Tag Archives: classics

W. Friese et al. (eds.), Ascending and Descending the Acropolis: Movement in Athenian Religion; and T. Møbjerg et al. (eds.), The Hammerum Burial Site: Customs and Clothing in the Roman Iron Age (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2019)

Over the past thirty-five years, Aarhus University Press has been publishing and distributing high-quality books in collaboration with some of Denmark’s most prestigious cultural institutes and foundations. The quality at issue extends beyond the scholarly content of the books, thus encompassing the very craftsmanship of the physical volumes, the paper, the inks, the resolution of the images, the generous format and spacing of the printed texts, etc. Past issues of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contain several examples of the publisher’s achievements. Such formal aspects may seem redundant or secondary when reviewing a scientific publication, but they are very important when, as it is the case vis-à-vis the two volumes presented hereby, depicting archaeological and artistic evidence is of the essence.

Specifically, the 23rd volume of the Danish Institute at Athens’ monograph, entitled Ascending and Descending the Acropolis, comprises 10 essays, one introduction and one epilogue containing computer-generated figures as well as a host of pictures of wooden and stone plaques, temple friezes, wholes or fragments of ancient pottery, topographic plans and maps, physical sites, statues and statuettes, drawings, votive and other reliefs, and cult heads, all of which are as important as the words printed on the 277 pages of the book. Without them, or without well-rendered versions of them, the information conveyed by the volume would be conspicuously poorer and its potential for instruction significantly lower. While there may be essays that can do without visual supplements (e.g. the scholarly studies of Pausanias’ 2nd-century-AD pilgrimage to the Acropolis, 102-18, and the account of the 5th-century-BC “three sacred laws” on Athens’ Eleusinian mysteries, 160), the reader would find it much more difficult to interpret and appreciate the studies of organised and spontaneous mobility in the ancient religious practices of Attica, even when the source may be none less that Euripides’ Bacchae (147-51).

The same must be said of the book The Hammerum Burial Site, which comprises 19 contributions of various length and character about one of the most significant archaeological retrievals in fin-de-siècle Denmark, i.e. the 1993 “Hammerum Girl” (9). Published in conjunction with the Jutland Archaeological Society, this book contains images of many different sorts: maps, plans, photographs, drawings, reconstructions, tables, textile patterns and close-ups, microscope shots, 3-D visualisations, scans and schematics. The resulting overall scope of the book’s contents is impressive, for it manages to embrace all the difference facets of a thorough archaeological investigation in contemporary Denmark: the scientific, bureaucratic and physical history of the actual excavation; the stitch-by-stitch reconstruction of the clothing and hairstyles of the buried bodies in connection with evidence from contemporary artwork; the scans, Carbon-dating and chemical analyses of wooden specimens, soil samples, textile fibres and dyes, scalp and body hairs, DNA traces, twigs and pollen; the step-by-step replication of the deceased’s dress via yarns, looms, spinning and waving techniques analogous to the Nordic-Roman ones of the 2nd century AD; the presentation to the public of the “Hammerum Girl”, including competitions on the best reproduction of her clothes and coiffure, Hammerum-Girl-inspired artistic events, ad-hoc digital applications and supervised walks to visit the original site.

The volume on the Hammerum burial site concentrates on one highly specific excavation and develops therefrom a rich account of the many careful aspects of the sophisticated archaeological practices whereby a person who died and was interred 18 centuries ago can be grasped, re-imagined and approached today. The volume on mobile religious processions and rituals in ancient Athens has a much broader ground to explore and chart. Resulting from a 2014 workshop held at the Danish Institute in Athens under the title “Ascending and Descending the Acropolis: Sacred Travel in Attica and Its Borderlands”, this latter volume can appeal to specialists outside the sole area of Greek archaeology, e.g. scholars in classics, ancient religions, as well as historians and even philosophers interested in the classical age.

Since I am a philosopher by training, I should underline how the latter volume’s pivoting around the “mobile turn” (13) of the early 2000s in the humanities and social sciences has quintessentially philosophical roots, which reflect the 20th-century abandonment of static metaphysical conceptions and preconceptions in both analytical (cf. Neurath) and Continental traditions (cf. Heidegger), and the emergence of dynamic paradigms of thought (cf. Wittgenstein, Deleuze) that have later found reverberations in sociology (e.g. Bauman, Beck, Giddens) as well as other social and human sciences, including archaeology itself (cf. Kristensen’s introduction, 11-9, and Graf’s epilogue, 255-65). More specific philosophical concerns and references surface also in two contributions to the latter volume, i.e. the Ilissian and Kallirhoan shrines described in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (Maria Salta’s “Under the Care of Daemons”; 63-101) and the truly “classical paideia” of the educated elites in Pausanias’ times (Maria Pretzler’s “Pausanias and the Intellectual Travellers of the Roman Imperial Period”, 103-18).  

Classical Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity – An alternative to the competition State

Our times have be characterized as a post-political age at the end of history[1], where all political ideologies are dead and economic prioritization according to utility-maximization in the neoliberal competition state has become the only purpose of political decisions. The citizen of modern welfare society has become a work and consumption man that is not interested in the common good of community, but only wants to satisfy individual and often opportunistic preferences. At the same time modernity is characterized by wars and catastrophes (Holocaust, Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Syria) where the desire of power by tyrants lead to great suffering and unhappiness. On this basis of this perplexity of politics, the conservative Jewish, German and American philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) proposes an interpretation of the causes of the crisis of modernity and argues that the only way in which we can reestablish social stability is to go back to classical political philosophy by Plato and Aristotle. In the following, I will introduce thought of Leo Strauss in order to show how we here can find a well-qualified concept of political conservativism. It is however clear, that this intellectual aristocratism is different from dominant conservative at the political right that also can be accused of having reduced politics to economics and utility maximization where focus is on promotion of personal privileges and interests rather than a concern for the common good in a strong political community.

A critique of radical conservatism

At the same time as he wants to distance himself from the contemporary conservative ideology, we can consider Strauss’ philosophy as a criticism of radical conservatism that in our time has resulted in Nazism and fascism. According to Strauss tyranny and totalitarianism, represent a disturbing consequence of the modern break-through of political thought by Machiavelli and Hobbes where politics is no longer concerned with the common good, but has become power politics in order to secure the privileges of the ruling tyrants and supporting classes.

This criticism of the radical conservatism is closely related to Strauss’ own lives. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Hamburg and completed in 1922 his doctorate in a Neo-Kantian university environment. In the late 1920s, he was in Berlin and worked on a book about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s critique of religion. In this regard, began his political philosophy to take shape in a showdown with the famous Catholic-conservative constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt who, later for a short period (1934-35) was to become Hitler’s crown jurist and main ideologist. Schmitt had several times after Strauss-depth comments revised his work On the concept of the political.[2] At the same time, Schmitt helped paradoxically Strauss to escape from Nazism by making sure that he in 1932 was awarded a scholarship to first study in Paris and later in Cambridge. It was later the start of Strauss’ career in Anglo-Saxon political science where he after immigration to the United States, as a professor at the University of Chicago came to found a school of political philosophy. Moreover, he influenced several generations of American political scientists to be interested in the political philosophy classics instead of election research, “rational choice” theory and utilitarianism, disciplines that were on the top of the American political science. That Strauss’ influence is enormous proves an opinion of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who complained that the US Government had several employees who knew more about Plato and Aristotle, than they knew about empirical political science.

The dialogue between Strauss and Schmitt continued for some years after that Strauss had moved abroad. We can say that this discussion between the young unknown Jew and the famous Nazi law professor, who even stated that Strauss was the only one who really understood his philosophy,  shows how Strauss on the one hand shares Schmitt’s diagnosis of liberalism crisis, but at the same time will find another way out of this than Schmitt’s power politics. Schmitt defines the political as the choice of the enemy and, which accordingly, is the choice of the aim of one’s own life, because we have something to believe in. The political involves the permanent possibility of war. Schmitt sees liberalism in a Nietzschean perspective as a concept of the political which is doomed in a world where slaves have triumphed where people no longer have obligations and do not fight for their ideals and recognition, but simply are pursuing their own goals in a general nihilistic atmosphere. Schmitt was extremely concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the Weimar Republic’s social order as a threat to the state, because there was no empowered central body to ensure the political sovereignty of the state.

