?) in surviving Greek drama in making a god not only a spectator and an agent of the action, but the actual protagonist. (Other tragedies with Dionysus as protagonist have been lost.) He is Dionysus returns to Thebes with a group of maenad followers, having returned from the east where he had been establishing his mysteries and rites. His Theban mother Semele was killed by his father Zeus on account of Hera’s jealousy (long story), but the rest of her family has been slandering her by saying she lied about Zeus being her lover, and that that is why Zeus killed her. Dionysius’ cousin Pentheus, son of Semele’s slandering sister Agave, is now king of Thebes and has banned worship of Dionysus.

Dionysus is extremely angry about all of this and eagerly tells the audience, in proto-Richard III style, that he is going to take serious revenge. We follow him as he brings most of Thebes under his spell, Pied Piper-like, causes a major earthquake, and then disguises himself as a human and torments Pentheus at length. Eventually he tempts Pentheus with talk of the maenads’ orgies and has Pentheus cross-dress as a maenad so that he can spy on them. (Here Dionysus certainly anticipates Shakespeare’s similarly twisted Duke in Measure for Measure, as well as that other puppet-master Prospero.)

As expected, the maenads rip Pentheus to shreds, thinking he’s a wild animal—animal dismemberment was part of Bacchic rituals. Agave proudly brings back Pentheus’ head, thinking that she’s slaughtered a lion for a feast. Dionysus removes the spell from Agave so she can see what he has done to her own son, and Dionysus exiles the remainder of the family. Dionysus prophecies that Semele and Agave’s parents, Cadmus and Harmonia, will be turned into serpents.

These grim antics are accompanied by joyless songs from the chorus of maenads, but much of the play is just Dionysus (disguised) and Pentheus onstage in dialogue, occasionally with a visiting messenger, until Dionysus sees Pentheus off to his doom and returns only in the guise of a god in the denouement to pronounce doom. The chorus, as well as some of the other characters, incessantly remind the audience that one does not anger a god and get away with it, ever.

Yet Dionysus’ behavior is perplexing. He hardly seems like the good-times god of wine, and certainly not the buffoon of other myths. His Hermes-esque (Hermetic?) trickery and plotting seem calculated and malevolent. In a bit of mythological overlap, Cadmus and Harmonia’s transformation into serpents echoes the two serpents of Hermes’ symbol, the caduceus. To push that point a little further, Dionysus prophecies their fate simultaneously, emphasizing the pairing, whereas in the traditional account, Harmonia wishes herself to be transformed only after Cadmus transforms (by his own wish).

[The confusion of the diabolical caduceus and the healing staff of Asclepius persists, and Thomas M. Disch had some fun with the confusion in his apocalyptic novel The M.D.]

Even more strangely, Dionysus lets himself be humiliated by Pentheus, who temporarily imprisons him and cuts off his hairlocks. (Dionysus will later cause Pentheus to grow girlish hair.) Yes, it’s a setup, but why? Dionysus is already hellbent on revenge and manipulating events, Pentheus has already refused to allow worship, and Pentheus has no need to indict himself further.

None of this is enough to make you ultimately sympathize with Dionysus, who gets very nasty indeed. The sheer vigor of his revenge rhetoric as the play goes on is enough to make him unpalatable, like someone crushing ants for not staying out of his way. But in the facts, he is a victim, not of Pentheus but of other gods, particularly his wicked stepmother Hera. His obsession with revenge is not so different from that of Medea and Hecuba and Electra, Euripides’ vengeful women, but they were all more sympathetic than Dionysus. They weren’t gods.

Pentheus, for his part, is impetuous, arrogant, and unyielding, but unlike Creon in Antigone, he’s just a kid: he’s described as beardless and Agave reports she has killed “a lion’s cub,” not a full-grown lion. He argues with Dionysus and readies for war against the maenads, but is abruptly distracted by the promise of seeing the secret Dionysian rites. (Has he even been with a woman?)

PENTHEUS: Bring my armor, someone! And you stop talking.

(Pentheus strides toward the left, but when he is almost offstage, Dionysus calls imperiously to him.)

