Culture and the Pathology of Technology: from homo sapience to homo technicus
By JOHN P. ANTON (*)
There are three ways of looking at Hellenism that I believe are pertinent to the theme of my paper: the Academic, the Aesthetic and the Pragmatic. But before I try to explain what these three ways stand for it would help to deal first with the meaning of the two terms in the sub-title: Hellenism and Challenge.
The meaning of Hellenism becomes excessively complex especially if we take into consideration that fact that the values and traditions it encompasses throughout its long history cover a wide variety of intellectual and cultural experiences. To this richness we should add the diverse interpretations of the place of Hellenism in the spectrum of human cultures. Hellenism is not only a special civilization that left its mark in the history of the West, but also a tradition and a heritage which many subsequent periods sought to emulate, change, modify and select from its creative features what seemed pertinent and useful to various groups or nations. In other words, they all sought to profit from the richness of Hellenism. That aside and before I introduce the main concern of my paper, I need to draw attention to two versions of Hellenism that pertain directly to the understanding of what the word “challenge” in the sub-title seems to suggest.
The Two Faces of Hellenism
Ελληνισμός and Hellenismus, the Latin transliteration, do not cover the same grounds. When you visit Greece just ask any Hellene about Ελληνισμός and you are bound to get a thousand versions of its meaning, all charming, but they hardly agree in meaning. But ask a pedestrian in Carney, Nebraska, and you will get no answer at all. In a college campus, however, things are different. Ask a university professor in the division of the humanities and quite likely you will be getting closer to “the glory that was Greece.” The worst case scenario would be one about an old cultural landscape once rich but now transmuted into the shadow of a classical dream.
Yet, Ελληνισμός, what the living Hellenes are hanging on to, refuses to die. And here is why, as an incorrigible Hellene told me last year. “We Greeks are still here although we no longer dress in chitons or crown our heads with laurels.” I think I understood her. We are, she said, whatever we have as Ελληνες, perhaps without straight noses or bearing direct resemblance with the sons of Apollo or the daughters of Aphrodite. We are still their offspring although with a little of mixture of drops of blood from various tribes, mostly of the Western rather than the Eastern sort. And we do speak Greek, but with a peculiar accent that Demosthenes would have found a bit vulgar and Homer too folksy sprinkled no doubt with English improprieties and Turkish intrusions. She helped me understand that Ελληνισμός is still there, holding its own and resisting the forces of globalization as well as the threatening rhetoric of the expansive designs of her neighbors.
How come this Ελληνισμός is still there, blessed as it is with the thunderbolts of Zeus and the commands of St. Paul? We need to ask what it is that keeps it alive and sustains its vigor. First of all, there is the unusual beauty of the land and the rhythms of the Aegean and Ionian seas, with the magic of its location making it one of the most amazing spots on this planet. The people who have inhabited this land, from the indigenous Pelasgians, the Arcadians and the Cretans, and from the Achaeans to the Dorians and the Ionians, the Aeolians, Macedonians and Aetolians, were born with a daimonion of their own, a cultural spirit of their own. They eventually called it Ελληνισμός.
When I started writing my paper I thought about taking my audience on a tour to the headquarters of Ελληνισμός, but I let the temptation pass and decided to save my grand plan for another occasion. I will therefore limit myself to whatever has happened and still continues to happen as Ελληνισμός after so many adventures and transformations through the centuries for the last two thousand years. I will mention only a few special transformations of Ελληνισμός as Hellenism, beyond the Roman type. Since there are so many of them, I will mention only the Hellenism of the Italian Renaissance, the French one of the neo-classicists, the German Hellenism of the romantics Goethe and Nietzsche, and then the not so charming Hellenism of the English from Lord Elgin to Lord Byron and Winston Churchill. Perhaps I should mention here the half-hearted Hellenism of the Spaniards from Cervantes to Unamuno, which finally put on a more proper dress when George Santayana wrote his Life of Reason as an American Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. Perhaps one could add here the peculiar version of Hellenism of James Joyce although being Irish he hardly needed it. All of these types, so diverse in quality and scope, still differ from the American type of Hellenism which the Founding Fathers found so useful to their political designs.