In fact, Thomas Hobbes’ notion that people let themselves subordinate the sovereign’s power to prevent the condition of unlimited war in the natural condition reflects a theoretical anti politics because he wants to avoid hostility by replacing the natural condition by a universal and homogenous state. Schmitt maintains instead that politics is defined by having enemies and he has no alternative to the liberal protection thinking other than power politics. He puts the permanent battle mode against Hobbes’ attempt to civilize the state of nature. This means, according to Strauss that Schmitt cannot avoid being a Nazi. For Carl Schmitt, the political legitimate sovereign is the one who has the strongest will and can seize the leadership position in society and thereby realize its set of core values based on the will and decision. For such a decisionistic political theology liberalism is the real enemy, because it dissolves religion and ideals of value pluralism and will not recognize politics as a struggle for absolute beliefs.[3]

Strauss puts his political philosophy up against Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike value-nihilism and power politics, he wants to go back to the perception of the political in the classic tradition of Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism’s dissolution of the concept of politics.

A Socratic quest for the best political regime

Strauss’ systematic position is hidden in a jumble of interpretations and comments to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions in political philosophy. According to Strauss is a hermeneutics that aims to reconstruct the historical conditions of work a type of text explanation that is not true to the author’s message.[4] The consequence is that you do not get hold of the work’s real meaning, the esoteric saved opinion. There is always a political-philosophical text because the author has often been politically persecuted and therefore have not been able to present his or her opinion directly, but could only write for a select elite of smart aristocrats who in contrast to the vulgar mob could break through text’s surface and decipher its esoteric meaning.[5]

When Strauss defines interpretation doctrine as a reconstruction of the author’s original intention it is a problem, how he can avoid falling back into a subjectivist hermeneutics, where you will do the impossible by looking for the author’s psychology behind the work. This problem is solved by defining the author-intent as a meaningful whole in the work that can be deduced taking into account the esoteric terms of the production of the work. Meanwhile, Strauss’ position becomes an archeology in the sense that it comes to reconstruct the true message that has been forgotten by previous interpreters. The text of the past is a true mystery for the reader. The starting point of hermeneutics is ignorance, finality and interpret the certainty of their own prejudices, and thinking about past non-historicity must be understood on its own terms within the historical understanding of the text.[6]

Against this background Strauss defines the goal of political philosophy as to arrive at the proper nature of the case in relation to the whole. The starting point for reflection may be man’s participation and allegiance to the state. The understanding of man as a political animal comprehends the (city) state as a whole. To think politically is to think the “Politeia”, the “best regime” by fitting the nature of man in relation to the whole (The Whole). This concept of wholeness is not determined as a totality in the Hegelian sense and not as a definition of man as a part of the cosmos.[7] Strauss believes that it is wrong to understand the classic natural law and the Greek political thinking as based on the participation of man in a cosmic whole. Therefore, classical political philosophy cannot be accused of running an outdated cosmology. The whole does not imply a particular cosmological reference. Rather it should be interpreted as the logos that connects man and the state. But at the same time, to think the concept of a whole in Strauss’ political thinking seems to go beyond the concept of logos, because logos is often defined in the cosmology that political thinking rejects. Strauss emphasizes the phenomenological and pre-philosophical base that characterizes the classical political philosophy when it comes to describing the political phenomena as they appear in man’s everyday political reality.[8]

In this way, the concept of  the whole receives nature a basal function in Strauss’ view of politics. The concept of nature refers to the expression of the human soul and its relationship to the whole. The aim is to understand the policy limits and the difference between the best political regime and the here and now real possible state. The practical State of factual politics varies according to time and place. The form of the state depends on the particular circumstances and problematize whether there really is an Eidos for all states. The political reality of the state in practical political life means that the state’s idea is used differently in different states, so the notion of the best regime must be seen in relation to the particular circumstances of a specific political reality.

Thus, the philosophy of the best regime represents an alternative to historicism and power politics. The modern historicism argues that political regimes are nothing, but functions of ideological power relations and that there cannot exist an idea of the best state. Strauss believes that historicism is an expression of modernity’s oblivion of absolute values and that it nullifies itself because to assert that everything is historic in itself is a universal statement that require a trans-historical truth. Historicism contains an internal contradiction and therefore cannot counter Strauss’ project to find the good as the natural order of the best regime.[9]

To describe the political Eidos as the best regime also implies the abolition of the distinction between “facts” and “value”. The point is to show how political thought cannot work with this distinction and how the normative and descriptive are mixed in any theory of politics. Although Weber’s sociology, for example, can be value free, it is in itself a normative position to say that sociology should not have normative assumptions.[10] It is in itself a normative position to claim that sociology is value-free. Even science without values is based on values. Therefore, all political thought is normative science.[11]

Strauss illustrates the task of philosophy with reference to Plato’s cave image: philosophizing, it is to get from the darkness of the cave into the light of day, ie  the world of truth and cognition as opposed to the confused sense world in the cave.[12] In this way, Strauss’ philosophy is essentially a Platonic and Socratic mode of thinking. The separation between the state’s idea and the actual political reality remains a real possibility because the philosopher tend to seek world of ideas outside the cave, while the general state policy decisions are determined by rhetoric, power and subjective opinions. The truth about the political is obtained through the Socratic communication, a maieutic dialogue that modestly will rediscover the eternal ideas and philosophical realization of the political. Nevertheless, it is also facing the difficulty of realizing the political truth confronted with the variety of opinions in the actual political life.

The tension between City and Man

The basis of classical political thought is, according to Strauss the bond between man and the state and the notion that the state should be a good for man. It is also important to be aware of the limits in the relationship between man and state. In reality, the classical political philosophy shows that the ideal of the state’s perfect utopia can hardly be reconciled with human nature.

In his reading of Plato’s Republic Strauss shows how the philosophical man, despite the fact that he must be a philosopher-ruler in fact come into conflict with the state.[13] He would not be king, but would rather withdraw from the government to sacrifice himself for the wisdom and contemplation of the eternal ideas.[14] There is also no room for eroticism and poets in the ideal state and so the paradox is that the ideal state excludes what is very human and the humanness of humanity. Plato’s dialogue universe must be seen as an ironic and dialectical universe that juxtaposes different positions to emphasize the complexity of being.[15]

The ironic elements of the State in the Republic proves that the attempt to think the completely just, fair, ideal regime is contrary to human nature. This is because a state that is only conceivable after the idea of justice must isolate everything that is specifically human; Eros and poetry and also in the fact that the philosophers who are not interested in politics, but live for philosophical wisdom, suddenly have to rule in the ideal state. This original interpretation is in contrast to many modern interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.[16]

Plato is in many interpretations considered an authoritarian thinker that will make the philosophers to dictators and destroy the possibility of public opinion and democratic dialogue about the state’s future because philosophers are the only ones making the decisions. Therefore, the ideal state is changed into tyrannical totalitarianism. In addition, Plato was described by many interpretors as initiator of political idealism that had fatal and terrorist implications in modern society, for example in the form of Nazism, communism and fascism. Literally, the ideal state is also a representation of all the horrifying elements of utopia where citizens are sacrificed to state rationality and utility interests. The social classes are divided according to labor and natural capacity. Warriors, workers and merchants have each their function and philosophers then determines sovereignly, what is the best and most practical thing to do according to the idea of justice.

The irony of the fact that the regime envisaged by the idea of justice becomes an inhuman dictatorship shows that political philosophy cannot ignore human nature’s lack of perfection and arbitrariness by the historical situation. Strauss says that the Republic is the most profound analysis ever of the impossibility of political idealism and that the ideal state is impossible because it is contrary to the nature of the case and the whole.[17] The esoteric and ironic truth that lies behind the rhetorical game in Plato’s Republic is that a regime that is thought abstractly according to the idea of justice cannot overcome the fundamental tension between man and city. This tension between humans and the state, Eros and justice, philosophy and the real case of the political facticity continue to persist because the nature of facticity is not the same as the ideality of the world of ideas. Thinking about the best regime must not follow the idea of justice, but be balanced against the actual life of the state.

The ironic elements in Plato’s Republic are also illustrated in the course of development of the dialogue. The discussion about ideal justice begins with a critique of legal positivism, which claims that the righteous and just should be defined in terms of power, i.e., that the one who has the power decides what is fair. Socrates does not want to be involved in the dialogue, but is provoked to criticize this view, and he wants to show that justice as such is good, even though he does not yet know the content of the concept of justice. He then decides to drive the defense of the concept of justice ad absurdum in order to show the characteristics of the political. Later in the discussion of the guardians of the state, he points out the difference between the Eros and the idea of justice. In the ideal state, there is no room for eroticism and love, because sexuality is determined to serve the common good. The paradoxes of the State appear as follows: it should be the good and righteous state, it must be based on the absolute communism, but at the same time, the contingency and bodily existence is eliminated from the state, everything that characterizes the finite human nature.[18] Man in mainstream political life would by his very nature never be able to feel at home in the ideal state.

