Monday, 7 May 2012


^Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Two extracts relating to the City (polis) from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, in which she explains how Greeks saw the built fabric -as they saw the structures of the law- as a clearly subservient, enabling framework whose entire reason for existence was exhausted in creating and then protecting the space in which political action, debate, oration, and discussion could occur, spectacularly, notably. The builders and craftsmen who dealt with putting up projects with definable outcomes, forms, and predictable lifespans, men who cut stone, layed-out the buildings on the agora, honed the acoustics in Greek theatres, penned the statute books and wrote down the legal structures of Democracy, these were the hard working but not heroic figures, who were there to build (for the first time in history) a world that was perfectly calibrated and designed for the active citizen-individual to show himself, doing, proposing, initiating, and acting in the public eye. They were backstage craft-caretakers of an environment where each person could be sure that the most highly valued, but most ephemeral of all things a man can bring into the world, namely the heroic act, the split second shining-forth of world-changing agency, the unrepeatable spark of transcendence, was not only given an audience in a built world calibrated for its maximum amplification, but that the built world would also act as its permanent embodiment, an assurance in stone that the intangible and endlessly precious chain of Human acts that make a polis would remain a story perpetually told. The city Homer.

“An outstanding symptom of this prevailing influence is that the Greeks, in distinction from all later developments, did not count legislating among the political activities. In their opinion, the lawmaker was like the builder of the city wall, someone who had to do and finish his work before political activity could begin. He therefore was treated like any other craftsman or architect and could be called from abroad and commissioned without having to be a citizen, whereas the right to be politeuesthai, to engage in the numerous activities which eventually went on in the polis, was entirely restricted to citizens. To them, the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making. Before men began to act, a definite space had to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions could take place, the space being the public realm of the polis and its structure the law; legislator and architect belonged in the same category. But these tangible entities themselves were not the content of politics (not Athens, but the Athenians were the polis), and they did not command the same loyalty we know from the Roman type of patriotism.”

“The polis –if we trust the famous words of Pericles in the Funeral Oration- gives a guaranty that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without witness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them; without assistance from others, those who acted will be able to establish together the everlasting remembrance of their good and bad deeds, to inspire admiration in the present and future ages. In other words, men’s life together in the form of the polis seemed to assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made “products”, the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable. The organization of the polis, physically secured by the wall around the city and physiognomically guaranteed by its laws –lest the succeeding generations change its identity beyond recognition- is a kind of organized remembrance. It assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men, who outside the polis could attend only the short duration of the performance and therefore needed Homer and “others of his craft” in order to be presented to those who were not there.”

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