Whatever its native setting as Ελληνισμός, which Isocrates summarized is his well known phrase, Ελληνες εισι οι της ημετέρας παιδείας μετέχοντες, must be viewed as two different histories, one for the Greeks in their native land and one for the rest of the world’s nations that were attracted to the mind of Greece. Both underwent special and different changes, tragic and painful in the case of the Hellenes, playful and experimental in the case of the philhellenes, who went to the land of the Olympian gods either to conquer or to find there what suited their needs and interests. But any attempt to find in their borrowings something that could be called ατόφιος Ελληνισμός, the original creation of Hellas, is simply misleading. As a case of cultural imitation it has an explanation. We actually have two distinctive attitudes involved here: (a) a covert hostility towards the Hellenic way of life, and (b) a deliberately selective attraction to certain of its features. Consider, for example the features that the Medieval mind selected mainly to promote its own concerns, or for instance what ideas and themes the poets and philosophers of the Renaissance found to their liking and later the Enlightenment thinkers tried to replace with doctrines of their own. Yet neither the Romantics nor the post-Romantic sages fared any better, if we judge from the writings of the Kantians, the Hegelians, the Spenserians, and the Nietzscheans, including those of the American Pragmatists. One thing is clear: Hellenism never succeeded to bring back Ελληνισμός as a way of life. Perhaps it was impossible to do so. But it is one thing to select what one needs, quite another to boast about having truly brought it back to a new and higher level of life. Since the various Hellenisms could not do the impossible, they should have at least respected the perennial values of Ελληνισμός, especially the remarkable philosophical insight into the nature of human nature.
The time has now come to look into the other special term in our title: “challenge.” It is quite difficult to justify the use of this term, if only because a challenge implies that there is some sort of competition going on between two active antagonists. The problem here is to identify a competitor who is being challenged. But how can Ελληνισμός be put in the position of a challenger when it is no longer present in its original setting? There is, of course, a way to view Ελληνισμός as a kind of cultural life, as a paideia, an outlook, a lasting civilized attitude with a definite set of ethical values and political ideals. The people who might be said to be entitled to claim Ελληνισμός as a cultural heritage would be the living generation of Hellenes. But perhaps that would be rather difficult given the many historical, social, religious, linguistic and other elements that have interfered with the classical spiritual landscape for so many centuries ever since the Roman conquest of the land after the fall of Corinth in 146 B.C.
I prefer to leave this sensitive topic to those who are better qualified to discuss it. Still, we must not jump to conclusions and insist that the living generation of Greeks is totally different from the ancients, as it has often been proposed by certain historians in the recent past. That would be like opening a can of worms. But let it be said that if the Hellenes of today have not much in common with the ancients then it would follow that no other group of human beings can ever claim a comparable relationship for itself. Whatever the case may be, the present Hellenes are as close to the classical ones as circumstances and accidents of history allowed. But what can be said about the issue of Ελληνισμός? What is it as a way of cultural life and how can it be said to be a challenge, presumably to the present state of affairs?
I have tried to give prominence to the issue of the relationship between Ελληνισμός and the present day Greeks mainly to show the difference between that and the diverse Hellenisms as special and varied uses of the classical tradition. I hope it has become clear by now that the world of the modern Hellenes, their Ελληνισμός, was of no particular interest to the Europeans or even the Asians. Yet the original Ελληνισμός is a challenge, and it will remain as such first of all to the Hellenes of today at least as much as it can be in opposition to the prevailing state of cultural affairs and the current systems of values in the world. But if a challenge it is, then we have no choice but to conclude that there is a certain antagonism between what Ελληνισμός stands for and the pattern of established values now in operation. After all, if there is no difference between these two outlooks, there would be no point in discussing the possibility of a challenge. Briefly put, it is a conflict between homo sapiens and homo technicus.
One of my questions is whether Ελληνισμός as a program of paideia, probably we should call it with its Greek name ‘pedagogy’, can make a difference in the life and future of the American people and other nations. To say that it will would also mean that we must admit that the present state of educational affairs is deficient in some serious respect. To put the matter differently, by supporting the presence of the classical Ελληνισμός in the current educational programs we assume that something drastic must be done to counter the rising tide of professionalism of the homo technicus, on the one hand, and to strengthen the humanities, on the other. This brings me back to the three ways of viewing Hellenism.