In this way, one should not interpret Plato’s Republic as a criticism of any political philosophy or as a defense of a political utopia. Instead, the book presents a description of the difficulties of thinking the best political regime, about the tension between the idea of justice and the concrete justice in relation to the whole, human nature and the state. The Socratic reflection can be considered as a reflection on the limits of the just state and the need to consider the justice in a realistic relation to human nature. However, according to Strauss there is implicitly in the Republic implied a different view of justice as the art that on the one hand, gives every citizen, what is good for him, and on the other hand, determines the common good of the state. The purpose of the good political regime is to shape a state that follows human needs and thus becomes a healthy and happy state. In this perspective, Eros, poetry and wisdom could also be present in the good political regime as the realization of justice in the relationship between historical facticity, human nature and the order of the whole.

The best regime and the political reality

A provision of the best political regime that realize the impossibility of utopia, is according to Strauss found in Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics. Here you will find the essence of the classical political thinking that is far removed from modern power politics and ideology. Plato’s  late dialogue Laws, where Socrates quite interestingly is not present, contains a vision of the best regime that is not based on abstract idealism, but is about how to solve specific practical problems in a state. In the dialogue a number of experienced state men are involved who must reach a common understanding about which laws the state should have. They do not justify the good state by virtue of a social contract as in the modern philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, but from the consideration of the best state in a natural law perspective. Practical sense and understanding of the good order, not inter-subjectivity, rights, equality or discursive rationality is the key element for ensuring the good laws.

The premise is that man only can be happy in the state, if he lives by what is natural and good for him, i.e. by the telos of virtues. Where the wise philosopher is placed as ruler of the utopian state, it is according to the classical natural law the most experienced, virtuous and best citizens who for the common good, and by force of law should govern in the actual state. The virtuous and good citizen appears as the one who cares for the state’s future. The good man is not just the good citizen, but the good citizen who govern in a good society.[19] To become a good and virtuous man, one must live in a good and orderly society.

The main characters of the Laws are the Athenian, Cleinias and McGillis, who in Crete  are discussing what would be the best and most virtuous laws at the same time as they try to understand the laws originating in human nature. The theme is not the tension between man and state, but the practical matter of a formulation of state laws here and now.[20] It is the stranger from Athens, who begins the discussion. He argues that experienced states men at a long day may well find the best laws for the state, and so they begin to ponder about the basis of the laws.

Because laws have divine origin, you might think that they have been justified by a cosmology, but the point is precisely that the Gods perfection is not human, and that laws should apply to the earthly life. Another interpretation is that the laws have their origin in logos. Yet another possibility would be that the laws are derived from the divine and ideal perfection, but at the same time humans are using the ideas in relation to the human reality. One must admit that the divine quest is part of the Platonic political thought and that Plato did not completely detach natural law from the divine reality, and that politics has a divine inspiration because it is important to realize virtue in society. Therefore, there is no conflict between the law and logos, reason and its dissemination in the actual state, even if the law on certain points depending on the situation goes beyond logos.

This view of natural law can be compared to Strauss’ analysis of the Jewish and Islamic philosophy by Farabi and Maimonides.[21] Here it is explicitly about a divine foundation of the law of human society, in which the philosopher has an important role to ensure the correct interpretation of the divine law. Although he takes the side of the Greek philosophy, for example, in his criticism of Carl Schmitt, Strauss believes that the theological-political problem about the law’s origin is extremely important. This is not to ignore the fact that religion is needed to hold together the state, and the state will collapse without a set of values as the foundation for social integration. Perhaps the philosophical prophet who interprets the divine law can function as an alternative to the tyrannical clergyman and thereby mediate between religion and philosophy to ensure that there will not be a complete questioning of the state’s Gods with potential disintegration as a result.[22]

After this discussion of the origin of the law, the question is who will govern in the actual state. Democracy is rejected because the mob does not have the experience and ability to take virtuous and right decisions. It is recommended that the city-state is ruled by a council of experienced wise men who take decisions based on the law, judgment and practical sense. Then is given an estimate of the city-state’s actual organization in the classic areas: Education, production, administration, sports, judiciary and election of judges. The rest of the Laws are about how to regulate these things and not on abstract political theory.[23]

Aristotle’s political philosophy in his Politics continues according to Strauss this project on the best political regime. Aristotle continues Plato’s analyzes by systematically comparing the constitutions of the various regimes in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages. Aristotle’s social science is at once ideal, hermeneutic and empirical.[24] Strauss says that for Aristotle, political philosophy is from the beginning the quest to find the best natural political order in any place and at any time.[25]

It is in a more modern perspective a question of finding the good life at the community level, to define what is good for a given factual political community. In this way, we must identify the community that is the best for the state’s population. Aristotle criticizes more explicitly the notion of an association of citizens in the ideal state. The State unity must not be absolute, and the policy should not include all areas of life. A state is defined in the Politics as a collection of citizens with a certain kind of constitution for a certain time at a certain place, and this means that citizens’ duties will change from state to state, from time to place. The ideal of the best regime is a series of links of friendship according to virtue, judgment and common sense to ensure the good life.

Aristotle also believes that the aristocracy, where it is the best, the most experienced and the wisest who rules, as opposed to democracy, oligarchy and tyranny is the best form of government. It is not whether you are a Democrat or non-Democrat that is the focus of Plato’s, Aristotle’s (and Strauss’) concepts of the best political regime. It is rather about safeguarding the best decisions in a given political order, and here one cannot escape the fact that a democratic majority rule tends to result in loss of practical reason, because it no longer is the best that rules for experience and wisdom, but instead the mediocre. Aristotle criticizes democracy as a state where everyone is made equal, although they are very different in virtue and character. On the other hand, there can be traced an egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s thinking in the sense that the people who govern in the aristocratic state are equal and free. The government of the wise and experienced politicians can be seen as a limited democracy that can be translated into oligarchy or representative democracy, where the best people in society with practical wisdom discusses the state’s goals and future. This virtuous aristocratic equality is not the same as exists in democratic demagoguery, diversity and mediocrity, because we are talking about the best citizens who are above average in experience, virtue and judgment abilities.

Practical wisdom and political judgment

The question of virtue and justice is developed especially in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle describes judgment and practical wisdom, which are the core concepts of classical political philosophy.[26] The purpose of the Aristotelian ethics is to think about the practical wisdom to form the elites who must be able to reign in the Greek city-state. For Aristotle, man is essentially a political animal, and he gives the practical wisdom great importance to the training of the aristocratic citizen. The aristocrat replaces philosopher-king of Plato, who in reality stands on the border of the state, because he would rather search the philosophical wisdom. And here the philosophical wisdom is on the contrary integrated in the good regents practical sense.

Aristotle discusses the Nicomachean Ethics the way to the good life, both individually and in society: justice, virtues and love of wisdom are pillars of happiness and the objective of the ethics and politics. Happiness is to live with each other in friendship in the just and the good state by the virtues throughout life. A distinction is made between the intellectual and practical virtues; wisdom, intelligence and practical sense towards moderation, temperance, courage and justice, virtue, practiced through the good and righteous deeds. Virtues as “Standards of Excellence” are realized through the experienced dispositions to act in a certain way. As virtue of deliberation, the practical wisdom is at once theoretical and practical. It must ensure the right action in the center between the city-state custom and culture, ideal justice principles and happiness.