DIONYSUS: Wait! Would you like to see their revels on the mountain?

PENTHEUS: I would pay a great sum to see that sight.

E. R. Dodds describes the moment in a Freudian fashion:

What happens is rather the beginning of a psychic invasion, the entry of the god into his victim, who was also in the old belief his vehicle. In the maddening of Pentheus, as in the maddening of Heracles, the poet shows us the supernatural attacking the victim’s personality at its weakest point—working upon and through nature, not against it. The god wins because he has an ally in the enemy’s camp: the persecutor is betrayed by what he would persecute—the Dionysiac longing in himself.

These Dionysian rites then destroy Pentheus. He has inherited the sins of his ancestors without even the capacity to understand them clearly. Just before sending him off to his doom, Dionysus tells him he will return cradled in his mother’s arms, a happy regression to infancy.

Dionysus (left) and Pentheus

The result is a peculiar portrayal of a god very unlike the irritable but invulnerable deities for whom nothing is of lasting consequence. It feels closer to the Old Testament God, with his mysterious contradictions, hurt feelings, and inconsistencies. As Dionysus sets up Pentheus repeatedly, I think of God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart against Moses. Greek gods usually aren’t so roundabout, not even Hermes. (“My ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete!“)

Aristophanes portrayed Dionysus as an idiotic buffoon in the comedy The Frogs, and he normally stands apart from the other major gods in lacking jealousy and gravitas. Euripides evens the balance in The Bacchae, but the standard account still persists as well. Dionysus is a child with a dead mother, a wicked stepmother, and a disputed and absent father. The Greek gods are irrational and jealous, but they are not children. (Even Hermes is older than Dionysus.)

Here, though, Dionysus is an illegitimate child, even by the standards of Greek gods. Dionysius himself not accepted, not legitimate in Olympus, not even properly born to his mother before she died but incubated in Zeus’s thigh. He cannot take out his mourning and rage on other gods, but he can on the humans who ridicule his mother. In the myth, Hera motivates Semele’s sisters to slander Semele, but here they do it out of pure pettiness and spite, further stressing the emphasis on the human plane of events. Greek gods normally lash out at humans who are favored by other gods, but Dionysus is the only god in play here. And since the sin against him is that of questioning his very legitimacy, birth, and godhood, that he is defending himself against such accusations puts his status in doubt.

And so Dionysus is a neglected and resentful child, less legitimate than the other gods (much in the way that Dionysiac cults were viewed suspiciously and as illegitimate), punishing his action figures because he has power over them. The story is two boys having tantrums, one of whom happens to be a god.

The nature of Pentheus’ final sin is that of a man (or boy) thinking he is punishing another human, not a god. At that single point, Dionysus is humanly sympathetic, before the power shifts. I think that the need for Dionysus’ humiliation comes from theme and structure. Dionysus and Pentheus must be put on an equal level for a time, so that Dionysus is not only disguised as a human but is acting as one as well. (This also seems unprecedented in Greek literature, to the best of my knowledge.) That is to say, Dionysus can capture the audience’s sympathy only until he exerts his powers–his ability for revenge–at which point he is monstrous. He becomes a god, can only be recognized as a god, by becoming a monster.

What it all means I doubt anyone can say. That we are all children? That we have sympathy not for victims, but for the powerless? That our expressions of sympathy are as irrational and unjust as our expressions of revenge? Because I’ve tried to speak about the less culturally-bound aspects of the play, I’ve barely touched the difficulties and confusions around the Bacchic cults and rituals themselves. It is the most complicatedly ambiguous drama I can think of until Shakespeare came on the scene.*


*As with Hamlet, we also lack crucial context as to predecessor plays around the Dionysus myth and exactly which parts of the myth Euripides altered, and consequently don’t know precisely what audiences of the time would have been surprised at.

Thersites, the Iliad, and Not Knowing Your Place

The scene with Thersites in Book II of the Iliad is one of the most famous in the whole epic, and with good reason. Not only is it very peculiar, but it also gives voice to what any young person reading the Iliad for the first time must be thinking: why on earth are all these people getting killed for Menelaus just because someone stole his wife?

Thersites more or less asks what the point of the whole Trojan War is and gets beaten and humiliated for his trouble. Here is the scene, abridged a bit, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

But [Thersites], crying the words aloud, scolded Agamemnon:
‘Son of Atreus, what thing further do you want, or find fault with
now? Your shelters are filled with bronze, there are plenty of the choicest
women for you within your shelter, whom we Achaians
give to you first of all whenever we capture some stronghold.
Or is it still more gold you will be wanting, that some son
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, brings as ransom out of Ilion,
one that I, or some other Achaian, capture and bring in?…
My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaia,
let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here
by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour
that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him.
And now he has dishonoured Achilleus, a man much better
than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her….’

So he spoke, Thersites, abusing Agamemnon
the shepherd of the people. But brilliant Odysseus swiftly
came beside him scowling and laid a harsh word upon him:
‘Fluent orator though you be, Thersites, your words are
ill-considered. Stop, nor stand up alone against princes.
Out of all those who came beneath Ilion with Atreides
I assert there is no worse man than you are. Therefore
you shall not lift up your mouth to argue with princes,
cast reproaches into their teeth, nor sustain the homegoing….’

So he spoke and dashed the sceptre against his back and
shoulders, and he doubled over, and a round tear dropped from him,
and a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders under
the golden sceptre’s stroke, and he sat down again, frightened,
in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops.
Sorry though the men were they laughed over him happily,
and thus they would speak to each other, each looking at the man next him:
‘Come now: Odysseus has done excellent things by thousands,
bringing forward good counsels and ordering armed encounters;
but now this is far the best thing he ever has accomplished
among the Argives, to keep this thrower of words, this braggart
out of assembly. Never again will his proud heart stir him
up, to wrangle with the princes in words of revilement.’

So spoke the multitude….

Moses Finley, in his powerful little book The World of Odysseus, says:

Those final words, “so spoke the multitude,” protest too much. It is as if the poet himself felt that he had overdrawn the contrast. [Homer says that] even the commoners among the Hellenes stood aghast at Thersites’ defective sense of fitness, and though they pitied him as one of their own, they concurred with full heart in the rebuke administered by Odysseus and in the methods he employed. “This is by far the best thing he has done among the Argives” indeed, for Thersites had gnawed at the foundations on which the world of Odysseus was erected.

And indeed, it’s pushing it to have the other commoners praise Odysseus and ridicule one of their own. Another odd note is sounded by having it be Odysseus, easily the slimiest of the aristocratic warriors, administer the rebuke. Odysseus got a lot slimier after Homer, with the introduction of stories about him framing Palamedes for treason and getting him stoned to death. Still, he’s about the last person you’d expect the commoners to cheer for, especially compared to the far more appealing Achilles.

On the other hand, this might well be what you’d expect the multitude to say if they were completely cowed by a social system privileging an aristocratic upper class of princes, either out of fear or false consciousness. “Good work, Odysseus! Put us in our place!”

Hegel and Nietzsche picked up on this to some extent, and Nietzsche, as usual, had a good line about it: “Socrates is the revenge for Thersites…the ugly plebeian Socrates killed the authority of the wonderful myth in Greece.”

Simone Weil, siding of course with Thersites, had a good line too: “Reasonable words fall into the void.

But to go back to the scene itself, the most painful part does not seem to be the beating but the jeering, coming from the very people Thersites seemed to be speaking for. Every time you are shot down from a position of greater authority, every time you are chastised for speaking out of turn, each time you meet the ridicule of your own peers for questioning your superiors, each time you are put in your place, you are Thersites. And if you have never experienced this feeling, you should look closely at your life.

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction

Albert Hirschman was an amazing writer and his three slim books written for a general readership make their points with incredible efficiency. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is incisive about the individual’s relationship and loyalty to a provider or employer. The Passions and the Interests is an excellent history of why capitalism seemed like such a savior when Adam Smith and others were promoting it, and how those arguments have persisted and mutated.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a bit more diffuse and abstract than those books. It is at its best when most concrete. Hirschman, an admitted progressive, examines reactionary and conservative arguments of three types:

  • According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
  • The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
  • Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

(These do map uncannily onto my own Three Versions of Conservatism. The mapping is Elitist Conservative : futility :: Sentimental Conservative : jeopardy :: Cynical Conservative : perversity.)

I think the three theses do not in fact cleave as cleanly as Hirschman wants them to. Futility is something of a lesser version of the other two, as any action that is useless can then easily be portrayed as wasteful or dangerous. Futility often exists as a fallback position: “Well, if welfare won’t make people more poor, and if it isn’t in fact a huge waste of money…it still won’t do any good!” Hirschman points out that switching rhetorical strategies, no matter how incoherent, is extremely common.

Hirschman pronounces the Perversity thesis “the single most popular and effective weapon in the annals of reactionary rhetoric.” I agree, and it dominates the book as well. I think Hirschman misses one significant reason why it is more successful than jeopardy. (Futility is less hyperbolic and scary than the other two and so easily loses out.) Jeopardy is multidimensional, while perversity is monodimensional. Jeopardy requires one to think about trade-offs between two or more separate but interdependent axes of goods and values, while perversity simply argues that we will go the wrong way along a single axis.

Perversity’s simplicity is its strength. Far more efficient to argue that welfare will make people poor, that affirmative action will disenfranchise minorities, that antitrust will destroy competition. Simple, elegant, and utterly specious.

Consequently, the Jeopardy thesis is more intellectually interesting, even if it’s been less ubiquitous. Hirschman has some great quotes from the 19th and 18th centuries arguing that giving people the right to vote would endanger people’s liberty. The same neocons who tell us how we should be aping Athenian democracy today are reversing the same pattern used by Fustel de Coulanges in 1864, who said that the democracy of Athens was only possible through a complete absence of what we call liberty.  Now, according to Kagan and Smith and Hanson, democracy is only possible through an increasing absence of liberty. For Fustel, Greece was a scary bogeyman; now it’s an unreachable ideal. Same rhetoric.

And through this handy chart that Hirschman gives, we see that some of the neocons and racial “scientists” of today are the same people who were arguing against welfare decades ago, using the same rhetoric:

Hirschman also critiques progressive rhetoric for having too sunny a view, but despite his claims of even-handedness, he seems to be a lot harder on the reactionaries. Maybe this is just my own bias: optimism about bringing liberty, suffrage, and welfare to those lacking it seems far less offensive than attempts to prevent those efforts.

Still, while Hirschman treats Tocqueville and Scheler with some respect, the others come in for well-deserved contempt. It is always good to be reminded of what a horrible person Pareto was (Mussolini supporter, anti-democratic, draconian Social Darwinist); isn’t Pareto-optimality just another statement of the Jeopardy thesis?

Hirschman seems to agree, but he does point out the danger of the progressive/radical “desperate predicament” strategy, which rhetorically argues that things are so bad that any cost is justifiable as long as it brings about change. The more conservatives argue the danger, the more they argue that there are never legitimate grounds for change, the more it pushes radicals to say that the danger is necessary and justified.

Hirschman concludes that Burkean arguments actually radicalized progressives in the 19th century, inducing them to portray current conditions as more hopeless and more desperate than they would have otherwise. I don’t know if the link is quite so direct. I think that the French Revolution itself did force progressives to look at the potential costs of revolution more closely, and that itself may have helped to radicalize the rhetoric.

Yet ultimately it is the bad faith of the reactionaries that dominates, and Hirschman quotes Charles de Rémusat’s devastating critique of Burke’s blind worship of tradition to show just how empty such rhetoric is:

If the events, in their fatality, have been such that a people does not find, or does not know how to find, its own entitlements in its annals, if no epoch of its history has left behind a good national memory, then all the morals and all the archeology one can mobilize will not be able to endow that people with the faith it lacks nor with the attitudes this faith might have forged . . . If to be free a people must have been so in the past, if it must have had a good government to be able to aspire to one today or if at least it must be able to imagine having had these two things, then such a people is immobilized by its own past, its future is foreclosed; and there are nations that are condemned to dwell forever in despair.

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