Hellenism as an academic subject matter. This is not the time to trace the history of its place in the college curricula. Suffice it to say that the study of the history, culture, literature and philosophy of the classical world eventually found its place in the humanities programs of our colleges and universities, although sometimes they were treated as valuable museum pieces, more like famous statues than a living heritage to throw light on the dark spots of human conduct. As such, Hellenism, whatever was selected from the richness of the original, was fitted into the content of special courses in the humanities meant to prepare the undergraduates for a successful future. As such, it remained academic Hellenism. But as a source of cultural outlook, it hardly ever rocked the boat of our American values, notwithstanding what the Founding Fathers of our nation were able to fathom in it on their own. Neither the economists nor the aspiring statesmen took seriously the lessons from the history of the ancient Greeks. At least we may be pleased that the Greek alphabet survived in the initials of the fraternities and sororities of our colleges. More seriously though, the issue has reached the dimensions of a national predicament. We cannot predict how long this academic Hellenism will last or rather survive, given the pressures the universities face these days to change their mission and become servants to the imperial commands of technocracy. Only a few months ago the New York Times (section C1) carried a long article titled “Humanities Must Justify Their Worth on Campus” and stated in a capture the following: “As unemployment lines grow and university endowments shrink, scholars worry that academic disciplines that fall under the ‘humanities’ umbrella—like religion, the arts, cultural studies and philosophy—will be hit hard as their relevance is questioned.” Does this herald the end of the study of Hellenism? I hope not, but the perilous threats announcing a serious decline cannot be ignored. For, to do so would amount to nothing less than our unconditional surrender to the marching forces of technocracy. At least the Europeans are faring much better in their paideia than Americans do. They have a longer and more illustrious tradition as I will indicate in the next type of Hellenism.
The Aesthetic form of Hellenism. One could conveniently call it the march of Beauty in the lives of the European people, a trend that was eventually destined to cross the Atlantic and find some hospitality in America. One can appeal to such marvels as the Parthenon in architecture, the Charioteer at Delphi and Aphrodite of Melos in sculpture, the magnificent theaters at Epidaurus and other places, the epics of Homer, the tragedies of Aeschylus, the lyrics of Sappho, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, including the athletic wonders at Olympia and Nemea. Add to these the comparable feats of the Hellenic genius, including their philosophical works, especially the treatment of beauty in Plato’s Symposium and Aristotle’s Poetics, and one can readily see why the Europeans sought to emulate the grace of Greece to enrich their lives with the aesthetic side of Hellenism. When boredom and depression overwhelmed the artists and the poets, the pressure to escape would often lead them back to a Hellas of their own fantasy, an idyllic landscape or seascape adorned with nymphs, nereids, and even Pan himself carousing in the coves of Arcadia. Such was the aesthetic path to rediscover Hellas, captured in the charming painting of Poussin, “Et in Arcadia Ego…”, in certain plays of Shakespeare, or in Goethe’s Faust who let him marry Helen for his own good, down to the various modern versions of the Odyssey theme. But when it came to life beyond the arts and the aesthetic values of life, Hellenism was soon gradually abandoned by the scientists and the new philosophers who were more than eager to change the picture of the world and replace the Hellenic view of human nature with one of their own. Christianity had already done that through the Church Fathers in the East and St. Augustine in the West. But the barrowing in the area of political culture took a major step in a new direction with Machiavelli in Italy and Thomas Hobbes in England, exposing as it were at the same time what they thought were the shortcomings of the Greeks. In the meantime Copernicus, without acknowledging his indebtedness to Aristarchus of Samos, declared the universe to be a heliocentric system. It would not be too much to say that the sciences and then the industrial revolution made Hellenism, aesthetic and otherwise a negligible cultural entity, good to have but not to emulate anymore. Yet, a serious slice of European Hellenism was able to find its way into the universities in England, France, Germany and Italy. It is still there as a source of inspiration and learning.