The practical wisdom is about how to use a general principle in relation to the particular situation. Therefore, the practical wisdom must be thought of as an art because it deals with the arbitrary and contingent and not in relation to what is necessary as wisdom, science and intelligence. The good construction and the common sense of the good man is the political action art because it comes to applying the general principles of happiness in relation to the particular conditions. The Good Man follows the golden middle way virtue that implies always to find the right center relative to the extremes in a situation. In every situation the middle is different and virtue is reflected in the way the common sense is choosing the right center. In the practical reflection, the subject submits the will of reason to the detection of the right middle of the action, and the good man chooses from this experience center, the middle, and the virtue of moderation.[27]

Justice is understood not only as an idea of man, but as a virtue of action. It is applied directly in relation to the situation of action. As virtue justice is both proportional and egalitarian. You cannot treat unequal people and situations in an equal way. One should, for example, find the proper relationship between children and adults in order to understand justice. This fairness opinion of justice is based, as in Plato, on the fact that there are different justice spheres of society in law, economics, medicine, etc. Here, justice and equality are defined in relation to the natural order of things in that particular sphere, for example, the definition of the distribution of goods is not the same on the hospital as on the free market, and it is not the same goods to be distributed. It is the judge’s job with judgment to find the right middle between the parties involved, and he practices the practical reason and virtue as part of justice. He seeks the proper distribution of wealth from the right proportion and balance conditions to avoid too much and too little. This ensures the good laws of the State, based on the friendship between the virtuous people, a friendship that also applies to the political life and goes beyond the life as a citizen.

Also by Aristotle, one can detect the tension between man and state. Man transcends the state and seeks true happiness in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the intellectual virtues are more important than the practical life of politics.[28] Strauss emphasizes the contradiction between theory and practice in the state as an expression of man’s dual nature. The ethical and political life is pointing beyond itself to the intellectual wisdom. Strauss says that political life is a life in the cave, separated from the life of light of cognition where you know the world of ideas.[29]

The crisis of modernity and classical political philosophy

Based on this analysis of classical political philosophy, the question is how Strauss can make an offer for the solution of the crisis of modernity without falling into flat liberalism or radical conservatism. As I said, modernity crisis is primarily a loss of practical reason because the thinkers of modernity in different waves have more and more rejected the practical wisdom as the basis of political thinking.[30] This crisis of knowledge has led to historicism and positivism in the sciences, which appears as modernity’s two main philosophies. Martin Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism, but also as already demonstrated Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy illustrates this loss of reason in modern political philosophy.

The crisis of modernity is also a cultural and educational crisis.[31] The modern society has forgotten the virtues and classical culture as the real basis for training and shaping of the citizen to the state. The secularized modernity, described by Max Weber, with different value perceptions and different subjectivist conceptions of the good life has made it difficult to talk about a common good life as a guideline for state policy. The individual freedom is in contrast to the common good, and people do no longer respect the virtues of the classical political philosophy and natural law, but put an equality and rights philosophy against the notion of the common good.

It is against this background the big problem, how to avoid tyranny and the totalitarian regime and at the same time how to find the good regime of today’s society. By going back to the classical political philosophy Strauss finds an argument against tyranny. He analyzes Xenophanes’ dialogue Heiron as an attempt to show how tyranny is not an appropriate regime, because it is not a regime that can make people happy.[32] This dialogue between a tyrant and a poet shows that every tyrant will be appreciated by the people, but cannot be the because of his status as a tyrant. Even the tyrant is therefore happy in tyranny. The analysis is based on the question of happiness and the good life and on this basis it shows, that tyranny is a bad regime.

Should we thus draw some implications of Strauss’s political philosophy for today’s practical politics and political practices, it must primarily be made up with the widespread notion of politics as a power struggle and a party political dogfight. Also in today’s political life, we must let our actions and opinions be guided by concern for the common good (Res Publica) and the formation of the best state (Politeia) instead of just wanting to secure its own short-sighted personal or partisan interests. Politics should not be seen as a confrontation of subjective positions where everything can be a basis for negotiation and it should be maintained there could always be a rational and virtuous decision in the political process. It is important to see reason and philosophical reflection as a basis for political decisions, as the best way to ensure the common good.

The reason for the crisis of the modern liberal democracy is also linked to the ideology of equality, where the political culture forgets the difference between the wise, virtuous and the vulgar. In many cases, it is the vulgar and tyrannical, who follow their own interests, rather than the wise, who are in power. To avoid this we need recognition of the virtuous elites as the best rulers. The importance of the liberal constitutional democracy is not the democratic process as such, but that those who govern take the best decisions. The elite is the experienced, sensible politician that stands in contrast to the impulsive, charismatic tyrant.[33]

A minister and a governor should be a person who you can trust and admire for his practical sense. One must be able to trust the minister’s judgment and experience as decision-maker. This ruler type stands in contrast to the vulgar fool who has bartered his post to promote its own interests.

It is also about rediscovering and recognizing citizen virtue as an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Here the individual citizen not just follow their own interests but takes his responsibilities and his obligations to the community very seriously in a commitment for the common good.

Unlike many modern political ideologies that considers everything to be politics – included Carl Schmitt’s radical conservatism that tend to assert that man lives only authentic in the political state of emergency – Strauss’ philosophy includes an important definition of the limits of politics, which also can be applied to modern society. One never becomes a whole person if they do not live outside of public life with his friends in the erotic relationship, in the joy of the theoretical virtues, philosophy and literature. And this private life is also not possible without the good state and this is why the responsible and committed participation in public life must never be forgotten.

To reintroduce the notion of the best regime is a reaction against the reduction of politics to the economy and to the struggle to get the biggest slice of the pie. Instead, the political consideration, deliberation and action must be guided by a philosophical reason and conviction, based on an understanding of society and the whole of humanity. For example, social welfare, education and health cannot just build the economy, but implies a view of humanity and a vision of the citizen’s role in the good political regime.

At the same time, politics must fundamentally have a communitarian starting point where one requires cohesion between citizens and the state and consider the willingness to ensure that cohesion as policy basis. In contrast to other communitarians, emphasizing tradition and the importance of culture in the community,[34] Strauss highlights as shown philosophical reflection on the good life and trans-historical truth in relation to the political life of the state as it characterizes a communitarian view of political philosophy. Therefore, every culture and tradition could include meeting with philosophy’s critical distinction between quality and non-quality.

The political conservatism must however emphasize religion and values as an important communitarian foundation of modern society that can prevent social disintegration. Although “the wise” have understood that certain values cannot be justified philosophically, and are afraid of Nietzsche’s nihilism that may in reality be the truth, they may not say it to the people, the ignorant and vulgar, who should preferably stay in their childhood belief in order to avoid disintegration of society. From the point of view of social utility religion, tradition and values are great importance to social integration – even if they cannot be justified philosophically.

Strauss’ philosophy implies that the modern state must not understand justice as abstract equality, but always in relation to a situation. The concept of spheres of justice is important to include in the understanding of the welfare state, where increased differentiation makes it difficult to apply the same measure of justice in different sectors of society. Justice must be measured in the right proportions according to the context.[35]

Distribution of goods happens in relation to the various concepts of equity in the different spheres of justice. And there is the possibility to develop a complex equality, in which each person is assigned goods with respect to his nature and needs. For example, we can mention special education, health care and honors or services for the virtuous and talented in society.

This is also a criticism of a realistic and positivistic legal understanding that considers law as a function of power and perceive any argument for a particular law as subjective and ideological. Instead, we must restore political judgment as central in the judicial and political decision-making. Judgement was expelled as unscientific by legal realism that wanted to ensure the scientific objectivity and application of rules. Instead, following Strauss we should make the decision guided by an understanding of the nature and wholeness. At the same time, there is need for expansion of the sources of law to better include philosophical beliefs, culture, custom and tradition. Judgement presupposes a truth about the individual case, its nature as it is the good politician’s and lawmaker’s task to bring this to light.

One way to retrain today’s citizen to have and exercise judgment, is the concept of “Liberal Education”,[36] which could address training in classical formation and introduction to the European cultural heritage as an integral part of the education system. At the university, this could for example mean that not only students at the faculty of humanities, but also lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists and future decision-makers got a broader cultural and educational formation. Such a “Bildung” would put them in a position to take more informed decisions, which would be rooted in a view of humanity and imply a conception of the common good. With this we could achieve a higher standard of virtue as the basis for a better society that might help to realize Strauss’ aristocratic ideals as an alternative to the contemporary competition state.




[1] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York (1989).This is the book where Fukuyama argues that economic liberalism with the end of the cold war has led to the end of history has replaced the political war of ideologies in the struggle of universal history. Instead, liberal democracy has been the dominant ideology with no real alternative.

[3] Heinrich Meier: Die Lehre Carl Schmitts: Vier Kapitel zur Unterscheidung Politischer Theologie und Politischer Philosophie, Stuttgart, (1994): Verlag J.B.Metzler.

[4] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1959), Chicago: Glencoe Press p. 143

[5] Ibid p. 25

[6] Leo Strauss: De la Tyrannie, (1954), Paris: Gallimard p. 46

[7] Ibid p. 4

[8] Ibid p. 24

[9] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 34.

[10] Ibid p. 50

[11] Ibid p. 23

[12] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. pp. 145-46.

[13] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 137

[14] Drew A. Hyland: “The Irony of Plato’s Republic”, Révue de Métaphysique et morale, Paris (1991): PUF. According to Hyland it is human nature that is the source of irony because the erotic in human nature is in tension with the world of ideas.

[15] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 161.

[16] A good example is Sir Karl Poppers critical Plato-interpretation in The Open Society and its enemies, London (1946): Routledge. Here Plato is characterized as the father of all totalitarianism.

[17] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 163.

[18] Ibid. p. 163

[19] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 126-139.

[20] Leo Strass: The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 42.

[21] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago (1959): Glencoe Press.

[22] In Socrates’ Apology this issue is discussed. The philosopher is persecuted by the state, because he will not accept its gods. According to Strauss, this is a modern problem. Nietzsche was persecuted because he pointed out that the gods do not exist. The lack of faith in the state’s values is serious because it ultimately leads to the dissolution of the state. Drury argues in this context that Strauss should be construed as a conservative who has discovered Nietzsche’s truth about the absence of God and morality in the state. The philosopher does not care. He does not see this as a political problem, but for the wise and experienced politician and a good man to govern the state this becomes a problem. He cannot tell the truth to the people, for it would lead to the dissolution of the state. It is therefore the hallmark of the conservative position that it from the point of view of social utilitarianism is very keen to keep religion as a basis for the state. Shada B. Drury: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), London: Macmillan.

[23] Leo Strass, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 38.

[24] S. Salkever: “Aristotle’s Social Science” , Political Theory,  Vol 9, no. 4, (1987), New York: Sage Publications.

[25] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 28.

[26] Aristoteles, Den nikomakiske Etik, French translation, Tricot: Ethique à  Nicomaque, (1987), Paris: Vrin, p. 75.

[27] ibid s. 220.

[28] Malgan: “Aristotle and the Value of Political Participation”, Political Theory, Vol 18, no. 2.

[29] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 43.

[30] Leo Strauss: “ Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (1989): Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 82.

[31] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone. In this book continues Bloom Strauss’ project by making a cultural, critical, intellectual aristocracy analysis of American society, and Bloom considers how consumption-ideology, value nihilism and relativism has destroyed American intellectual life and university system.

[32] Leo Strauss, De la Tyrannie, Paris 1954: Gallimard.

[33] Here it seems that Strauss is inspired by Max Weber’s discussion of charismatic identity and the possibility of a plebiszitär-charismatic domination, where the good manager is opposed to the colorless bureaucrat who heads the government. Weber was worried about that the Weimar Republic because of its constitution could get such a leader. An example of where time is de Gaulle’s status as France’s president. See also Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tubingen (1972): J.B.C Mohr., p. 141.

[34] Alistair MacIntyre: After Virtue, London (1981): Duckwood.

[35] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York 1983: Blackwell

[36] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone.

Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Care, socialization and play in Ancient Attica: a developmental childhood archeological approach, by Maria Sommer and Dion Sommer, is an archeological study based on a collection of material relating to childhood in ancient Attica, dating back to 480-300 B.C. It reconstructs in front of our eyes a deeply human world of care and play in ancient Attica and empirically depicts how the growing field of childhood archeology with its historical contextualization can contribute important knowledge to developmental psychology.

Continue reading Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Stamatia Dova, Greek Heroes in and out of Hades (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012)

Beginning from the seminal story at Odyssey 11.467-540, which chronicles Odysseus’ journey to Hades and his encounters with Achilles and Heracles, the table is set for a richly nuanced, methodologically diverse study of the hero in transition to and from the underworld (katabasis). The study then radiates outward to embrace other stories of other mythical heroes and heroines, to challenge previous understandings of these texts and Ancient Greek ideas about death and heroism. The result is a feat of erudition, whose curious juxtapositioning of hero/heroine and underworld fate/adventure discloses many innovative insights not only about the texts in question, but about timeless human questions regarding the meanings of life and death.


Dova’s study is launched with the recounting of the Odyssey passage that stages the reunion between Odysseus, the temporary visitor to Hades who enters the dark underworld in the full knowledge that he will return home and resume his life adventures, and Achilles, the self-sacrificing warrior-hero of the Iliad who shows up in the Odyssey in the form of an insubstantial shade, regretting his choice of an early death that promised eternal glory in the memories of men. Odysseus’ meeting with Achilles, informed by his encounter with Heracles, permits Dova to bring into deep conversation the two classic Homeric works, weaving their many thematic threads into a common tapestry that, like Achilles’ shield, depicts the vast landscape of human life and its deeply conflicted values: mortality, self-sacrifice, prophecy, death, heroic character, glory, shame, aretaic reciprocity, and ignoble deception. The reader gets to appreciate that all the bravery and glory in the world are useless after life is said and done; that identity involves a plethora of paradoxes; and that poor life choices and unfinished duels are not resolved in death.


One of the highlights of the book is Dova’s complex recasting of the hero Odysseus from his traditional framing as “the champion of mortality and the embodiment of resilience and cunning” (36) to the immature warrior, responsible for the sack of Troy, but riddled with personal flaws: he abandoned his young wife, infant son, and aging parents to go to Troy, he was “not particularly distinguished in warfare,” and he was particularly brave—“not in a hurry to die on the battlefield, at sea, or even in the underworld” (37). Dova sees the Odysseus of the Iliad as “curious and inquisitive, risk-taking and gift-loving, reckless, promiscuous, and proud” (37), and in need of much moral education. She reads his many adventures in the Odyssey as providing a number of “emotional stops” along the way home that afford experiences of love and hate, worry, regret, and joy, which permit Odysseus’ character to grow and mature.


Another innovative triumph of Greek Heroes in and out of Hades comes with Dova’s re-examination of the myth of Alcestis, through the dual lenses of Plato’s Symposium and Euripides’ tragic play. The contrasting recountings of the tale permit a comparison of male and female heroic experience that issues in surprising results. Alcestis chooses self-sacrifice to save her husband, without promise of glory or fame, and though the heroine’s self-sacrifice is thwarted in the end by Heracles, her ready willingness to die for love reveals a finer aspect of the death well-chosen than Achilles’ glorious choice, regretted once in Hades. The fact that Alcestis returns from death, yet receives the praise of the lover Phaedrus in his eulogy on love in the Symposium, reveals another, more selfless, aspect of heroic courage.


Dova’s Greek Heroes in and out of Hades is a rich work that will satisfy many a classical scholar’s palette. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for the beginning scholar, unlearned in the Ancient Greek language. But philosophers and classicists at a distinguished level of preparation are in for a rare treat. 


George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (eds.), Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009)

The account of the city’s founding continues in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (3.I.5-2.2),[2] where Alexander, who travelled to Kanobos and sailed around Lake Mareotis to select an appropriate site, decided to locate his city. Once he had planned out the city, determining the location of the Agora and establishing the sanctuaries and temples for the various deities ? both “Greek gods and Egyptian Isis” ? Alexander sacrificed to the gods and when he received favorable signs, he laid out the city walls; however, since he had nothing with which to mark out the parameter of the city, he used meal that his soldiers carried with them. While there is disagreement about the precise date of the founding of Alexandria, some have suggested that this event may have occurred in 332 or 331 BCE. Shortly after founding the city, Alexander left the actual building and administration of the city to others and, moving his campaign further east, was never to return to his city. Certainly, current scholarship is critical of the foundation stories surrounding the origins of Alexandria; many of the authors in this collection of essays, Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, emphasize persistent difficulties with sources and the tendency for various ancient authors to mythologize the founding of the city. According to Krasilnikoff, however, “the first citizens of Alexandria were also soldiers in Alexander’s and Ptolemy’s armies” (“Alexandria as Place,” 21). Hence, it is not surprising that Greek and Egyptian cultural forms and content should be intertwined in Alexandria. Citing Heracleides, Plutarch notes that Homer, who “was no idle or useless companion” accompanied Alexander on his campaign (“Alexandria as Place,” 21).

Indeed, the ancient city was a center of scholarship and intellectual activity with the Alexandrian Library and the Museum, and much of the early Homeric scholarship was done in Alexandria; even the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have received these works each having twenty-four books was first codified by scholars working in these institutions. To be sure, other groups also helped write the history of the city. Jews were apparently among the earliest inhabitants of the city. Philo the Jewish thinker, known for his skeptical epistemology, worked there. As Per Bilde argues in his paper, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” while he has not been recognized as such, Philo was also a polemist and a political apologist for the significant Jewish population of the city, and, according to Josephus, led the delegation to Gaius to plead for the Jews. Moreover, Alexandria belonged to the Roman Empire and under the influence of Clement and Origen it was a significant center, along with Antioch and Rome, in the development of early Christianity.

Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is the ninth volume in the Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity (ASMA) series published approximately once a year by The Centre for the Study of Antiquity, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Edited by George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff, the eight papers in this volume were selected from among those presented by a number of scholars from different countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, at the May 2004 seminar on Alexandria hosted by the Centre; other papers were also included later. The eight papers in this volume are divided into two sections, entitled: “Part I. Alexandria from Greece and Egypt” and “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity.” Each paper in this text is well-researched and is followed by a rich bibliography. While the authors are critical of the mythological accounts of the founding of Alexandria, the ancient sources are not simply rejected out of hand; rather, despite the problematic character of ancient sources, these sources along with their scholarly interpretations are examined carefully and critically with an eye to understanding the city the cultural and religious diversity of its people. The authors represented in Alexandria are also aware of and discuss the tendency of some sources to distort their facts in their enthusiasm for a particular historical point of view or outcome. While one must use the available sources, we must keep in mind that religious conflicts, for example, between Pagans and Christians tend to be written by the victors. One advantage that the scholars writing for this publication have had, however, is the enormous growth in the scholarship of Egypt and north Africa during the last thirty years and the increase in the availability of the number of papyri manuscripts and other relevant evidence from these regions. Another theme common to the papers in this collection is the view that cultures are extremely complex, living organisms and not ‘static things’. Thus, in his essay, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen, citing Martjin van Beck, objects to “a static model” of culture – one that

… gives a distorted picture of the cultural and social reality of human beings, past and present. Culture – and religion as well as part of the cultural construction – should rather be seen as ways of interpreting the world. Culture represents what one does and not what one is. Martjin van Beck has poignantly emphasized this point. He underlines to what a great extent the talk about cultures is itself part of the cultural construction: “The point is not to deny that common features exist in particular fields but to document that the extrapolation from specific similarities and differences to homoginised, cultural and even civilizing units is a creative process and not just a mapping of already existing facts” (Petersen, 123).[3]

Indeed, reminding us of Alfred Korzybski’s observation “that the map is not the territory,” Peterson writes, “Cultures are by their very nature ‘messy’ or hybrid affairs” (124 and 125).[4]

The four papers of the first part take up in various ways “the relationship between Ptolemaic Alexandria and its Greek past” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10). Jens A. Krasilnikoff launches the volume with his paper, “Alexandria as Place: Tempo-Spatial Traits of Royal Ideology in Early Ptolemaic Egypt.” Specifically, Krasilnikoff is interested in the way that Egypt as space is transformed into Alexandria as place. Borrowing from the work of humanistic geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, Peter J. Taylor, and Jonathan M. Hall, he examines this problem by considering the concepts of “space,” “place,” and “identity.” Citing Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Krasilnikoff observes that the concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are “interdependent” (Krasilnikoff, 23).

… the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value … The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place (23).[5]

Interdependence of space and place and the relationship between these two concepts “determine the formation of different kinds of identity”; hence, we can distinguish “identity of place” which “includes the identity markers that constitute a particular place,” and “place identity” which “involves those qualities of a place that helps generate identities of individuals or groups.” Krasilnikoff, uses these concepts to explore the meaning of “place within the Egyptian context of the Ptolemaic period”; indeed, he wants to understand how “the Greek concept of the ‘city-state culture’ and society developed in this distinct framework” that is Alexandria (38). For Kasilnikoff, then, Alexandria is to be understood in the Greek polis tradition because of its founding and the heroic character of its founder; this view was reinforced by the Ptolemaic rulers who claimed to be direct descendents of Alexander and by ancient authors who apparently borrowed their conceptions of the founding from other founding myths. At the same time, examining the earliest history of the city leads Krasilnikoff to conclude that Alexandria “differed fundamentally from the majority of classical and Hellenistic cities” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10).

In her paper, “Theatrical Fiction and Visual Bilingualism in the Monumental tombs of Ptolemaic Alexandria,” Marjorie Susan Venit notices that in the very beginning of Alexandria the inhabitants created “monumental tombs as communal spaces for both burial and veneration of the dead” in the limestone on which the city stands (Venit, 42). These tombs, Venit observes, are “unique” to the city, “and, until their dissemination across the north coast of Egypt and to the eastern Mediterranean, they stand unparalleled as monuments to a complex vision of the afterlife.” Illustrating her paper with five diagrams and eight pictures of the tombs, she notes that elements of two “disparate” traditions are brought together in the construction of the tombs. First, “Egyptian elements” are incorporated “into the fabric of an initially and fundamentally Hellenically-inspired monument.” The second element that interests Venit is that the tombs include theater. Hence, the tombs and monuments combine two “culturally distinct architectural traditions and … two ethnically discrete visual systems as well.” The tombs, according to Venit served as “a purposefully designed space within which, and against which, the human drama of the funerary ritual” was performed. While the dead were entombed in these monuments, the buildings also served a symbolic function making an “external reference” that allowed an extremely diverse population to identify themselves as Alexandrians. It is precisely this that makes the Alexandrian tombs unique. “Both visions,” Venit writes:

… bilingualism and theatricality – incorporate into their fabric the fiction that is the underlying basis of Ptolemaic period Alexandrian tombs, and both fictive situations apart and in concert, establish the mortuary buildings of Ptolemaic Alexandria as bi-cultural monuments that can only have had their genesis in the peculiar construct that was ancient Alexandria. It is this bi-ocular modality that separates characteristics to express the singular eschatological vision that marks the monumental tomb of ancient Alexandria (64).

George Hinge takes up the ever-controversial subject of race in his essay, “Language and Race: Theocritus and the Koine Identity of Ptolemaic Egypt. ” Hinge cites Herodotus’Histories to show that “Greek ethnicity” is determined by “four components: origin, language, cult, and culture” (Hinge, 67). In this passage, Hinge refers to words spoken by the Athenians to a Laconian delegation, arguing for a coalition to fight against the Persians.

There are many reasons why we should not do this, even if we wanted to: First and foremost, they have burnt and destroyed the statues and temples of our gods, and we are obliged to revenge them as far as possible rather than conclude a treaty with the offenders. Furthermore, there is the Hellenicity, consisting in the same blood and the same language, the common shrines of gods and cult and the same way of life, which the Athenians should not betray (Herodotus, Histories, 8.144.3; Hinge’s underling).

Thus, Hinge argues, “language is quintessential to Herodotus’ concept of ethnicity” (68). In this Hinge is arguing against Jonathan Hall, who in his Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity holds the view “that language played only a minor role in the formation of ethnic groups” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 11).[6] Hinge argues that while it may have mattered “what sort of Greek you are” ? whether one was a Spartan, an Argive, or an Athenian ? in the Greek homeland, once the colonization of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE got underway, “a Greek identity” began to emerge “in opposition to the non-Greek natives in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, Italy or Scythia. The otherness of those ‘Barbarians’ and the complete unintelligibility of their languages, which were frequently compared to the chirping of birds, made the existence of a specific Hellenic identity obvious” (Hinge, 69). This identity, as Hinge emphasizes, “is not natural per se, but a cultural construction” that has its origins in the Mycenaean Age and that leads to “the creation of a Koine.” That Koine displaced local dialects, Hinge argues, was not just a way to bridge various local languages and dialects, “but the symptom of a new identity, and not only a symptom, but also a most powerful contribution to that identity” (77).  

In her “Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria,” Minna Skaffie Jensen describes the Alexandrian Museum and the research conducted by the scholars working there especially the work done on Homer. According to Jensen, Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian scholar and one of Aristotle’s students was responsible for organizing the Alexandrian Library; not surprisingly, it was modeled on Aristotle’s library in the Lyceum. While he was active in politics and even ruled Athens for the Macedonians (317-7 BCE); he also continued to work with the Library and is credited with having had Aesop’s fables written down. Jensen engages a number of scholars’ interpretations of the origins of the Homeric texts, including, Martin West, Antonio Rengakos, Gregory Nagy, Stephanie West, and others. She concludes her brief history of the Library and Museum and of the Homeric scholarship that took place there lamenting that, despite the problems, the view “we get in the sources does not confirm the picture of the Library as an important participant in the great interaction of cultures and religions. On the contrary, the philologists of the Library appear to have been concerned with Greek literature and nothing else” (Jensen, 89). Apparently Egyptian texts were left to the priests. While the subtitle of this collection of essays is, “A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot,” and while there is evidence in other fields for a melting pot, with regard to the Library perhaps it was not quite so. “The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt,” Jensen writes,

… achieved nothing more important than the superb intellectual milieu established at the Museum. Whatever their intentions, the results of their generous support of learning are remarkable. To them we owe infinite gratitude for the fact that ancient Greek texts have reached us in such quantity and quality Scientific and scholarly method was developed to a previously unknown level. Poetry flourished. And just as Alexandrian poets become the stimulating ideal for Roman poets from Ennius onwards; the Ptolemies offered themselves as worthy models for the patronage of the artists practiced in Augustan Rome (91-92).

The first two of the four essays constituting “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity,” are devoted to Judaism. In the first piece, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” Per Bilde considers two texts by Philo, an extremely influential Jew from one of the most important and prosperous Alexandrian families to show that although Philo is usually known for his work in theology, epistemology, and metaphysics, he also played an significant role as a politician, a polemist, and a political apologist, especially between 38 and 41 CE – “a period of great importance in the history of the Jewish people in the ancient world” (Hinge and Krasinikoff, “Introduction, 13). In his essay, Bilde reconstructs the historical and political events in the year 38 CE, the year of what has become known as “the first pogrom” against the Jewish people. Then, he analyzes Philo’s two historical treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. Finally, Bilde examines “the literary genre and the aim, dating and intended readers” of these two works and considers whether Philo’s writings “could be perceived as a threat to Rome” (Bilde, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist,” 98).

As Bilde explains, Judaism had flourished in Alexandria for many years and “continued to thrive well over the first year of Caligula’s rule (37-38 CE)” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 13). Aulus Avilius Flaccus was a Roman prefect in Alexandria and Egypt (32-38 CE). While “the living conditions for the Jewish people,” according to Bilde, were generally not bad “in the Roman empire from Caesar (died 44 BCE) and Augustus (31BCE-14 CE) until the summer of 38,” for reasons that are not evident, Flaccus “seems to have cancelled the Jewish population’s established right to live in Alexandria according to the customs of their fathers and under some kind of internal self-government …” (Bilde, 99). When King Agrippa I, also known as Herod Agrippa, (37/41-44) who had recently been crowned King of Palestine stopped in Alexandria en route from Rome to his homeland, his visit set off riots against the Jewish people. Non-Jewish residents of the city also tried to set up statues of the emperor in synagogues. Instead of trying to stop the riots, Flaccus, and here Bilde follows Philo’s account, sided with the “‘Greeks’ and issued a decree … denouncing the Jews as ‘foreigners and newcomers’ … in Alexandria” (100). Subsequently, Jews were driven out of four of the five parts of the city and ghettoized into the remaining fifth part. Jews were the subject of violent attacks, some were flogged publically, some were killed, and some were forced to violate religiously sanctioned dietary prohibitions by eating pork. Although Bilde cautions: “when reconstructing historical circumstances in Antiquity, from using terms related to the European persecutions of Jews in the Middle Ages and in recent times” (101), he also claims that “this violent persecution of Jews seems to be something new in Antiquity” (100). Eventually, Flaccus was arrested by the Emperor, returned to Rome, where after his property was confiscated, he was sent into exile and eventually put to death by the emperor. According to Bilde, then, Philo’s Against Flaccus is begins with a glowing report of Flaccus’ first six years in office only to explain Flaccus’ fall from office; indeed, it is a cautionary tale that proclaims the power of the god of the Jews and explains that those who violate the Jewish people will face a fate similar to Flaccus’. On the one hand, Bilde interprets the texts as being written for the Jewish people in a “traditional and effective Jewish literary form or genere, religious apologetics,” which was later adopted by Christians; Philo’s apologetic texts were meant “to comfort and edify Jewish readers” and should be compared to the Book of Esther of the books of the Macabees (109). On the other hand, however, Bilde suggests, is that Philo wrote in “this form or genere “for Roman readers, primarily the new Roman emperor, Claudius, the new imperial prefect in Egypt, Pollio, and other leading Roman circles …” as if to warn them against actions that might harm the Jewish people and blaspheme their god.

In his paper, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen takes a quite different approach from Bilde’s, for he is not interested in well-known writers like Philo nor is he interested in “the empirical subject matter of Alexandrian Jewry” (Petersen, 116); rather, Petersen’s paper is much more ambitious and is focused on the theoretical problem of how to reconstruct past cultures. Petersen begins by briefly sketching out the history of Jewish people in Alexandria. Then, he examines “Alexandrian Judaism with close attention to a number of theoretical problems that are infrequently mentioned in the predominant strands of scholarship.” Finally, Petersen concludes by offering “a theoretically viable way of reconstructing ancient cultures in a manner that is simultaneously theoretically adequate to the acknowledgement of the confined nature of the sources, and to current insights within the fields of cultural anthropology and sociology of how to speak and to conceive of culture.” Petersen is critical of approaches to culture that assume one individual, such as Philo, Aristeas, or Artapanus, can speak for or represent a particular culture or subculture. While contemporary scholarship seems to understand this, Petersen maintains that even though many contemporary scholars acknowledge this problem, they proceed to deal with their sources without considering the consequences of taking “one trajectory of thought” as the embodiment of an entire cultural entity. Indeed, “the banalities of culture and the platitudes of human beings,” Petersen writes, “are seldom handed down” (118). On the other hand, he does not argue that scholars should ignore available sources; rather, the solution is to keep “the constrained nature of the majority of the extant sources” and to reflect on the “wide strands of scholarship, current as well as classical, on Alexandrian Judaism” (119). Petersen is also critical of those who understand Philo in terms of a preconceived dualism of Hellenism and Judaism. This dualistic view, Petersen argues is “theoretically flawed” for several reasons (124).

First, even the most vehement Jewish antagonist of Greek thinking is culturally as well as socially inevitably enmeshed in what he opposes …. Secondly, the use of a notion like “Hellenism” is always contextually bound. It relates to particular traits only within the other culture. It is never a comprehensive term that refers to the entire plethora of phenomena of the “other culture. “Jerusalem” and “Athens” are unfailingly entities that are rhetorically used in particular contexts to refer to specific phenomena. Thirdly, the abstract taxonomic play with terms like Judaism and Hellenism in modern scholarly discourse is very far from their use in antiquity. That … does not invalidate contemporary use, but it certainly should put some restraints on the manner in which they are used (125).

One must remember that a thinker like Philo is a Jew, but also an Alexandrian; even Philo himself is not a simple unity; “Philo’s writings should be interpreted as the creations of a composite being who under particular circumstances and with particular aims and situations in mind attempts to conquer the cultural battlefield of his time” (139). Still, this does not mean that we should speak of “Alexandrian Judaisms or Jewries” instead of “Alexandrian Jewry / Judaism” (Petersen, 128). While this may have “heuristic value,” it is “misleading” because it indicates the inability “to distinguish a concept and a phenomenon.” Alexandrian Judaism may only be a construct of contemporary scholarship. On the other hand, Petersen suggests, following Benedict Anderson, that although “Alexandrian Judaism was hardly a community characterized by ‘the primordial village of face-to-face contact,’” it could still be understood as “‘imagined community’” because “its members constituted a conscious community” that “shared the common frame of reference of being Jews of Alexandria.” In end, Petersen concludes, “however perplexed we may be as a result of engagement with cultural ‘messiness,’ the great intellectual challenge for future studies not only on past Alexandrian Jewry, but on ancient cultural entities in general, will be to take the ‘messiness’ of human cultural and social affairs profoundly seriously” (140).

In “From School to Patriarchate: Aspects on the Christianisation of Alexandria,” Samuel Rubenson is not concerned with religion or theology; rather, he focuses on “the transformation of the classical heritage into an early medieval Christian culture” and the important role that Alexandria played in that transformation (144). Indeed, Rubenson argues that this transformation must be understood “from a social point of view” (145). The importance of Alexandria to the development of Christianity with development of Christian theology and the revision of classical philosophy is unequaled until “the emperor and the bishops of Rome and Constantinople … ended the ecclesiastical power by means of the council of Chalcedon in 451.” Origen of Alexandria was important for his work in “Christian hermeneutics and Bible interpretation”; indeed, according to Rubenson, he was the most important Christian teacher of this period. Athanasius of Alexandria is acknowledged for his interpretation of the divine as trinity and his efforts to define church dogma. Cyril of Alexandria addressed himself to the problem of how Jesus as Christ could be both man and god. The work of later Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus are certainly based on Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. Rubenson concludes that our understanding of early Christianity in Alexandria, then, is based on the work of Christian teachers and philosophers, who instituted a tradition of Christian schools during the second century, and who were recognized for their work both in Alexandria and in the larger emerging Christian community. Schisms and a break between the church and the school were caused by “the severe and prolonged persecutions of the Christian leadership of Alexandria in 303-11” (156). Emperor Constantine’s recognition of the bishop of Alexandria elevated the importance of the bishops and gave them increased responsibilities. The bishops, who attempted to unify the church and unite the Christian community in the face of the pagan traditions that were embraced by parts of the Alexandrian elites, were resisted by intellectuals living independently on the edge of the desert south of the city. Uniting with local authorities, the bishops received the support of the emperor to unite Christians against their Christian opponents and critics and the remaining pagans.

In “Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE,” Troels Myrup Kristensen begins where Rubenson ends with the conflict between the Christian bishops and the continued pagan tradition of parts of the Alexandrian elite. Noting the complicated religious, social, and political tensions that were part of the Mediterranean world of the fourth and fifth centuries, Kristensen contextualizes his discussion of the conflict between Christians and pagans by tracing Christian opposition to pagan statuary to “the Judaic tradition and the Mosaic prohibition against idolatry” (160). While wooden statues were burned, stone statues were either defaced or “reinterpreted” by adding crosses or other Christian symbols to the statues by Christians (161). At the same time, Kristensen emphasizes that these views were not held by all Christians and that some pagan statues survived in Christian households. Illustrating his paper with three photographs, one diagram, and one map, Kristensen discusses the destruction of the Serapeum and its statuary in 392 CE which along with “the murder of the philosopher Hypatia” are “among the best known cases of religious violence in Late Antiquity” (162). Christian destruction of pagan statuary is one of the reasons that pagan statuary was cached and pagan practices were driven underground. Kristensen concludes by noting that the violence brought on by the religious and social transformation in Alexandria in Late Antiquity was rampant; indeed, it can be understood “as the result of the ‘brutalisation of local politics’ or ‘progressive Christianisation’” (172). While there is much literary evidence for the Christian destruction of statuary, actual evidence is much more difficult to obtain. One of the problems is that most of the surviving accounts of this period of Alexandrian history are from Christian sources. “The bias of the Christian literature concerning the ‘end’ of pagan cult at Alexandria makes it difficult to accept them at face value.” Archaeological evidence is also problematic because interpretation and documentation are difficult. Still, Kristensen argues, we can rough out Christian reactions to paganism and pagan statuary.

Hinge and Krasilnikoff are to be commended for bringing together the papers in this volume; indeed, Alexandria A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is an interdisciplinary text that may be recommended to both the scholar and the general reader interested in culture, religion, and ancient communities. Although Alexandria will certainly interest classicists, cultural anthropologists, and classical archeologists, scholars working in other disciplines such as art history, philosophy, and cultural studies will also find this text exciting for its fresh look at the ancient city of Alexandria that exemplifies the social, economic, and political complexities of a diverse population living in the same community. The various reflections on culture and religion are obvious strengths of this text. However, the discussions of the problems involved in the study of ancient cultures, and their reflections on how scholars might approach ancient cultures are important n/pot only for those studying ancient cultures, but also raise questions that should be considered by anyone thinking and writing about culture.

[1] Krasilnikoff cites Pseud-Callesthene I:30, trans. E. H. Haight (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1955).

[2] Krasilnikoff cites M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), no. 7.

[3] Petersen translates and cites M. van Beck, “Identiteternes møde, civilisationernes sammenstød,” Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 40, 1-11.

[4] Petersen refers to Alfred Korzybski’s “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” presented before the American Mathematical Society at the December 28, 1931meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

[5] Krasinikoff quotes Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

[6] See Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Pia Guldager and Jane Hjar Petersen (eds.), Meetings of cultures in the Black Sea region. Between conflict and coexistence, (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2008)

The cultures at issue are the native Scythian tribes, including Sarmatian ones, and the ancient Greek settlers in the Pontic Region, i.e. the vast steppe-land located in the northern and north-eastern regions of the Black Sea. This area was called Euxeinos Pontos for most part of the Graeco-Roman age, meaning literally ‘hospitable sea’, but it was really a euphemism replacing an earlier name introduced by Pindar, Pontos Axenios, i.e. ‘inhospitable sea’. The studies contained in the volume focus upon Pre-Roman Times, particularly from the 7th century BC, when the first Greek settlements were established, to 63 BC, i.e. the year of Mithridates the Great’s death, which marks as well the beginning of the Roman predominance. The disciplines involved in this survey are historiography, archaeology, numismatic, epigraphy and ceramography.

The book contains five chapters: “Setting the scene”, “Spaces of identity”, “Claiming the land”, “The dynamics of cultural exchange” and “Mind the gap”. The five chapters comprise nineteen articles written by eighteen different authors. Five of the published contributions were not presented at the conference: the article by P. G. Bilde in the first chapter and the articles by A. V. Karjaka, A. V. Gavrilov and T. N. Smekalova in the third chapter.

It is unavoidable for us studying something like the very concept of culture as a pragmatic category, i.e. as a truth that is such beacuse it produces practical results that satisfy us, and not vice versa, i.e. as a truth that is such before the production of any satisfying practical result. Thus, it is important to understand that the things we can say about other cultures – whether Greek or non-Greek, sedentary or nomadic – will necessary be a product of our culture, which establishes the criteria for practical satisfaction in the first place, that is to say, our own complex system of expectations. Hence we should note that, for instance, writing ‘settler’ instead of ‘colonist’ is a choice that is not inherent to those peoples that we write about, but to ourselves. These considerations certainly act on the background of the articles contained in the book, but they are not theoretically themed and discussed.

In the book, the contents develop around the main aspect stated in the title of the chapter in which they appear. The three articles that form the first chapter are written by J. A. Vinogradov, P. G. Bilde and V. Mordvintseva, and they describe the historical context. In particular, Bilde’s paper introduces and analyzes two very significant terms: diaspora and hybridization. The second chapter also includes three articles, the authors of which are P. Attema, A. Baralis, M. Vickers and A. Kakhidze, and it shows the way Greek and non-Greek groups established themselves in neighbouring areas. In Vickers’ and Kakhidze’s opinion this fact can be determined by the careful study of the collocation of burial sites. The five papers in the third chapter, written by J. M. Højte, A. V. Karjaka, A. V. Gavrilov and T. N. Smekalova, explain how to look at the ancient management of land division so as to identify how far the two different cultures had been able to collaborate. The four articles that constitute the fourth chapter, authored by J. H. Petersen, N. A. Gavriljuk, L. Summerer, N. G. Novi?enkova and E. Kakhidze, examine the way differences of status and power overcame and replaced differences of ethnicity. The fifth and last chapter is composed of three papers, written by R. Osborne, D. Braund and G. Hinge, and it explains how Self and Other are substantially the same, since: (a) everyone can see him/herself in the self of the other, and (b) the self needs the other’s recognition to be formed. On this theoretical matter, the authors refer here in particular to Herodotus’ fourth book of his Histories.

The topic of this book – i.e. the way in which the meeting of cultures took place in antiquity – is relevant not only to classical scholars, but also to us, who live in a historical contingency certainly no longer modern, but also no longer postmodern: the dichotomy between Us and Them, or between Other and Self. This dichotomy is today even more problematic than it was only few generations ago, because it is the very concept of dichotomy that is being questioned. In fact, if the truth is today considered to be becoming, i.e. walking with us, correlatively to the practices of knowing that are embodied in our life’s occasion, then every dichotomy is ‘only’ transiently true. In other words, thinking the difference between Them and Us becomes a practice that is theoretical, ethical, but also historical.

Meeting of cultures in the Black Sea region is recommended not only to those who just want to increase their knowledge about specific Greek communities settling in the Pontic region, but also to everyone interested in themes like the frontier, the periphery, the tension between wilderness and civility, and even in retrieving the material traces of the dynamic development of concepts like Self and Other, i.e. theoretical issues that are highly relevant in the age of globalization.