The Pragmatic form of Hellenism. I will now try to explain in a different way the relevance of Hellenism as a challenge, as I announced at the beginning of my paper. If a challenge it is, it must have something to do with a special set of problems, mainly cultural and political, that have emerged in our times. What makes this challenge a real one are the political and economic developments that have come to demand so much attention. After all, even if the leading powers of the world will manage the crisis in the long run, other problems are awaiting their turn. The present situation is so serious that it requires a special reconsideration of the role and place of Hellenism today. Perhaps we need to shift our attention from the three types of Hellenism to the essence of Ελληνισμός as such.
I call this form of Hellenism pragmatic. If it does not have any positive and beneficial consequences in real life, then it may easily lapse into a type of aesthetic Hellenism. But then it would hardly suffice to serve us, given our present realities. That is why the meaning of a challenge is real and pertinent. But now I must make a distinction between a narrow and a broad use of the foundations of Hellenism. The narrow sense applies mainly to the survival of the Hellenes under the conditions they faced when as a nation they were continuously threatened with extinction ever since the Roman conquest of their land. The broader meaning refers to the political techne which classical thinkers developed in order to help secure the good life for all the citizens in the polis. It may sound outside of the concerns of our conference to bring in the broader meaning of Ελληνισμός, but I take responsibility for raising this issue.
I will therefore conclude my paper with an answer. Whereas the narrow sense of Hellenism is, strictly speaking, the business of the living Hellenes in Greece, the broader sense involves all humanity and the United States in particular as a leading world power. We are now beyond the problem of the humanities or the future of the classics. We are even beyond the current controversy of evolution versus special creation, science versus religion. We are asked to re-examine the crucial issue of what is the nature of human nature and what the Hellenes can still tell us about it. By the way, the poets and the philosophers, the historians and the artists, all responded to the same issue and talked the same way. Be that as it may, but if human nature is not stable and has changed since the time of the ancients, then Ελληνισμός has nothing to contribute anymore to the current ways and needs of paideia to the homo technicus. But if not, then we would be fools not to re-examine and evaluate once more what their wisdom offers. This brings me to their great discovery of the general idea about the political nature of human beings as the foundation for αρετή, the excellence in life, we are capable of attaining. It is this wisdom that has been neglected to this very day, even by the Romans who at least did talk about human viritus.
It is against this background that I want to conclude with the idea of political leadership and the aretē or excellence it demands of the citizens who decide to serve their people. This civic responsibility is what makes Ελληνισμός most valuable heritage, especially today when the rise of individual rights and the success of technocratia is changing the direction of democracy. Let me mention briefly the value of homonoia, ομόνοια, in public life.
The role of the human mind is trusted to make our ethos reasonable, that is, to structure human character so that the powers of the human soul, the passions, will be educated to choose actions that promote the common good in a unified and intelligent way. While the philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle founded political theoria, the tragic poets brought human action on the stage for all to see, just as the citizens saw the Parthenon as the harmony and metron of architecture, dedicated to Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. Bringing wisdom to bear on the public domain in all the walks of life is what makes Ελληνισμός the model of civilized life. It was this idea that was marginalized ever since the decline of Greece at the end of the Hellenistic period. It was replaced by other doctrines and views. Will it ever return? This is a task and responsibility, political in its essence, one that goes beyond the narrow meaning of Hellenism as a humanistic field within the humanities.
It has become a universal responsibility. This is what I think gives to the broader Eλληνισμός the meaning of a challenge, one that might hopefully lead to political and social reforms. Such is the Ελληνισμός that is waiting for us not only to be studied as a past, but as a living promise of the future.
JOHN P. ANTON (AΝΤΩΝΌΠΟΥΛΟΣ)
Distinguished Professor of Greek Philosophy and Culture - Ph. D. Columbia University - Eπίτιμος Διδάκτωρ Φιλοσοφίας, Πανεπιστήμιο Αθηνών 1992 - Επίτιμος Διδάκτωρ Παιδαγωγικής και Φιλοσοφίας, Πανεπιστήμιο Πατρών 2004 - Επίτιμος Διδάκτωρ Φιλοσοφίας, Πανεπιστήμιο Ιωαννίνων 2005 - Επίτιμος Διδάκτωρ Φιλοσοφίας, Πανεπιστήμιο Θεσσαλονίκης 2008 - Αντεπιστέλων Μέλος της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών